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Daring heroes fighting for romance and justice have been around since Robin Hood. But cinematically speaking the superhero craze as we know it began almost exactly a hundred years ago with the French suspense-crime serials of Louis Feuillade. As WW1 began, Feuillade popularized a masked, devilish super-villain in his Fantomas (1913-1914). His follow-up serial Les Vampires (1915) was an anarchist's delight of bizarre murders and mysterious conspiracies. Voluptuous villain Irma Vep steals across the rooftops at night wearing a thin leotard -- at a time when most displays of the female form were strictly adult subject matter. Feuillade's next serial was about a masked avenger character called Judex. The same sorts of nocturnal prowling and devilish mayhem occurred, but this time the fantasy hero was righting wrongs instead of fomenting chaos.
Various Fantomas remakes and adaptations were produced, and the character was also kept current in comic books. But Judex fell into relative obscurity; only later would he be suggested as a precursor to the Batman character. Georges Franju was one of the founders of the Cinémathèque Française. 1952 he made an endearing short subject about the legacy of the pioneer filmmaker Georges Méliès, whose name had also begun to fade from the cultural memory. 1 Franju's respect for silent film impressed the grandson of Louis Feuillade, who chose him to direct a proposed Judex remake. Franju had no intention of updating the silent original in the usual ways. His version is set in a nostalgic, poetic 'dream time' just before the horrors of WW1.
Banker Favraux (Michel Vitold) has gained his vast fortune through cruel swindles and blackmail. When the elderly Pierre Kerjean (René Génin), comes to Favraux's chateau to demand justice, the banker runs him down in his automobile. Favraux's white-haired secretary Vallières receives a letter demanding that the stolen riches be publicly at an appointed hour, or Favraux will die. The letter is signed only, "Judex". Private detective Alfred Cocantin (Jacques Jouanneau) is hired to keep a lookout at an elaborate party to announce the engagement of Favraux's widowed daughter Jacqueline Aubry (Edith Scob of Franju's Les yeux sans visage). Jacqueline has a small daughter, Alice. Unknown to all, Alice's prim governess Marie Verdier (Francine Bergé) is actually Diana Monti, a cat burglar and ruthless cutthroat. Diana plans to inherit Favraux's fortune through the marry-and-murder method, and if that fails, to steal his money with the aid of her accomplice & lover Morales (Théo Sarapo). But the unseen Judex is also watching over Jacqueline, with the help of his own corps of masked confederates. Her first criminal scheme thwarted, Monti successfully kidnaps Jacqueline. Now Judex will need all the help he can get, including that of Cocantin, Cocantin's moppet-aide Réglisse (Benjamin Boda), and even the beautiful circus aerialist Daisy (guest star Sylva Koscina).
Has any film successfully re-created the 'innocent' thrills of an earlier era, without resorting to satire or spoofery? Audiences seem impervious to most attempts. Judex makes few if any concessions to the standards of 1963. It takes a dead serious attitude toward its antique pulp fiction thrills. Although events move at a steady pace, the movie's main feeling is that of a vivid dream. As critic Raymond Durgnat pointed out, a carrier pigeon is dispatched too late to prevent Jacqueline's kidnapping, but arrives just in time to save her from a subsequent murder attempt. When drugged and flung into the river to drown, Jacqueline floats, as if she were as pure as Ivory Soap. Diana Monti, on the other hand, loses her icy self-control only once, when her attraction to Judex inspires her to attempt a seduction.
Franju's film offers an array of moral contrasts as neatly arranged as the blacks and whites in Marcel Fredetal's delicate cinematography: it's a tale of murder and intrigue in the form of a lace valentine. Favraux is committed to maintaining his lofty social position, even if it means killing an old man. His loyal aide Vallières displays immaculate manners, yet he also keeps Favraux's dirty secrets. Gentle soul Cocantin is not particularly competent as a detective. Instead of keeping watch for potential assassins, he gets caught up reciting Lewis Carroll to Jacqueline's daughter. His diminutive 'kid' sidekick Réglisse is more of a take-charge guy than he is. The daughter Jacqueline is a fair-haired feminine wisp -- she looks as if a cruel word would blow her away, like a feather. Maurice Jarre's elegant music score and Fredetal's slowly moving camera present Jacqueline as an idealized woman of 1912, a tender vision escaped from a fairy tale.
Fantastic elements soon upset the stability of this world. Judex makes his grand entrance to the accompaniment of a waltz made heavy, like a dirge. Favraux's party is a bal masque in which several attendees wear ornate, surreal bird disguises. When a 'hawk-man' appears tall in a dark tuxedo, we know immediately that it's our mystery man Judex. He proceeds to perform impressive magic tricks, producing live doves out of nowhere. One of them lands on Edith Scob's shoulder, just as in Eyes without a Face. It's a magical scene suspended between realism (nothing impossible happens) and something more mysterious. Franju cast magician Channing Pollock 2 for his real-life talents. Judex spends the rest of the picture in a dark suit, cape and broad-brimmed hat, leaving the radical costuming for other characters.
Franju chose Francine Bergé for Diana Monti because he thought she projected an evil quality. While prowling after dark she dresses simply in a sleek black leotard and mask. The dagger on her hip is handy for prying pry locks and threatening Jacqueline. Monti is impervious to emotional appeals; she enjoys criminal behavior for its own sake. Her disguise as a nun momentarily takes the film into surreal Luis Buñuel territory, with her dagger taking the place of a crucifix. A visual in which Monti plunges through a trap door into a rushing river is straight out of Cocteau, a familiar Franju font of inspiration. 3 Diana's criminal consort Morales at first seems to be a generic thug, but eventually becomes part of the story's sentimental finish. The Monti-Morales dance in a low bar looks like a comic exaggeration, with his hands gripping her derrière as they hop in unison like wind-up dolls. But it's a real dance of the period. Feuillade's original Les Vampires featured an authentic Apache dance performed by real Parisian street dancers.
At one point Judex makes use of an Interociter-like television system, a rather random science fiction item in this strangely stylized thriller. Equally quaint is 1912's idea of a dizzying pace. The cars in the big chase scene race through the countryside at a top speed of perhaps twenty-five miles per hour. At nightfall the pursuers must stop, dismount and manually light the gas-lamp headlights. This never happened to Steve McQueen.
Critic Raymond Durgnat was enchanted by Judex and made the point that as the story progresses the hero's superhuman / supernatural status fades, until he finishes as an ordinary, vulnerable man defined only by his morals and his chivalry. Surprisingly, Judex doesn't personally match fists with anybody, and never wields a weapon. In 1963 the prevailing trend was toward a complete cynicism, as with the adventures of James Bond 007. Durgnat made note of TV's Batman, in which the prudish Caped Crusader routinely spurned the lustful advances of highly sexualized foes like Catwoman. Captured and bound with ropes, Judex finds himself in an identical predicament with Diana Monti. Instead of agreeing to join her to gain a short-term advantage, he averts his face from her sinful suggestions. The miracle of Judex is that the audience approves. The cynicism of contemporary thrillers only makes us more desirous of long-absent virtuous values. This is why we feel an emotional rush when Superman tells Lois Lane, "I always tell the truth, Lois." Judex is proud of its anachronisms.
Even more joyful is a preposterous coincidence that takes place in the street below. Little Réglisse (in English, "The Licorice Kid") tracks the incorrigible Diana Monti to the top floor of an ancient building. Before Judex's masked vigilantes scale the wall like human flies, an old friend of Cocantin just happens to come along primed and ready with the exact skill needed to save the day. The concluding rooftop combat between two exceptional, formidable women is fought in near-silence. Nothing like it happens in the original Judex serial. It feels as if we're watching a re-creation of the birth of the superhero dynamic, a stylized battle between good and evil forces.
Like much of Franju's movie, the sentimental conclusion is an ode to a more gentle era. The lovers walk on the beach beneath a title that reminds us that their happiness will be cut short by events in Sarajevo. By the 1920s the harsh realities of war will have left any notion of innocence far behind. Fritz Lang will take the baton from Feuillade and run with it for five decades, inventing most every new paranoid twist for crime movies, adventure thrillers and espionage tales, right up to the surveillance hysteria of his prophetic The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse. Georges Franju put the sting back into horror with his Eyes without a Face; in Judex he celebrates the innocent, elegant thrills of forgotten silent movie serials.
Criterion's Dual-format Blu-ray + DVD of Judex is the first official Region 1 / A disc release of this refined, rarely screened gem. Criterion's sparkling Blu-ray has beautiful original French audio with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack. Most people think that composer Maurice Jarre's career began with Lawrence of Arabia but his music for Franju is just as distinctive and beautiful. As an earlier Region 2 DVD ran at the slightly faster PAL speed, this is the film's first proper release on disc. Let's hope that more Franju pictures become available for Criterion import -- La tête contre le murs, Thérèse Desqueyroux, Thomas l'mposteur.
Considering how rare coverage of Georges Franju appears to be, we're also pleased by the wealth of extras obtained by Criterion producer Abbey Lustgarten. Included are excellent recent video interviews with co-writer Jacques Champreaux and actress Francine Bergé, that lend insight to Franju's personality. Bergé discusses Edith Scob's place as Franju's serious artistic muse. A long-form 1998 show called Franju le visionnaire was fashioned from six director interviews spread over twenty years. He talks at length about B&W versus Color, panchromatic versus orthochromatic film, the nature of screen terror and the necessity for realism in fantastic films. The director is a persuasive speaker, even when he makes the claim that a real horror film cannot be in color. He excitedly explains how the addition of a brief pause helped to introduce a notion of dread to an innocuous scene in Eyes without a Face. Discussing his extensive work in documentaries, Franju also laments (in 1966) that French directors have dropped docu filmmaking in favor of 'art' films.
Two earlier Franju short subjects are included. 1951's Hotel des Invalides is a biting critique of war memorials and the sanctifying of patriotic slaughter. It's so discreet that it apparently didn't offend its own establishment sponsors. His affectionate valentine Le grand Méliès (1952) shows in detail how cinema's first fantasy director concocted special effects to enlarge tricks he'd already done as a stage magician. The film has a boldly surreal Judex- like moment when the Méliès character produces a bouquet of flowers from nowhere. Two little boys become frightened when his entire head is suddenly replaced with flowers.
The insert booklet showcases graphic illustrations by Ron Wimberly. The selections include a sharp and discerning essay by author Geoffrey O'Brien, who explains that Franju did not replicate the Feuillade serials as much as revive the forgotten charm of silent French cinema. The booklet also contains a selection of Franju's own statements from magazine articles. Criterion's Dual-Format disc release is a marvelous resource -- I don't recall ever seeing so much prime-source Georges Franju material concentrated in one place.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Judex Blu-ray +DVD
1. Martin Scorsese's film Hugo garnered a lot of attention a few years back; supposedly an ode to George Méliès, it devotes perhaps fifteen charming minutes to flashbacks about the famed fantasy filmmaking pioneer in his prime. The rest was a meretricious, unfunny children's tale in very good 3D. Overproduced and over-designed, it seems a project completely unsuited to the director's strengths.
On the other hand, Oliver Assayas's Irma Vep (1996) addresses the exact problem that Franju overcame - he knew that re-filming Judex without reimagining it was a terrible idea. An emotionally disturbed director tries to re-visualize Louis Feuillade's Les vampires but has no idea of what to do beyond restaging the original's scenes. His frustrated actors struggle to follow his directions to 'stop acting'. But the leather cat-suited heroine (Chinese actress Maggie Cheung) intuitively understands what is required, and slinks off on her own "Irma Vep" night-stalking adventure, just for the fun of it.
2. This Channing Pollack is no relation to the author-adaptor of the short version of Fritz Lang's Metropolis. He's too young of course, but in 1974 one couldn't research film credits with a few clicks of a computer mouse.
3. On occasion, Franju is to Cocteau as The Byrds are to Bob Dylan -- the director does 'covers' of Cocteau's imagery, placing them in organically sound generic settings.
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.