And so it begins, not with a whimper, but with a nitroglycerin fueled bang.
Le Salaire de la PeurLe Salaire de la Peur
Henri-Georges Clouzot (1953)
asks many important questions. How tough are you ? How would you deal with the constant impending risk of death ? What important is friendship to you ? How far would you be willing to go for the mission ? What would it take for you to risk your life and that of your friend ? How much nitro-glycerine do you need to blow up a 40 ton boulder to smithereens ? If the truck 800 meters in front of you is going at 10 miles an hour and you at 50 miles an hour, how long until both of you experience first-hand the consequences of Newton's third law ?
The movie takes its sweet time to commence and our protagonists don't get into the nitro-glycerine-loaded trucks they must drive for two days until the end of the first hour. When most films would expedite the beginning to get at the heart of the matter, Salaire
understands that the thrills and suspense of the ride are only half of its recipe if it wants to work. The second half of the recipe is the character study. Salaire
patiently sets up its setting and characters, being careful to give us enough information for us to fully appreciate how our four drivers will develop during their fateful rides.
In the course of their journey, we get to see how each of them deals with the constant exposure to the exploding peril. Most maintain their composure but one let's his fear get to him, to varying degrees throughout the course of the movie. He is not necessarily the one you would have expected. At one point he tries to rationalize his fear ; by this point he has been rendered almost paralyzed by it. It's his superior imagination and experience, he explains, that make him more susceptible to terror. The implication is that the other drivers are not intellectually capable of realizing what they really got themselves into. The point is somewhat fair, but by this time we have gotten to know everyone well enough to know this explanation is insufficient. One of the drivers almost became insensible to fear because of past events ; and to render unto Caesar that which is his, courage and cowardice do have their role to play.
Clouzot buys the time to construct a proper character study by entertaining us with a series of obstacles. The journey the two trucks have to make functions like a Dora the explorer episode. We move from an obstacle to another, some of them being more akin to puzzles that must be solved than anything else, and between the obstacles are swathes of hours the movie is not interested in. It's a reasonably basic and linear construction but it works. The movies remains entertaining for the hour and half this keeps up and somehow manages to keep the viewer at the edge of his seat for the duration. Le Salaire de la Peur
only reaches brilliance at its very end, but the resulting effect is well worth all that preceded it. Of the last twenty minutes, I'll only say that some death is involved. The decisions made by the characters and how they live with them afterwards feel entirely believable after all we witnessed, an maybe the ending had always been inevitable. It is in any case one of the best instances of irony in a movie that come to mind and a hopeless commentary on our collective destinies. It is splendid. 8.5/10 - Excellent