By almost any measure, this film should be terrible. Nothing much happens for an hour, then a bunch of guys get in a truck to make a delivery. Finally (spoiler), things go badly. And yet, almost despite itself, THE WAGES OF FEAR is one of the most tense, most accomplished thrillers ever put to film. It’s a textbook of how to do it right, finding a wide range of characters to interact, and out of this draw out a narrative deceptively simple.

FEAR is a tale of existential angst, and the task of delivering nitroglycerine to a burning oil derrick turns into a trial of sisyphean proportion. Yet what’s remarkable about the work, much like PSYCHO from a similar time period, is that the sequences that play before the culmination are tremendous character studies. We almost smell the stench of this forgotten latin American town, a place easy (and cheap) to get into, but a fortune to leave. In a stank cantina a bunch of men sit, waiting for a chance to make enough not just to live day to day filled with drink, but to find an escape from this prison without walls.

Clouzot let’s the story develop with great deliberation. These town set scenes are a pleasure in and of themselves, yet narratively they play an additional, crucial role in the viewer really getting to know the individual characters before they set off on their mission. By the time they are in the trucks you know their quirks, making their transformation due to the travails all the more engaging. This is a polyglot bunch, and the film dances between French, English, Spanish and German with dexterity, giving this small, forsaken outcrop a cosmopolitan air.

The introduction of Charles Vanel as M. Jo into this town has to be one of the greatest in film history – stepping off a plane holding a one-way ticket, suit perfectly white against the murky grey of the rest of the town, he’s a picture of wealth and class. He prowls slowly like some content jungle cat, swatting at the humidity with his fey, tail-like stick. We quickly learn that this is all facade, first realizing things may be remiss when he bribes an official moments after landing. The transition from this foppish entrance to the misery of his end, coated in a sticky slime of oil, his body destroyed, remains utterly shocking a half century after the film premiered.

Similarly, Yves Montand’s transition from Mario the playboy, comporting himself as a kind of sycophant to Jo, to the one who most clearly articulates, embraces and yet overcomes his fear of death, is a remarkable cinematic performance. It’s far from subtle that it is when Mario relaxes his fears that he is in fact the most vunerable.

It is the richness of these and the other supporting characters that makes the astonishing second half of the film so compelling. We travel over rugged terrain, delivering cans of highly explosive materials so unstable that even a bumpy road could set them off. Certain rote tricks are used to elevate tension – the scene where a small half-bridge must be used to turn a sharp angle is a tour-de-force moment that has been copied numerous times. Yet it is often forgotten how quickly Clousot is to circumvent our expectations, often the most tense moments result in our characters making it through fine, yet with a whiff of tobacco blown off a rolling paper we lose two of our main leads offscreen. It is this balance, between creating almost excruciating tension and matter-of-fact tragedy that WAGES continues to affect to this day.

Despite knowing almost every beat of the film, having seen it numerous times, I still found my heart racing with this recent viewing. With impeccable performances, stunning production design and a simple plot that almost masks an underpinning of great philosophical and existential sophistication. The subtle touches of tone, with the aboriginals staring at the billowing smoke, the giddy-yet-tragic waltz crosscut at the end, make this film all the more extraordinary. WAGES OF FEAR is, quite simply, a masterpiece.

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The print showing at TIFF Bell Lightbox has a title card indicating that it’s a 35mm print struck by Criterion, using the same digital master as their Blu-Ray release. The film is in remarkable shape, with only a few scenes suffering from scratches or damage. Unfortunately, at the prescreening we were subjected to some delays, black screens and jumps in action as the projectionist didn’t quite have a handle on how to present the film properly. I’m sure these issues will be resolved in time for public presentation, and to see such a film in such a venue makes up for any hiccups encountered.

THE WAGES OF FEAR is screening as part of The Wages of Fear: The Films of Henri-Georges Clouzot, a complete retrospective on France’s own “Master of Suspense” that will run from October 13 to November 29, 2011 at TIFF Bell Lightbox.