Le Salaire de la peur

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.