Sep 20 2010

Fantômas: Cinema’s First Supervillain

Fantômas: The Complete Saga (Kino)

Fantomas: the image that gripped Paris!

There may be no more creatively energetic, playfully inventive and entertaining surreal filmmaking in the years 1913 and 1914 than the five wicked short features of Louis Feuillade’s serialized adaptations of the pulp adventures of Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre, films that captured the imaginations of filmgoers of the time and inspired the crime and adventure serials of the next decade, including Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse films.

Thief, assassin, escape artist and master of disguises, Fantômas (played with calm, stylish command by Rene Navarre) is the cinema’s first supervillain, an anti-hero who is very much the center of attention in this mad masterpiece of secret identities, violent conspiracies and cliffhanger twists. The character of this pulp mastermind was established in blitzkrieg of pulp adventures cranked out by the authors at the rate of one a month for 32 months between 1911 and 1913. That, according to film historian David Kalat, has a lot to do with the incoherence of the plotting. The rest is a matter of Feuillade’s breakneck pace of filmmaking: he made these five feature-length (some just barely) films in a single year, in which he also turned out almost fifty short films (most of them with his popular child star Bout-de-Zan). I don’t think there was anyone more prolific than Feuillade in the early teens, and this while also serving as the artistic director of Gaumont.

Gaumont bought the rights to the bestselling series and the first film, Fantômas in the Shadow of the Guillotine, hit screens in May 1913. Rene Navarre (star of dozens of earlier Feuillade films) opens the film be appearing in the series of disguises he’ll be taking on through the film, one incarnation dissolving into another, and then proceeds to brazenly steal the jewels of a Princess, personally handing his card to his victim: blank until his name fades in and then back out, like a taunt. Inspector Juve (Edmund Bréon) is assigned the case and the battle of wits and wiles between the elaborate charades and schemes begins. A reporter named Fandor (Georges Melchior) joins Juve as he captures and imprisons the criminal while Lady Beltham (Renée Carl), Fantômas’s mistress, helps the “Emperor of Crime” (who has been sentenced to the guillotine) in his elaborate plan that involves not merely escaping but putting in a double (!) to take his place for the execution. It’s insane and improbable and irresistible and it was an instant smash with audiences, and the final shot of the short (under an hour on DVD) feature essentially guarantees not just a sequel but a series: the Inspector is back in his office, dejected and beaten by the criminal who escaped the guillotine, and the final intertitle reads: “From now on, Inspector Juve will have but one obsession: capturing Fantômas.”

Their game continues through four subsequent films. My favorite scenes in are in the second installment, Juve vs. Fantômas (1913), which begins on another brazen theft and features a dramatic train wreck (a fabulous miniature of toy trains on an elaborately detailed set) engineered by Fantômas to get rid of his persistent nemesis, and one of the greatest scenes of the series: on what appears to be a deserted waterfront piles up with empty barrels, gunmen suddenly pop out of barrels and start shooting at Juve and Fandor (who has become the Inspector’s unofficial sidekick). The Murderous Corpse (1913), the third installment, opens with Juve missing and presumed dead, leaving Fandor to investigate solo as Fantômas (with the help of his accomplices) frames an innocent man for murder, kills him in his cell and then steals the corpse, but his end game is even more insidious: the dead man’s fingerprints are found at the scenes of Fantômas’ crimes. In Fantômas vs. Fantômas (1914), Juve is suspected of being the master criminal and Fantômas takes on the identity of Tom Bob, American detective (you gotta love Feuillade’s skewed idea of a stereotypical American name). finally, in The False Magistrate (1914), Fantômas is arrested in Belgium and escapes, murdering a judge and taking his place on the high court (the judge himself is dispatched in a particularly insidious manner). Each films is filled with wild plots and demented side schemes and features exotic gimmicks, from snakes unleashed into what should be the safety of one’s own parlor to a dead man hung from the inside of a bell like a clapper. There are poisons, guns, murders galore and corpses that disappear and reappear with alarming frequency. But most insidious of all is the lack of motivation for most of his crimes. Greed seems beside the point: Fantômas likes to cause chaos and mayhem and seems to enjoy murder as a way of proving his superiority and taunting his nemesis.

Fantomas prepares his next insidious scheme

Louis Feuillade was no cinematic innovator. His direction consists of a series of still tableaux shots with the actors choreographed within the frame like it’s the proscenium arch of an intimate theater. In The Murderous Corpse, when the camera slowly pans over to reveal a corpse in the room, the anomalous movement itself is almost as startling as the dramatic reveal. But within the frame the staging is dynamic and dramatic, composed in depth and filled with motion. He methodically explicates complicated scheme with a minimum of shots, and then detonates the screen as a scene explodes from stillness to furious action. Feuillade shoots a lot of the film on location and makes effective use of landscapes and backdrops, and then drops in weird and unexpected imagery. The breakneck plotting and editing drives the film at a pace belied by the style. It’s both archaic in style and strangely modern, and even with contemporary eyes you can see why audiences embraced its dime novel deliriousness and surrealists appreciated its mix of elaborate schemes and incoherent complications. This is the most fun as you’ll find in silent cinema before Chaplin went to Biograph. Or at least before Feuillade made his next serials, notably Les Vampires (1915-1916) and Judex (1916), the latter with a more coherent story (if only barely).

The five short features (they run from 54 minutes to 90 minutes) are presented on three discs in a standard case with a hinged tray, in color-tinted black and white with a compilation score edited from classical music recordings. Kino reproduces the 1998 restoration that Gaumont released in France and while it looks just fine, the PAL to NTSC format transfer shows in the digital artifacting. The set also includes two bonus Louis Feuillade shorts, The Nativity (1910) and The Dwarf (1912), a previously-released ten-minute featurette on Feuillade’s career (ported over from Kino’s Gaumont Treasures box set) and commentary on the first two film by film historian and silent film expert David Kalat. Well researched and passionately presented, it’s more of a lecture on the origins of Fantômas in print and the aesthetics of Feuillade’s direction and adaptation (“The Fantômas films are marked by narrative chaos”) than a running commentary on the films themselves, but it is fascinating and very informative.

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Other Links to this Post

  1. seanax.com » DVDs for 09/21/10 – Eccentricities, Actualities and the Secrets of Life Behind The Camera — September 21, 2010 @ 5:24 am

  2. Scarecrow Video | New Releases for September 21st — September 21, 2010 @ 4:09 pm

  3. Scarecrow Video | Our favorite DVDs & Blu-rays of 2010 — January 12, 2011 @ 3:01 pm

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