Clouzot’s film opens in Las Piedres, a village in the heart of a poor, unnamed South American country. It is a lost, backwards village of stifling heat where a variety of interracial men sit around listlessly, working menial labor jobs and waiting for some kind of escape. It seems to be a place where desperate men have come to escape their pasts, but having found themselves down on their luck and with no cash, they cannot afford to escape. If the film has some minor flaws it is the opening 45 minutes or so. It did feel like it dragged, but it is essential to revealing the desperate situations of the men, and establishing why they would be so willing to undertake such a high-risk job. It is also an excellent way to introduce the characters, and to differentiate between whom they become when faced with the pressures of their mission. It’s a little bit confusing initially to work out who is who, but the central characters start to stand out.
Mario (Yves Montand) is a Corsican playboy and layabout who spends most of the early sequences rejecting the affections of barmaid Linda (Vera Clouzot). He befriends Jo (Charles Vanel), an aging ex-gangster, who uses the last of his cash to bribe his way past the authorities at the local airport, and is now stranded. He causes a rift between the other cantina regulars because of his desire to be treated like a big shot. The other two men who accept the job are Luigi (Folco Lulli), a portly hardworking Italian who discovers he has just been diagnosed with lung disease, and Bimba (Peter van Eyck) an intense individual who had previously worked in a salt mine.
Supplies of nitroglycerine are needed at a remote oil field, which has caught fire. Rather than use their own unionized workers, SOC (which shares the initials of American giant Standard Oil), instead hires the four local men, who are lured by the US$2,000 per driver, and see the opportunity as the only way out of their dead-end lives. These men have no families and Clouzot, whose screenplay is meant to be an indictment against American big business, has the boss of the company stating that the drivers: “Don’t belong to a union, and they don’t have any relatives, so if anything happens, no one will come around causing trouble.” The men must transport the nitroglycerine, which has been loaded into jerry cans onto two trucks, over miles of treacherous road, battling not only the fear of the slightest jolt resulting in their death, but also a series of worsening obstacles along the remote roads and a tense rivalry that develops between the two sets of drivers.
The second half of the film is comprised of the extended mission sequence, which features some of the most intense moments I have ever witnessed. It is nothing short of cinematic perfection, and I was found holding my breath on numerous occasions. Clouzot proves he can worthily stand alongside Hitchcock as the master of suspense, deftly balancing the heightened narrative tension with continued character development. We learn that Mario isn’t really that nice of a guy, but he’s a natural leader, recklessly taking charge of several extremely dangerous situations. Jo, alternatively, is not as tough as he wanted people to believe, plagued throughout the mission by anxiety and acts of cowardice. The performances are all top-notch.
Clouzot also demonstrates some ingenious technical achievements. Every sequence is expertly shot, from the claustrophobic confines of the trucks, to their skidding wheels as they start to edge closer to a perilous drop, and edited to draw a maximum amount of tension. I have seen few action sequences better edited to generate thrills than the infamous scene where the characters are faced with a tight hairpin turn and must back their trucks along an unfinished, feeble wooden bridge that is constantly threatening to collapse. The wheels skid on the rotten wood and a steel support cable catches the side of the truck. The fate of the mission (and their lives) is hinging on this moment. Later, Bimba utilises some of their nitro to blow up a large boulder that has fallen onto the road and blocks their path, while Mario and Jo must cross an ever-deepening pool of slick crude oil from a burst pipeline. The excitement is relentless.
The way the characters react to these situations is just as shocking as the events themselves. They could die at any moment - a slight bump could kill them - so pushing the risk to the maximum doesn't seem like such an outrageous idea. Clouzot builds genuine characters and manages to create more suspense by clever editing than most modern blockbuster directors (with visual effects) could ever hope to achieve. This is a masterpiece from a master director. If I were to update 100 films I consider to be truly great, The Wages of Fear would comfortably make the list. It's brilliant.