Ok. It has now been over a week since I caught this at a Sunday matinee (edging on a week-and-a-half) and while I have been a little busy, the main reason for my utter lateness with any sort of write-up is... well, I'm at a bit of a loss. I don't know how much I have to say about this film really. So, I'll just say what I gotta say and get it out there.
I was reasonably looking forward to this "gut wrenching exercise in tension" (as it was billed in the leaflet). I admit to pretty much complete ignorance to this French film from 1953. I think the title may have struck some sort of dark and ignored memory-chord, but other than that... nada. So what's goin' on? Well, I got got with the hook: four losers have to transport unstable nitroglycerin in two shit-heap trucks over crappy dirt roads to an isolated oil field. That sounds great! That sounds like it really could be a "gut wrenching exercise in tension"!
Not so much. First we spend an hour getting to know these four characters, and the other losers who are stuck in the nameless small South American town with them. Which I could maybe get on board with, if the main characters weren't such completely misogynistic assholes. Like our main character, Yves Montad's Mario. Sure, he's a bit of a layabout with a certain rough Gallic charm. He's also a douche who seems to have no problem with his occasional gal pal being, essentially, raped by her boss (at that, she seems to have very little problem with it too). Then when she does have a day off work, he'd much rather pal about with his new best friend, fellow Frenchman Jo. Oh, and he also screws over his roommate for Jo. I know some of this is from the prevalent attitudes to women at the time, but c'mon!
When we finally get to the hook of the thing, the transportation of the nitro, there are some fantastic set-pieces. Director Clouzot works each scene of potential disaster as hard as he can, wringing the maximum amount of tension out. He also manages the fluctuation of loyalty, respect and dynamics between the driver's with a sure hand, with some of them cracking under the pressure and others seemingly rising to it. Just about everything that could go wrong for these poor saps, does; and even more besides. Not all of them make it to that remote oil field and even the one(s) that do are irrevocably changed. But then, by that point, I didn't really give a good goddamn.