Though most people reading this have never heard of the
master criminal Fantômas, there was a time when the character was
internationally known. The star of a
series of pulp novels, the character was created in 1911 by French
Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre. The villain captured the
imagination of the
public and soon the pair had penned dozens of Fantômas novels. Eventually there were Fantômas comic
TV shows, and, of course, movies.
In 1913, soon after the novels started, the French studio Gaumont
bought the rights and pioneering director Louis Feuillade created a
five feature films starring the dastardly villain. Restored
in 1998, these silent movies have
just made it to region one thanks to Kino.
The entire serial of five movies has been released in a
looking three DVD set that is a must-buy for fans of early cinema.
Since this is a serial, with one movie leading into the
next, sometimes with cliffhanger endings, I'll give a brief synopsis of
one and then discuss the movies as a whole.
Fantômas in the
Shadow of the Guillotine (1913 54 minutes):
The first movie introduces viewers to Fantômas, a wily
criminal and a
master of disguise. He takes up with
Lady Beltham and murders her husband and hides the body.
Investigating the disappearance of the
nobleman, Inspector Juve along with his reporter friend
Jérôme Fandor discover
some clues that lead them to the body of the missing man and implicate
named Gurn. Gurn, none other than
Fantômas in disguise, is quickly arrested, convicted, and
death. But being on death row under
heavy guard isn't enough to stoop the criminal genius.
Juve vs. Fantomas
(1913 62 minutes): A great film and the
best in the series. Astounded at
Fantômas' escape, Inspector Juve becomes obsessed with capturing
especially after he robs all of the passengers in a train car and then
it (killing the people aboard) in order to hide the crime.
Filled with action and suspense, this chase
through the French countryside has just the right touch of humor to
make it a
The Murderous Corpse
(1913 90 minutes): What a wonderful
title for a movie. This time a young
man, Jacques Dollon, is framed for murder by Fantômas. Dollon is arrested and processed, then locked
in a cell where he mysteriously dies.
When his sister arrives at the police station to visit him,
informed of his death, but when they take her to see the body, it has
disappeared! Who could not only kill a
man in police custody, but also steal his body?
Why Fantômas of course. Things
get even stranger when a priceless necklace is stolen from a lady at a
ball. There's a fingerprint of the crook
who took the jewels on the lady's neck, and when it's analyzed they
it belongs to the dead Dollon. More
crimes occur, and all with Dollons fingerprints at the scene.
Fantômas Vs. Fantômas
(1914 60 minutes): The press is
skewering Juve because he's unable to capture Fantômas, and one
that the reason might be because Juve himself is really Fantômas. The chief of police questions Juve and send
to prison where he languishes for much of the film.
Fandor, realizing that he'll be arrested
next, takes off and tries to track down the real Fantômas so that
he can free
his friend. Lady
Beltham, still in league with Fantômas but now married again to a member of society, announces that
host a huge costume party to raise money that will go to a reward for
capture. (This was Fantômas' idea in
case... she's still loyal though appalled by his criminal acts.) Both the police and Fandor decide that the
ball might be just the place to gather information about Fantômas. Fandor dresses up as the master criminal and
so does a police agent. A third person arrives dressed in
outfit and hood, the real Fantomas of course.
When two of the Fantômas' collide on the dance floor they
to settle the matter but only one will walk away. (In
a surprising move, the actual fight takes
place off screen. How many times have
doppelgangers fought in the movies? It's
amazing that Feuillade didn't see the potential in the concept.)
The False Magistrate
(1914 71 minutes): More escapes,
and astounding crimes in this adventure.
Fantômas is captured in Belgium
and held in prison, but the officials won't let Juve take him back to France
trial for his crimes there. Not to
worry, Fantômas escapes this time with Juve's help (in an
amazingly bizarre plan
that has to be seen to be believed). Once
free, Fantômas travesl back to France where he kills and assumes the identify of a man. A man who is actually a judge.
These films are very entertaining and have a strange
surrealistic touch to them that is just wonderful.
I have to admit that if it had been a
straight cop and robber series I would probably have grown bored,
with the way the movies were filmed (more on that later.)
As it is, the weird movie logic that permeate
these films adds a lot by both recalling back to a simpler time and by
resulting in some wonderfully unusual scenes.
A great example of this is when Juve overhears that Fantômas
is planning on killing him on a particular night. What
does the inspector do? He goes to bed as
normal, but before he
retires he dons a spiked vest and a pair of spiked arm bands. It's the perfect defense if Fantômas is
planning on killing him by putting a huge snake in his room, which is
what happens, but not so great of a defense if the villain was just
Another surrealistic element of these movies are the
disguises that Fantômas (as well as Juve and Fandor) employs. When he puts on a beard and wig Fantômas
isn't just altering his appearance; he's actually becoming another
associates, friends, and a job. When
Fantômas poses as a doctor, he has a residence and practice and
is a respected
member of the community where he's living.
When he puts on the guise of a businessman he goes to his office
calls in his secretary. It's as if the
act of putting on makeup not only changes ones appearance but also
These movies also have some creative and macabre aspects
that never would have flown past the censors in the US.
In one chapter Fantômas hides a body by plastering it
inside of a
wall. When he wants the body discovered,
he drives a nail in the wall and blood runs out. In
another chapter the criminal makes part of
a disguise out of human skin.
As has been implied, Fantômas is not breaking the law to
right injustices like Robin Hood or even a gentleman thief like
Arsène Lupin. He's more of a
megalomaniacal mastermind, a
precursor to the villains that James Bond finds himself pitted against. Fantômas is willing to kill without
for the smallest reasons (which are sometimes absurd) and has a small
criminals that are under him, ready to do his bidding even though he
them horribly. It's a wonderful touch
that makes him seem larger than life, which he obviously is.
These are old pre-WWI movies that were created when the art
of movie making was still in its infancy.
The grammar for telling a story on film was still evolving and
today these movies seem static and stodgy.
In these films, the story is told with an unmoving camera set
medium shot which are intercut occasionally with close ups (of
faces or reactions.) It's as if the
viewers are watching the story unfold by peering through a key hole. It's very similar to watching a play, and
it's easy to see how that style became the norm for a short while.
The scenes tend to go on for a long time too. It's
as if Feuillade wasn't sure how much he
had to show to let viewers figure out what was going on.
In one scene, a man is being fingerprinted by
the police, and they show all ten fingers being inked and printed.
While these might put off some people who haven't seen a lot
of silent movies, you quickly get used to the style, and that's part of
of these movies. It's also interesting
to see how much Feuillade does with this simple and basic formula. There is one excellent scene where Fandor is
trapped in a whicker basket. He cuts his
way out with a pocket knife, the whole act being shown on film (though
was sped up a bit). When he gets out, he
wipes his brow and sits on the basket, relived to be free, only to find
he's in a room with a dead body. It's
quite a surprising sequence that works well even within the confines of
early style. Having said that, I can't
help wonder as what Feuillade would have done with these scripts if he
filmed them a decade later.
I've been spoiled by
recent releases of silent film. At one
time a score pieced together from a music catalog would be fine, but
by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra and Steven Horne have spoiled
me. The music accompanying these films
comes from a music library and it sounds absolutely atrocious. Just about everything that could be done
incorrectly was. There's heavy
synthesizer music in parts, scratchy old recordings of people singing
songs in others, and though the music does change with the scenes it's
generally inappropriate or way over the top.
In a scene were a man discovers an unconscious woman they chose
action music. It sounds like the rebel
alliance about to attack the Death Star at the end of Star
Wars. A stock broker
sitting at his desk is greeted with ominous, pounding music. The whole score was really atrocious. It never allowed the viewer to get lost in
the film. It was a constant reminder
that composed scores are worth the price.
The film has English intertitles are clear and easy to read.
These films were restored by Gaumont in 1998 and those
materials were used for this collection and they look very good for
old. There are some scratches and dirt
on the tinited prints and occasionally some decomposition will pop up
marred frame, but generally the image is quite solid.
The level of detail is very good, and the
contrast is fine. There are some scenes
where whites bloom just a little or where details are swallowed in a
black, but these films still look very good, even with these defects.
Unfortunately this Kino version is missing some of the bonus
material that was previously released with these films in Europe,
but they make up for it with some nice exclusive material.
First, what's missing? The UK R2
Artificial Eye release included a
23-minute featurette entitled Who is
Fantômas? which is not included here.
these films were accompanied by several galleries, readings from the
novels and a vintage interview with Fantômas co-creator Marcel
Allain. These last were undoubtedly in
it's not surprising that they weren't included.
This set starts out with two audio commentaries by film
historian David Kalat on the first two films.
If you've heard his commentaries for the Mabuse films, you know
expect: an interesting and thorough
discussion of the films and their place in history.
These were both great commentaries. The
first covered the films and in the second
he dealt with the history of Fantômas and his influences on
popular culture on
both sides of the Atlantic. Kalat came to the microphone with a full set
of notes detailing every aspect of Fantômas and both tracks are
listening to. While I did disagree with
interpretations of the facts on a couple of minor points that he makes,
made me enjoy the tracks even more because it caused me to examine some
things that I believed. It's always good
to do that every once in a while.
There are also a pair of Feuillade shorts on the first disc,
The Nativity (1910) and The Dwarf (1912) which are great to
have. There's a ten-minute documentary on
director also: Louis Feuillade: Master of Many Forms. (None
of these apparently are included in the
The extras are wrapped up an image gallery. While
I wish that the Fantômas featrurette
would have been included as well, these extras are significantly better
the Artificial Eye extras.
This is a wonderful set of films. I really
enjoyed Feuillade's Les Vampires, a serial about a
organization that he made after the Fantômas movies, and I've
been wanted to see
these ever since I first screened that later work.
The movies did not disappoint. With
a tinge of surrealism and some very
macabre moments these movies about a master criminal are immensely
enjoyable. Highly recommended.