Taking Cannes Month way back to 1981, this played in competition alongside Possession, Excalibur, Heaven’s Gate and winner Man of Iron. Mann’s first theatrical feature, though he’d already made TV prison/sports movie The Jericho Mile and written/created the series Vega$. Frank (James Caan, best known as Mr. Henry in Bottle Rocket) gets out of prison and has a clear plan for the rest of his life and the safecracking skills to fund this plan. All he needs is a girl (Tuesday Weld of Lord Love a Duck) and to reunite with his friend (Willie Nelson)

Tuesday is along for the ride but other things start going wrong. Willie dies his first day out of prison, and gangster Leo (Robert Prosky of Broadcast News, a priest in The Keep) offers to help Frank line up a big job and get him and Tuesday a fast-track adoption, and somehow professional criminal Frank isn’t savvy enough to realize that Leo’s not gonna let him do a couple jobs then walk away.

I’m fortunate to be watching this for the first time in the mid-2010’s. The movie’s keyboardy Tangerine Dream soundtrack went from a cool experiment to a long-lasting embarrassment, staying that way for decades until post-Drive it became cool again. Drive seems indebted to this movie’s ending as well, when the hero leaves the girl behind to go on a potentially suicidal rampage against the guys who wronged him – or maybe that’s just how all crime movies end.

I love the bizarre, against-type casting of Willie Nelson and Jim Belushi (pre-SNL, his first movie) as Frank’s partners – wish Mann had kept doing that. Of course it’s Mann-stylish, all slick streets and street lights, but what seemed stylish in the early 1980’s looks pretty subdued today.

The two Jims:

The movie’s one De Palma shot:

Reminds of Heat in its attempt to build drama with a career criminal’s romantic relationship endangered by his line of work. But here the girl (Rebecca Hall, Christian Bale’s wife in The Prestige) was a hostage in the gang’s previous job – Ben Affleck was supposed to check on her afterward, eliminate her if she knows too much, but falls for her instead. She is traumatized by her heist & hostage experience so it’s no surprise at all when she’s working with the FBI at the end, although somewhat surprising that Affleck manages to escape the huge shootout after their final Fenway Park heist, killing boss Pete Postlethwaite then escaping to Florida.

Solid crime flick, though Ben is better at Boston-accented dialogue scenes and filming criminals wearing weird masks in cool poses than assembling distinguished action sequences. Jeremy Renner (between Hurt Locker and Mission Impossible 4) got an oscar nomination as the hotheaded, trigger-happy second in command (so, the Joe Pesci role), whose druggie sister (Green Lantern’s Blake Lively) the FBI gets to. FBI is led by Mad Men’s Jon Hamm, are very good investigators but not the best marksmen. Small roles for Victor Garber as a banker and Chris Cooper as Affleck’s imprisoned father.

Found a new version of Fantomas – see also the Feuillade original, the stupid 1960’s version and the surrealist 1930’s short.

Episode 1: L’Echafaud Magique

The original novels and/or serials may have been written as they went along, but in 1980 they should’ve had time to shuffle things a bit. Instead this first episode faithfully recreates the major plot points of the first Feuillade episode – master criminal Fantomas kills an ambassador, is having an affair with the dead man’s wife Lady Beltham, sneaks into a rich woman’s house handing out vanishing-ink business cards, is caught and sentenced to death but switches with an actor, who goes to the guillotine. In this version at least, Inspector Juve discovers the fake seconds after the beheading instead of seconds before – makes Fantomas’s switcheroo more of a sinister plot, less saving his own skin.

Written by Bernard Revon (two of Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel features) and directed by Claude Chabrol, who would tackle another silent-film master-criminal a decade later in Dr. M. Kind of disappointing for what used to be an adventure series – slow and talky, achieving in 90 minutes what Feuillade did in 60 (including intertitles). Fantomas doesn’t get a great introduction as a criminal mastermind, either. He starts strong, killing a woman en route to cashing in her winning lottery ticket under the nose of Juve (Jacques Dufilho of Black and White in Color). Then he breaks into the rich Princess Sonia’s house and. . . bugs her? After Juve catches on to the Lord Beltham disappearance, Fantomas is caught by the Belthams’ gardener, beaten up and handed over to the cops, then relies on his girlfriend, a gullible prison guard and incredible coincidence to escape prison.

Fantomas vs. the Princess:

Juve’s reporter friend Fandor isn’t a pre-existing character here, but the revenge-seeking orphan godson of the slain lottery-ticket woman. Juve assigns him a new name and destiny in an awkward scene.

Fantomas is Helmut Berger, star of some Visconti films. He’s good at playing both the criminal and the windbag actor doing a Fantomas play. Good to see the elegant Gayle Hunnicutt, star of Feuillade-affiliated Nuits Rouges, as Lady Beltham.

Episode 2: L’Etreinte du Diable

Directed by Juan-Luis Bunuel, immediately better than part one, more stylish and energetic. The plot is even stupider and more convoluted – a dead woman is planted in a half-deaf doctor’s house, while a gangster called Lupart has some scheme involving his prostitute girlfriend. The doctor is Fantomas (not sure about the gangster) taunting the police. Shootout at the docks follows, a definite throwback to the originals even if I don’t remember the rest.

Juve vs. Josephine:

Lady Beltham was presumed to be the dead body found earlier, but is discovered alive in a convent – and then she’s followed to her old house, where she has been secretly meeting with Fantomas. Two more good bits from the original follow, to lesser effect than in the silent – a snake attack and the house explosion that “kills” Juve.

Fantomas vs. Lady Beltham:

Episode 3: Le Mort Qui Tue

The Baroness (Danielle Godet of The Fighting Pimpernel) is told by her banker Fantomas that she is ruined. She’s soon found dead, and a young painter asleep in the same room – so the painter (Maxence Mailfort of elder Bunuel’s films and a version of Bartleby) is arrested and hangs himself in prison – then disappears from his cell. It’s always gotta be complicated.

Dead painter’s sister and Fandor are on the case, while an instantly recognizable Juve is undercover in the underground. A sweet train heist featuring a bulletproof mask breaks up all the dialogue and the pointless return of the princess from part one.

Lots more murders and robberies follow. Fantomas is discovered (he’s always hiding right in Juve and Fandor’s faces) but escapes using electromagnets, not the suit with fake arms – a fair trade.

Fandor, stopped in his tracks by magnetic floor:

Episode 4: Le Tramway Fantome

Back over to Chabrol, and it opens with Fantomas knifing a cat. Now he’s Mother Kirsh, friendly landlady in Moravia, and also a fake marquis, both framing a vacationing Fandor for murder then getting Juve caught under suspicion of being Fantomas, the master criminal whom nobody but Juve has ever seen. Lady Beltham, a kidnapped king, and trap-murders causing the cops to kill victims with strings tied to triggers and doorknobs.

Good guys:

The dubbing seems worse than usual, and the subtitles aren’t perfect but I can’t complain. “To use the alarm clock technic to kill is abominable!” Nice that F. and Lady B. get away at the end.

Lang’s final film finds him back in Germany, making a cheap-looking b-movie callback to one of his largest silent features and his pioneering second sound film. Immediately following his Indian Epic, another serials-inspired adventure flick, it seems that either Lang’s artistically triumphant two decades in Hollywood have earned him no respect and he’s been kicked down to making silly action flicks – or maybe these are the kinds of movies he’d been wanting to make again. Seems like the former, a bland assignment for a tired old man, since the plotting is snappy but this lacks the atmosphere and interest of Franju’s Judex a few years later.

Wolfgang Preiss, who would continue playing Mabuse throughout the 60’s and appear in Chabrol’s Dr. M:

Roger Corman-looking billionaire Peter van Eyck of Wages of Fear and Mr. Arkadin:

Movie starts with a flutter of things happening. Inspector Kras speaks with a blind psychic named Cornelius, snipers are ordered by a clubfooted kingpin to kill a reporter in rush hour traffic, and the cops declare that Dr. Mabuse’s crime legacy was forgotten in the wake of the whole nazi thing. Then billionaire Travers talks a suicidal woman named Menil down from a ledge while an insurance salesman called Mistelzweig bothers everyone down at the bar.

Mistelzweig: Werner Peters, a Mabuse film regular

fake-suicidal Dawn Addams, who followed-up by playing Jekyll/Hyde’s wife in a Hammer film:

The billionaire falls for the pretty suicidal girl (and is shown a secret one-way mirror where he can watch her) while the inspector fends off assassination attempts while investigating the crime-ridden fancy hotel where those two are staying. Anyway, the psychic is the girl’s psychiatrist is Mabuse, Mistelzweig is an undercover cop, the girl is a Mabuse plant who gets the billionaire to fake-kill her fake-husband, and all this leads where it must: to a confession of evil plans in an underground lair and a car chase/shootout.

Inspector Gert Frobe, who would run into another master criminal years later in Nuits Rouges:

Henchman Howard Vernon, a Jean-Pierre Melville regular and title star of The Awful Dr. Orlof:

According to Wikipedia, based on a novel written in Esperanto. I’d like to hear the Masters of Cinema commentary with David Kalat, but I’ve already bought the other two Lang-Mabuse movies domestically, so it seems nuts to buy the UK box set for $60.