Every migrant in the town is looking for a chance to make some proper money and get out of there. This opportunity comes up when an US-owned oil company fighting a blaze at its local drilling site puts out a call for truck-drivers willing to deliver a large shipment of nitroglycerine that will be used to snuff out the fire. There are no safety measures available to cart this lethal cargo, which is why the company is recruiting anonymous drifters whose deaths no one will follow-up on. But for the princely sum of 2000$ apiece, these men are willing to take the risk. Two trucks, each manned by two drivers, set out to traverse the distance to the oilfields: Mario and Jo make one pair, while Luigi and the taciturn German expat Bimba (Peter van Eyck) form the other.
It takes about an hour of the film's running time to lead up to this scenario, but once the journey starts it is almost the sole focus of the rest of the narrative. The men must ride night and day to reach the site in time. Their cargo is sensitive to heat and vibrations. The terrain is rough; paradoxically the trucks must move quick over the rockiest bits to minimize the jolts (references to keeping the speedometer above a certain level to avoid an explosive jerk will remind 90's kids of a certain Keanu Reeves starrer). There are serious obstacles, including a rickety plank bridge, an immovable boulder that blocks the road and later, a lake of crude oil that truck and men must traverse.
The most interesting aspect of The Wages of Fear (based on a novel by Georges Arnaud) is the changing equation between its characters as they push forth in their hazardous course. Initially Jo is the heavy, the patron who twirls an eager Mario around his finger and bullies the other townsfolk with his revolver and his bravado. It is even suggested that he has 'eliminated' another fellow to be selected for the chance to earn the reward. But as the journey progresses, Jo's nerve gives way. He fidgets, he panics, he even tries to run away before he is dragged back by Mario, who grows increasingly disillusioned and contemptuous of the man he once deified. Both Vanel and Montand give their all to presenting the palpably credible transformation of their characters. In contrast Luigi, who had been earlier slapped around by Jo, throws off a cheerful courage and even the seemingly cold-hearted Bimba reveals an inner humanity. This is solid character drama wrapped around the mechanics of the tense suspense.
I do not agree with some of the criticisms leveled against Wages of Fear that the characters are shallow or that the film is unnecessarily bleak. Without spoiling events yes, it could have concluded on a more upbeat heroic note. But even if it is slightly overplayed in execution, there is nothing inherently wrong with the end as is, and it makes for a poignant conclusion for an equal parts thrilling and moving experience.
A few notes on my viewing experience:
More than a decade ago, a 148-min version of this film was released on blu-ray by the Criterion label (described on their site as a 'New, restored high-definition digital transfer'), and that release was good enough for the time. Some time in 2017, a new 4K restoration of an even longer (152-min) version of the film sourced from the original camera negative was carried out. The UK release from the BFI is based on this restoration (I understand they postponed their previous 2016 release plans to avail of the new master). As expected (see screenshot comparisons), it is dramatically superior to the Criterion blu-ray in terms of image clarity, grain resolution and a much more refined contrast/gray-scale. Simply put, even if you own the Criterion blu-ray, this is a must-have upgrade (unless you want to wait for a possible 4K UHD announcement).