“Le Salaire de la Peur” is a French/Italian film directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot. It is set in a South American village near an oilfield, where a number of white men from various countries have ended up and have been unable to leave due to having no money for plane tickets. The village is very isolated, so the only way back to civilization is by plane. When a fire erupts at one of the oilfields, the oil company need to transport nitroglycerine explosives to the site in order to stop the fire. The roads are bad but they are the only way to get the explosives there. The oil company doesn’t want to use its own employees due to the danger, so put out the call for drivers. Four of the destitute white men end up driving two trucks on the highly dangerous trip, for $2000 each.
The film has an admittedly slow start. There is a great deal of time given to the town, the activities of the various men, including the main character Mario (played by Yves Montand), the dodgy dealings of the American oil company, the fact that the poor villagers are too reliant on the oil money to complain, and so on. However, the patient viewer is rewarded by a gripping and suspenseful narrative once the main focus of the story gets underway. At this point the world and character building of the first part of the story become necessary. The audience understands the plight of the men and the desperation that leads to their taking their lives in their hands. The slow build up is definitely worth persevering through.
It’s also interesting to see the number of languages that pop up during these scenes. It lends credibility to the story, that we hear French, Italian, German, English and others during the film. Many films would have just stuck to one language in spite of the characters coming from many different countries. I liked this extra layer of realism.
It is the awareness of the cargo that causes the main tension in this story. Once the drive starts, the viewer is on tenterhooks the entire time, even if the action is just driving along a straight road. Given the volatility of the cargo, death could come at any moment, not just when a dramatic situation is unfolding. The drive starts in darkness, and the director has the camera on the drivers in the trucks, light on their faces and darkness all around. The tension is palpable in the characters’ own awareness of the danger they are in. The audience has to watch the fear, with nothing to distract from it. It feels like the danger is mounting along with the rising light.
The development at the start of the film becomes clear as the drive continues. Jo, who acts tough and in charge, carries a gun, and has apparently been involved in dodgy business previously with the oil company boss, is not initially given one of the driving jobs. However, he goes off with the man who is, and then this man never shows up. Jo shows up instead, to ‘see them off’. The audience knows he wanted the job, and the implication is that he has killed the other man to get it.
As the drive continues, it is soon obvious that Jo is losing his nerve. He says he is feeling ill, but it’s actually fear that is making him shaky. He has been in a superior position to Mario, who looks up to him, but now the tables are turned, and Mario is the one in control. There is a scene towards the end, where the truck, driven by Mario, runs over Jo, smashing his leg. The scene is a horrific and gripping one, and both Montand and Charles Vanel as Jo give intense and brilliant performances. During the final part of the drive night has fallen again. The light on the men now shows both covered in oil, and Mario holding Jo against him as he drives. Mario’s face is in shock, and Jo is dying. (Spoiler – He dies before Mario reaches the oilfield.) The acting here is just marvellous.
(Spoiler alert). The decision to put the fate of the second truck off camera is an interesting one. These two characters, Luigi and Bimba, are depicted just as much, and we see and understand about them during the film. Luigi is a builder, and has been told in the early part of the film that the concrete dust in his lungs will kill him if he does not get out of building. Bimba, we learn during the drive, was taken prisoner by the Nazis during the war and was in forced labour. They, too, have many near misses. But when the truck is destroyed, the audience doesn’t know what happened. Mario and Jo see an explosion in the distance, and that is that. I have to admit, I did wonder why the director decided on doing this, but I think the idea was that the explosives could go at any time. It didn’t take a dangerous situation or incident to cause a problem, just a small bump in the road could do it. Basically, the director is reminding the audience with this that the entire drive is dangerous, every moment, not just the potholes, rotten timber, rocks in the road and so on. I thought this made the story more real.
“Le Salaire de la Peur” is, in my opinion, an excellent thriller. The story is not complicated, but the director and cast take the audience right into the action. We feel as if we are in the trucks, wincing along with the drivers at every small bump, wondering if we will survive. It is tense, and stressful, and really good. I strongly recommend this.