Thanks to Émile Zola’s 1891 novel of the same name, director Marcel L’Herbier (along with Arthur Bernède who wrote the screenplay) was inspired to adapt this cautionary tale of money worshipping, coming up with a magnificent silent film that speaks volumes about the human condition.
Fortunately, the recent restoration by Centre National de la Cinématogaphie is now on DVD, allowing the rest of the world to discover or reassess this cinematic masterwork. In the edition currently available from Eureka Video (cross-link below), there is also a second disc chock-a-block full of fascinating extras including Jean Dréville’s “making of” documentary, Brigitte Helm (the seductively sultry Baroness Sandorf) arriving for the shoot, a profile of the director: Marcel L’Herbier: Poet of the Silent Art, plus a few screen tests and sound techniques demonstration. Topping everything off is an 80-page booklet of photos, essays and interviews—a treasure trove of value and enlightenment for all lovers of the craft.
While the film is faithful to the director’s wishes (based on an earlier restoration and not Jean Sapène’s 1929 release for Cinéromans), a considerable and most welcome difference is the improvised piano track performed on the fly by Jean-François Zygel (the accomplished pianist-composer further discusses the film and his art on the bonus DVD).
The musical underpinnings are at one with the action of the Paris stock exchange (“La Bourse de Paris”), Banque Universelle, the characters’ moods as well as the director’s magnificent narrative technique and style. A hint of J.S. Bach seems ideal for the palatial digs of don’t-get-mad-get-even financier, Alphonse Gunderman (done up with a wonderfully cool detachment by Alfred Abel—the ever-present docile dogs wonderfully at odds with his unstoppable desire to rid the planet of his perception of greed and corruption). When inventor/pilot Jacques Hamelin salutes the admiring gendarmes while the French flag flutters proudly just prior to takeoff for his record-smashing transatlantic flight, Zygel cleverly slips in a melodic echo of La Marseillaise (as Hamelin, Henry Victor wears his facial stitches with convincing stoicism; when his deteriorating vision renders him nearly blind, with arms outstretched, popped-out eyes and towering physique, it would be completely understandable if he was taken for Frankenstein’s monster). The clock strikes noon with a series of octave chimes. Line Hamelin’s moment of murderous intent is dramatically turned up a notch as a rare bit of silence is shattered by the keyboard in an unforgettable burst of pianistic power (Marie Glory’s portrayal of Line is passionately compelling as the ambitious wife who forces her husband into a deal with the devil only to become a momentarily rich, emotionally bankrupt pawn in the proverbial match between good money and bad).
The other musical treat comes in the form of a silent jazz band (curiously all sitting and missing a bass player in the flapper-accompanying group) that has been employed for a lavish party for Line given by her tormentor and avaricious bank director, Nicolas Saccard (one of the most emotionally dynamic silent-film performances of all time from master-of-the-visage, Pierre Alcover—only his Napoleon-mimicking, hand-in-the-suit-coat shot mars the characterization). In nearly perfect synchronization with the toe tappin’ musicians and dancing beauties, Zygel’s jazzy interventions are most certainly in time and in tune with the zesty atmosphere.
Beyond the music and top-notch cast, L’Herbier and his cinematographers (Louis Berte, Jules Kruger, Jean Letort) show us Saccard’s opportunistic financial rise and fall with a smorgasbord of views and angles that keeps the eye as engaged as the ear. The subtle use of shadows (from Jacques’ ascent—momentarily weakened when his flight gear vanishes impossibly—to fame and fortune through the lantern-show reflection of the Baroness’ guests gambling with cards while she and Saccard play their own high-stakes game next door) and angles (a severe “up” angle when the judge announces Saccard’s fate; numerous overhead aspects of the trading floor at La Bourse, making the frantic buy-sell mayhem below seem like one unstoppable roulette wheel) make this production required viewing for anyone who purports to be a filmmaker today.
For, if we don’t know where we’ve been and learned from the past, how can we improve in the future? Or is Zola’s message that systemic greed can be punished but not cured at the root of present-day con artists such as Bernie Madoff and Earl Jones? Did either one of them ever invest some of their own time in L’Argent? JWR