The Wages of Suspense

I had no idea what 1953’s Le salaire de la peur (The Wages of Fear) was about before I watched it, and my utter sense of not knowing what the hell was going on grew even deeper when the first scenes showed a group of polyglot expat Europeans in a dusty Latin American village (most sources say South American, but I’ll admit it seemed much more Central American to me). The village, like the men themselves is a dead-end thing, a place for losers with nowhere left to go.

The plot is as thin as paper: two teams need to drive a pair of trucks filled with nitroglycerine–that explodes if it takes any shock–over 600km of rough mountain roads for an enormous payday. That’s it.

So why is it a classic and a critical darling? Because within that paper-thin structure, live two solid hours of suspense and character-building (which, considering the film’s denouement, verges on the nihilistic). There’s not a lot to tell. Even if I summarized the film without missing any of the important events therein, you won’t be able to get the sense that it transmits to audience. One critic said, in his day, that he had the feeling the entire theater was about to explode.

My wife likened the sensation to that of The Big Carnival, in that the story itself is both extremely simple and also secondary to the message the director wished to convey. And the thread used to connect the dots in each is the audience’s concern for the plight of certain cast members who are in mortal danger.

And as a comment on the weirdness of the film, Yves Montand, the older driver from Grand Prix also, interestingly, plays one of the drivers in this one. Fun stuff.

It’s not a film I’d watch a dozen times, but it’s definitely one that is worth watching once for the brilliant management of the tension within. If you can, get a copy and enjoy it.

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose thriller Timeless is a sexy and modern take on the international thriller. You can check it out here.

4 comments

  1. Another great flick! Glad you dug this one — it struck me when I first watched it that while there are certainly plenty of good suspenseful movies from that era, I don’t think we really watch them in the same way as we would have at the time because we’re so used to big build ups, jump scares, etc. So we have different expectations about what works as “white knuckle” tension in an older movie. But this one totally holds up in my opinion. It totally snuck up and got me. Kaboom! I love the human drama as well. I don’t remember a ton of the details as it has been a while, but that poor sucker getting slowly smooshed in an oil-filled pit is a tough image to shake. Enjoyed the review as always!
    -M

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! Yeah, this one definitely holds up well. I think suspense films are among the ones that work best today, while old Westerns and Horror films are the ones that have aged most unfortunately (although a lot of the horror films are still fun… just not horrific)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Good point! A few months ago I watched Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent and was impressed with how that one remained suspenseful for being a flick from the late ’30s. With horror from that era, some of the most pioneering classics have to be watched specifically as “classics,” without looking for what we expect from contemporary horror since our sensibilities have been so adjusted. Though I have to imagine that, off the top of my head, Browning’s Freaks holds up since it’s such a bizarre movie, but I haven’t watched it in 30 years so I am not sure.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I watched Freaks about 10 years back and yeah, it still works. Strangely, one of the things that makes it work is that you know there was only a limited amount you could do with effects, which meant that a lot of it had to be real… and that was cilling.

        Liked by 1 person

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