Les Vampires (1915)

Les Vampires (1915)‘In five minutes, the house will jump, and they’ll find this note on your corpse.’

A journalist for one of the top newspapers in Paris focuses on writing an exposé of a gang of notorious criminals known as Les Vampires. However, his investigations start to inconvenience the crooks, and they determine to eliminate him at all cost. An epic struggle of wills begins…

French director Louis Feuillade had hit the jackpot with ‘Fantômas: In the Shadow of the Guillotine’ (1913), an adaptation of the wildly popular novels written by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre. As well as pursuing other projects at the time, he had continued the series with another four films about the infamous master of disguise, eventually delivering a series of films with a length of over five hours. Not unreasonably, he decided to turn the trick again with this serial, only focusing more exclusively on the project, producing ten films of varying lengths with a combined running time of more than seven hours.

Investigative journalist Philippe Guérande (Édouard Mathé) is dismayed when he finds that all his notes on his latest story have been lifted from his desk at The Globe where he works. Suspicion immediately falls on colleague Oscar-Cloud Mazamette (Marcel Lévesque), who is acting oddly. The widower confesses almost at once, explaining that he needed money to keep his young son at boarding school. Mathé decides to take matters no further, and Lévesque swears to help him however he can, the two eventually linking up to take on the mysterious gang. An early clue takes them to dodgy cabaret ‘The Howling Cat’ where the headliner is femme fatale Irma Vep (Musidora). Sharp tack that he is, Mathé immediately realises that ‘Irma Vep’ is an anagram of ‘Vampire’ and battle is joined.

Les Vampires (1915)

‘I’ before ‘E’…except after ‘C’…

The early chapters of the serial focus heavily on Mathé and his investigation, mainly when the gang kill his fiancée, ballerina Marfa Koutiloff (Stacia Napierkowska), on the orders of The Grand Vampire (Jean Aymé). This villain is another ‘master of disguise’, much in the manner of Fantômas, but, just when this is threatening to become repetitive, Feuillade introduces a rival villain in the form of Juan-José Moréno (Fernand Herrmann). The action then switches to the battle for supremacy between these two criminal masterminds, and, surprisingly, it’s Herrmann who is victorious and assumes the mantle of Mathé’s primary opponent. The leadership of the gang then changes twice more before the end of the serial, which is highly unusual. This was probably caused by the unavailability of cast members, given France’s involvement in the First World War. Indeed, the only constant principals in front of the camera over the entire serial are Mathé, Lévesque and Musidora.

Feuillade scripted himself and, by all accounts, provided the cast with only rough outlines for each scene, encouraging them to improvise. He also favoured a stationary camera, apparently to promote a feeling of realism. Each scene begins with an establishing shot that rarely changes, all the developing action taking place within this initial framing. Although this can cause some scenes to drag a little, Feuillade compensates with pace. Apparent budgetary constraints did preclude a lot of action scenes, but there’s always plenty going on as Les Vampires pursue their agenda of robbery, kidnapping and murder. Feuillade was also careful to make each episode work as a ‘stand alone’ piece, so audience members unfamiliar with the overall story could still follow the tale and enjoy the experience.

Les Vampires (1915)

The party hadn’t been an unqualified success…

Viewed overall, the circumstances of the production do necessarily give the serial a somewhat uneven feel. The passage of time is not well-established, but it is evident that the story is supposed to be taking place over a considerable period. This problem is highlighted by two developments that come entirely out of left-field. Firstly, after losing his job with The Globe and the initial team-up with Mathé, Lévesque emerges in the third chapter as a man ‘gone straight’, a fully-qualified undertaker with a bunch of authorised testimonials! Similarly, in the ninth chapter, we discover that Mathé is about to marry Jane Brémontier (Louise Lagrange) even though she has never appeared previously, and no-one has ever mentioned her existence.

Curiously enough, this haphazard story structure does make for one interesting development. Despite being the somewhat half-hearted comedy relief, the balding, moustache-wielding Lévesque gets the story’s only character arc. In the beginning, he’s a weak-willed tool of the criminal gang; then he teams up with Mathé, becomes a respectable working man, gives that up to be a more committed collaborator in the cause of law and order, gets filthy rich off the reward money after foiling one of the gang’s evil schemes, turns into a drunken playboy, is forced to assume responsibility for his young son when he is expelled from school and eventually finds true love with the widow of one of the gang’s victims!

Les Vampires (1915)

‘I don’t think he got my nose quite right…’

It is worth questioning Lévesque’s parenting skills, though. It doesn’t seem all that appropriate to use his precocious 8-year old in a criminal investigation, especially when it involves the lad taking a potshot at the Grand Vampire with a loaded pistol! Another interesting aspect of the character is how Lévesque periodically stares straight into the camera as if inviting the audience to laugh at some of the more absurd moments in the story. It’s not a frequent device by any means, but it happens often enough that it’s clearly not a mistake. Perhaps it was intended as ironic commentary. Still, it’s unusual to see the fourth wall broken in a dramatic presentation of this vintage.

The impressive stunts in the film are also noteworthy, particularly the work on high buildings. These are carried out in real-life locations and without the use of rope or a safety harness. More than once, someone will ascend several storeys from street level by clambering up the exterior skeleton of the building. It looks pretty dangerous, and something that would invite serious Health and Safety concerns if attempted on a film set today. There is also an extraordinary moment when Musidora escapes from the seventh storey of a gang hideout. She exits with a spinning descent via a rope that uncoils quickly from around her waist. It’s a move that would now probably be described as an aspect of ‘Aerial Dance’, although this example looks a fair bit more extreme. There is a cut at the end of the brief sequence when Musidora reaches the pavement, but this can easily be forgiven when you appreciate that the actress was a trained acrobat and did all her own stunts in the film.

Les Vampires (1915)

An interesting new member had joined the ranks of the Mouseketeers…

Despite receiving mixed notices at the time, the serial was popular with audiences and arguably influenced later filmmakers like Fritz Lang, whose exploits with Dr Mabuse would seem to owe a nod to Feuillade’s work. Les Vampires employ little in technological devices in their reign of terror, but certain elements foreshadow the more complex techniques of characters such as Lang’s mastermind. They employ coded messages, secret writing, hypnotic control and assassination by gas canister and portable cannon. The use of multiple chief villains may have also inspired the idea of Mabuse taking on different identities through the force of his diabolical will.

These serials, including the later ‘Judex’ (1916), remain Feuillade’s best known and celebrated works. Film director Olivier Assayas paid tribute to his influence with the well-received ‘Irma Vep’ (1996), a feature centred on a modern filmmaker trying to mount a remake of ‘Les Vampires’ (1915) and starring actress Maggie Cheung in the title role. The original serial helped to make a star of Musidora, who appeared for Feuillade again in ‘Judex’ (1916) and, after retirement, went onto a second career writing about film. Napierkowska, who appears only briefly here, went on to play Queen Antinea in Jacques Feyder’s ‘L’Atlantide’ (1921), the first adaptation of Pierre Benoit’s novel about members of the French Foreign Legion discovering the lost kingdom of Atlantis.

More interesting from a historical perspective than as entertainment, this is nevertheless an enjoyable enterprise, even though its conventions have become somewhat too familiar over subsequent years.

Diabolik/Danger: Diabolik (1968)

Diabolik/Danger: Diabolik (1968)‘With this suit, I could swim through the centre of the sun.’

A notorious criminal mastermind steals 10 million dollars from under the noses of the police. The authorities escalate their campaign to apprehend him, forcing an underworld kingpin and his mob into taking action against the thief. Can the villain stay one step ahead of both the combined might of the forces of law and order and the criminal underworld?

Stylish and extravagant big-screen adaptation of the popular Italian comic book series from director Mario Bava. Unlike the maestro’s previous offerings, this was a big studio production with backing from well-known producer Dino De Laurentiis, big-name stars and shot on various locations, but mostly at his studio in Rome.

The film opens with the latest diversionary tactic employed by Inspector Ginko (Michel Piccoli) to snare super heist merchant, Diabolik (John Phillip Law) and his lover and partner in crime Eva Kant (Marisa Mell). Instead of ten million dollars in banknotes, the cargo protected by a convey of motorcycle policemen is just blank paper. The real deal is going with him in an unmarked car with a much smaller escort. Law isn’t fooled, of course, and uses a smoke machine on a road bridge and a dockside crane to grab the swag. Piccoli is called in to face Minister of Finance Terry-Thomas but, after a humiliating press conference which Law and Mell disrupt with laughing gas, Piccoli gets special powers to end the Diabolik menace.
Diabolik/Danger: Diabolik (1968)


Squeezing local mobster, Ralph Valmont (Adolfo Celi) by raiding on his clubs and businesses, the detective strikes a deal with the crimelord: hand over Diabolik and the pressure will be off. Meanwhile, Law pulls off another daring heist; snatching an emerald necklace and escaping via a rise with a catapult. But Celi kidnaps Mell and offers Law an ultimatum: the ten million dollars and the emerald necklace in exchange for her safe return. Law accepts the deal, but still has a few tricks up his sleeve when they meet for a showdown.

Diabolik was a character created by sisters Angela and Luciana Giussani whose instant popularity created a whole new sub-genre of Italian comics known as the ‘Fumetti neri’ (‘black comics’). In his original incarnation, Diabolik was a ruthless criminal genius, who let nothing stand in his way but, over time, and after legal actions by an outraged ‘moral majority’, the character softened into more of a hi-tech ‘Robin Hood’. Fumetti neri in general split into two distinct camps, those targeted more at a juvenile audience and those ‘prohibited to minors’ which emphasised more adult themes, including far higher levels of sex and violence.

Diabolik/Danger: Diabolik (1968)


A project to adapt the character to film had begun several years earlier with Jean Sorel in the title role and Elsa Martinelli and his lover and partner in crime, Eva Kant. However, the project collapsed quickly, and it’s unclear if anything more was shot than publicity stills. De Laurentiis acquired the rights and brought Bava on board, intending the film would accompany his production of Roger Vadim’ ‘Barbarella’ (1968) into theatres. Law was under contract to appear in that film, but delays caused by working with the SFX allowed him to take on the role of Diabolik first.

Bava was happy with his casting but less so with Catherine Deneuve who De Laurentiis selected for the role of Eva. As it was, she only lasted a week into filming before Austrian actress Marisa Mell replaced her. By all accounts, this was because Deneuve refused to disrobe for the film’s most iconic scene, where Diabolik and Eva make love naked on a revolving bed covered in money. However, given her subsequent filmography and the fact that the final scene is not explicit, it may be that Bava was able to use the situation as a way to get her released.

Diabolik/Danger: Diabolik (1968)

 


The finished film is a kaleidoscope of 1960s pop culture, with bright, eye-popping colours and a wonderful mixture of striking production design and Bava’s genius for optical effects. Rather than presenting the action in a static way to reflect its comic strip origins, Bava keeps his camera moving, deliver a fast-paced narrative decorated with stylistic flourishes which give the film a feel of hyper-reality. Bava achieved the apparent scale and complexity of Diabolik’s underground headquarters by combining the actors with Bava’s matte paintings. Other visuals were created by cutting pictures of buildings, aircraft and other items from magazines, posting them on to a sheet of strategically placed glass and then shooting the action through it. Although it sounds like a terrible idea, Bava makes it work.

There are some other noteworthy touches too. Bava uses animation to draw lines on a map, and for a photo-fit device used by the police to try and identify Eva. He also employs his usual trick of foregrounding objects to give depth to scenes, sometimes shooting through some that break the image into squares approximating the comic book panels, such as empty bookshelves and a bedstead.
Diabolik/Danger: Diabolik (1968)


There’s a flamboyance and a real sense of freedom to the picture, fueled by a playful, liberated sexuality, displayed not by promiscuity, but the unfettered passion between Diabolik and Eva. It helps that Law and Mell have such sizzling chemistry and give note-perfect performances, sensibly resisting the temptation to play to the gallery. Celi is his usual, reliable self as boss of the criminal underworld and Piccoli underplays beautifully as our larcenous duo’s official nemesis. Thomas also provides a beautiful cameo as the government minister, begging the populace to pay their taxes voluntarily after Law and Mell blow up the tax office and destroy all the official records!

The cool 1960s vibe also gets a major assist from composer Ennio Morricone, who delivers a jazzy, uptempo score that’s an integral part of the film’s ambience. Sadly, the original tapes are no longer available, having been destroyed in a fire, and the only way to enjoy his work is to watch the film, although a re-recording from 2014 is available. Also on hand to deliver his expertise is artist Carlo Rambaldi who designed Diabolik’s iconic mask before going on to significant work in Hollywood, rewarded eventually with 3 Oscars, including one for ‘E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial’ (1982).

Diabolik/Danger: Diabolik (1968)

 

The character of Diabolik has his roots in older fictional masterminds, such as Germany’s ‘Dr Mabuse’ and the French ‘Fantomas’. Like those characters, in the source material, he plays with notions of identity, using lifelike masks to take on the appearance of anyone he chooses. This idea was dropped from the film, leaving him more in common with later villains such as ‘Kriminal’. He was developed as a direct rival to Diabolik but arrived on the big screen first in the form of Glenn Saxson. In a sly tip of the hat, the bank manager who hands the ten million dollars over to Piccioli at the start of this film is played by Andrea Bosic, who served as Saxson’s official opponent in those earlier ‘Kriminal’ pictures.

There are some flaws in Bava’s film, though. The process shots and rear-projection are so hideous and poorly done that it’s tempting to believe that it was a deliberate choice, made by the director to contribute to the comic-book aesthetic. If so, then it’s one of the few visual missteps in his career. The script, credited to several writers, including Bava, is a little scrambled and untidy, but that may have been intentional too, as it does lift some sequences directly from the source material and contributes to the freewheeling atmosphere.

Diabolik/Danger: Diabolik (1968)

 

Diabolik’s return to the big screen any time soon seems an unlikely proposition, even though the global audience today shares some of the feelings of the public who first elevated the character to its iconic status in Italy after the Second World War. Specifically, a distrust of authority figures who increasingly excuse graft and political corruption by using the loopholes in a legal system designed solely for their benefit. This growing cynicism would embrace a subversive character such as this, but any new iteration would need to walk a very fine line. After all, a lot of his actions would be interpreted by most as aspects of domestic terrorism, even though he has no political agenda or desire to enforce change on the system.

Bava’s cut-price optical effects helped bring the film in for a cost of approximately $400,000 when it had originally been allocated a budget of $3 million. De Laurentiis offered him the chance to direct a sequel with the unused money, but Bava turned it down, unhappy with what he felt was interference from the studio during the filmmaking process. Perhaps the money would have been better used smoothing off some of the rougher edges of this film anyway.

A thoroughly enjoyable Sixties romp, tinged with psychedelia and filtered through the genius of Mario Bava.

Fantomas Vs. Scotland Yard/Fantomas Contre Scotland Yard (1967)

Fantomas Vs. Scotland Yard:Fantomas Contre Scotland Yard (1967)‘But I had no idea Scotland Yard interrogates furniture these days…’

Masked mastermind Fantomas tries to blackmail the richest people in the world by threatening them with sudden death, in particular targeting a wealthy Scottish nobleman. The forces of law and order gather at the Laird’s ancestral castle with a plan to catch the supervillain and end his reign of terror for good…

The third and final part of the 1960s Fantomas trilogy from Gaumont Studios finds all the principals from the series back in front of the camera for regular director André Hunebelle. This is both good news and bad. The biggest joy, of course, is to see star Jean Marias wearing the striking Fantomas mask and also taking on hero duties as intrepid journalist Fandor. As ever he’s accompanied by the lively Mylene Demongeot and, although their partnership is somewhat side-lined this time, they still make for an appealing screen couple. Unfortunately, the bad news is far more serious. Louis de Funes returns as Commissar Juve along with sidekick Inspector Bertrand (Jacques Dynam). Worse still; their tedious comedy routine gets even more screen time than in the previous films.

After his failure to brainwash the world’s population in ‘Fantomas Unleashed’ (1965), our friendly neighbourhood megalomaniac has decided to raise a little nest egg before he gets around to ‘destroying the world.’ Allegedly, he’s braced all the world’s well-off with a simple proposition: pay him a ‘life tax’ or take a long sleep with the fishes. In practice, his scheme mostly seems to involve playing stupid, puerile pranks on policeman de Funes after everyone assembles at the remote castle in Scotland.

Fantomas Vs. Scotland Yard:Fantomas Contre Scotland Yard (1967)

‘Please tell me there are some good jokes on the next page of the script…’

Sure, he kills off lord of the manor Jean-Roger Caussimon and infiltrates a group of syndicate mobsters, but he spends a lot of time hanging corpses in de Funes’ bedroom, which mysteriously disappear when anyone else comes back to see them. It’s a strange plan, to be sure, and unfortunately means that we spend almost the entire second act of the film in the ‘hilarious’ company of de Funes and his second-hand Inspector Clouseau impression. At least his kilt doesn’t fall all the way down, I suppose.

Leaving aside the comedy, the film has a tired, padded feel to it anyway, which is not helped by the 104-minute running time. The story meanders through a number of pointless sequences, including a half-baked séance and an endless fox-hunt that mostly features de Funes looking for his horse. The Scottish locations are also unconvincing and it’s disappointing to find that our villain has abandoned his secret base on the slopes of a volcano to just skulk around the highlands for a bit and take the odd trip in his helicopter. His ambitions have also become strangely limited; for all his threats, it turns out that he’s just after some jewels. This may be more in tune with the original literary source, but doesn’t it seem to be a key element in taking over the world.

Fantomas Vs. Scotland Yard:Fantomas Contre Scotland Yard (1967)

‘Cheerio!’

Judging from the publicity material, de Funes was now the star of the series, even if that may be somewhat hard to credit for a modern audience. However, it was a fact that apparently led to Marias’ decision to hang up the Fantomas mask and pass on a planned fourth film. If that was the case, it’s a decision that was perfectly understandable.

Taken as a trilogy, the Fantomas films are a bit of a disappointment. There’s no doubt that talented people were involved in their creation on both sides of the camera, and there are some fine moments, particularly when Marias is on the screen in the title role. However, rather than embrace the pop culture explosion of the times to try and create something truly memorable, the films just fall back on stale, dated comedic tropes and conventions. And that’s never more obvious than in this final episode.

Rather a frustrating experience.

Fantomas Unleashed/Fantomas Strikes Back/Fantomas de Déchaine (1965)

Fantomas Unleashed (1965)‘I’m sure we’re surrounded by Martians.’

Super villain Fantomas intends to snatch a famous scientist from a conference in Rome. Police Commissioner Juve rushes to stop him, unaware that journalist Fandor is already on the case, disguised as the boffin in question…

The success of Sean Connery’s turn as secret agent 007 had a serious knock-on effect on the European film industry. Sensing a possible box office bonanza, producers rushed out dozens of similar, formulaic projects, and the continent’s capital cities were soon overrun with guns, gadgets and beautiful girls. It also prompted French company Gaumont Films to resurrect mysterious criminal Fantomas and cast him in the role of a Bond villain. It was a pretty obvious fit; the character had been a big success on the silver screen in the silent days and all that was required was to upgrade his aims and objectives from fabulous jewel robberies to world domination. But this time there would be a crucial change of emphasis. Instead of serious drama, these would be played tongue-in-cheek.

The first of the series was ‘Fantomas’ (1964) and it proved to be a considerable success, so it was no surprise when the principal cast and crew returned barely a year later for this sequel. Jean Marias again takes on the dual role of the title character and his nemesis, investigative journalist Fandor. It was always an interesting choice to cast this way as the main weapon in the Fantomas arsenal is his mastery of disguise. Indeed, in the original series of novels by Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain, the plots often just seemed to be an excuse to put the principal characters in disguise for as many pages as possible! And, given that Fantomas was always a shadowy, anonymous figure (whose very existence is doubted by some), this blurring of identities was always a central aspect of the character. However, in these films, he is given his own clear identity, albeit that is Marias playing the role in a strange, green mask that gives him a weird and genuinely unsettling appearance.

Fantomas Unleashed (1965)

‘You mean I’m not remotely funny?’

Unfortunately, reuniting the cast also means we get more of Police Commissar Juve (Louis de Funes) and his hapless assistant Inspector Bertrand (Jacques Dynam). Yes, the film is not to be taken seriously, but De Funes and Dynam’s tiresome double act constantly derails proceedings just when they seem to be getting interesting. The jokes are obvious and often repetitive when a subtler approach to the humour would almost certainly have been far more effective.

On the plus side, the luminous Mylene Demongeot is back as photographer Héléne, and the easy chemistry between her and Marias helps us over some of the rougher spots. Another point in its favour is that director André Hunebelle keeps things moving at a good pace and has a good eye for shot composition. The cinematography by Raymond Pierre Lemoigne is excellent too.

Fantomas Unleashed (1965)

‘You mean this isn’t the set of Ali Baba & The 40 Thieves’?

All these virtues combine to make this film that rare cinema beast; a sequel that’s actually better than the original. Sure, the lack of budget is visible in places, particularly with the SFX in the climactic scenes with the flying car, but Fantomas gets a greater number of gadgets to play with and there’s much more of a story.

The plot is a cliché, of course, what with the kidnapped scientist and secret weapon, etc. but then it’s supposed to be a satire, after all, and the screenplay (by three separate writers) does exhibit a good level of invention at times.

A pleasant enough way to spend 90 minutes or so, particularly when the more obvious gags are kept offscreen. However, there’s a feeling that, with a different approach, this could have been so much more.

Fantomas/Fantômas (1964)

Fantomas (1964)Men Hunt Him Down…Women Look Him up!’

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 and an ambitious journalist 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.

Fantômas: The False Magistrate/Le Faux Magistrat (1914)

Fantômas - The False Magistrate/Le Faux Magistrat (1914)‘My husband has a fever. I had to turn on the gas heater.’

A seemingly impossible jewellery robbery sees the gems disappear from a locked hotel room and their buyer robbed by daring thieves on the road. Fantômas is suspected but how can he possible be responsible when he’s locked up in a jail cell in Belgium?

The fifth and final of director Louis Feuillade’s series of films based on the popular character created by authors Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain. Sadly, this is not so well preserved as the other entries, and there are a handful of lost scenes replaced by explanatory captions. It’s actually based on the twelfth volume of the books, which the authors turned out at such a rate they delivered over 30 of them in three years! The reason behind this was that there were published monthly in a magazine format, which must have been financially lucrative for all concerned but did mean that the writers had little or no chance to plan their overall story ahead.

The film begins with a daring theft carried out by villains Laurent Morléas and Jean-Francois Martial; lieutenants in the Fantômas gang. Meanwhile, Inspector Juve (Edmund Breon) is still obsessed with putting his hand on the collar of the masked man, even though he has been arrested and is safely jailed in Brussels. Determined that he stand trial for his crimes in France, he arranges for Fantômas (René Navarre) to escape, taking his place in the Belgian jail! This is a plot device almost ridiculous beyond words, and was gently spoofed over half a century later when Inspector Andrea Bosic arranged for Glenn Saxson to escape the hangman’s noose in ‘Kriminal’ (1966). That title character owed more than a slight debt to our main man here.

Breon’s ‘cunning’ plan is that two of his men will track Navarre and arrest him as soon as he steps onto French soil. It all goes wrong, of course, and the masked man is soon on the loose again. Which begs a question…well, several of them, in fact. Why don’t the prison guards notice the switch of inmates, and what exactly was Breon’s plan anyway? Now he’s stuck in this Belgian prison, and presumably for a very long time. After all, I doubt that Navarre was arrested for a traffic violation. But Breon can secure his release by proving his true identity to the prison authorities, right? Well, I don’t know, because he doesn’t even try. Ok, so he’s just helped a prisoner escape which would make for a tricky diplomatic situation, I guess, but is he just going to sit there for the rest of his life? It is probably the least secure prison in movie history so he can probably just walk out any day, but, again, he doesn’t even attempt to leave. Maybe he likes the food.

Fantômas - The False Magistrate/Le Faux Magistrat (1914)

‘Think it over, creep!’

We’re also faced with another idiotic plot contrivance later on. On the run, Navarre needs a new identity so he kills an old man for his papers. It turns out his victim just happens to be a magistrate on his way to a take up a post at the Paris law courts. Convenient, eh? He’s soon settled into his new office, blackmailing a Marchioness and reconnecting with his old gang. This means teaming up with Morléas and Martial to retrieve the booty from their jewellery heist.

Rather brilliantly, they’ve stashed the gems inside a church bell, which is only accessible by climbing more than 50 feet into the air on a rickety ladder! Visually, these are the film’s most impressive moments, but, again, it’s a pretty silly setup and more suited to the comedic sensibilities of someone like Buster Keaton than a serious thriller. It does make for a rain of pearls, diamonds and blood on a funeral party later on though, which is a nice touch.

Presumably, it was the advent of the First World War that temporarily put an end to the exploits of Fantômas, but, truth be told, things were beginning to look a little tired anyway.

The film is technically impressive at times but does suffers from rather muddled plot development, perhaps inevitable given the circumstances surrounding the creation of the original source material.

Fantômas: The Mysterious Fingerprint/Fantômas Contra Fantômas (1914)

Fantômas: The Mysterious Fingerprint (1914)

‘Give the police superintendent this when he comes to arrest me.’

Public opinion turns against Inspector Juve of the French Police after his failed attempts to apprehend master criminal Fantômas. Stripped of his position and thrown into jail, the detective is helpless as his friend Fandor tries to take down the villain and his gang of thieves and cutthroats alone…

Choosing to skip the next two novels in the literary series by authors Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain, director Louis Feuillade instead based the fourth film in his ‘Fantômas’ series on sixth volume ‘The Long Arm of Fantômas’. The reasons for this decision are unrecorded, but it may be that the themes of espionage and the theft of state secrets addressed in ‘A Nest of Spies’ and a foreign monarch accused of murder in ‘A Royal Prisoner’ were uncomfortable subject matter on the eve of the First World War.

The story begins with an intriguing setup. Inspector Juve of the Sureté can’t be further from ‘flavour of the month’ in the eyes of the Parisian public after being bested three times by the deadly masked man Fantômas. But it gets worse when the newspapers start to infer that there are more sinister reasons for his lack of success, rather than just a lack of competence. Soon, they are even suggesting that Juve and Fantômas are the same man and, somewhat bizarrely, the state prosecutor seems to believe them! Although the idea may seem outlandish, it’s worth pointing out that some commentators have said that if you read the first novel again with that in mind then it’s a definite possibility! Whether that was in the authors’ thoughts at the time of writing is unknown, of course, but further volumes do make it abundantly clear that it’s not the case.

Unfortunately, that initial plot device is about as good as it gets here, with the story development often contrived and stretching credibility. Why do the authorities persist in this sudden belief that Juve is Fantômas? It’s hard to understand to begin with — there’s no evidence! — and even more difficult to credit that he stays locked up for most of the picture. This puts his unofficial sidekick Fandor (Georges Melchior) front and centre, and he does make a pretty good job of rounding up the criminal gang in an abandoned house, but he is just a journalist! What are the police supposed to be doing all this time? Other than jailing an innocent man on the word of a few tabloid newspaper reporters, of course!

In fact, Juve has to prove his innocence from his cell, which is only possible when Fantômas makes a stupid attempt to prove his guilt beyond question. His method? To have Juve wounded in exactly the same way that he was the night before in a run-in with Fandor after a party. How Juve was supposed to have left his cell to attend this shindig doesn’t seem to have been considered. Did everyone believe that Fantômas had super powers, or something? The ending is also likely to provoke snorts of incredulous laughter from a modern audience; not just because it’s ridiculous and poorly executed, but simply because it’s so unbelievably lame.

Fantômas: The Mysterious Fingerprint (1914)

‘It was him! He’s the one who stole my right arm!’

Both books and films had settled into a comfortable groove by this point, with plots often seemingly designed simply to allow the main protagonists to spend as much time disguised as other people as was possible. And there are no sudden revelations of secret identities in the films; these are always clearly signposted as each begins with isolated shots of René Navarre’s ‘Fantômas’ in his various make-ups. This was probably designed to help keep the plot clear to the audience, but it robs the finished tale of any opportunity to surprise.

Curiously, the final cut runs just less than an hour, a similar length to the opening film in the series, but considerably shorter than the previous two, which both clocked in around 90 minutes. Yes, there is a scene missing (the Artificial Eye DVD release replaces it with an equivalent from one of the earlier films with explanatory captions) but this would add little to the overall running time, and it seems no other footage is missing.

A definite step down in quality from the first three films.

The Murderous Corpse/Le Mort Qui Tue (1913)

The Murderous Corpse (1913)‘The following morning at the Anthropometry Department.’

After his last minute escape from the forces of law and order, criminal genius Fantômas resumes his nefarious schemes, framing a young painter for murder. The innocent man later commits suicide in police custody but his body disappears and his fingerprints keep turning up at subsequent crime scenes…

Louie Feuillade’s third silent film about Gallic super-criminal Fantômas (Réné Navarro) finds our anti-hero up to his neck in the usual shenanigans of fabulous jewellery robberies, impenetrable disguises and secret identities. I do wonder how on earth he had the time to set up all these other obviously very well-established personalities though! Perhaps it was a simple matter of murdering the original people and replacing them without anyone noticing? We never find out for sure.

At least on this occasion, he gets 90 minutes to put his plans into action as opposed to the much shorter length of the previous films. They both clocked in around the hour mark and often seemed a little like edited highlights of the source material. The more familiar feature length allows for a more faithful adaptation of Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre’s third novel and a better presentation all round. There’s also a different character dynamic as Navarro’s nemesis Inspector Juve (Edmund Bréon) is missing, presumed dead, after the explosive climax of the last film. Instead, investigations are in the hands of his grieving friend, handsome reporter Jules Fandor (Georges Melchior). He may only be a journalist but he seems to have as much official clout in police matters as a member of the regular force, even though he acts alone. Also returning is Princess Sonia Davidoff (Jane Faber) whose gems get lifted again with a tell-tale fingerprint left behind on her neck. The robbery occurs ‘off screen’ in the novel but Feuillade makes the decision to show it, consequently sacrificing the mystery of Navarro’s last disguise well in advance of the climax.

Another curious decision is to feature the anthropometric department of the Sureté, headed up by legendary, real-life criminologist Alphonse Bertillon (Armand Dutertre). He invented what was called the ‘Bertillon System’; a series of five measurements that, combined with a photograph, supposedly provided a unique physical profile for any individual. It was in wide use by law enforcement agencies all over the world by the 1880s and was even preferred as a means of identification to fingerprints! Unfortunately, a widely-publicised 1903 American case involving two unrelated criminals with an almost identical appearance and measurements shook faith in his work. Further problems followed when his handwriting analysis in the infamous Dreyfus trial was completely discredited. So it’s a little strange to see Feuillade still going to bat for him all these years later, even if he was largely responsible for some of the important first steps in the world of forensic criminology. If nothing else, he did invent the mugshot!

The Murderous Corpse (1913)

He could never concentrate when someone was looking over his shoulder…

It is pleasing to see Navarro at his old tricks again, even if his ambitions never extend beyond mere financial gain and his plans never approach the complexity of greater masterminds such as Dr Mabuse. His criminal organisation is also far more limited in size and scope, and its member utilise nothing more sophisticated than guns, fists and the motor car. There are a few more outlandish touches, such as the method for leaving a dead man’s fingerprints at a crime scene, but these are little more than passing details.

Well-executed example of silent filmmaking and a significant step toward the feature film format as we know it today. The entire 5-film series has been lovingly restored and made available on a double DVD set from Artificial Eye and it is recommended if you’re interested in cinema history and the evolution of the crime genre.

Juve Versus Fantômas/Juve Contra Fantômas (1913)

Juve Versus Fantomas (1913)‘During the journey the elegant Dr Chalek had changed into a dangerous looking lout.’

After escaping the gallows, super villain and master of disguise Fantômas resumes his criminal activities, disguised as a thief and local gang leader. Inspector Juve is still hot on his trail, despite disbelief in higher circles that his quarry even exists…

The second of director Louis Feuillade’s five film series from the novels by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre is a direct continuation of events from the first with Inspector Juve (Edmund Bréon) struggling to come to terms with life after the escape of Fantômas (Réné Navarro). Such a criminal genius is his antagonist that his own credit in official circles is compromised and his only ally is sympathetic journalist, and brother in arms, Fandor (Georges Melchior). The film makes much of their unofficial partnership, which definitely echoes Holmes and Watson, as well as Nayland Smith and Dr Petrie, who tangled with another Napoleon of Crime; Oriental genius Dr. Fu Manchu.

By now, Fantômas has a criminal gang at his command, a ragged group of Parisian low-lifes who believe him to be a thug called Loupart. He’s also up to his old tricks with the wretched Lady Beltham (Renée Carl) who is unable to break away from his deadly influence. So there is much more of a sense of Fantômas as a mastermind here, rather than as a lone wolf with a genius for daring and improvisation that we met in the first film. Having said that, some of his activities from the novel are jettisoned to match the short running time (61 minutes), and this does diminish the scope of his operation and some of the almost mythical stature that the character possesses on the printed page.

Juve Versus Fantomas (1913)

He still couldn’t get a decent Wifi signal on the train…

In fact, most of the first half of the book is excised completely, with the action commencing with the train robbery and subsequent smash up. This rail disaster is depicted with brief models shots, but is decently realised considering the vintage of the film. Focusing on the gang gives us a surprisingly generous amount of street scenes and location work, providing a fascinating glimpse of Parisian life more than a century ago. This includes some scenes in a nightclub, although the entertainment was probably considerably more outrgaeous in real life!

Overall, this is a decided improvement on the first in the series, more than likely assisted by the qualities of the source material. Allain and Souvestre collaborated by writing alternate chapters of their Fantômas novels without checking out what each other were doing(!), a method which resulted in a first book that was massively overfilled with characters and subplots. Their follow up was far more tightly structured as they got a handle on their unique working method, making it far easier to adapt for the screen. Feuillade still chooses to concentrate on the last few chapters of the novel, which does slow things down a little in the last act again, but overall the results are still far better paced. There are also some memorable visuals at the climax, particularly in the basement of Lady Beltham’s house, and the abrupt nature of the ending must have been quite a shock for the audience of the time.

Feuillade’s ‘Fantômas’ series was certainly an important part of the evolution of silent cinema as the format moved from shorts to full-length features. After all, the next one in the series was just over 90 minutes long, something that must have seemed an eternity to viewers used to one reelers lasting between 10 and 12 minutes! Technically, there’s also a fine use of coloured filter effects here; gold for day, blue for night, which helps to develop the idea of visual storytelling, rather than relying on the performances of the cast. These seem overcooked to a modern audience, of course, but Navarro and his disguises are good and the character never descends into the kind of pantomime villainy that those with little experience of silent film might expect.

Worth checking out if you are interested in the history of the cinema and the super villain persona.

Fantômas (1913)

Fantômas (1913)‘Remain tonight, sublime murderer.’

A daring hotel robbery and the murder of an English nobleman point to the activities of a major criminal who is a master of disguise. The Sûreté appoint their best investigator to the case and he becomes obsessed with catching the lawbreaker…

Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre’s 1911 novel ‘Fantômas’ was a smash hit in France when it was published, and the villain went on to become one of the nations’ most popular characters in crime fiction. The rights were snapped up almost immediately by the Gaumont Studio and a series of five films rushed into production. This may not seem particularly noteworthy in these ‘franchise friendly’ times, but it was truly groundbreaking at this point in cinema history. The first was a fairly faithful adaptation of the opening novel, scripted and directed by the experienced Louis Feuillade, and is sometimes referred to as ‘Fantômas: In the Shadow of the Guillotine’.

With the novels all the rage, it may have looked like an easy win for Feuillade. However, he was faced with some problems. Allain and Souvestre had a fairly unusual working method. They would outline the general story and then work on alternate chapters before bringing all the story threads together at the end. Only they didn’t communicate during the majority of the process! This allowed for a truly prodigious output (a new novel every month!) but did have a rather noticeable effect on the finished work. The first book is simply stuffed full with events, subplots and characters, some of whom seem to be assuming a vital importance to the story, only to suddenly vanish in the following chapter! Although this sounds chaotic; to the credit of the authors, the book is never less than entertaining and is actually vaguely reminiscent in a way of Dickens (whose novels were typically released in episodic form while he was still writing them!)

Given that this first film runs only a scant 54 minutes, obviously all the subplots had to go, and the main storyline needed a lot of simplification. Instead of opening with the murder of the Marquise de Langrune, Feuillade starts with Fantômas (René Navarre) lifting the jewels of the Princess Danidoff (Jane Faber), and goes right to the discovery of Lord Bentham’s murdered corpse. This completely obliterates the characters of Charles and Etienne Rambert and much of the novel’s plot. As a result, when we meet the heroic Inspector Juve (Edmond Breon), his friend Jérome Fandor (Geroges Melchior) is simply a bland sidekick, rather than Charles living under an assumed identity because of a false accusation of murder.

Fantômas (1913)

‘I’m sorry Monsieur, but you need a valid ticket…’

Instead, Feuillade concentrates a great deal on the book’s final chapters when Navarre is caught, imprisoned and attempts to escape. lt’s an interesting decision, but not an entirely successful one. With our knowledge of Navarre’s crimes limited to one theft and an off-screen murder, it’s hard to really invest in the notion of him as a criminal genius. Fantômas is supposed to be close to a mythological figure, whose very existence is questioned by many.

The film fails to convey that ambiguity and softens the character somewhat, removing some of his threat as well as his mystique. This is never more obvious than the cop out in the film’s final scene, although perhaps that was inevitable given the era when the film was made.

Having said that, there is still plenty to admire here. lt’s a slick production with a high level of technical and production expertise. There’s a good mixture of studio and location work and the story moves fluidly thanks to good performances, direction and editing, even if things slow down far too much in the final act. The performances are surprisingly restrained, with Navarre in particular shining in various ingenious makeups. It might not be a Lon Chaney level of transformation but it’s still quite impressive. The photography is also top notch with scenes tinted to convey different times of day, as well as providing pleasing visual contrasts.

Fantômas (1913)

‘I’ve got a real bad feeling about this…’

I watched this as part of the double DVD set issued by Artificial Eye, and it’s a fine example of how to present a silent film to a modern audience. It comes in a clear, sharp print and the musical accompaniment is entirely appropriate, never proving a distraction but informing events and the emotional states of the characters onscreen.  It’s always a pleasure to see such care and attention lavished on a relic of cinema’s glorious past and only appropriate when it’s as significant as this.

If you happen to be familiar with the book, this might seem to be little more than a rush through edited story highlights, but it’s undoubtedly an important film in the history of cinema. It’s a signpost to some of the modern industry’s common business practices and audience viewing habits and preferences.

After all, you could argue that ‘Fantômas’ was the world’s first summer blockbuster!