The horn of plenty which is YouTube has disgorged Marcel L’Herbier’s 1926 Le Vertige / Living Image / The Lady from Petrograd offering his regular personnel and themes in a three act account of jealousy and murder among White Russian emigrés. L’Herbier has plummeted down the movie auteur league table where he was once an object of reverence. His status among the 1920s avant-garde attracted the collaboration of Ivan Mozjoukine and their 1926 version of Pirandello’s Feu Mathias Pascal is among the best work of both. L’Herbier’s most often cited film, the 1924 L’inhumaine comes bathed in reflected glory - the participation in the design by Fernand Legère (and Robert Mallet Stevens, Alberto Cavalcanti and Claude Autant-Lara). It can be seen as a departure point for the fashion photography style that often blights French art cinema - La Glace a trois faces, Marienbad, India Song. When a state of the art reconstruction of L’inhumaine surfaced at Pordenone recently, it was greeted with derision.
L’Herbier did better with Zola’s L’Argent where they found room for Brigitte Helm and
Alfred Abel and the director’s two part adaptation of the Gaston Leroux (“Phantom of the Opera”) Rouletabille adventures, Le mystére de la chambre jaune and particularly La parfum de la dame en noir. However his sound films, which continued into the seventies, were generally dismissed,even if the war time La nuit fantastique with Micheline Presle and Fernand Gravet was rated suitably entertaining. I enjoyed his all star 1940 Cocteau adaptation La comédie de bonheur (Michel Simon invents pistachio flavour phonograph disks).
I could only speculate what Le vertige was going to provide.
It kicks off during the Russian Revolution, the setting for L’Herbier’s 1938 La
tragédie impériale / Rasputin. The mob is rampaging through the streets, the light catching the flashing of their sabres buring through the superimpositions (curiously I’d seen that earlier in the week with the 1932 Von Sternberg An American Tragedy).
Bearded General Roger Karl’s womenfolk peer at the activity at pavement level through the windows of his mansion. However the General has been outraged by discovering wife Emmy Lynn’s treasured photo of her in the company of her friend, regular L’Herbier leading man Jacques Catelain (PICTURED BELOW).
Meanwhile Lieutenant Catelain is dashing to the scene through the snowscape. Catching sight of his officers’ epaulettes intimidates the hostile tavern crowd. When he arrives, the jealous General declares martial law and puts a bullet into him. Taking Emily and aide Andrews Englemann, Karl sleigh rides off into the night.
Older, the couple settle on the Cote d’azur where, as we know from Camerini’s Rotaie and the Gloria Swanson - Laurence Olivier Perfect Understanding, speed boat racing is all the go. The spectator crowd mob the winner who turns out to be Catelain (just suck it up - no flashback to twins separated at birth in this picture) who Emily is astounded to find in the throng round the hotel rotating doors.
These living dead man films were a feature of the period. Fedor Otzep’s 1929 Zhivoj trup/ The Living Corpse with Pudovkin vies with Feu Mathias Pascal as the best. Griffith made an Enoch Arden. De Mille made The Whispering Chorus and Victor Fleming did the now lost The Way of All Flesh with Emil Jannings.
The resemblance provides the best section of the film with everyone gobsmacked by the situation, including Catelain who finds what appears to be his own picture in the locket Emily caries about and her fixated with his portrait on the wall. The general, his wife and our hero are all invited to the reception run by his late-sleeping diplomat colleague Gaston Jacquet (La tête d’un homme) and they have to take away Karl’s pistol when he spots Catelain.
Part three moves the action to Karl’s coastal manor where the guard dogs are barking and Catelain has breached the walls. This time he has brough a pistol of his own and Emily terrified empies the bullets out of Karl’s revolver but things don’t go to plan as the men pace out the distance between them.
Catelain had a long career. He has a small part in the Tyrone Power The Razor’s Edge and he comes out of Le vertige better than he does L’inhumaine or the 1924 La Galerie des monstres which he directed for L’Herbier. Emmy Lynn faded rapidly. The one who does register here, as in his other films, like 1932’s La bête errante, is shaven headed Andews Englemann who gets to do his bits of business in solo shots - smirking as Lynn witnesses the demise of her beloved, ending the film removing the cap on his bald head to cross himself and, particularly striking, amazed at confronting percieved Lieutenant Catelain, who he had seen his employer murder. He snaps to attention and salutes. Englemann did get to do the lead in a 1936 British Toilers of the Sea. He merits a special place of his own in film history.
Otherwise, the men with three piece suits, black lips and slicked down hair register as a drab lot but the women in Jacques Manuel’s tapering high fashion outfits with elegant draped sleeves are more impressively presented. Lynn’s giant feather fan is a treat. The director keeps on halting the action to pose them in Lucien Aguettand - Mallet Stevens’ decorated doorways or against their rectangular patterned partitions.
Le vertige is not one of L’Herbier’s or the period’s best films. Admirers of Nicholas Ray, Chantal Akerman or Ulli Seidl will not be impressed and the copy is muddy and has untranslated French captions, though they got the speed right. However to anyone who absorbed the Cinémathèque esthetic at its peak, this is an irresistible reminder of the passion for film which was one of the great experiences for those swept up by it.
There are two copies on YouTube. The first IF YOU CLICK HERE has French inter-titles and Spanish subtitles. The second is a copy with French inter-titles and Russian subtitles and can be found IF YOU CLICK HERE