Existentialism is like oxygen: you don’t think about it much, but it’s everywhere. The Wages of Fear (1953), a French thriller from director Henri-Georges Clouzot, is the latest example of random media I’ve witnessed lately that drips with existential themes, and it’s a riveting, fascinating watch. Set in a nebulous Central American desert, the story revolves around a pair of stranded Frenchman, Mario (Yves Montand) and Jo (Charles Vanel), two layabouts who desperately want to leave the town but can’t afford the passage. They’re not alone; the town is littered with expatriate ruffians, many of them out of work, with little more to do than loiter at the local cantina. The region’s only industry is oil, run by a rapacious American enterprise, the Southern Oil Company. When an oil well fire erupts hundreds of miles a way and rages out of control, the SOC needs to transport trucks full of nitroglycerine to the site to extinguish the blaze using an explosive technique. The problem: they have no proper safety equipment. Cynically, they put out a call for truck drivers, offering a life-changing bounty to entice the area’s desperate men to make the risky drive along precarious, largely unimproved roads to the fire. Mario and Jo, along with amiable Italian Luigi (Folco Lulli) and cool German Bimba (Peter van Eyck), win the dubious lottery and accept the dangerous assignment to deliver the nitro, leading to a difficult, suspenseful journey that seems destined to end in a fiery oblivion.
The Wages of Fear builds its atmosphere patiently in the hot, filthy streets of its remote village, spending ample time to establish the ennui and desperation of its protagonists. It’s time well spent, building character and fleshing out relationships that will later be challenged by the perils of the journey. This drive plays out in a series of tense, escalating challenges that test everyone’s mettle and greatly strain their relationships. The mission renders the characters more and less sympathetic by turns, as the small team rallies to overcome obstacles but also allows the tension to boil over into interpersonal disputes that reveal new insecurities, anxieties, and—most tellingly—intolerance for “weakness.” Alas, I suspect the casual sexism and toxic male attitudes that mar the film are simple byproducts of the era, rather than an intentional ingredient of the film’s greater social critique; even so, as the dangerous situation brings out the worst in the men, those elements slot nicely into the film’s artful indictment of human callousness and cruelty. Overall, it’s a richly layered and thoughtful suspense film that also serves as a prescient indictment of the economic injustice and environmental destructiveness of imperial capitalism. It leaves an uncomfortable, nihilistic taste in the mouth, but packs an emotional punch as it does so.