Greatest Film Scenes
and Moments

The Wages of Fear (1953)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

The Wages of Fear (1953, Fr/It.) (aka Le Salaire de la Peur)

In director Henri-Georges Clouzot's suspenseful, nail-biting adventure thriller and road film, based upon Georges Arnaud's 1950 novel Le Salaire De La Peur ("The Salary of Fear"); it was a film-noirish tale of greed, macho-competition, dehumanization, misogyny, and exploitation; director William Friedkin's Sorcerer (1977) starring Roy Scheider was a remake and tribute to the original novel, as was the "Hellfire" episode in the TV show MacGyver (first aired on November 27, 1985); it resembled Huston's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and John Boorman's Deliverance (1972), and inflluenced Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969) and many other films; a US-distributed version of the film in 1954-55 edited out what were considered 'offensive anti-American' sentiments, reducing the length of the original French theatrical film from about 153 minutes to 118 minutes, although now the actual slightly-edited version is about 148 minutes:

  • in the small, poor, hot and remote, "god-forsaken" South American town of Las Piedras (near to Caracas, Venezuela) in 1950, some of the film's main characters were introduced in the town's central gathering place - a cantina-bar known as Corsario; the first half of the film introduced the setting and many of the derelict, unemployed, unfortunate, down-and-out individuals (mostly Europeans) who were stranded, trapped and desperate to leave the town (the only way out was an expensive airlines ticket)
  • the playboyish, ex-petty thief Mario Livi (Yves Montand) with latent homosexual tendencies was a French Corsican in exile, involved in a slightly-abusive affair with local cantina-bar waitress Linda (Vera Clouzot, the director's wife in her feature film debut) who sincerely loved him, but she was also forced to sleep with her demanding boss Paquito Hernandez (Dario Moreno); the proprietor was aggravated by the "lousy bums" and "cheap tramps" that hung around his establishment without jobs or any money; Mario also complained: "It's like prison here. Easy to get in...But there's no way out, and if you don't get out, you croak"
  • aging, dapper, nihilistic and arrogant con-artist and ex-gangster Mr. Jo (Charles Vanel) arrived in town by plane; as a result, Mario began to spend all his time with Jo - another French compatriate who had lived in Paris; he soon contemplated giving up his talkative and hard-working best friend and fat Italian roommate Luigi (Folco Lulli), employed as mason, who did all their ironing and cooking in their apartment; Mario called Luigi "a real chump" and Jo added: "What a jerk!"; Jo's determined pressure ("Your buddy's getting on my nerves") successfully separated Mario from both his roommate Luigi and from Linda
  • an exploitative, domineering American oil company, the Southern Oil Company, or SOC (modeled after Standard Oil), was situated in the center of town in a secure, walled compound; Mario explained the detested presence of Americans: "If there's oil around, they're not far behind"; the company supported pre-fab houses, a cafeteria, and a cemetery; they also owned and supervised oil wells in the vicinity, and were one of the few employers in town; the American oil company was supervised by company foreman Bill O'Brien (William Tubbs) (who had been involved in illegal activity with Jo years earlier)
  • shortly later, the SOC announced a catastrophe that it was faced with - a disastrous well fire 300 miles away; there were 12 local victims - four dead and eight injured, and only one American foreman named Reichert who was badly burned soon died; protesters amongst the poor exploited townsfolk in a crowd that had gathered complained about their low wages and poor working conditions: "It's not fair. We're always the ones to suffer. We're always the ones to die...The gringos never die"; foreman O'Brien suggested a cover-up to the safety commission: "Put all the blame on the victims"

On-site at Oil Well: Foreman with Fully-Bandaged American Casualty

Native Peoples Observing Oil-Well Fire

The Massive Oil-Well Conflagration
  • the only way to extinguish the fire was to cap the well and destroy it with highly-explosive nitroglycerine; the company needed men to drive two trucks (loaded with 200 gallons of the unstable explosive in jerry-cans) on a treacherous, death-defying mission across rough terrain; the dangers were well-known: "It's murder. (With) the condition of the roads, your drivers haven't got a 50-50 chance"; the devised plan was to hire four "transients" or other non-union and non-company volunteers (for bonus wages of $2,000 each) to take the suicidal job for "peanuts"; O'Brien heartlessly explained: "Those bums don't have any union nor any families. If they blow up, nobody'll come around bothering me for any contributions"
  • an SOC company vehicle with a PA system drove around town advertising: "Experienced drivers sought for dangerous work. Good pay"; many of the destitute individuals from the cantina eagerly applied for the work, dreaming of fast riches and escape from the town; meanwhile, Luigi was diagnosed with terminal case of lung disease (from inhaled cement dust from his job), and had between 6 months and a year to live
  • O'Brien briefed the many volunteers for the four jobs by demonstrating the volatility of nitroglycerin, and then clearly warned: "The slightest bump, the slightest heat, you're a goner; there won't be enough of ya left to even pick up...You're taking your lives into your own hands"; Dick (Jeronimo Mitchell) - one of those who refused the job, spoke up: "When I was a kid, I used to see men go off on this kind of jobs and not come back. When they did, they were wrecks. Their hair had turned white and their hands were shaking like palsy! You don't know what fear is. But you'll see. It's catching, it's catching like small pox! And once you get it, it's for life! So long, boys, and good luck"
  • after a driving test, those who were selected by O'Brien were instructed to start at the pre-dawn hour of 3 am the next morning; the chosen few included: strong, blonde German-born expatriate and pilot Bimba (Peter van Eyck), the dying Luigi, Mario, and a German named Hans Smerloff (Jo Dest); Jo was dejected that he was considered too old, but was promised the job by O'Brien if anyone backed out; about two hours before departure, Bernardo (Luis De Lima) - who had been one of the rejects - had written a suicidal note to his mother moments before being found by Linda hanged to death in the garden behind the cantina
  • and then suspiciously after Smerloff didn't show, Jo was reluctantly substituted at the last minute; the four drivers were dressed in company uniforms and watched nervously as the nitro was loaded onto the two trucks

Nervously Watching the Nitro Being Loaded onto Trucks

The Drivers (and O'Brien) Preparing to Drive Off

O'Brien Waving Goodbye
  • the second half of the thrilling film consisted entirely of the dangerous drive itself; the drivers were paired up and flipped a coin for positioning: Jo was with Mario in the first truck, and Bimba was with Luigi in the second vehicle; they were instructed to drive with 30 minutes of separation between them for a "safety margin"; along the way in the early part of the trip about 10 miles from the start, the trucks switched positions when Jo became sick to his stomach (likely from nervous fear)
  • four major obstacles were featured during their treacherous journey, bringing out the cowardice or bravery of some of the characters: (1) the requirement was to drive at either less than 6 mph (that would prolong the trip) or at least 40 mph to avoid excessive vibration on a wrinkled or rippled 'washboard' road with ruts caused by the wind in an unobstructed area outside the forest; cruising at different speeds, the two trucks almost collided into each other at the end of the 'washboard' section of road
Problem # 1: Speed on "Washboard" Road

Speed of At Least 40 mph Required for "Washboard" Section of Road

The First Truck Was Going Only 10 mph, Almost Causing a Collision with the Faster Truck Behind

Near-Collision at the End of the "Washboard" Between the Two Trucks
  • (2) a construction barrier required the trucks on a winding, tightly-angled mountain road to negotiate a narrow hairpin turn by backing up onto a rotting wooden platform above a cliffside - the structure ultimately collapsed after the second truck barely made it; the challenging situation caused Jo to reveal his utter fear and cowardice (he cowered on the mountain hillside), while Mario became more courageous and brave and deftly steered the truck to solid ground; to spite his cowardly partner, Mario made Jo run alongside the truck before picking him up, and calling him a "low-down rat" who was "scared stiff" and had the jitters
Problem # 2: Hair-Pin Turn and Rotten Platform
  • (3) a huge boulder that had fallen from the steep cliff walls blocked the roadway, and nitro from the truck had to be used to detonate and clear it; Bimba gently poured some of the siphoned-off nitro-explosive into a drilled hole 30 inches deep into the boulder; he lit a cord-fuse to trigger a hammer to fall (and cause the explosion); after the trucks were backed up and out of range and everyone hid behind rocks, the boulder was successfully blasted out of the way
  • while Luigi was driving, Bimba recalled his difficult family history (he appeared to be a persecuted homosexual and fugitive); the Nazis had imprisoned him as a worker in a salt mine for three years, and he was still affected by the hanging-murder of his father by the Reich
  • a sudden flash of light and billowing clouds of dense smoke signified that a deadly explosion had struck the lead truck carrying Luigi and Bimba
  • (4) at the scene of the blast, a large pit or crater caused by the explosion had ruptured an oil pipeline and filled the large hole with spilled oil; Mario and Jo had to navigate their truck through the oil-filled crater; during their efforts, Jo - who was wading in the black liquid, was run-over by the truck that was unable to stop (Mario closed his eyes as he deliberately drove straight through); and then, stuck in the middle of the lake, Mario jumped into the black slime of the oily pit to rescue his crippled and mortally-wounded friend, although he blamed him for their predicament: "It's your fault. I told you to get out of the way. If I hadn't hesitated...I'd have made it. Now we're stuck on account of you"; afterwards, he was able to extract the truck from the slick muck
Problem # 4: Crater Filled with Oil

Jo Testing the Bottom of the Oil-Filled Crater-Pit

Jo Guiding Mario Through Slick Oil Lake

Mario - Fearing That He Would Run Over Jo

Jo Crippled by the Truck

Jo Submerged in the Slick Lake of Oil

Mario Assisting Jo
  • slumped onto Mario's shoulder, Jo died on the way just as the truck entered SOC's flaming oil field headquarters, and Mario tearfully exclaimed: "Look, we made it"; Mario was the only one of the four drivers to successfully reach the burning oil-field; workers at the site struggled to put out the raging fires; he collapsed exhausted on the ground
  • in the film's unexpected, surprising and ironic conclusion, after collecting double his promised wages ($4,000 dollars) and being praised as a hero, Mario refused an SOC chauffeur for the return trip; he drove back in an empty truck to the Corsario cantina (where a celebratory party was taking place for him), and was expected to arrive in a few hours
  • on his return trip, the death-defying Mario dangerously and recklessly weaved back and forth while listening to Strauss' 'The Blue Danube' on his radio (the celebrants were also tuned in to the same channel); he glanced at his lucky Paris subway ticket on his dashboard and suddenly swerved off the road; his truck barrelled through a guardrail and over a cliffside; he was killed clutching his ticket; telepathically sensing Mario's death, Linda fainted while dancing in the cantina

Linda Fainting Simultaneously

Mario Clutching His Subway Ticket

Linda (Vera Clouzot), Sexy Cantina Waitress

Mario Livi (Yves Montand), Frenchman in Exile

Paquito Hernandez (Dario Moreno), Cantina Proprietor

M. Jo (Charles Vanel), Ex-Gangster

Bimba (Peter van Eyck), Blonde German

Bill O'Brien (William Tubbs), SOC Foreman

Luigi (Folco Lulli), Mason Diagnosed with Lung Disease

Mario with His Compatriot Friend Jo

O'Brien Demonstrating the Explosive Power of Nitro

Dick's Objection to Taking the Dangerous Job

Lead Truck Loaded with Explosives

Mario with Jo in Truck Cab

Luigi with Bimba in the Other Truck Cab

Mario Relieved to Be Alive After the Rotten Platform Collapsed

Mario Briefly Refusing to Pick up His Cowardly Partner Jo

Boulder in the Middle of the Road

Bimba Filling Boulder with Nitro

Mortally-Wounded Jo in the Cab as They Arrived at the Oil Field

Mario to Jo: "Look, we made it!"

Mario's 'Lucky' Subway Ticket in His Cab on the Way Home

Mario Swerving Off the Road - Dead


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