Well, just for fun, let’s try to imagine some issues one could take with the film. For background, even if you’ve never seen the film you may have at least heard of it: it’s the one where there’s a shipment of nitroglycerine that needs to be hauled across some bad roads, and there’s some desperate men willing to risk their lives for the astronomical hazard pay, and it gets pretty intense. That’s the core of the film that most people would be familiar with. However, those concepts don’t all come together until deep into the movie, which runs well over two hours long. So, imaginary complaint number one might be pacing, but I would knock down that straw man as being incredibly misguided. Not every movie needs to be a taut 89 minutes, with a protagonist introduced as efficiently as possible right before he is thrown into the crazy inciting incident of the plot. By taking a much slower and more deliberate approach, Clouzot is able to give all of the characters room to breathe and reveal their natures and relationships. Even the setting itself has time to establish itself as a real place, and as the audience sees examples of certain intangibles, from the oppressive heat to the isolation and inescapability, over and over again, the feeling of desperation which preys upon the characters insinuates itself into the audience as well. When the trucking job presents itself, and the stakes are made perfectly clear, it’s no leap of logic to understand why there are so many volunteers that they must all try out and be cut down to four; it’s an inevitability.
Imaginary complaint number two might be that none of the characters are particularly likable. Mario is arrogant and selfish. Jo is a bully. Bimba is aloof. Luigi is too nice for his own good, bordering on pathetic. Again, though, this is an unsupportable objection for any number of reasons. All four men have fallen on desperate times for various reasons, some stated and some implied, to the point where they will take their lives in their own hands. The beauty of the film is that the characters are portrayed honestly throughout, with certain aspects of their temperaments at the forefront in town and others coming through under the extreme circumstances of transporting explosives on a suicide run, but all of them consistent. They may not be someone the viewer would be pleased to spend time with, but they are real human beings and on a gut level we feel for them as such, particularly given the harrowing task they set themselves at. It’s not the same emotional investment we might experience in a feel-good hangout movie, but it is powerful.
Finally (getting into spoiler territory), imaginary complaint number three might be the bleak outlook of the film, including if not exemplified by its downbeat ending. If any given straw man doesn’t consider movies that make with the sad to be his cup of tea, there’s not much I can do to argue around the point. It’s hard to put a positive spin on the notion that when it comes to this world, nobody gets out alive. It’s also not impossible, but La Salaire de la peur doesn’t particularly try, as the deaths of each of the truckers stack up with each one seemingly more meaningless than the last. Still, art can be meaningful even without bold and inspirational declarations of life’s inherent value. It takes many voices and many visions up and down the spectrum.
(Post-finally, there’s always the possibility that a person might not care for a 1953 French-Italian picture because they “don’t like black and white” or they “don’t like subtitles”. Heck, I might have raised those objections myself in my much younger days. For what it’s worth, I didn’t find the subtitles in La Salaire de la peur to be too onerous, as some of the key sequences of maximum tension are basically dialogue-free. And other parts are in English! And as far as color, there were scenes which I can’t imagine working half as well in technicolor, like when Jo and Mario attempt to cross the lake of oil from a burst pipe:
All of that monochrome crude subsuming Jo would lose a lot of its stark power if it weren’t in black and white.)
So it’s a simple but gripping story, with compelling acting and camera direction which is so well attuned to the material it practically becomes invisible. On top of all that, I have to praise some of the technical accomplishments of the film. I continue to find myself more and more impressed by the lengths filmmakers went to in the days before computer-assisted special effects, when showing an oil well fire meant obtaining actual footage of raging flames, and depicting a truck crashing down a mountain entailed pushing a real physical truck off a road and letting gravity do the rest. La Salaire de la peur has these shots and several others, all of which give the film an incredible verisimilitude.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the film, however, is in its sound engineering. The most nail-biting, gut-churning sequences in the film are not artificially heightened by an overlay of theatrical music specifically composed to be tense and discordant. On the contrary, the only music after the title credits is that which comes out of a radio in a cantina. On the road, there is nothing but ambient noise. But the emotional weight carried by the revving of a truck engine, or the creaking of the rotten boards of a support platform, or the monotonous droning of insects, or the heavy breathing of a man trying to transfer nitroglycerine to a blast cavity in a boulder, is simply immense. Clouzot uses these sounds masterfully to ratchet up the anxiety, with their steady insistence contrasting quick visual perspective cuts from one man to another, from shaking hands to sweat-beaded lips, and so on. It’s pretty phenomenal, though again something accomplished in a way that could pass without being consciously noticed, even as it all but overwhelms the senses.
La Salaire de la peur may not be a perfect film, but it comes exceedingly close. It sets out to do many different things, and almost always succeeds wildly. Its philosophical inquiry is valid, albeit not necessarily attuned to every viewer’s sensibilities, which may be the only thing holding it back from being more famously well-regarded by more people. But without question it’s worth taking the time to engage with on its own terms.