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TSPDT 2013: Fantomas

Posted by martinteller on March 30, 2013

Fantomas was created by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre, who together cranked out an astonishing 32 novels over a period of less than three years (Allain wrote another 11 after Souvestre’s death).  Louis Feuillade — who by this point had already directed several hundred films — acquired the rights and, at a rate similar to the breakneck pace of the character’s authors, came out with five Fantomas movies in 1913 and 1914.  And these aren’t one- or two-reelers, they’re feature length.  The films range from 54 to 90 minutes.

Fantomas (René Navarre) is an expert thief, master of disguise, con artist, Svengali, and murderer.  He leaves his calling card, mocking the authorities.  He takes advantage of weak-willed women.  He’s a bad, bad man and crafty as heck.  Inspector Juve (Edmund Breon) has made it his mission to capture the elusive criminal (in the first movie, Fantomas manages to slip out of death row, setting a pattern of last-minute escapes for the series).  It’s something like a Holmes/Moriarty rivalry… except poor Juve is far, far outclassed by his Moriarty.  Part of his problem is his stubborn insistence on doing things the hard way, like politely having a waiter inform Fantomas that he’s waiting outside for him.

Every Holmes needs a Watson, and in this case it’s Juve’s buddy, the newspaperman Fandor (Georges Melchior).  Establishing the role of “journalist who chases criminals and never actually writes anything” that would be central to Les Vampires, Fandor uses his underworld savvy (and willingness to hide in large wicker baskets) to help out his pal.  And as the series goes on, he plays a larger and larger role.  By the third film, Juve is a minor character at best while Fandor takes center stage.

The films involve some head-scratching plot holes, ridiculous turns and convoluted threads — try making sense out of the beginning of part 2 — but for the most part, are crazy fun.  The films are generally paced beautifully (a few bits here and there are sluggish).  Lots of twisty developments and clever bits of business.  Faked deaths, switched identities, secret passages, double crosses, hidden compartments, invisible ink, train derailments, a giant snake (I’m pretty sure that was “inspired” by A.C. Doyle), blood coming out of a wall, and heaps and heaps of disguises.  Fantomas takes on at least one new persona in each installment, usually two or three (Juve gets his share of alternate identities as well).  One of these aliases is an American detective with the hilarious name of “Tom Bob”.

Feuillade’s cinematic style is nothing to write home about… very straightforward compositions and standard edits.  In the first couple of films, the only mildly interesting things are some use of vanishing point perspective, and some decent location work.  But you can watch him develop over time.  By the third film, he’s using pans to reveal a surprise.  By the fifth film, he’s doing it with a cut-away view to cross into an adjoining room.  He’s also using more interesting lighting setups, and pulls off a remarkable “tall” shot in a bell tower.

Unfortunately, the fifth film is also where the cracks start to show in the story.  Not only is Juve barely in it (having had himself tossed in jail for another one of his overly complicated schemes to catch Fantomas), but even Fandor is largely forgotten.  There’s a lot of tedious business involving Fantomas passing himself off as a judge, and by this point Fantomas isn’t that intriguing a character anymore.  Navarre is kind of fun, but he’s no Musidora.  But it’s worth checking out the first four movies at least.  I’ve gotta get around to Judex at some point, I loved Franju’s remake.  Ratings: Good (75) (part 1), Good (70) (part 2), Good (77) (part 3), Good (75) (part 4), Fair (66) (part 5)

Fantômas 1: À l’ombre de la guillotine
Fantômas 2: Juve contre Fantômas
Fantômas 3: Le mort qui tue
Fantômas 4: Fantômas contre Fantômas
Fantômas 5: Le faux magistrat

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