The Wages of Fear (1953) – Film Review

The Wages of Fear (1953) – Film Review

Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot
Cast: Yves Montand, Charles Vanel, Peter van Eyck

By Sarah Morgan

Despite being a cinephile, I spent years avoiding Citizen Kane, believing it could never live up to its reputation as one of the greatest films of all time. On eventually pulling myself together and watching it, I was somewhat shocked to find it really is very special indeed.

So I should have known better when it came to The Wages of Fear. Nevertheless, I was convinced the critics would be mistaken and that the superlatives given to the movie were all hype. Well, I was wrong.

The Wages of Fear (1954) – Film ReviewThe story takes place in a remote South American town, where numerous men of various nationalities have washed up in search of work. While the lucky ones have jobs at a US oil company which is drilling in the area, the rest struggle to make a living, each desperate to earn enough cash to pay for their fare home. So when a lucrative one-off position comes up, there are far too many applicants for the four available roles.

“Unbearably tense”

But there’s a catch, of course. Two pairs of drivers are required to transport nitroglycerine to a well that is burning out of control several miles out of town. Whoever makes it bags $2,000 each, but it could easily be a suicide mission – one false move may blow the participants to kingdom come.

Corsican playboy Mario is teamed with Jo, an ageing ex-gangster whose bark turns out to be far worse than his bite – he’s really a coward hiding behind a hardman image. Also taking part are concentration camp survivor Bimba and Luigi, Mario’s roommate who’s discovered that if he doesn’t quit his job working with cement, the dust he inhales will kill him within a few months.

The film begins with a large dose of macho posturing from the male protagonists (the only female character is Linda, who’s in love with Mario despite his indifference), but turns into an at times unbearably tense journey into the unknown. Death is around every corner and over each bump in the road; it is a constant travelling companion for the quartet and for those of us watching.

There were times when I could barely stand to watch, so full marks to director Henri-Georges Clouzot for squeezing every last drop of terror out of the script he and Jerome Geronimi adapted from Georges Arnaud’s 1950 novel.

The Wages of Fear (1955) – Film Review

“Looks wonderful”

Yves Montand, Charles Vanel, Peter van Eyck and Folco Lulli are superb as the main protagonists, while Vera Clouzot, wife of the director, is moving as Linda; she and her husband later collaborated on the equally celebrated Les Diaboliques.

I do wonder if Cy Endfield watched The Wages of Fear before directing the 1957 classic Hell Drivers about truckers on the edge. The stories have some vague similarities, and Endfield certainly managed to recreate the tension of Clouzot’s Palme D’or-winning movie. Whatever the case, there’s no doubt that The Wages of Fear deserves the critical praise it’s received during the past 71 years, and on realising that, I’ve learnt a valuable lesson – never doubt a film’s reputation, because it’s probably well-deserved.

The 4K restoration looks wonderful too, and the disc is packed with excellent special features, including a video essay (although I’m not sure I agree with its maker, Nic Wassell’s religious allegory theory), interviews and short films from the BFI archive.

images: Lucienne Chevert © 1951 TFI Droits Audiovisuels Pathe Renn Productions Vera Film Marceau Concordia General Productions

Special features:

  • 4K (2160p) UHD Blu-ray presentation in Dolby Vision (HDR10 compatible)
  • A Road Trip Out of Hell? Or Into It? – Purgatory and The Wages of Fear (2023, 15 mins): a new video essay by filmmaker and photographer Nic Wassell – NEW for this release
  • Audio commentary with film critic Adrian Martin
  • Interview with Professor Lucy Mazdon (2017, 35 mins): an in-depth discussion on Henri-Georges Clouzot and The Wages of Fear
  • Interview with assistant director Michel Romanoff (2009, 23 mins)
  • Interview with Clouzot biographer Marc Godin (2009, 10 mins)
  • The Guardian Lecture: Yves Montand (100 mins, audio only): in conversation with Don Allen; the star of The Wages of Fear discusses his distinguished career
  • Treasures from the BFI National Archive (1920-1960, 30 mins): a selection of archive gems, exploring some of the themes and iconography featured in The Wages of Fear – NEW for this release
  • Original theatrical trailer
The Wages of Fear is released on 4K Ultra HD by the BFI

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