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FANTOMAS

The FANTOMAS books were a classic series devoted to France’s legendary genius of crime, also the subject of this five part film serial from 1913-14.  An unapologetically lurid mélange of vice, deception, captures and escapes, this irresistible swirl of pure sensationalism has a running time of nearly six hours yet still left me wanting more. 

The Package 
     The tawdry but irresistible FANTOMAS novels by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre, initiated in 1911, were a phenomenon in their native France, even if they’re largely unknown in the US (only a handful were translated into English).  Their prime draw was the title character, the “King of the Night”, a staunchly amoral quick-change artist who was always assisted in dastardly deeds by his mistress Lady Beltham and opposed by the indomitable Inspector Juve and the latter’s newspaper reporter sidekick Fandor.  The books were especially cherished by poets and surrealists and remain popular with critics and select audiences today (check out the English language Fantomas tribute website at www.fantomas-lives.com).
     Unsurprisingly, Fantomas has been the subject of quite a few film adaptations over the years, but only the original 1913-14 silents by Louis Feuillade measure up (or so I’m told, at least)—in the words of critic John Ashbery, they are “more like the novels than the novels themselves”.  Feuillade is best known for later—and better—crime serials like BARRABAS (1919), JUDEX (1916) and his supreme masterpiece LES VAMPIRES (1915-16).  The FANTOMAS films can be seen today primarily as dry runs for the above, but still deserve a viewing, if not two or three. 

The Stor(ies)
     In the first segment, FANTOMAS, A L’OMBRE DE LA GUILLOTINE, master criminal Fantomas robs the Princess Daniduff but is caught by Inspector Juve and put in jail.  Through an extremely complex series of complications, Fantomas’ accomplices manage to convince the celebrated actor Valgrand to make himself up like Fantomas and visit the criminal’s mistress Lady Beltham.  Once he arrives she drugs him while Fantomas is busted out of prison.  Valgrand in turn is put in the cell and nearly executed in Fantomas’s place, but Juve, present at the execution, recognizes Valgrand’s true identity and manages to save him at the last minute.
     The series continues with JUVE CONTRE FANTOMAS, in which Fantomas and his accomplices rob a train and cause it to collide with another.  Juve and his trusty sidekick Fandor manage to track Fantomas and his gang to a dock laden with explosives and are nearly blown up for their troubles, narrowly escaping into the ocean.  Later they capture Fantomas at a party but he escapes their clutches and lets a poisonous snake loose in Juve’s bedroom.  Juve and Fandor in turn raid the house of Lady Beltham just as, it turns out, Fantomas is cavorting inside…but as usual he’s too quick for them.  Fantomas immerses himself in a water barrel, breathing through a bottle with a hole in its bottom; later he escapes and blows the house up while Juve and company are still inside.
     In LE MORT QUI TUE we learn that Fandor has survived the blast and, as the episode opens, is recuperating in a hospital—Juve, alas, appears to have perished.  Fantomas is still at large, of course: he raids a police precinct and is arrested, but escapes from jail (again).  Fandor, now fully recovered, receives a suspicious letter and has a tiff with Fantomas’ gang, managing to escape into the ocean (again).  Next Fantomas and his accomplices ransack the home of a rich woman and pump gas into her room (to kill her and make it look like suicide).  Fandor discovers the rich woman’s body and revives her, later hiding in a basket in her house as Fantomas and co. break in for more mischief.  Later on Fandor discovers Juve is in fact alive and has infiltrated Fantomas’ gang in disguise.  He and Fandor bust Fantomas, who’s posing as a bank manager, but the latter nevertheless manages to escape through hidden doors.
     FANTOMAS CONTRE FANTOMAS finds Fantomas posing as an American detective named Tom Bob.  At a Halloween ball Fandor dresses like Fantomas, in black cat burglar get-up, but discovers there’s another guy at the ball dressed in the same manner.  Thinking the other guy’s the real Fantomas, Fandor takes him outside…but the real Fantomas, also dressed in cat burglar get-up, enters and kills one of his imposters, thinking he’s offing Fandor (got that?).  From there Fantomas, in his guise as Det. Tom Bob, infiltrates the police department, kidnaps Juve and takes him back to his lair.  It turns out, however, that Fandor is already hiding out at the lair and together he and Juve manage to trick Fantomas’s accomplices into the clutches of cops waiting outside their place.  Juve and Fandor subsequently nab Tom Bob, a.k.a. Fantomas, but fall into traps in the ground while Fantomas gets away.
     LE FAUX MAGISTRAT closes out the series.  There’s a robbery in a rich man’s hotel room and the police subsequently discover a hole in the room’s wall leading into an empty room next door.  (Much of the episode’s subsequent footage has been lost, filled in with text and still shots)  Later, a man enters a jail cell and exchanges clothes with the inmate…who, it turns out, is Fantomas, who proceeds to board a train where he meets up with the prestigious Judge Pradier.  Fantomas kills the bearded Pradier and assumes his identity, complete with fake glasses and facial hair.  In the guise of Judge Pradier, Fantomas is able to release his accomplices from jail, at least until Juve and Fandor begin to suspect his true identity and manage to capture Fantomas in the act of switching clothes—and identities—yet again. 

The Direction 
     Viewers of Louis Feuillade’s later LES VAMPIRES, his best known and most widely available work in the US, will recognize FANTOMAS’ style: shadowy exploits amidst turn-of-the-century Parisian street life.  If the exteriors of Feuillade’s films feel documentary-like, that’s because they were shot on actual locations.  FANTOMAS isn’t quite as accomplished as LES VAMPIRES, doubtless because Feuillade was still learning his craft.  The lengthy wide shots that comprise nearly the entire film and Feuillade’s method of cutting on action and close-ups are a long way from the innovations of D.W. Griffith (whose seminal BRITH OF A NATION was still a couple years in the future) and furthermore lack the depth and inventiveness of Feuillade’s later work.
     Where FANTOMAS excels is in its sheer narrative drive.  A prolific writer, Feuillade extolled the virtues of “novelistic fiction” and put his storytelling prowess to excellent use here.  His pictorial skills were equally potent, imparting a number of unforgettably eerie, surreal images: a bleeding wall, a man caught inside a church bell and an apparently never-ending series of trap doors and hidden passages that always seem to appear in the most mundane settings. 


Vital Statistics 

FANTOMAS
Gaumont 

Director: Louis Feuillade
Producer: Romeo Bosetti
Screenplay: Louis Feuillade
(Based on novels by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre)
Cast: Rene Navarre, Edmond Breon, Georges Melchior, Renee Carl, Yvette Andreyor, Volbert, Andre Luguet, Luitz Morat, Jane Faber, Fabienne Fabreges, Laurent Morales, Martial, Germaine Pelisse, Suzanne Le Bret
 


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