L'Argent (1928) Review

In 1928, the cinema was in its third decade. Feature-length films had been made for just over twenty years, and the greatest directors of the era (amongst others Griffith, then a little later Hitchcock, Murnau, the Anthony Asquith who made A Cottage on Dartmoor) had taken visual storytelling to a a level of considerable sophistication. But change was coming. The part-talkie The Jazz Singer had premiered in the USA the previous October, although it would not reach Europe until this year. Sound was on its way. Some directors resisted the inevitable: Murnau and Chaplin made non-talking features (with synchronised music soundtracks) into the 1930s. (Due to Murnau's untimely death, he never made a film with spoken dialogue on its soundtrack.) You can see Asquith acknowledging it in what was the part-talkie sequence of his film, though the soundtrack is lost. Hitchcock, on the other hand, embraced the new medium, as can be seen and heard in his and Britain's first talkie, Blackmail.

Silents were still made in the closing years of the decade, and one of the most significant was L'argent (Money), directed in France by Marcel L'Herbier. A free, contemporary adaptation of Emile Zola's novel, it was a huge production, going over budget by two million francs from its original budget of three million. (It should not be confused with Robert Bresson's final film of the same title, from 1983, which derives from a Tolstoy short story.)

The film begins in the Bourse, Paris's stock exchange. The Caledonian Eagle company is faltering. Behind it is the Banque Universelle, run by Nicolas Saccard (Pierre Alcover). In bitter rivalry with Gunderman (Alfred Abel), Saccard tries to raise his stock price by organising a publicity stunt: the aviator Jacques Hamelin (Henry Victor) will fly across the Atlantic to Guyana, to drill for oil there. Hamelin's wife Line (Marie Glory, still alive as of this writing at age 103) is opposed to this, but it goes ahead. When Saccard tries to seduce her, she realises what kind of game he is playing...

If L'argent is an epic – which it is in terms of budget and running time – it's an urban epic. Spaces, though large ones, are enclosed, not wide open: there are relatively few exteriors in this film. Some of those large spaces were huge sets built for the film. Others were real: L'Herbier obtained permission to shoot in the Bourse for three days when it was closed, and he filled the place with two thousand extras, many of whom are displayed in a very high overhead shot near the beginning. The cast was a high-powered one for its day, importing German actors Alfred Abel and Brigitte Helm (who had both featured in Metropolis - Helm makes for a distinctly elegant villain) to work alongside a mostly French cast. In a supporting role is the playwright and actor, Theatre of Cruelty exponent Antonin Artaud.

Compared to some of the later silents from directors referred to above, L'argent does seem a little conventional. L'Herbier doesn't go for Hitchcock, Murnau and Asquith's tendency to pare down intertitles as far as possible (or remove them altogether, as Murnau eventually did). Nor does he go in for Hitchcockian trick shots, dissolves and high angles apart, or the kind of Soviet-influenced rapid cutting and montage that Asquith uses. More (relatively) self-effacing his style may be, L'Herbier's film – and it's the only one of his that I have seen – impresses by its sheer architectural competence, the ease with which it tells its relatively complex story, and the mastery of pace so that its two and three quarter hours do not seem overlong. Maybe this is conventional in the sense that what was relatively new in 1928 has been absorbed into the mainstream of filmmaking in the decades since.

You can watch a film like L'argent nowadays and, eighty years after it was made, leaving aside its being black and white and silent, and the inevitable period fashions, it still seems quite modern in its essence, as a piece of filmmaking. It was a new one on me, so thanks are due to Eureka and Masters of Cinema for releasing it for British and other English-speaking audiences.


L'Argent is number 40 in Eureka's Masters of Cinema series, released as a two-disc edition in PAL format, encoded for all regions. It is derived from a French edition by Carlotta, with English subtitles added. The film was cut and re-edited before it went on general release, but the version on this DVD is the director's preferred, and restored, cut.

The film is transferred in a ratio of 1.33:1. Just as importantly, it is transferred at the correct speed (20 frames per second), a constant bugbear for anyone interested in silent cinema. As for the transfer itself, it's doubtful that this could look any better for home viewing. The source material was a fine-grain print struck from the original negative. The results do look a little soft and there is some contrast flickering, but nothing untoward or distracting.

Jean-François Zygel's piano score is available in Dolby Digital 5.0 (not 5.1 as it says on the menu) or 2.0 (analogue Dolby Surround). There's very little to choose between them, though to my ears the track sounds a little fuller and warmer in 2.0. There is some left-right separation in the score. The surround speakers are only used for the crowd noises which begin the film. The intertitles are in French, with optional subtitles in English. This gives you four possible combinations of soundtrack and intertitle/subtitle options, and all four are listed on the menu. The subtitles translate onscreen text as well as the intertitles and seem pretty accurate, though one of them (“AGENDA Raising of Capital”) stays on screen for a very long time.

Zygel also gives a brief introduction (2:45), rather self-consciously shot as if he is in a film frame, with sprocket holes down both vertical sides and the occasional fake splice jump. He talks in French, with optional English subtitles.

The extras continue on Disc Two, beginning with “Autour L'Argent” (40:11), which must be one of the earliest “making-ofs” in existence. Twenty-year-old Jean Dréville shot the film on set: what we see is the footage, with a music score and Dréville's voiceover, added in 1971. This is fascinating stuff, watching L'Herbier at work with his actors, the building of the massive sets. As Dréville says, he was young and daring, and you can see him trying techniques out such as dissolves, which he did in camera. Dréville also shot actuality footage of Brigitte Helm arriving in Paris by train for the shoot (1:19). This is presented entirely silent. Also entirely silent are screen tests (17:15) for several members of the cast: Alice Cocéa, Madeleine Renaud, Gaby Morlay, Samson Fainsilber, Kissa Kouprine, Jules Berry and Yvette Guilbert and Pierre Alcover together. Inevitably, all this archive footage shows some damage, although it has been restored as much as possible.

“Marcel L'Herbier: Poet of the Silent Art” (54:07) is a documentary made in 2007, in French with optional English subtitles. It's commendably thorough, beginning with a visit to the French Film Archive where L'Herbier's films (often in original nitrate prints) are held. Jean-Pierre Cot, the Head of Restoration, worked with L'Herbier as an assistant, and tells us how they showed him a recovered scene from one of his films. L'Herbier was then an elderly man with failing sight: he had to sit in the front row and occasionally use a magnifying glass. (He died in 1979 at the age of eighty-nine.) We also see extracts from L'Herbier's other silent films, including L'inhumaine from 1924 and Feu Mathias Pascal from 1926. We also hear from historians of silent cinema and also L'Herbier's daughter Marie-Ange.

Also on the disc, Jean-François Zygel discusses accompanying silent cinema (7:18), which of course varied from cinema to cinema. Scores were rarely written for films – the usual exceptions being at prestigious premieres – so small orchestras or solo pianists improvised. Zygel shows us a few of the standard techniques and motifs they had available. This item is presented in a similarly self-conscious manner to Zygel's introduction on Disc One.

As I say above, sound had arrived in the cinema by the time L'Argent was released. For the Paris premiere run, L'Herbier prepared some 78rpm records to play sound effects during the central Stock Exchange scene: crowds and aircraft noise. The final item on the disc (3:34) plays the scene both with these embellishments and silent.

As always with a Masters of Cinema release, the package includes a substantial booklet. For L'Argent this is eighty pages long and perfect-bound, containing an essay by Professor of French film Richard Abel, extracts from interviews with L'Herbier and contemporary reviews of L'Argent.

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Last updated: 19/07/2018 22:49:09

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