One of the ways Marcel L’Herbier’s L’Argent blazed a trail for cinema was in its unashamed updating of literary source material. It is commonplace now for a novel or play to be mined for its plot while leaving the inconvenience of the period setting behind, but L’Herbier’s 1928 treatment of Zola’s 1891 novel outraged members of the French dramatic establishment. Certainly the modernisation is opportunistic, with Guyana substituted for the Middle East as the secondary location, in order that the character of Jacques Hamelin can be not only a pioneering engineer but also a daring transatlantic aviator. But the central subject is, of course, not adventure but money, not Guyana but Paris, and a contemporary setting surely helped L’Herbier to give his story bite.
Dramatically, it remains a distinctively 19th-century story, of a pure-hearted young woman at the mercy of greed and lust, her dashing husband led astray by his ambition. It is hard now to see the Jacques character as heroic or glamorous, perhaps because the appeal of Henry Victor’s style of manly suffering has faded. Line Hamelin is played with sass by Marie Glory (now at 103 one of the last surviving silent stars), but the real fun comes when the bad guys are on screen. Pierre Alcover and Alfred Abel are highly entertaining as the rival financiers Saccard and Gunderman, contrasting personifications of greed, violent and icy respectively. But even they are outdone by supporting actors. Brigitte Helm (of Metropolis fame) is the slinkily depraved Baronin Sandorf, writhing in satin and feathers, who will do what it takes to support her gambling habit, even to the extent of allowing the grotesque Saccard to free up her assets on the zebra-skin rug. Best of all, in an eye-catching minor role, is the pioneering lunatic and junkie Antonin Artaud, inventor of the Theatre of Cruelty.
The film is made with more vigour than precision. To a large extent, it seems to have been filmed on the hoof, though prepared with great care and planning. The settings (often spectacular) are arranged and lit, the actors go for it, and the cameras do their best to capture it as it happens, often sacrificing clarity for excitement. I am inclined to take the view that cinematographer Jules Kruger did a valiant job just getting this big mess of action on film. The approximate focus, bumpy camera movements, and inconsistency of lighting and texture make L’Argent incoherent as a visual work of art, but this is perhaps a small price to pay for the energy, scale and vividness of the scenes captured. Visually, L’Argent is a splendid study of the temples of power, animated with considerable narrative energy. For spectacular set-pieces L’Herbier took over the Bourse, Le Bourget airport, and the Place de l’Opéra, without stinting on the extras. The swift succession of lively and varied scenes and tableaux (often just a few seconds, and the more effective for their brevity) are edited together with considerable fluency and zest into an enjoyable yarn.
Ultimately, I don’t think that L’Argent works in the way L’Herbier intended it to. The film doesn’t present a very deep or enlightening critique: it is as unsubtle as L’Herbier’s description of it as ‘a fierce denunciation of money’ suggests. But it does vividly evoke how the wide world of commerce depends on the relatively small world of the financial entrepreneurs, how deceit and guile alike underlie financial stability. Further insight from the past into our current woes? Well, there are some interesting suggestions early on about the relations between propriety, public opinion, and financial success. But in the end, I think L’Argent is too successful as entertainment to work as a didactic piece. The moral is presumably supposed to be that love of money is wicked, but Alcover plays the villain with such straightforward brio that it is hard to despise his greed as we are meant to. Baronin Sandorf is supposed to be another case-study in the depraving effects of love of money, but she seems to enjoy her vice so much that it comes to look rather enviable. What the film actually seems to end up showing us is that cool pursuit of money triumphs over vulgar love of money, but that vulgar love of money might be more fun.