Henri-Georges Clouzot takes on Hawks and Huston, his first shot puts man on the ground with cockroach and vulture for the benefit of Peckinpah. The South American cactus-town is the parched void in which men exercise their petty cruelty on dogs and each other, "there’s so little to entertain us." Third World misery is catnip to American imperialism ("If there’s oil around, they’re not far behind"), Rita Hayworth appears as part of the mural in a sordid cantina, the film’s equivalent of the movie poster in Bicycle Thieves. When a refinery explodes, the Southern Oil Company seeks men desperate enough to drive the nitroglycerin to the burning well; pub king Yves Montand, Parisian gangster Charles Vanel, weak-lunged Italian worker Folco Lulli, and Teutonic fugitive Peter Van Eyck take on the suicidal mission for a chance to escape. The trucks race over crater-cracked paths, steer atop rotting trestles, and detonate rocky roadblocks, Vanel’s bulldog façade cracks into fear and vulnerability just as Montand’s Bogartian pose reveals sadistic sides. "Can’t you see he’s just a walking corpse?" "You think we’re not?" When contrabandists become businessmen and human life is blown away as simply as the tobacco in a half-rolled cigarillo, heroism and grace are notions that wither in the heat -- the pigtailed saloon gal (Vera Clouzot) prays under a tree for divine mercy and finds instead a body dangling above her shrine. The pipe-puffing skull on a "danger" sign is a Clouzot gag, the thick morass of oil that swamps trucks and mangles limbs brilliantly visualizes the bottomless blackness that oozes out of his world. And yet again there’s that link to Renoir, grudging and unmistakable, as the multilingual prison and compassion between tramps from Grand Illusion materialize in the truck seat with Vanel and Montand (one expires with "rien" on his lips, the other staggers toward the inferno). The existential punchline mocks the idea of a happy ending -- when Clouzot’s characters dance on the edge of the precipice, they fall in. Cinematography by Armand Thirard. With William Tubbs, Dario Moreno, Jo Dest, and Antonio Centa. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce