1953, France/Italy, directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot (The Wages of Fear)
It's characteristic of Henri-Georges Clouzot that a film about transporting trucks filled with dynamite over a pock-marked road in South America (shot, remarkably, in the south of France) begins with a lengthy prologue that focuses on the dynamics of the town where the journey begins, for it's here, as much as on board the vehicles, that the director can direct his unsparing gaze on human interactions and motivations. Despite the radically different setting, the claustrophobic, sweaty settlement, where no-one's business remains a secret for long, recalls the intense atmosphere of Clouzot's earlier work, particularly Le Corbeau, set - and shot - during the French Occupation.
Clouzot spends almost an hour carefully establishing the town as a place where outsiders wash up one by one, driven either away from their own pasts or attracted by the settlement's proximity to an American-run oilfield, so that their decisions to participate in an apparently suicidal mission has an explicable context. The relationships set up during the opening then play themselves out in conflicts of loyalty as the men attempt to reconcile their devotion to self with their dependence on one another. Clouzot's grasp of the mechanics of tension is so acute that parts of the film almost appear clichéd, which is simply because they've been copied so many times since, and he extracts exceptional performances from his lead actors; Yves Montand, in his star-making turn, is outstanding, though old pro Charles Vanel lingers long in the memory.