Still one of the most intense films I’ve seen, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1953 masterpiece will have you glued to the screen and peeling the fabric off whatever you’re sitting on as the movie puts its characters through sheer hell. Set somewhere in South America, the plot has four desperate men take on the challenge of driving two trucks packed with nitroglycerine through some hellish territory in order to help put out a massive oil well fire.
The film touches on a few political points in its (deservedly) negative portrayal of the American oil company that hires the drivers, some not so safe workplace practices and general employee exploitation. However, none of the major characters in the film are what you’d call “good” in terms of morality and motivation. They’re in it for the money and a way back to a better life they left that pushed them to this wretched corner of the globe. The film builds up so much tension that each perilous section of the long drive is practically the most terrifying as the danger increases thanks to all sorts of environmental and human created trouble. It’s practically guaranteed that you’ll forget to breathe at least three times during the more insane sections of the journey where the slightest mistake could send these men to their doom long before they reach their goal.
What works from start to finish are the oppressive atmosphere and fantastic performances by all the principals. Yves Montand and Charles Vanel absolutely steal the show as two of the drivers chosen to transport the volatile cargo to its destination. The deliberate pacing at the beginning is simply Clouzot slowly winding you up to a tight coiled spring that’s going to snap once things get rolling. There’s not a dull moment to be had here, although I’ll admit that Clouzot’s only error was the casting of his too-gorgeous wife, Vera as the local gal that falls for Montand’s character. Granted, she’s the best-looking person in the film, but she’s not portrayed all that well if you’re looking for a likable female character in a flick full of brutes. William Friedkin’s excellent (but not quite as spectacular) 1977 remake, Sorcerer, takes care of this with some more realistic casting for her part, but Clouzot’s cinematographer, Armand Thirard does some truly incredible work that’s still impressive in terms of lending a natural (and very deadly) feel to the environments.
There are some white-knuckle, nail-biting moments (if you can grip an armrest and bite your nails simultaneously, that is) that include a trip across a rotting wooden bridge, the truckers dealing with a huge boulder in their path and the sudden loss of part of their cargo and the aftermath. Oh yeah, that ending? It’s a total corker that may catch you off guard. OK, I’ll stop here as I don’t want to spoil anything more and heck, you need to go watch this as soon as you can. Don’t forget to grab a friend who hasn’t seen this and prepare for a wild ride you’ll want to recommend to as many people as possible. Back next week with another recommendation – watch this space (well, after you go watch the film)…