Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Wages of Fear set a precedent in the thriller genre in 1953 that has yet to be surpassed. Clouzot is able to keep the immense tension up to such a degree, that the audience is left with chills when the film fades to black.
Wages of Fear begins with the highlighting of a group of transient men living in a South American village. Comprised of men with various backgrounds in both Europe and America, the vagrants drift surprisingly well between languages, and are even more adept at drifting between cantinas. When a mysterious stranger, M. Jo (Charles Vanel) arrives in town, he quickly ingratiates himself with with a fellow Frenchman, Mario (Yves Montand). A popular figure amongst his layabout compatriots, Mario begins to neglect his friends, love interest (Vèra Clouzot) and roommate, Luigi (Folco Lulli). Mario and M. Jo spend their days planning their escape from the decrepit town. Unable to find any meaningful work, and therefore unable to afford egress from the town, most of the immigrants in the village become trapped in poverty. The only jobs in the vicinity of the town are in Southern Oil Company (SOC), an American oil operation spread throughout the region. Tragedy strikes when a remote oil well catches fire, killing several locals. The unceasing fire can only be extinguished with a coordinated explosion (via nitroglycerine). Looking to avoid further negative press, and pressure from American unions, the head of SOC decides to hire the local vagrants to transport the highly explosive liquid. After a rigorous driving test, Mario, Bimba (Peter van Eyck), Luigi and Smerloff (Jo Dest) are chosen to make the journey. The desperate M. Jo is able to convince (or eliminate) Smerloff and take his place by the time the ill-equipped trucks are set to leave. Using simple transportation trucks without anti-shock beds or nitroglycerine handling instruments, the men set off on their treacherous journey to the remote oil well.