Silent movie fans and quite possibly the more adventurous lovers of comics will find a lot to admire in this very good reconstruction of the first Judex serial, made in France during the first World War. Although very definitely shot in the style of the time, its subject matter, like Fantomas and Les Vampires before it, shows a charming approach to fantastic material that has to be counted as the first modern superhero story.
Judex is a contradiction, a fossil of a movie that also vibrates with excitement. Here's one root source for major thriller trends of the 20th century that doesn't originate with Fritz Lang. What begins deceptively as an ordinary-looking silent from the 'teens soon develops into something bigger, a long serial that organizes characters and themes around a grand scheme of crime and redemption. Unlike the American serials of the time, Louis Feuillade's work has a modern shock value and audacity that owes nothing to standard morality plays. There aren't any mechanical cliffhangers to speak of; the five-plus hour show plays as would an extended miniseries today. Although a lot of time is consumed by characters entering rooms and introducing themselves with the broad acting of the times, Judex has a twist in every plot turn and a surprise in every "standard" melodramatic relationship.
If Les Vampires helped inaugurate the concept of diabolical pulp conspiracies, Judex counters with the notion that compassionate chivalry can never be defeated. The innocence of this nostalgic idea is what makes Judex timeless.
Character depth is what distinguishes Feuillade from his competition. Even Fritz Lang was more concerned with plot than people, and Judex has an array of interesting and clearly distinguished characters. All are given pulpish Charles Dickens-like twists atypical of photoplays of the time. The evil banker Favraux may be capable of remorse and redemption for his crimes. The noble beauty Jaqueline is a loving mother and recurring target of criminals. She forbids the name Judex be spoken in her presence, even though he has saved her life several times. One of Favraux's victims has a lost son, who turns up in a most surprising way. The detective Cocantin is seemingly incapable of detecting anything and is used by the villains as a babysitter! The wronged prisoner becomes a protector of his own enemy. Jaqueline's son Jean finds a loyal ally of his own, the street-smart Licorice Kid. He turns the tables on the bad guys with just a saucy attitude. Wen the kid hooks up with Cocantin, we know who's really the brains of the outfit.
Finally there's Judex himself, a fascinating superhero who dons more than one disguise to achieve his ends. He's really the source figure behind Batman, although most of his crimefighting uses methods associated with anarchists and terrorists. He doesn't throw bombs but instead delivers threatening ultimata. The protector of the weak, he stays anonymous while providing Jaqueline with the quaint security of carrier pigeons: "Release one of these should you ever be in trouble, and I will come to your aid."
Judex operates out of a veritable Bat Cave beneath a ruin, where he uses high tech gadgets to keep a prisoner without the prisoner ever seeing his captors. Like some superheroes, Judex at first appears to have superhuman powers, knowing things nobody can know and striking mysteriously without being detected. Like Batman, his "origin back-story" involves a complicated oath of vengeance to which he has dedicated his entire life, and set himself up as a ultra-legal vigilante.
The initial villain is a capitalist swindler, and Judex at first seems to be a political vigilante. Later discoveries reveal his motivation to be completely personal. Judex's attitude toward superhero-dom is at least as sophisticated as the introspective Watchmen comic novel; this "primitive" serial defines the role of crimefighter and then transcends the notion when it finally comes time to heal wounds and settle accounts.
Most every chapter of Judex has an intriguing thriller switcheroo that in 1917 was the height of sophistication. Diana Monti and Moralés try one scheme after another but are foiled by Judex's elegant countermeasures. One charming sequence has the hero recovering a kidnaped damsel with a "fantastic pack of hounds" that swarm through the villain's defenses like the Doberman Gang caper film sixty years later. Rather than kill or capture the bad guys, Judex's politely-written "you lose" note is delivered to the failed kidnappers - by a poodle walking on its hind legs. And we thought that self-conscious camp comedy entered thrillers in the 1960s.
Feuillade's Judex also has a heart, placing it in contrast to the more severe weirdnesses of the famous Les Vampires. Jacqueline earns our respect by giving away her millions as reparation for her father's sins. She even separates from her adoring son as part of her self atonement. 1 Little Jean forms a meaningful buddy relationship with The Licorice Kid. The Licorice Kid finds a new father in Cocantin. Moralés is almost redeemed by a reunion with a lost relative. Judex's vengeance-obsessed mother relents when she sees how badly future generations need forgiveness for the crimes of their fathers. And Judex must find a way to declare his love to a woman sworn to hate him forever.
Just about the only character in Judex not forgiven for their sins is Diana Monti, the criminal seductress who instigates most of the mayhem, using men like the Vicomte de la Rochfontaine for her own purposes and enticing Moralés away from the straight and narrow. Her passions are beyond redemption - it's she who orders the story's few killings and becomes its real villain, even after the big-business bad guy is forgiven. As Diana Monti, the legendary Musidora embodies everything forbidden to women in pre-war age of gentility - she's open with her emotions and desires, forward with men and unabashedly shameless. Naturally she's evil through and through.
Feuillade's camera rarely moves unless it's attached to a moving vehicle, and his compositions never break the 3-wall stage setup. But the film's location work gives the film a more realistic feel. The carefully plotted episodes have room for fun bits of nonsense with the comedy relief of The Licorice Kid and Cocantin; Raymond Durgnat reports in his book on Georges Franju that French audiences roared with delight at the Licorice Kid's every wink and nod. Feuillade makes us work to keep straight who knows who's secret identities, but also relaxes his form so that a totally nonsensical character can enter in almost the last chapter - a female athlete-performer named Daisy Trond who rescues the hero for no good reason at all except spirited curiosity. After all the carefully-measured relationships, Daisy is there almost to show that Judex doesn't take itself too seriously.
Flicker Alley's DVD of Judex is said to be the first complete reconstruction of the full serial and was originally shown on the TCM cable channel. Presented across two discs the picture is intact, steady and in fine shape for viewing, although it must be said that because no original elements exist the image is sometimes contrasty. But it doesn't look to have been optically repositioned or otherwise marred by generational hanky-panky. The intertitles have been replaced with English cards, and likewise the many messages, letters, and signs are shown as carefully doctored replacements in English. Judex writes a message to his prisoner, which spells out "in fire" across the wall of his cell, but we only see a new representation of the lettering in a matted-in box. It would have been nice to know what the original looked like.
The serial's prologue, twelve chapters and epilogue are spread across the two discs, and have enticing titles like "The Secret of the Tomb" and "Jacqueline's Heart." The second disc has a lengthy speech by composer Robert Israel on his new score for the marathon serial, illustrated with appropriate scenes from the movie.
Judex will be a must-see for fantastic film fans who should be warned that although it's the source inspiration for their favorite pulp superheroes, the hero mainly walks around in an impressive cape and hat, never hits anyone and lets gadgets and a pack of dogs do his fighting. In true fin de siecle (sp?) style, the villains mostly self-destruct from their own frustration.
Georges Franju filmed a rarely-seen feature remake of Judex in 1963, reinterpreting Feuillade's nostalgic chivalry with the visual poetry of Jean Cocteau. The contrast between the hero's initial omnipotence and his later relative helplessness is made a major factor, and the whole story is given surreal twists such as with the bird-masks at Favreaux's party that reveal the nature of their wearers. Franju also places the story in an historical context that Feuillade could not have perceived, with the noble world of Judex and Jacqueline, Cocantin and Daisy about to be shattered by the 20th century brutality of the Great War. Criterion's most awaited future disc at this writing is Georges Franju's superlative horror film Eyes Without a Face; perhaps there's a possibility that Judex will not be too terribly far behind.
That DVD can put treasures like the silent Judex into our reach far outweighs our grumbles about the format. Flicker Alley has just become a DVD label to watch.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. This "adoring son" Jean
is kind of a puzzle. With his long hair and constant kissy-kissy nature (even with his "pal" The
Licorice Kid) Jean looks and acts so much like a girl that we wonder about the name of the actor
who played him, Olinda Mano. Perhaps a little girl actor played Jean; he's awfully tiny and really
small girls are often smarter actors than boys of the same age. Then again, this is how stage kids may
have been expected to behave in French entertainment in 1917.