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.

Some nice TV mystery music right from the start. The material for a feature film (35mm) and miniseries (16mm) were shot at the same time, Franju and writer Jacques Champreux [EDIT: just learned this is Louis Feuillade’s grandson] looking to make “a gentle parody” of 1940’s American serials, not so much the early French serials they referenced in Judex. Champreux says that some of the 35mm film cans were stolen while shooting in Belgrade, so some of the lesser television stuff was cut into the feature. No matter, it’s a fine, twisty picture, less dark and mysterious than Judex, more colorful and campy.

I want a black monocle:

Albert the butler sells information about his master Maxime de Borrego to a transparently fake “old lady” (inspired by Lon Chaney in The Unholy Three, I later learned) about the secret treasure of the Knights Templar, so the old lady becomes Shadowman (that name is never used – he’s credited as L’homme sans visage – played by the film’s writer), kills Max, and installs an underling (Max’s “nephew”) to search for the treasure.

When the real nephew arrives (Ugo Pagliai, an Alain Delon wannabe), the cops burst in on the fake, who blows a smoke bomb and flees. This is our first definite indication that the movie intends parody, if we weren’t sure of the sincerity of Shadowman’s red sock mask or old lady costume. The police all choke and stumble around – meanwhile next door, an old man grumpily makes his way over and opens the window for them, climbs slowly inside and proclaims “we’d better call the police,” set to comically energetic adventure music.

Ugo and Josephine:

Seraphin:

Meanwhile, Shadowman’s underground mad scientist has turned some guys into zombie slaves, who wander into the police station and assassinate the arrested butler. The police superintendent (Gert Frobe – Goldfinger himself, also a head policeman in Lang’s 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse) is troubled by all the murder and fake nephews and killer zombies, so nephew Paul goes off with his friends (Josephine Chaplin – Geraldine’s sister, also in Pasolini’s Canterbury Tales – and a crescent-moon-chinned “poet detective” named Seraphin) and devise a bunch of ill-fated plans.

A couple traps are set – first Seraphin is set as bait and when the chief bad girl (Gayle Hunnicutt, also in Scorpio with the real Alain Delon) gives chase, we get the inevitable Feuilladian Paris rooftop catsuit chase scene. I think two cops and an innocent bystander are killed, so the gang tries again, staging a treasure auction in association with Professor Petrie – another trap which also leads to heartbreak. In the aftermath when the treasure is revealed as fake, “I condemn Professor Petrie to death for his lack of scientific integrity” – funny that the actor playing Petrie is an actual Templar historian.

Where will Shadowman strike next? Does the Templar treasure even exist? Who was the knight who stood up in a secret ceremony to take the murdered Max’s place? Can we get some examples of Seraphin’s “poet detective” skills, please? Hopefully these questions will all be answered in the TV series version.

At first I was disappointed that it’s not Judex, just a color rehash, but I started to warm up to this movie’s own particular magic. Actors strike and hold poses. The music in the rooftop chase is dreamy and sublime, and the color has more 60’s charm than gritty 70’s fade. It has the dreamlike narrative incoherence of a Feuillade film, then snaps into what seems like an comic-book movie for ten-year-olds, then displays alarming violence at times. And the baddies seem to have hidden cameras everywhere a la Dr. Claw, yet the movie also displays the height of actual then-current technology – a Pong game.

The Feuillade movies I’ve watched just keep getting better – from Les Vampires to Judex to Fantomas – and I’d heard this might be a total masterpiece, but I was disappointed. Mildly, I mean – it’s a fun movie and all, but it doesn’t hold up as a long-form piece as well as the others. Strange to think his films are a hundred years old. Supposedly he was assisted on this by a young Julien Duvivier.

Can you tell these two men in suits apart?

As usual, I dig the opening credits, motion portraits of each major character. Jacques (serious explorer, close light brown hair, wearing a robe for some reason) returns from Indochina (Vietnam) with Tih Minh, “a young Anamite who had saved his life,” with whom he is chastely in love. Jacques is played by René Cresté – Judex himself. In fact half the cast had recently been in Judex and would appear in Barrabas the year after this. Jacques’ comic-relief servant Placide (a goofball with center-parted hair) is glad to be home and see his fiancee, the maid Rosette (dark-haired and suspicious-looking, but she turns out to be a sweetie). Jacques’ sister Jeanne sets out to “educate” Tih while Jacques and Placide (poor guy) go off to India. Two years later they return and prepare for a double wedding.

1910’s special effects:

Meanwhile, Paris is plagued by a string of robberies and kidnappings perpetrated by evil Dr. Gilson (I can’t describe him, since he’s always got some kind of fake facial hair), Kistna (introduced with a turban and beard) and Marquise Dolores (sultry with big hair). Others mention Kistna as the “Hindu servant” of Dolores, but in private he’s shown bossing her around. The big buzz is that Jacques is bringing home a book from India, The Nalodaya, with a hand-written section by someone called Ourvasi. “In addition to revealing the existence of fabulous treasures, this testament could be of considerable importance in the event of a European war.” The baddies get Tih Minh alone when she’s taking a boat ride, kidnap and brainwash her to collect the book for them. But: “Motivated by what he believes is a laudable zeal, Placide erases Ourvasi’s testament,” so they get a worthless book.

Dolores in disguise:

And it goes on and on and on like this. The criminals don’t commit any more major crimes to terrorize Paris, they only try to get this book (well, now it’s the photograph Jacques took of the inscription before Placide erased it) for the next five hours, trying again and again and again with minor variations. Kistna comes over, all neighborly, and asks to borrow the book and see the photos. Tih Minh is kidnapped at least two more times (oh, and it takes dapper, puffy-cheeked Dr. Davesne weeks to restore her memory after the brainwashing incident). Each group breaks into the other group’s house at least once. Twice the baddies get a spy into the heroes’ house and twice they try to poison our guys. People hide in trunks. Fake beards and mustaches of every sort are used then discarded. It’s a cool flick but I’m not seeing how it’s on the level of Fantomas or Judex.

Dolores (?) and Kistna:

My copy of the movie had no sound at all, so I used soundtracks from elsewhere:
– Mike Patton’s Mondo Cane (I am obsessed with this disc lately)
– The Paranoid Park soundtrack
– Zbigniew Preisner’s Double Life of Veronique soundtrack
– Mihaly Vig’s Bela Tarr soundtracks (love those Werckmeister Harmonies songs)
– Volume 3 of the Toru Takemitsu set:
(“music from the films of Nagisa Oshima and Susumu Hani”) – this was ideal.
– Hajime Kaburagi’s soundtrack for Tokyo Drifter didn’t work out, so on to Philip Glass and Kronos Quartet’s Dracula, which didn’t work either.
– Peer Raben’s Fassbinder soundtracks (volume 1 – only the non-vocal numbers)
– Then back to Mike Patton and Mihaly Vig

Not a lot of writing on this movie online besides this nice article by A. Cutler of Slant, so I’ve perhaps quoted too much of it:

The movie doesn’t have a plot so much as a list of incidents. I don’t feel like I’ve given much away, since the one-damn-thing-after-another structure keeps the viewer watching more for what happens moment to moment than for where the story’s going overall. As a consequence of its cliffhangers, and despite its length, Tih Minh zips. … Feuillade is able to depict such wild happenings onscreen because his foundations are so solid. I mean this not just from a storytelling perspective, but from a visual one. The director consistently relies on static medium-to-establishing shots, proscenium-like in their orientation, the camera viewing the characters from a slightly elevated angle, and the lighting’s generally unobtrusive. In other words, Feuillade gives us a relatively normal, stable-looking frame so that the odd happenings within it can seem all the more disruptive.

Feuillade is filming a rousing adventure story, but he’s also questioning the future of the world. It’s a world explicitly without central authority figures, in which the characters fight to assert their own moral order—as one of d’Athys’s companions conveniently says late in the film to justify hunting the thieves, “why inform the police? We are mixed up in the most remarkable adventure in the world, let’s go all the way with it ourselves.” … The film balances its societal poles so that Nature ultimately has to intervene. Toward the end of the film, as the felons flee into the mountains, Feuillade moves his camera several hundred feet back and we see them as specks in the landscape. Unlike Les Vampires, in which the black-clad Irma Vep appears and disappears at her liking, the antagonists here never seem more than human; once the boulders crash, they seem especially so. D’Athys, a bland hero, triumphs over his adversaries not through skill so much as through luck and fate. Rather than a screenplay deficiency, this seems the movie’s point.

Les Vampires came out the same year as The Birth of a Nation, but as Jonathan Rosenbaum writes, Griffith and Feuillade “seem to belong to different centuries. While Griffith’s work reeks of Victorian morality and nostalgia for the mid-19th century, Feuillade looks ahead to the global paranoia, conspiratorial intrigues, and SF technological fantasies of the current century, right up to today.” The most appropriate comparison for Tih Minh isn’t to another silent film, but to a recent hit like The Dark Knight. Both films are about shape-shifting, disguise-donning villains and the heroes who take the law into their own hands to stop them. Both films structure themselves as a series of setpieces alternating between each party’s capture and escape. Both films are allegories about the wars their countries were then fighting (Tih Minh‘s gang is a gaggle of foreigners; several Dark Knight characters call the Joker a terrorist). Yet Tih Minh trumps The Dark Knight stylistically, tonally, and thematically. … The Dark Knight insists that wire-tapping, torture, and government cover-ups are necessary in the name of freedom, accepting these precepts fatalistically; Tih Minh, by contrast, shows us a world worth saving. … One film exhausts, the other liberates; the comic book film thinks it’s addressing reality, but the human film knows it speaks the language of dreams.

Jacques in asylum:

Notes I took:

“She is like Lord Stone. She will not betray us.”

Kistna comes right over and borrows the book, so why the brainwashing?

“But Tih Minh, the beloved, had drunk the potion of forgetfulness and did not even know how to speak anymore.”

I think they are saying that Gilson and the Marquise are psychic

The comedian got pushed over a cliff into water while the marquise tried to rob the house, caught by Jacques and passed out.

25 kidnapped girls in the basement!!

They encounter a petrified dog, aww Kistna is experimenting on cute puppies.

Kidnappees spend their days having pajama fights

Servant caught in wolf trap, Jacques leaves him.

Plac as hero is upright, not goofy as I expected.

Haha, he lures Tih out of the house to the beach using a cat.

Just as Tih is returned home, obsessed with a cat, Rosette is delivering the photos to fake-beard Gilson. Plac and Ros beat the hell out of him. Time for him to face the fact that he is a very ineffectual villain.

Music for In the Realm of Passion fits so well, I’d forgotten it wasn’t part of the movie.

“Agents of Germany” want to steal the secret. Wow, WWI wasn’t over yet.

Baddies hid microphones in the garden. That’s hell of high technology they’ve got there.

Now Gilson and Dolores are trying to steal the document – all they ever do is try to steal the document and it’s getting a bit boring.

Marx killed a servant after breaking in, then shoots her dad. Marx is Gilson!

This is the kind of car chase that was possible in 1918: the bad guys are driving away at top speed, Jacques is able to catch up by running.

Rosette is an excellent shot

Oh it’s all in goofy fun that we drive away the false nuns who threatened our lives by spraying them with a garden hose as they scurry away. They’ll be back in 15 minutes threatening your lives again.

Jacques seems to be telling Tih that pretty girls should be home arranging flowers, not out avenging the death of their father.

Now it’s an evil cook working in the house with a messenger dog, both of whom “no one suspects.”

Why don’t they stop letting people into the house. No nuns, no new servants, not anybody. Stupid rich people with houses like hotels, servants galore and people always coming and going.

Holy crap, one of the bad spies just killed Dolores with a rock.

The heroes’ plan fails, because of course it does. Our heroes are so foolish that when the baddies are disarmed they use Rosette and Placide as human shields, and this works. They’re DISarmed. You can just run around Rosette and punch the bad guys in the face. But no, they all escape.

I prefer inspector Juve and his reporter sideick Fandor from the Fantomas series. Not only are they in higher-definition than the identical suit-wearing blobs of this movie, they’re much smarter.

Oh good Dolores isn’t dead.

They escape to the rooftops! Finally. It’s just not Feuillade without a chase on the rooftops.

The three baddies turn on each other.
One’s head is smashed with a rock.
Gilson is still alive.
Gilson throws kistna off a cable car.
Gilson is blown up by dynamite!
Kistna is found dead.
Dolores kills herself.
Wedding!

Great presentation of a not-so-great movie. Nobody ever called episode six of Red Heroine the best-ever silent martial-arts serial from China, but today it is the only surviving silent martial-arts serial from China, and therefore an important fragment of popular film history. The Devil’s Music Ensemble are touring it around the country, providing much better music than it deserves. Not that it’s a particularly bad movie, it’s just a standard piece of fluff to which nobody would give a second thought if it didn’t have to stand alone to represent an entire lost genre of Chinese film. So the D.M.E. is to be highly praised for their work and for enhancing our knowledge of film history, but the movie itself, well, it is what it is.

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What it is: a 90-minute self-contained revenge drama, the prequel to the prequel to the prequel to Kill Bill. Army invades, girl’s grandmother is killed and girl is kidnapped to become the general’s wife, but before that can happen, crazy-bearded White Monkey kicks the general’s ass and rescues her. Three years later the same thing is happening (minus the dead grandmother) to a new girl, a friend of the old girl’s “brothercousin” (so sayeth the awesome intertitles). Old girl reappears flying through the air (to great applause from the packed Emory crowd) as Red Heroine. She kicks the ass of the general and his hilarious bucktoothed assistant/bodyguard, and rescues the girl whom she suggests should marry her brothercousin. There’s minimal action, all shot wide, and no definite references to the other episodes of the series (maybe White Monkey was in them?).

IMDB’s details are muddled on this film and director, so this is from Kung Fu Cinema Dot Com:

Director Wen Yimin, who can also be seen in a supporting role as a young scholar in RED HEROINE, was a Manchurian who was born in Beijing in 1890. His work for the Youlian studio, which included helming the HEROIC SONS AND DAUGHTERS series (1927-1931) and at least two of the RED HEROINE films (1929-1930), established him as one of China’s first genre directors. In 1934, he moved to the Unique studio, an early venture by the Shaw brothers, who would go on to dominate the Hong Kong film industry decades later. In 1936, Wen co-directed a film, MADAME LAI, with future mogul Shaw Run-me. Wen permanently moved to Hong Kong after the war, where he sometimes worked under the Cantonese version of his name, Man Yat-man.

He is frequently credited as an assistant director to the prolific leftist filmmaker Zhu Shilin. Another frequent collaborator was director Ren Yizhi, daughter of Shanghai pioneer Ren Pengnian. He continued to appear in supporting roles in a number of mid-century dramas and action/adventure films. In 1965, he moved to Taiwan, and worked as an actor there until his retirement. He died in 1978.

“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.
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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.
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Juve, triumphantly stymied. Fandor (on left) looks on.
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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:
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wrestling a boa – notice the spiked suit:
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awwwwwesome closing shot – note sprocket holes:
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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:
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Juve (in disguise) approaches Fandor (studying list of victims):
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They’ve got him cornered! Note trap door and icky gloves:
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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
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Fantomas vs. Fantomas at the costume ball:
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Juve, kidnapped, hears Fandor hiding in the barrel. People are always hiding in barrels and baskets in these movies.
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Juve fingers the crooked guard, an inside man who works for Fantomas:
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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.
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Note how the Belgian prison looks awfully like the French prison (above):
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Fantomas, as the judge, feeling the pressure:
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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?”
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This just in: a great article by David Bordwell on the series.