Well, this one was slow to get going – and when it did, get going it certainly did.
Our leads are four men who’ve found themselves a bit at loose ends in the Central American backwater town of Las Piedras; the fortunate Las Piedrans work in the nearby oil field owned by U.S. company “Southern Oil”, while the others eke out whatever living they can, or just sit around by the town’s only bar. Corsican Mario (Yves Montand) is one such drifter, spending his days flirting with one of the waitresses and bumming smokes off the others. His roommate Luigi (Folco Lulli), an Italian expat, is fortunate enough to have a construction job – but years of breathing in brick dust has given him a serious respiratory infection, and he needs to find other work. The quiet Bimba (Peter van Eyck) does odd jobs for the bar, and otherwise keeps to himself, haunted by his recent stint in a Nazi concentration camp. The latecomer is Jo (Charles Vanel), a French gangster who ran into a spot of bad luck and escaped to Las Piedras to lay low a while.
Jo discovers he and the Southern Oil Company foreman were comrades in the French Resistance. The foreman thus tips him off to a sudden freelance gig – Southern Oil needs four men to drive several gallons of nitroglycerine to another distant oil rig. Since the only available trucks are in poor condition – as is the 300 miles of road that would take them there – Southern Oil wants to avoid the hefty compensation they’d have to pay out if one of their regular staff was hurt. Jo and the others apply for the job – as do most of Las Piedras’ jobless – and our four leads are ultimately hired, with the promise of $2,000 each when they make it. But the hazards along the way – both the physical dangers of the poor road, and the mental strain of ferrying the highly-volatile nitro – start to eat at all four, turning a couple of them against each other.
There’s actually some similarities between this and Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, what with expatriate drifters in the Central American countryside looking for a quick fortune and cracking under pressure. However, Sierra Madre set things up very quickly and sent its characters out into the wilderness within only about ten or fifteen minutes. Wages of Fear, however, spent nearly an hour watching Mario and Jo laze around the local bar, Luigi cheerfully cook simple pasta dishes in their flat, and Mario’s girlfriend – someone whose character was largely a nonentity – run afoul of her boss before things got moving. It may be that the filmmakers really wanted to emphasize just how close to rock-bottom everyone was, but I’d gotten that within just a few minutes, and found myself checking the timestamp on the film a good deal during the first half (“…Good Lord, how much longer have I got to go with this?”).
Or the French/Italian filmmakers were hoping to introduce a note of political commentary. In his own review, Roger Ebert notes that the original United States release cut out a good half hour from the earlier scenes; the scenes with Southern Oil foremen don’t necessarily cast the United States in the best light, and American distributors cut the bits they thought would offend audiences. However, the cuts may have unexpectedly enhanced things by cutting to the chase (or the drive) a lot sooner. Today those cuts have been restored, and even Ebert argued that they may have dragged things down anyway.
And I’m inclined to agree. Once the gang finally hit the road, the suspense was gripping enough that I actually covered my eyes in some tense spots, like when they discover a rock slide has blocked their path and Bimba MacGuyvers a solution involving a tiny bit of the nitro they so helpfully have handy. Everyone falls apart a little on the road, in one way or another; Jo in particular, who in his first scene is a suave and savvy gentleman in a fine suit, but the drive has him so hyper-aware of every jolt and rattle in the truck that he’s a half-crazed, oil-stained whimpering wreck in the final act. And he’s not the only one.
Usually in a case like this, when a “directors’ cut” of a film restores some missing material, fans and critics advocate trying to see the fully-restored version. With Wages of Fear I’m wondering if the opposite may not be wiser.