How's this for a movie concept: A group of rugged individualists trapped in the backwaters of some South American country is offered the chance to make some big money by driving a couple of trucks across 300 miles of rugged roads. Oh, and they will also be carrying a ton of nitroglycerine in their truck beds. Is this coming to a theater near you as the next Hollywood Summer Blockbuster?
Nope, it came already as a B&W French film in 1953 called "Wages of Fear". When one thinks of French films from that period, one thinks of talkative character studies with people in Parisian cafes and not of thrillers. Indeed, the action in this film is atypical enough, but it also fits in plenty of character study as well. For the first 45 minutes, we are introduced to the characters and their meager existence. They have no money to get out of town, and the only big employer in town is the Southern Oil Company and they're not hiring.
The whole plot is laid out in one scene where the company big shots discuss how to get the nitro to a tremendous oil-well fire at one of their faraway rigs. They're losing tons of money for every minute it burns, so time is of the essence. They want to hire the stragglers because they have no family or Union for the company to answer to. In other words, they are expendable. The stragglers are eager to volunteer, though only four are eventually chosen. These men are willing to risk their lives for $2,000 a piece (roughly $14,000 a piece in today's money). Any way you slice it, that's a pretty cheap estimate of your own worth.
All this makes the trip all the more exciting now that we know these characters and how desperate they are. As could be expected, they encounter a number of obstacles including very narrow mountain roads, cracked concrete pavements and a boulder the size of an SUV in their path. It's incredibly exciting, and makes one wish that current action films could build tension as well as this one.
There is one big fault I find with this classic and that is the ending. Although I can see it as appropriate given a certain conversation earlier in the film about how young people can be reckless, there is a big difference between reckless and incredibly stupid. I'm all for anti-Hollywood endings, but they have to make a lick of sense for them to be satisfying.
Despite the ending, I definitely recommend the film, if only to prove to people that even a 1950's French film can be as exciting as the latest film out of Tinseltown.
Eight out of Ten