Full-Blown Pop Existentialism


Taken from a novel that Hitch himself wanted to adapt, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear was the Euro smash of 1953. Set in an unidentified country that suggests Venezuela, the godforsaken pueblo of Las Piedras (“The Stones”) is an ugly, buzzard-ridden dump populated by beggars, urchins, and cynical soldiers of fortune who amuse themselves with spitting contests in a sleazy cantina. The town is totally controlled by the American petroleum conglomerate SOC (Esso si?), but the reigning prince is the layabout Mario, played by then pop idol Yves Montand, coiffed and dressed as if for MTV. With his carefully knotted bandanna and a cigarette wedged in the corner of his mouth, Montand is the ultimate Left Bank apache. Mario and three others are hired to drive two truckloads of nitroglycerin across 300 miles of winding, mountainous, badly paved roads. This suicidal drive is the ultimate test of macho and Mario is scared that he won’t measure up—every bump in the road a potential conflagration. What sets The Wages of Fear apart is its outrageous premise and the full-blown delirium of its pop existentialism. No movie before Shoah is more immersed in questions of being and nothingness—or more literal-minded. Reveling in the pure angst of its basic situation, featuring characters who can be vaporized at any moment, the film dramatizes every major existential trope. Conceived, made, and released during the Korean War, The Wages of Fear is no less a representation of nuclear anxiety than Godzilla or On the Beach. We’re primed less for individual death than for the Big One, and while Clouzot stages a few holocausts that presage Terminator 2, he makes sure that the ultimate bang is also a whimper.