“Send this by pneumatic tube, quickly!”
This is now the earliest feature film I’ve ever seen (and the next two runners-up are also by Feuillade). Really this is five movies, each a multi-part serial, so maybe it’s the five earliest feature films I’ve seen…
PART ONE: IN THE SHADOW OF THE GUILLOTINE
The criminal master of disguise Fantomas is introduced robbing a rich woman of her jewels in a clumsy-ass fashion… he gets caught in her house then just walks up, looks at her threateningly, and walks away with them. They couldn’t think of a better scenario for the opening of their movie? I guess it shows that he’s an imposing character, and his appearing-ink business cards are cool (see bottom of page). Then it’s on to introduce Inspector Juve with his funny mustache and his reporter buddy Fandor. A man has been found murdered, so Juve questions his widow (Lady Beltham), who it turns out is having an affair with Fantomas. When inspector and reporter discover this, they easily capture the criminal, who is imprisoned to await the guillotine. But through a convoluted scheme, the widow springs Fantomas – she flatters an actor celebrated for portraying Fantomas on the stage to agree to meet her, and pays off the incredibly dense prison guards to spring Fantomas to come meet her at the same place (with the understanding that he’d be returned to prison within an hour) and they do the ol’ switcheroo – but Juve notices before the actor can be mistakenly executed (in the novel he was too late).
The regular Feuillade style is apparent here – people with comical mustaches who look conspiratorially into the camera, lots of crime, outdoor scenes with actors in cool black capes, convoluted scenarios and a plot that seems to be making itself up as it goes, helping the cliffhanger feeling.
Some nice outdoor shots in this movie. Feuillade is fond of long walls. I like them too.
The actor has all these admiring women, yet he sneaks off eagerly when he gets the letter from Lady Beltham? I guess her letter made her seem more “loose” than the ladies in his dressing room.
Juve, triumphantly stymied. Fandor (on left) looks on.
PART TWO: JUVE VERSUS FANTÔMAS
Opening credits are cool, showing the main actors crossfade into their characters-in-costume (in Juve’s case it’s changing into a hat, a fake mustache and a less-nice suit). At the start, Lady Beltham is presumed dead – but actually she’s organizing a gang of bandits who rob passengers on a train car then cause a train accident to cover up their crimes. Or was that another woman? Either way, our reporter is on the train and escapes with another passenger. He and Juve are lured into a gun trap, but they escape and tail the woman, getting her to lead them to Fantomas, who escapes by putting on his suit with false arms then simply running away, leaving Juve and Fandor each holding an arm. Brilliant! Okay, then Fantomas has a list of people he’s having mysteriously squeezed to death, so Juve wears spiked bands over his body when he goes to sleep and has Fandor hide in the room – wakes up being choked by a boa constrictor, ouch. Later, they’ve figured out where Fantomas hides out, so they storm the house and kill the boa (for real, on camera, uncool) but the criminal mastermind was hiding in a tank of water in the basement, escapes, and blows up the house!! Will the cops survive?? Great episode, action-packed.
great train robbery:
wrestling a boa – notice the spiked suit:
awwwwwesome closing shot – note sprocket holes:
PART THREE: THE MURDEROUS CORPSE
Oh man, this is not gonna be a strong plot summary. I was tired, and I thought it’d be 50 minutes but it was 90. Wasn’t doing anything else while watching but somehow I still got confused. So Juve is missing presumed dead from the house explosion and Fandor is investigating stuff on his own. Fantomas I think is dressed as an old woman who trades stolen goods, or maybe that was an actual old woman, and Juve is made up as a retarded homeless guy who helps her out. A dude is framed for a murder, then killed in prison, then abducted from the prison… WHY this happens I never figure out, but Fantomas makes gloves out of the man’s hands (seriously) and commits a bunch more murders leaving the dead dude’s fingerprints behind. The cops are, of course, mystified, but Fandor comes across a list of the murder victims in the order they’re killed. He finally hooks up with Juve again, Lady Beltham reappears for a minute, probably some other stuff happens but our heroes end up tracking Fantomas to a house and cornering him in the one place where there was a secret trap door. Whoosh, through the trap door and our heroes are empty-handed (actually they got the skin-gloves). NOT as radical an ending as the previous part, and maybe a bit long and convoluted.
Fandor on the rooftops of paris:
Juve (in disguise) approaches Fandor (studying list of victims):
They’ve got him cornered! Note trap door and icky gloves:
PART FOUR: FANTÔMAS VERSUS FANTÔMAS
Juve is arrested straight away on suspicion of being Fantomas (what, because he couldn’t catch the guy?). The movie is telling us that the written situations are more important than the characters, since our hero Juve sits out most of the movie, making Fandor the hero by default. Fantomas reappears as Tom Bob (seriously, that’s his name!), American Detective. Lady Beltham has remarried and become the Grand Duchess Alexandra. She organizes a costume ball to collect reward money for the capture of Fantomas, and Fandor, not thinking things through, goes to the ball dressed as Fantomas. So do a police captain and Fantomas himself. A Fantomas-fight ensues, the master criminal escapes and the captain is killed.
After Juve is finally released, he’s captured about ten seconds later by Fantomas’s men, who believe that Juve is really Fantomas and want their share of the loot that they’ve helped steal (Fantomas ripping off his own men is a running theme). Fandor is on top of the plot and helps bag the men, capture the loot, rescue Juve and even capture Fantomas, but F. slips the men by walking them into two holes in the ground, the silliest escape in the whole series. I’m starting to doubt that this is a planned five-part series which is building up to something… think it’s just a regular movie franchise that makes it up as it goes along (nope, turns out they are closely based on a series of novels).
Left: “Tom Bob” Right-center: blood leaking from hole in the wall, 70+ years before Evil Dead 2
Fantomas vs. Fantomas at the costume ball:
Juve, kidnapped, hears Fandor hiding in the barrel. People are always hiding in barrels and baskets in these movies.
Juve fingers the crooked guard, an inside man who works for Fantomas:
PART FIVE: THE FALSE MAGISTRATE
I was hoping for an awesome ending but it seems the series peaked with part two. The plot gets more ludicrous, with Juve voluntarily taking Fantomas’s place in a Belgian prison under the logic that F. was gonna break out anyway, and Juve’s men can just catch him at the border to France. Of course Juve’s men suck at catching Fantomas, so F. runs around impersonating a judge while Juve rots in jail for the first hour of the movie. Fandor buzzes around of course, but doesn’t do all that much… this one is mostly about the criminal, with his disguises and lucky breaks, ripping off the wealthy and his own gang members.
These gang members scammed a rich guy and his jeweler, no big deal. F. takes it a step further, killing the thief with the jewels in a horrible way (he is rung to death inside a giant bell), killing the rich woman’s husband then blackmailing her for more money. Fandor finally figures out what’s up, Juve is released and they corner Fantomas… but a few hours earlier, as the judge, he’d told the warden to release the master criminal Fantomas secretly at midnight because it would actually be Juve in disguise. Juve, unwittingly this time, helps Fantomas escape again!
Fantomas helps dude up into the bell where jewels are hidden. Dude throws empty jewel case down and Fantomas takes away the ladder. The next day at a funeral when the bell is rung, blood and jewels rain down on the crowd. Wiiicked.
Note how the Belgian prison looks awfully like the French prison (above):
Fantomas, as the judge, feeling the pressure:
So is this one of the first great features of cinema? Does it meet expectation? Is it still a good movie today almost a century later? Is it as cool as that classic poster which now graces the DVD box cover? Well, no to that last one, but yes to the others. I still enjoy Judex better, but Feuillade’s crime serials are amazing fun, winking at the audience (sometimes literally) at times, getting cruel and serious at others, but always a good time to watch. And you can probably find someone who claims that they changed cinema forever… let’s see… yep, J. Travers says it introduces “not just the idea of a film series, but also [establishes] the crime thriller. The essential ingredients of film noir and the suspense thriller can be seen in this film which, remarkably, (when you consider when the film was made) still appears surprisingly modern.”
He qualifies the five movies: 1. most dreamlike and innovative, 2. best action, 3. most sophisticated, 4. most convoluted, 5. the weakest, comparatively mundane Each movie was divided into chapters with title cards – I didn’t realize each of these was a different serial episode! That means to see the complete Fantomas at the time of release, you would’ve had to go to the theater twenty-one times!
People are always mentioning how much the Surrealists loved these movies… I just read a whole website about it. Watched the bonus feature, wherein K. Newman immediately pronounces it “Phantom-ass.” Now I have to rethink the whole series, imagining Juve, wide-eyed, telling cops “this is the work of phantom-ass!” No wonder they eventually locked him up. Newman says the authors originally wanted to call it “Phant-o-moose” and now I think he’s just messing with us, under the “nobody watches DVD extras so we can say whatever we want” theory. Ahh, he says Diabolik was Fantomas-influenced – I can see that.
Edmund Breon (Juve) was in Les Vampires, took the 1920’s off, then appeared in fifty-some mostly British movies for the next two decades, waiting to die until after he’s been in Howard Hawks’ The Thing From Another World, a good move. René Navarre (Fantomas) was in movies through the 40’s, including a sound version of Judex. Georges Melchior (Fandor) barely made it into sound films. Renée Carl (Lady Beltham was in 180+ silent films – her only sound role was in Pépé le Moko (but last-billed).
“Did you folks in the audience just SEE that?”
This just in: a great article by David Bordwell on the series.