The Wages of Fear

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 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 an American petroleum conglomerate, but the reigning prince is the layabout Mario (Yves Montand, with carefully knotted bandanna and a cigarette wedged in the corner of his mouth). 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. The Wages of Fear is no less a representation of nuclear anxiety than Godzilla or On the Beach. Call for showtimes. (NR) J. HOBERMAN

Feb. 17-23, 2012

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