Reel Rumbles: “The Wages of Fear” vs. “The Passion of the Joan of Arc”
For many, film is only ever thought about from an American perspective. To be fair, it isn’t unfounded. Hollywood has long been a dominant force in cinema since its conception as an industry. But the United States isn’t the only country to produce fantastic films that shook up the world. Nations such as France have contributed to creating some fantastic and brilliant films. Now we take a look at two titans of classic French cinema to see which is the best.
It’s a battle by the Rhine. A trial of body and spirit. It’s The Wages of Fear taking on The Passion of the Joan of Arc. Que le meilleur film gagner!!!
Round One: Story/Script
In a roundabout way, both of these films are about a trial. Both films test their characters mettle and mental will to survive the circumstances brought before them. Though one is much more literal than the other, there is no denying a resounding theme of a resistance through trials featured in both films.
The Wages of Fear (1953) opens in the Mexican town of Las Piedras. A town surrounded by desert, it is utterly isolated from the world. With the routes, out-of-town being fairly expensive and only one major oil company being the major employer, many come to the town never to leave. This description matches the four protagonists of the film. The Frenchmen Mario and Jo (Yves Montand and Charles Vanel, respectively) become fast friends sharing in their mutual experiences of having lived in France. Mario’s roommate is the Italian Luigi (Folco Lulli) who grows angered by his roommate’s newfound friend and his extreme arrogance. The quiet Bimba (Peter van Eyck) is also one of the known townies, molded by his father’s murder at the hands of Nazi Germany.
When the one of oil fields run by Southern Oil Company explodes into flame, the company requires four men to do the suicidal task of carrying two truckloads of a highly explosive chemical up a precarious mountain road to cap the oil well and quell the flames. Mario, Jo, Luigi, and Bimba are recruited to do this impossible task. The film follows their journey up this precarious path as they slowly bond during this dangerous task. The audience’s tension shakes and bobbles just like the ever-present jerry cans in the bed of the trucks. As one character notes, a slight pothole could send them sky-high. Though the task is eventually completed, the losses are great.
The Passion of the Joan of Arc (1928) opens in an English-occupied Normandy in the later years of the Hundred Year’s War. The titular Joan (Maria Falconetti) was a great leader of the French forces in the war leading many victories for their army against the English. Having been captured, Joan is now being brought to trial for heresy by French clergymen loyal to the English. Joan claims to have been entrusted by God with her mission to drive the English from France. Despite psychological and physical anguish, Joan endures through her judge’s pressures and refuses to recant her beliefs. Even after forging a letter from King Charles of France, Joan does not give in. It is only after the threat of burning at the stake that Joan agrees to change her beliefs. Yet even that does that not hold as her faith in God prevails leading her to becoming one of history’s greatest martyrs.
Much credit is to be given to Joan of Arc for being able to deliver such a moving tale with no spoken dialogue or sound. The story of Joan’s trial and faith has set an example for all of cinema to follow in the many years since. Very minimalist in nature, the film does all it needs to capture the audience’s attention and deliver an emotional story of faith. Despite Joan’s unfortunate end, her victory is all too clear.
The Wages of Fear is almost a dark inverse of this story. The four Europeans are pushed by circumstance to take on an impossibly dangerous task. The audience is on their toes the entirety of the second half of the film waiting for the characters to go up in smoke. Each character is given solid time to develop and be worthy of the audience’s passion. Yet the losses in this film leave one with a terrible feeling in their stomach. There is no nobility in the pains endured as Joan’s were.
This darker tale ultimately makes for a more satisfying story. Though Joan is a close second, Wages of Fear’s narrative is gripping and compelling and delivers a darkly satisfying conclusion. The final shot of the film is unforgettable. The emotional roller-coaster ride of a film gives Wages the advantage.
Advantage: The Wages of Fear
Round Two: Performances
If there is one film that defines the power of an actor’s performance, it is The Passion of the Joan of Arc. To say that Reneé Falconetti delivers would be an understatement. Her turn as Joan is brilliant in every sense of the word. Without being able to use spoken dialogue and only the narrow frames provided by the camera work of the time, she delivers a moving performance centered on her face. And what a performance it is. Every frame features her utilizing every extent of her ability to show emotion. Her eyes carry the depth of the human soul as she expresses the sorrow and trials that she endures. Not a single false note is hit in her performance from beginning to end. If there is such a thing as perfection in acting, this is it.
The rest of the cast of Joan of Arc is not lacking. Though, not reaching the heights of Falconetti, the supporting cast does a good job with their characters. The various judges do a good job with the jeers and vigorous questioning of Joan. The false preacher Nicolas Loyseleur (Maurice Schutz) is reasoned with his balanced portrayal of a man attempting to do what he sees as right, even with the use of deception and other sinful actions. Schutz captures the subtle ambiance of the role that helps complement Falconetti’s shining moral paragon.
The Wages of Fear features great performances as well, though. Yves Montand brings to life the young and arrogant Mario. He carries an aura of ease and command that the other men do not have. Yet Montand also conveys a vulnerability and pain that helps create a balanced and nuanced character. His dynamic with Charles Vanel’s Jo and Folco Lulli’s Luigi carries much of the drama of the film.
Charles Vanel brings to life the idea of a former player fallen to his age. He carries the air of arrogance and command throughout the first half of the film that makes him a natural complement to Montand’s Mario. Yet as the film progresses, Jo reveals the cowardice that he has developed into his old age. Vanel never makes it feel cheap or convenient to the story instead delivering a complex character that makes you sympathetic despite his darker tendencies. Folco Lulli’s Luigi is also a solid performance. He conveys Luigi’s overall jovial nature quite well and hopes for a better life.
The weakest of the four main performances is Peter van Eyck as Bimba. Though not bad by any means, his character’s defining characteristic is pain. Eyck does a good job of portraying his brooding nature, but his character doesn’t evolve much. The rest of the supporting cast is also merely serviceable. Véra Clouzot’s Linda is very one-note as is William Tubbs as the American Bill O’Brien.
Though The Wages of Fear features some compelling performances from its leading men that all complement each other well, none top Falconetti. The dynamic between the leading characters is very well done and life-like in The Wages of Fear and creates a perhaps overall more solid cast than Joan of Arc. But Reneé Falconetti’s performance is one of a kind and defines the entire film.
Advantage: The Passion of the Joan of Arc
Round Three: Direction
The Passion of the Joan of Arc is directed by the brilliant Carl Theodor Dreyer. Though inhibited by the technology of the time as well as a limited budget, Dreyer captures all of the emotion necessary to deliver the film’s story. Though the range of the camera is limited, Dreyer fills each frame with raw emotion and importance. Not a moment is wasted in the film and Dreyer helped draw out an amazing performance from Falconetti, though the methodology of which is up to debate. Regardless, Dreyer’s meticulous nature helped create a brilliant piece of film history.
Henri-Georges Clouzot is the director of The Wages of Fear. Clouzot’s direction is simply amazing. There are many notable shots within the film that are a beautiful picture of contrasting black and white. The oil upon the skin of Mario and Jo in the films final quarter is simply beautiful and captures the essence of the film. Clouzot also does a great job of racketing up the tension throughout the film, drawing apprehension and unease with every frame. The use of actors all using their native language throughout the film was also a brilliant move. It brings a weight of authenticity and realism to the film that helps the story resound deeply within the audience’s hearts.
Both films direction is wonderful. Clouzot and Dreyer are masterful directors and helped create resounding films full of raw and genuine emotion. They stand as some of the greatest directors of all time. Yet in a clash of the two, the slight advantage goes to Clouzot. Dreyer’s meticulous nature is not to be discredited and helps create a brilliant film. However Clouzot’s ability to ratchet up the dramatic tension to a boiling point creates a tense picture that draws the audience in from start to finish.
Advantage: The Wages of Fear
Bonus Round: Clash of Lives
In a true battle of films, a battle of wills must occur. To measure which characters are overall more successful, we will measure what happens if either character stepped into the situation of the other film.
How would the Joan of Arc do if tasked with driving a truck full of explosive material up a dangerous quarry? Joan’s lack of driving skills would certainly make the task quite difficult. She would more than likely sit dumb-founded behind the wheel questioning how her life had come to that point. Joan might even attempt to use her sword to smack the truck into motion. After that likely failed to produce results, her face would become a web of tears and sorrow as she sat for the rest of time. She certainly wouldn’t get blown-up but nor would she get the money needed to escape her miserable life in a small Mexican town.
What would happen if Mario, Luigi, Jo, and Bimba were captured by the English and forced to admit their sins before the clergy? Where Joan held on in her glorious and shining faith, the boys of Wages of Fear would likely be more resourceful. They would lie and say whatever to escape their on-coming deaths. When the English decided to proceed with their execution regardless (they are stinking Frenchies and Italians after all), they would come up with a way to escape. Luigi and Bimba would likely find a way to blow a way out of their cells, though getting caught in the explosion. The freed Mario and Jo would run from captivity until a charging English horseman trampled Jo. Mario would completely escape from the English and leap for joy, despite his fallen friends. He would jump about until accidently falling from the Normandy cliff side and to his death.
Though the European workers succeeded where Joan did not in defying the English, they all ultimately faced an untimely end. Joan didn’t accomplish anything, but she did ultimately live.
Advantage: Joan of Arc
And the winner is…
Dreyer’s film is a moving piece characterized by the brilliant performance by Reneé Falconetti. Between the two films, Falconetti may be the singular greatest quality. Her performance will always be remembered throughout the history of film. However The Wages of Fear is expertly crafted by Henri-Georges Clouzot to be a tense character thriller. The audience feels every rise and fall of the jerry cans in the back of the characters trucks. The boiling tension that at any moment death could come underlies the conflict and camaraderie between the European workers. Dreyer’s film is a wonderful single character piece but it cannot defeat The Wages of Fear.