In fictional Las Piedras, various lives—people from all over—have reached their dead-ends. The area, somewhere in South America, is exploited and ruled by S.O.C.—the Southern Oil Company. Three hundred miles away, one of the fields is aflame; two pairs of drivers are offered $2,000 each by the U.S. company to drive trucks loaded with, combined, a ton of nitroglycerin to help contain the fire. Poverty is so deep, hope fragile, that applicants abound; the lucky four will have to transport their volatile cargoes over unpaved mountain roads in company trucks—this, a metaphor for capitalism—that do not even come equipped with shock absorbers! One of the four makes it.
From Georges Arnaud’s novel, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le salaire de la peur, which took the top prize at Cannes, is one of the most suspenseful thrillers ever made—a road picture where every bump—every obstacle—along the way may be fatal. The opening shot is of a backwater child tormenting with a stick cockroaches he has tethered. (Stringboarding.) Cosmos seems to be treating all adult humans in the same Shakespeare/Learian way.
The four men are a young Corsican, Mario (Yves Montand, strikingly good, sumptuously athletic), an aging French gangster, Jo (Charles Vanel, terrific—best actor, Cannes), Bimba, a Dutchman embittered by his Nazi imprisonment, and an Italian, Luigi, whom a doctor has just informed has only months to live. Jo seems convincingly courageous behind his gun prior to the trip, and Mario slips under his wing; but he proves cowardly during the trip, confessing, “I’m not dangerous anymore.”
Clouzot achieves turbulent, apocalyptic imagery involving black oil and black night, and raging fire. Fear had made the one survivor careful; stripped of that, he crashes and dies on his way back.
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