Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Film's first detective film - 1911 - Le trust, ou les batailles de l’argent - The Trust, or The Battles for Money - Louis Feuillade

Too often, there are works of art that fade into obscurity which deserve far greater recognition. Several months ago, when Film: Ab Initio began exploring ‘Film’s Forgotten Decade’ (i.e. the period between The Great Train Robbery and The Birth of a Nation), we speculated that there would be a good number of films that may deserve greater attention, whether for their high quality or achieving a particular milestone.
                As we near the end of this Forgotten Decade, it is clear that there are a good number of films that are at least the equal of any ‘canonised’ film (when we reach the end of 1913, we will return to this topic in a lot more detail).  Le trust, ou les batailles de l’argent is a film with several milestones: it is the the first detective film, the first thriller, the first corporate espionage film, perhaps even the first film noir.
It is also an outstanding film that sees Feuillade experimenting with this new cinematic genre that will lead to his classics, Fantomas, Les Vampires and Judex. Given the lengthy running times of these three seminal works (Les Vampires, for example, is six and a half hours long); Le trust, ou les batailles de l’argent, which is only twenty five minutes long, serves as an insightful introduction into Feuillade’s oeuvre.
The film is also notable for its introduction of the actor René Navarre, who plays detective Julien Kieffer and will go on to play Fantomas. His arrival on screen (see image above) heralds the creation of the modern conception of a male movie star. Although we have seen Max Linder dominate the camera with his charismatic on screen presence, his comedic creations serve as a blueprint for the like of Chaplin and Keaton. In Navarre’s suave exterior, immaculate dress sense and dramatic acting range, we can see the precedent for the like of James Cagney, James Stewart, Cary Grant and many others.
Interestingly, the first detective film’s detective is a corrupt, scheming villain who uses underhand tactics to undermine his client’s chief competitor. His subtle dastardliness allows the film to employ several of its key plot devices without descending into melodrama. For example, when he walks into a room with his hat, a cigarette and an exorbitant amount of swagger (see image below), there is no suggestion that his character is about to place a toxic gas in a vase that will render his victim unconscious.
Le trust, ou les batailles de l’argent has a most unusual plot. The film involves the detective Julien Kieffer helping the industrialist Jacob Berwick spy on his rival Darbois in order to steal Darbois’ discovery of a formula to manufacture artificial rubber. This is the earliest example of a film that is based around corporate espionage; surprisingly, the film transcends its plot and proves to be compelling viewing.              
This is because Feuillade employs a number of devices that one would expect to find in detective fiction (it is worth remembering that Sherlock Holmes was created in 1887 and that the Golden Age of Detective Fiction is still a decade away). There is cross-dressing, mistaken identity, double-crossing, kidnapping and even invisible ink. All of these are conventions  that we anticipate when we encounter a ‘detective film’, but it worth noting how novel such ideas would have seemed to contemporary audiences; the plot is constructed in a fluid manner that allows the film to captivate the modern audience as well.
The film lacks a moral centre, and is all the more interesting for undertaking such a bold decision. Although Darbois and his secretary are the victims of Kieffer’s plotting; the film’s opening shot of Darbois, with his bulging eyes and expensive surroundings (see image below) ensure the audience do not identify either him or his secretary as the protagonists of this film. In fact, the setting reminds us one of the great early cinematic villains, The Wheat King in D.W. Griffith’s Corner of Wheat.
This reference leads us to our first comparison of this decade’s two great directors. Thus far, we have seen that Griffith has an intuitive grasp of iconic visual scenes. Whether it is the rolling barrel in The Adventures of Dollie, the corm smothering the Wheat King in Corner in Wheat or the repeated image of the Confederate flag in The House with Closed Shutters, Griffith has proved himself capable of conjuring some of early silent cinema’s most iconic images.
 And if there is a weakness in Le trust, ou les batailles de l’argent, it would be that it is slightly over-reliant on telegrams and letters to move the plot forwars. However, this device is manipulated to give the film its key twist, which may not have been possible without the repeated use of letters and telegrams.
Feuillade though, is also capable of creating iconic scenes and images. In this film alone, the sending of a telegram and particularly the moment where Berwick and his men don their black masks to hide their identity from Bremond (see image below). Griffith has continued the Lumiere Brothers’ exploration of realism, whereas Feuillade has continued Méliès’ exploration of the fantastical.
Returning to the earlier point, although Griffith has proven himself to be a master of creating iconic scenes and images, I would argue that Feuillade has a stronger grasp of plotting and storytelling. Both Le trust, ou les batailles de l’argent and The Fairy of the Surf have a cumulative effect that few films manage from any era.  
Availability: Unfortunately, the increasing length of films means that it is less and less likely that any films will be available on Youtube. To compound this bad news, the only place that the film can be found is on the Gaumont Treasures DVD, which retails at $79.99. 
I will keep my eyes glued to Youtube - as soon as this film is uploaded I will embed it on this blog post. 


  1. First is always risky, "One of the first..." would be more accurate. For example, Thanhouser made several detective films in 1910 and 1911, including "Love and Law" (Dec. 13, 1910) billed as the first in the "Violet Gray, Detective" series, which consisted of the four titles that also include "The Vote That Counted" (January 13, 1911), "The Norwood Necklace" (February 10, 1911), and "The Court's Decree" (July 7, 1911). I'll bet there are early Griffith films that also fall into this genre.

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