Haceldama (1919) A Silent Film Review

Julien Duvivier’s debut as director, this is a revenge story with a strong dose of the American west. Two mysterious men arrive in a remote area of France and both seem to be on a quest to harm a wealthy recluse with dark secrets.

Home Media Availability: Free streaming via Henri.

How do you say “pardner” in French?

Before getting started, let’s talk about language. The Cinémathèque française has made this film, along with many others, available for free online streaming but there are no English subtitles. French cinema fan Guillaume Bouqueau kindly reached out and offered to translate the title cards of this film for me and even included explanatory notes for little details that might evade non-French viewers. He also generously offered to let me post this document with my review, so that even more English speakers can see and enjoy this picture. You can access it here as a Google Doc. Enjoy and thank you, Guillaume!

Way out west by way of France.

So, Julien Duvivier. His reputation these days rests on directing the crime picture Pépé le Moko (1937), an atmospheric crime picture set in Algiers and famous remade as, well, Algiers in 1938 with imported Hollywood hotties Charles Boyer and Heddy Lamarr. There’s a lot more to Duvivier’s sound career, of course, but Pépé le Moko, in addition to being ridiculously fun to say out loud, is the most popular frame of reference.

But Duvivier had been directing for a decade when sound came to the movies and his early work is not discussed very often. Haceldama, his feature debut, is treated as a curio. Most reviews mention its curious American west trappings but dismiss it as unworthy compared to his later catalog.

Worth a view or leave it be?

I don’t pretend to be a particular expert on Duvivier’s filmography but I am a huge fan of his old boss and silent French serials in general. Duvivier started as an assistant and one of the directors he worked for was Louis Feuillade, undisputed master of the serial picture and director of such beloved classics as Les Vampires and Judex. So, I will be approaching this film as a fan of 1910s French serials more than as a Duvivier expert. Let’s see if that makes a difference. (Divivier also worked with Marcel L’Herbier, by the way.)

After introducing the characters formally in the opening credits, the picture presents its central mystery: Landry Smith (Séverin-Mars) has buried himself in a remote mansion with his ward, Minnie (Suzy Lilé) and seems to carry a deep, dark secret. He is introduced shooting himself up with drugs and he seems to be wracked with guilt.

Sinister happenings…

Meanwhile, two men arrive in the neighborhood and both have their attention fixed on Smith. Bill “the Wolf” Stanley (Camille Bert) is a cowboy with a penchant for chugging whiskey, shooting any stray farm animals he sees and picking fistfights with random strangers. Jean Didier (Jean Lorette) is a young man whose main character trait seems to be gloom. Lorette’s performance lays it on a bit thick but we soon learn that he has good reason to mourn: Jean’s father killed himself and Smith is somehow involved.

(The film does not quite play fair with us as it shows just a few words of the letter Jean is reading and concealing the rest. That’s not cricket, you know.)

Menacing letters…

Once they arrive Corrèze, Bill Stanley and Jean Didier set to work on their plans. Neither one of them harbors good thoughts toward Smith and both show an interest in Minnie (Stanley outright assaulting her) but Jean’s intentions seem pure while Stanley can barely go two minutes without shooting or punching something.

The rest of the film is spent shooting and shouting and praying as everyone’s schemes unravel. DA DA DUM!

Yeehaw

Okay, so now we address the bronco in the room: why a cowboy? Well, France had actually produced some pretty darn good, darn bloody westerns earlier in the decade (do see The Railway of Death, it’s excellent) and western trappings were definitely popular, though the country was no longer making its own 100% westerns by 1919.

Haceldama has a lot going on: religious imagery (Haceldama refers to the potter’s field purchased with the silver of Judas Iscariot), Shakespeare quotes, fistfights and a maniac of a villain… Yeah, this is pulp territory. And compared to other French popular fare of the period, this comes up a bit short. It doesn’t have the rapid, shocking gut punch of earlier French westerns. It lacks the addictive quality of a Feuillade serial, though it does match it in anarchic mayhem and colorful villainy. Studio Albatros, the Russian émigré concern, showed the way forward with the serial format in The House of Mystery.

Lots of meaningful stares.

Like the best French serials, this is a story of family, both by blood and adoption, but Haceldama lacks the underlying structural framework or fails to communicate it to the audience. In other words, the legbone is not connection to the thighbone here. It feels like there should be more but it is not clear what that should be.

Essentially, Haceldama is an episode in search of a serial. Like, the second-from-the-last episode where a bunch of stuff has been established but we still need to wrap up the main plot threads. It badly needs some comedy relief and the denouement is a bit disappointing because it simultaneously is predictable and lacks the time to flesh out the backstory that has been hinted at throughout the picture. In other words, it needed to either be three reels shorter or ten reels longer.

My kingdom for someone willing to commit to kitsch.

The acting is kind of a hit or miss affair. Bert and Lorette gnaw on the scenery with relish (more understandable in the case of the former) while Séverin-Mars treats his performance with more seriousness than the material either needs or deserves. Suzy Lilé is fine but isn’t given much to do besides being the classic Beautiful Daughter of the Guy the Hero Wants Revenge Against.

That being said, the film has a unique flavor to it, something is difficult to put into words. The atmosphere of menace is palpable throughout, aided by the wild landscape. The viewer is constantly uneasy as the picture plays, it’s essentially a full feature of waiting for the other shoe to drop. The picture’s major fight scene is undertake with vigor and gore usually reserved for Richard Barthelmess protecting the government mail, which is always appreciated. While the plot isn’t everything that was hinted at or that I hoped for, the ride was still worth taking.

Ernest Torrence would approve.

Let me put this another way: if you are the kind of viewer who considers “French revenge picture with pulpy plotting and the offbeat inclusion of a homicidal cowboy” to be an irresistible pitch, then you are the kind of viewer who will enjoy this film. If you come into this as a diehard Duvivier fan, you may not like it as much as I did so I recommend leaving you fan hat hanging up by the door.

Haceldama is not perfect by any means but I liked it probably more than I technically should. I think that little Feuillade echo appealed to me, along with the rather pulpy nature of the plotting. And while the atmosphere cannot be described as poetic, it is definitely a motion picture with a distinct look and feel and Duvivier captures the menacing grime of the local criminals in particular quite well. The sense of dread and foreboding is present throughout and it makes the audience uncomfortable in a rather interesting way. I do think it needs to be somewhat divorced from Duvivier’s later work because these comparisons seem to be the angle the negative reviews seem to be coming from.

I’m a sucker for rural menace.

Accept it for what it is, made in its own moment by a director who may have gone on to better things but it’s a bit unfair to make this a Duvivier vs Duvivier thing. Haceldama doesn’t stand up to deep scrutiny but the film never pretends to be anything it isn’t. It’s an honest French western/revenge mashup and I accept it on these terms.

Where can I see it?

Haceldama can be viewed for free courtesy of the Cinémathèque française, and I must say that I am extremely grateful for the high-quality films they have shared so far.

☙❦❧

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7 Comments

  1. amycondit

    Haven’t heard of this one although I’m familiar with “Pe’pe’ le moko.” It’s wonderful to be able to stream a good version of this film for free, and to have a translation of the subtitles, generously provided by Guillaume. Thanks for your interesting post!

  2. Clara West

    I too had not been that familiar with Duvivier. Until our local college had screened a 1930, and yes, it was the last of French silent films. Au Bonheur des Dames, Ben Model on piano. Dita Parlo stars. Its been on DVD for a couple of years now. I didn’t see it on your review list. Worth a look.

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