This is going to make me sound awful but I’m going to say it anyway. Sometimes, I find older movies boring and it’s for no other reason than they’re old. The themes aren’t as relevant. They’re in black and white which isn’t as engaging. The sound is untreated and disjointed and it’s soooo much harder for me to concentrate on the film. This is probably why I had mixed feelings about La Regle du Jeu (1939) because a lot of the important contextual themes were subtle. And I’m sure one glance at my phone might have meant I missed the most important line in the film. The Wages of Fear had the exact opposite effect on me.
Wages of Fear
I feared that was going to be the case with The Wages of Fear. The film opens in a lively South American town with bars, homes and people going about their business with work and family. If it weren’t so busy and clearly of it’s time, you’d mistake the setting for a Western frontier town. Gentlemen relax on porches in a hot, dusty desert setting. Alas, a plethora of nationalities say otherwise, though this just made it look like the opening of Casablanca (1942). The prologue goes on a good while before we get into the heart of our story.
US oil company (imaginatively titled ‘Southern Oil Company’) are digging for oil in the town and are one of the main employers. But everyone is unionised and it seems legit enough. When one of their other plants has a huge oil explosion (I think that’s what happens? There’s a big, out of control, fiery pit anyway.) 300 miles away and they need to transport a hec of a lot of nitroglycerine to sort it out. Which, if you didn’t know, is highly unstable and could explode with the slightest knock. The company don’t have the right equipment and therefore cannot use their own workers as that will no doubt get them in big trouble with the Unions. Instead, they hire 4 truck drivers of all different nationalities who are in no good position to turn down work. No matter what the job is.
Be afraid, be veeeery afraid
Once the 4 men driving two big trucks set off on their 300 mile journey, I’m on the edge of my seat for the next 2 hours. Unable to blink when the men smoke cigarettes without a care in the world. They pass uneasily over rocky ground and run into obstacle after obstacle as the tensions between the men heighten. This film is no ordinary ‘old’ movie. This is a great example of great filmmaking.
The themes of this film, unlike La Regle Du Jeu, are glaringly obvious and unsettling as they are still very much relevant to this time. The US company has taken over South American land in order to make profits for their own gain. AND exploit local and foreign workers who have no choice but to work for any money they can get. It’s completely sucky. And this is still a huge problem.
You can cut the tension with a knife
Mario is our main guy as he teams up with slightly older and world-weary Jo to drive the truck across country. Mario seems nice enough until Jo continually ‘gets the jitters’ and keeps unintentionally sabotaging the smooth sailing of this mission. Mario’s patience is consistently tested by Jo’s attitude. The high chance of their death isn’t worth the $2,000 waiting for them at the other side. The men have literally put a price on their own worth and it’s much, much too low. Nevertheless, it’s more money than any of them have ever known. The title of the film is ever lingering as the men sweat from their brows and develop nervous ticks that are shown in extreme close-ups. Their mouths are framed as they nervously chewing tobacco. The fingernails tapping on the truck door. The scratching of a match.
Through the fear of going hungry, the fear of not being able to afford a plane/boat ride back home, of not being able to support any family members, the worry of not knowing where your next pay packet is coming from or if it will be enough… Does The Wages of Fear offer any hope? Will any of the men be able to break the cycle? Will there be an end to the huge, money guzzling corporations? And will normal, hard working people will be paid a decent wage? I think you can answer that, over fifty years after this film was released, by taking a look around.
Have you ever seen The Wages of Fear? Did it put you on the edge as much as it did me?