A tremendous jewel robbery is carried out by a thief disguised as a member of the English aristocracy. The press put the blame on a mysterious criminal named Fantômas gets a scoop by creating a fictional interview with the villain, but the real Fantômas is not impressed by his article…
The character of super villain and master of disguise, Fantômas was brought to life in a series of books by French authors Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain in 1911. Their work was such a runaway success that a series of five silent films followed, and there would probably have been more if not for the outbreak of the First World War. Amazingly, Gaumont Studios still held the rights to the character over half a century later and launched a new trilogy of films, bringing him firmly into the swinging 60s, via a technicolor world of secret agents, gadgets and beautiful girls.
Jean Marias is Fandor, an investigative journalist who senses a career opportunity when news of the jewel robbery breaks and Police Commissioner Juve (Louis de Funes) goes on TV to rubbish the notion of a master thief in their midst. With help from his photographer girlfriend Héléne (Mylene Demongeot), Marias creates some ‘fake news’ that gets the whole town talking and the real Fantômas (Marias, again) rather ticked off. It’s not long before the reporter finds himself in the villain’s hi-tech, underground lair with Demongeot trapped in a weird, trippy room next door that seems to be half real and half illusion.
At this point, it looks like we’re in for a real treat. Marias looks great as Fantômas in a bald, smooth-faced mask with devil ears, and his entry is accompanied by a little Lon Chaney on the pipe organ. The actor also creates a genuinely unsettling presence, hinting at his less than honourable intentions towards Demongeot with delicious glee. Unfortunately, the reporter manages to flag this up with jealous Lady Beltham (Marie-Hélene Arnaud), and she arranges for our heroic couple to escape. The character of Lady Beltham as the lover and partner in crime of Fantômas was integral to the novels but it’s peripheral here, and she never appears in the trilogy again. It may have been that there was an intention to develop a relationship between Fantômas and the Demongeot character, but, if so, it was never pursued.
But, more importantly, this is the moment where the film begins to slide seriously downhill. Within a short time, Fantômas is on the run and being pursued by Marias (as Fandor) and Demongeot, as well as de Funes and the forces of law and order. ln his flight, he utilises five different types of transport, which is a neat idea, but the chase is shot without any real dynamism or invention and soon begins to drag. As the film closes in on a finish, we realise that there is simply no story left and the audience is thrown back on the comic mugging of de Funes and some underwhelming action. Although it does have to be acknowledged that Marias obviously did his own stunts, including a leap from a moving train, which looks a fair way beyond the call of duty. The problem is that no real momentum is built, and the climax is almost non-existent.
It’s appropriate for the era when the film was made that director André Hunebelle ditches the serious approach of the character’s early days and aims for a more light-hearted, freewheeling approach, and it’s not the worst artistic decision ever made. However, it has done much to encourage the trilogy’s somewhat mixed reputation. This film does hit a fair balance between humour and action, but more of the latter would certainly have helped. Marias is excellent in both roles and it’s an interesting casting decision, perhaps prompted by the fact that the character’s true identity is never really established in the source material.
A decent slice of 1960s fun that runs out of steam around the end of the second act and never recovers. Marias is very good, but you just can’t help wishing he was in a much better film.