Cult Movies: Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear is a masterpiece of slow-building tension

A scene from Henri-Georges Clouzot's 1953 film The Wages of Fear
Henri-Georges Clouzot's 1953 film is regarded as a masterpiece of slow-building cinematic tension

DIRECTOR Henri-Georges Clouzot is rightly revered for a couple of films he made in the 1950s, both of which remain utterly sublime slices of cinema today.

I’ll take a look at Les Diaboliques, a vastly influential and hugely effective psychological thriller he made in 1955 that would see him forever referred to as the French Hitchcock, next week - but, for now, let’s wallow in his other cinematic gem from that decade, The Wages of Fear.

Originally released in 1953 and available for the very first time this month on UHD Blu-ray through the BFI, this is an old school thriller of the highest order that lures you in from the off and puts you through an emotional wringer for its entire duration.

Based on the 1950 novel Le Salaire de la Peur, it’s the powerful tale of four desperate men in the miserable dead-end town of Las Piedras, who decide to take their lives in their hands by attempting to deliver a deadly cargo of nitro-glycerine to a raging fire that’s burning away in an oil field owned by the ruthless Southern Oil Company.

As the company is highly unionised, no employee can be charged with the duty of delivering the highly combustible cargo across the treacherous rocky terrain, so it’s left to the impoverished locals to risk life and limb by taking on the potentially deadly road trip for the grand sum of $2,000.

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A scene from the 1953 film The Wages of Fear showing a truck full of explosives
Would you drive a truckload of nitro-glycerine across treacherous terrain for a $2,000 reward?

It’s a tantalising set-up for a naturally suspenseful human drama, and Clouzot handles it beautifully, taking his time to build up a picture of the society in which the four men live before the trucks are finally sent off on the road.

The slow build-up of tension may not appeal to those who like their thrillers packed with endless action, but the gradual cranking up of suspense makes for a thrilling ride all the same. The constant threat of a bump in the road causing a life-ending explosion keeps you glued to the screen, despite the slow pace.

The central performances from Yves Montand, as the big and bruising Jack The Lad figure of Mario, and his light-hearted roommate, Luigi (Folco Lulli), together with the affable outsider, Bimba (Peter van Eyck), and the local gangster, Jo (Charles Vanel), are uniformly impressive, and Clouzot paints a picture of the little town of Las Piedras that is grimly believable in both its bleakness and the barely-contained racism that simmers among its populace.

The front cover of the new UHD Blu-ray for The Wages of Fear
Clouzot's 1953 film is available on UHD Blu-ray for the first time

Once the men hit the road in their two trucks for their 300-mile trip, the tension really rises, as the team face a series of obstacles that test their character and strength to the very limit and force them to work together in order to survive.

By the time they are trying to make their way across a platform made from rotten wood as the heavy trucks laden with explosives teeter on the brink of disaster, you’ll probably need a good lie-down to cope with the tension.

Boasting two new special features, including a new 15-minute video essay, among a raft of impressive extras, this new edition is the best way to enjoy a true cinematic masterpiece.