#252. The Wages of Fear (1953)

I was so over-the-moon about this movie when I first saw it that I think I over-hyped it a bit on Instagram—largely because the movie’s so suspenseful it almost feels abusive, in a good way, and this rare experience of having such a visceral reaction to a movie was compounded by the fact that I’d never even heard of it, nor even of director Henri-Goerges Clouzot (who I now see is better known in his home country and, in the States, enjoys a reputation as like a French Alfred Hitchcock), and so I went around telling people it was the most suspenseful movie I’ve ever seen, which in some respects is definitely true, but what I’m now more inclined to say is that it’s got the most suspenseful scenes I’ve ever sat through, and that it pulled me to the edge of my seat almost more than anything I’ve ever seen.

            When it comes to the most suspenseful movie I’ve ever seen, well, I can’t quite call a title to mind right away, but I think it would have less to do with the suspense of a particular scene and more to do with like an slowly-accumulating feeling of dread.

            That doesn’t quite happen here.

            The movie’s premise, real quick, is, unfortunately, hard to discern for the first hour of the movie, which is more concerned with setting up some kind of social commentary about the exploitation of workers, America’s colonial reach, the indignities foisted upon native people. That stuff is all handled really well and it’s floated by some interesting characters—but this is a masterpiece of suspense and, when you look toward that suspense, I think the social consciousness kinda gets in the way of things. (Which is frustrating because I’ve tried so hard to get people to watch this but I’ve always gotta encourage them to persevere through the first hour because it’s only in the last 90 minutes that we’re really made to get caught up in things—but anyway.)

            The premise, right: two pairs of men are hired to drive two large trucks fulla nitroglycerin (an extremely explosive and volatile substance) across three hundred miles of rocky terrain in a pair of rickety trucks. So they move along at like fifteen or twenty miles an hour, occasionally cranking it up to thirty, and they keep encountering these tight situations along the road where it’s just them, the truck, the nitroglycerin and the elements. Clouzot puts his characters in situations where the line of tension is drawn just impossibly tight and it’s…it’s remarkable.

            This movie’s remarkable.

            I also noticed that this might be the first major movie on the List to use the word “fuck,” which was neat, and while the dudes’ relationships develop as they move along in their journey, particularly between X () and Y (), they seem to all be pretty well-established in that otherwise-errant first hour where the director is tryna do…something.

            The ending is also terrible and senselessly nihilistic—but so abruptly and undeservedly nihilistic that it almost didin’t register. Like I can imagine talking about this movie after not seeing it for a decade and just flat out telling you that, despite remembering some of the more suspenseful set-pieces with an almost moment-by-moment clarity, the ending is all a blur.

            The Strangers (2009) comes to mind as a movie with like a deservedly nihilistic ending—which isn’t to say I like it; in fact, I think the ending kinda spoils the movie; but the entire movie shows these protagonists being stalked and tormented by three people and when, at the end, those three stalkers kill our protagonist in a dry, brutal, point-blank way…it feels terrible and dirty but it feels deserved. The director set this up. The director spent ninety minutes illustrating just how trapped our heroes are and just how determined our villains are.

            I’ll go ahead and spoil it here, so don’t read on if you wanna be surprised: there hasn’t really been anything in the movie to suggest that our main character is reckless, so when he gets himself very suddenly killed, in the final moments, while doing something totally errant and reckless and stupid, it’s like…what the fuck?

This scene where they’ve gotta stop in order to navigate an obstruction in the road could so easily have been tedious, but Clouzot makes it fascinating and kinda nightmarish.

            So the ending is a problem and the first hour, while entertaining on the grounds of character drama and the establishment of place, is also kind of a problem. So it’s like a sandwich with bad bread—which is OK in the sense that the bulk of it is really phenomenally good, legitimately masterful, but having a weak beginning means that audiences will change the channel or walk off before they’ve gotten into it, and the bad ending means that they won’t be rewarded for having persevered through that tedious beginning.

            It’s a really unfortunate arrangement that also reminds me of Prometheus¸ Ridley Scott’s Alien prequel from 2011, where he had a really good story premise, and some passably interesting philosophical concepts, but the movie is tailored more to his liking than the audiences. He’s more interested in communicating his points than in entertaining the audience. That’s all good and fine when it comes to serious art, and I applaud the integrity, but there’s this inevitable vibe of something being lost.

            Ahdunno. This movie fucking rocks for like 80% of its runtime and that’s more than enough reason to recommend it; but, that being said, I’ve got some issues with it.

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