Le salaire de la peur

France, Italy, 1953

Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot

With Yves Montand (Mario), Charles Vanel (Jo), Folco Lulli (Luigi), Peter van Eyck (Bimba), William Tubbs (O’Brien), Véra Clouzot (Linda)

A US oil company operating in an unspecified corner of South America urgently needs to move tons of nitroglycerin from one of its warehouses to a well burning after an accident, in the hope that a blast could put the fire off. Four men from a nearby town, all foreigners, are hired to drive trucks that are not fitted to carry such a cargo over poor roads and dangerous terrains, and under a glaring heat. The ungrateful and highly risky trip is marred by tough and hair-raising problems. One team, made up of a cold-blooded Dutchman named Bimba and of a jovial Italian named Luigi, eventually fails to make it, while the relationship between the other team’s members, Mario and Jo, both Frenchman with a troubled past and great differences in temperament and age, move from friendship to hatred; death also strikes them, and Mario ends up being the only driver left to deliver the stuff in time.

On a road that is already the inferno: Charles Vanel (left) and Yves Montand

Dramatic effects are aplenty and the adrenaline runs high in the bodies of both the characters and the moviegoers as it gets harder to keep the nitroglycerin steady in the jerrycans. Episodes of the ordeal would get well-known, from the challenge raised by the rickety and small head of a wooden bridge under construction that the trucks need to use to take a hairpin bend to the struggle of two men distrusting each other to make their truck cross a huge pond of oil ready to drown them. Wheels desperately trying to run over the obstacles quickly become a leitmotif, and the camera relentlessly focuses on the details that are the harbingers of a disaster, in a display of striking visual flair that belies a confident and elaborate sense of composition and shooting.

The thrill and the thrust of the narrative are driven by the action and the event. There is no other reason for the performance than the stated goal of the characters to make two thousand bucks to escape the unfriendly place where they are stranded. No war and no conquest are to be made, no thuggery and no investigation to be completed: the adventure and the adventurers do not readily relate to any known genre. This is a perfect, pure action movie with actions and performers needing no context to grab the attention right away, an object that has probably few antecedents in cinema and would inspire other directors to tread such a path. Henri-Georges Clouzot has chosen an original topic, including in relation to his own oeuvre, though it suits his pessimistic vision of the mankind.

The South America he depicts from the very first pictures feels like a waste land, a forgotten rural place scorched by the sun and deprived of the modern infrastructure and polity. The place is a blighted melting pot where South Americans of various descents (this very first picture is focused on a half-naked black kid) live along White men from elsewhere. They are a kind of desperados who landed there for lack of better opportunities as they have run of luck in whatever task they were toiling at, most probably in a dishonest manner. A few work in a useful position – the mason, the doctor – but the majority just loiters, playing mischief, drawing the ire or the studied indifference of the local people. And a newcomer quickly gets stuck in their debilitating and mean-spirited groove. Oil, remote, dangerous and foreign-owned, is the only sign of money and progress in a land which has definitely been dealt a bad deal in the fate’s poker game.

A good third of the running time is devoted to portraying this lost mankind. This stretched, and perhaps over-stretched, exposition helps us to get acquainted with the few characters who would make the risky trip later and above all to put us in their shoes. The identification is rather difficult and unpleasant. Once the cast is narrowed, the tension they face and the need for a modicum of solidarity and common sense shed a better light on these anti-heroes. But the duo faring the best doesn’t always take the center stage and quickly vanish in a boom. The two other guys would then show how bad, selfish and flawed men can be in a remarkable swap of personality.

Mario increasingly pushes aside his doubts and fears to become a stubborn and fierce worker, showing no pity as Jo, once a cunning and hard-nosed ruffian, turns into a wimp duly questioning the value of their effort. As they wade in the pond of oil any sense of decency and kindness inevitably sinks, the dramatic action also being a poignant illustration of the moral quagmire trapping those men live in. The sympathy Mario shows afterwards as Jo lays dying in the truck seems a move back to old feelings sparked by the close arrival and relative success of their trip, a human touch twist that could be welcome if it wasn’t coming too late, well after evil reared its head and just when nothing could save Jo (who does die in view of the burning oil well). The finale of “Le salaire de la peur” casts again a harsh light on Mario’s personality, and his preposterous death appears a wry comment on the futility of both the adventurer and the entire adventure.

Fighting against all odds just to evade the sole place that was ready to shelter them, the men would all die in the course of an action that could have fostered friendship. It is not that all solidarity is impossible, as the common work to blast away a rock blocking a road suggests; it is just that human nature can be remarkably weak in the face of some realities. The suicide of a poor Italian expatriate a few hours before the trucks departed is the heavy but powerful sign of an inescapable fate, and the rush for money feels like the cruel impetus of a world basically steeped in inequality. The strength of the film lies in a clinical and realistic approach of the characters even as it reaches a breathtaking level of cinematic efficiency.

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