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The business tycoon Nicolas Saccard is nearly ruined by his rival Gunderman, when he tries to raise capital for his company. To push up the price of his stock, Saccard plans a publicity stunt involving the aviator Jacques Hamelin flying across the Atlantic to Guyana and drilling for oil there, much to the dismay of Hamelin's wife Line. While Hamelin is away, Saccard tries to seduce Line. Line finally realizes that she and her husband were pawns in Saccard's scheme, and she accuses him of stock fraud. Written by
Very fluidly shot silent drama, containing an excess of chic and suspense
The introduction to the movie on the UK Masters of Cinema DVD is quite good if spoken with a remarkable French certitude. The film is revealed as being, to a large extent impressionistic, L'Herbier is compared to directors such as Jean Epstein, Germaine Dulac, and Jean Gremillon. This means that the story line, although present, shouldn't be your main anchor for this viewing. It should be the images.
The film, in the main is about money, of course, the two main characters are Saccard and Gunderman, two financiers. Gunderman is a remarkably well dressed prissy man who is a kind of financial magus, like a Rothschild. Saccard owns a bank but he's down the food chain. Gunderman is intent on persecuting Saccard, we're not totally sure why but Gunderman alludes that he likes financial stability and abhors the destabilising nature of financial speculation. If only Gunderman had been advising the US government in the last few years! However to an extent Gunderman is a bit of a hypocrite as he is using rash speculation to annihilate Saccard.
Saccard uses Hamelin, a dare-devil aviator, to restore confidence in his bank. He arranges a publicity stunt, making Hamelin co-vice-chairman of the board and having him fly off in a plane to break the non-stop solo transatlantic flight record. Once in Guyana, Hamelin is then to set up some oil rigs on land he has options on. The cash from this operation will then restore the fortunes of the Banque Universelle, whilst the publicity stunt will move emotional speculation in BU's favour.
It's a two and a half hour film so there is a lot of plot. What's good though is the way the plot is worked. There is an incredible amount of suspense in the movie, it's dragged out until you're left holding tufts of hair. The level of camera-work is also astonishing, when you watch films from this era you're used to pretty static camera. Well l'Herbier is going bonkers with his camera. He has a vertical camera over the top of the Bourse (Paris stock exchange) swinging about in delirium whilst Hamelin readies to fly away. It's like watching cellular bodies under the microscope, all the little bodies polarised around the nucleus of the central dealing table.
There is a swinging shot of a street crowd that made my jaw drop, and I had to rewind. I suppose the most effectual shot for me though was quite a simple one where he let Hamelin's plane fly of the side of the frame. This is cinematic heterodoxy from what I'm aware. Usually with a shot of a plane you will see it disappear as a dot in the distance or the shot will just cut to another. But you feel a sense of loss as the plane flies off, as it's all cut with shots of Hamelin's wife, you feel what she's feeling, with her husband disappearing off for a desperate maniac flight over the abyssal blue ocean.
L'Argent is also a very glamorous movie, some of the costume jewellery on display in this movie is tres chic! The Baronin Sandorf, a very well cast lady (Brigitte Helm) who really is a human cobra, plays a minor character with Vicar of Bray leanings. She wears a solid gold headpiece and matching earrings at a party that are almost unreal. There's also some costume jewellery that Saccard gives to Line, the wife of Hamelin, that widen the eyes.
As in the early study for this film L'Herbier's 1921 "Prométhée... banquier", we are shown a banker who literally can't get away from his desk, tied down by phone calls, totally unable to give a desperate woman important human news. The movie is, however, not a paroxysm of anti-capitalist rage, it's more of a gorgeous heady melodrama that tries to have it's cake and eat it. However it does lead one's thoughts in the right direction ultimately.
The one real fault I can find with the movie was the ending 10 minutes which were clumsy. It felt like L'Herbier didn't know how to end his film. The very very last scene saved the day a bit.
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