Before there was Dr. Mabuse, Batman (or The Bat), and just about any other fictional master criminal, there was FANTÔMAS, and he has turned one hundred on Kino Lorber's Blu-ray special edition.
Master of disguise Fantômas (René Navarre, JUDEX 34) first makes himself known as the scourge of pre-war Parisian society in "Fantômas in the Shadow of the Guillotine" (63:57) with the bold theft of a string of pearls and a large amount of cash being carried by the Princess Danidoff (Jane Faber of the Comédie-Française) and leaving behind a calling card in invisible ink. When the venerable Lord Beltham mysteriously vanishes, Inspector Juve (Edmund Breon, GASLIGHT) suspects that Fantômas is responsible but accidentally stumbles upon his current alter ego in Gurn, the secret lover of Lady Beltham (Renée Carl, PÉPÉ LE MOKO) when her husband's body is discovered in one of Gurn's trunks bound for South Africa. Juve and young reporter Jérôme Fandor (Georges Melchior, THE CITADEL OF SILENCE) stake out the Beltham villa for months awaiting his return. When they manage to nab the master criminal, he plants a story in the newspaper announcing that the actor Valgrand (André Volbert, NELLY) will essay the role of Gurn in the hours before his execution on the stage. On the eve of Gurn's appointment with the guillotine, Lady Beltham arranges an assignation with the actor (in costume) and bribes prison guard Nibet (Naudier) into arranging for her a private meeting with Gurn. In "Juve vs. Fantômas" (58:26), a mangled corpse believed to be that of Lady Beltham is discovered in the home of Dr. Chaleck. He would seem to be the least likely suspect, but Juve and Fandor follow him and mistress Josephine (Yvette Andréyor) stumble right into Fantômas' next caper and a head-on collision with the Orient Express. Lights in the empty Beltham villa spark rumors about ghosts, but Juve and Fandor discover that Fantômas has been secretly meeting with the guilt-ridden but helpless Lady Beltham, and they overhear that the couple plan to run away together as soon as Juve meets with his "silent executioner."
In "The Murderous Corpse" (97:27), Fandor is recovering from the explosive climax of the previous episode and believes along with the rest of the world that Juve is dead; but the detective is actually disguised as the simple-minded handyman for well-known fence. When the body of a wealthy baroness is discovered in the shop of ceramist Jacques Dollon (André Luguet, MADAME DU BARRY), he is unable to explain how she got there and is arrested for her murder only to himself be murdered in his cell by the guard Nibet. When his sister Elisabeth (Fabienne Fabrèges) asks to see the body, the police are baffled to discover the body is missing. While Fandor tries to employ Juve's skills of ratiocination to determine how a corpse could have gotten out of a locked cell, a series of crimes – including yet another robbery of poor Princess Danidoff of her pearls – erupts all over Paris and the finger prints point to the dead man. Elisabeth's life is put in danger when she discovers an incriminating list that connects her brother to a handful of other personages who have either been or are about to be the victims of crimes (including Danidoff's fiancé whose disappearance has caused the stock market to collapse). By " Fantômas vs. Fantômas" (75:14) rolls around, the public has started to suspect that Fantômas and Juve are one and the same, and the public prosecutor orders the detective's arrest. Meanwhile, Fantômas presses Lady Beltham – now remarried as the Duchess Alexandra – to throw a ball in order to collect donations for a reward for his own capture; that is, when he is not manipulating the police in the guise of American detective Tom Bob (whose calling card does indeed read "American Detective") and planning to swindle his own gang as an associate of Fantômas, the corrupt cleric Father Moche. When Fandor and the police hear of the event, they decide to go in the black-garbed guise of Fantômas, which may prove fatal for one or more.
The series comes to an open-ended close with "The False Magistrate" (61:25) which opens with the robbery by priest of a jeweler who has just purchased the baubles of the Marquise de Tergall (Germaine Pelisse) when her husband suffers a reversal of fortune. When the Marquis (Mesnery) is himself robbed of the money he received for the jewelry, Fantômas is of course the prime suspect until the police receive a report from Beligum that the master criminal has been captured there and received a life sentence. Sworn to deliver Fantômas to the guillotine, Juve hits upon the idea to travel to Belgium as an Austrian delegate, help Fantômas escape and take his place so that he can be arrested at the French border (whereupon Juve plans to have himself extradited back home where his true identity can be revealed). Fantômas gives the French detectives the slip, however, murdering and taking over the identity of new Saint-Calais prosecutor Pradier. In that guise, he murders the Marquis, blackmails the Marquise, and determines to discover the whereabouts of the missing jewels and the money for himself. While Juve languishes in a Belgian prison awaiting extradition, Fandor has become suspicious of the new prosecutor.
Based on a series of hastily-written novels with the chapters divvied up in between two authors with differing writing and plotting styles (with transitions smoothed over in the week before printing) and directed on a hasty schedule by a director who favors long takes with little concern for composition or staging (an artlessness that turns out to be more evocative of being a fly on the wall than watching a badly-staged play), the FANTÔMAS are unevenly paced and plotted but manage to be suspenseful even at the most predictable developments. Feuillade keeps the camera static for the duration of many scenes, rarely resorting to close-ups for emphasis (apart from a couple inserts of business cards, letters, and rarely props), and the number of pans and tracking shots can be counted on one hand. The serials also resort to intertitles for dialogue far less than one may be accustomed to from later silent films, usually introducing each scene with context and then commenting on important actions. For a master criminal, Fantômas spends more time pilfering the pockets of the rich that pursuing world domination; and yet, the brutality and ruthlessness with which he terrorizes innocents and betrays his partners alike makes the otherwise blank slate of a character a threat and almost admirable for audiences craving sensation. Although the series ran into trouble with the French censors and comes nowhere near to the explicitness of the Grand Guignol, the series can be quite grisly with gloves made of human skin, walls gushing blood, a body raining blood and stolen jewelry from a church belfry, and more. Already a famous actor, Navarre would become identified with Fantômas in the eyes of the public, although he would also embody master criminal turned criminologist Vidocq, the detective hero of BELPHÉGOR, and would go on to collaborate with Allain's and Souvestre's better known rival Gaston Leroux (THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA). Carl was also a regular collaborator with Feuillade in more than one of his long-running BÉBÉ and BOUT-DE-ZAN comedy shorts series, while Andréyor would become the damsel in distress Jacqueline of Feuillade's later JUDEX series (the character played by Edith Scob in George Franju's later JUDEX feature).
First released by Kino on DVD in 2010, the company's subsequent Blu-ray benefits from a brand new 4K restoration undertaken by Gaumont in 2013 to coincide with the series' hundredth anniversary. Derived from the original 35mm nitrate negatives with some missing footage inserted from two prints, it is not an exaggeration to say that the Blu-ray transfer may be one of the best silent film restorations ever. Much of the series looks spotless, with very infrequent scratches and some flashes of nitrate decomposition. The newer restoration makes use of fewer tints than the DVD version, with seductive blues used for night exteriors and interiors while everything else remains in sensuous black and white. The French intertitles are based on the text sent to theater owners, and have also been newly recreated on plain black backgrounds without the gold border of the DVD versions. The optional English subtitles ably translate the narrative intertitles, dialogue, and inserts of letters and business cards. The audio is lossy Dolby Digital 2.0 mono, but the score is composed of library music tracks that run from the very effective to the somewhat out of place (a few of the suspense tracks sound like Pino Donaggio aping Bernard Herrmann).
Extras on the first disc consist of audio commentary by film historian David Kalat – who proves just as informed about Feuillade and Fantômas as he did on Fritz Lang and Dr. Mabuse when he released those films on his All Day Entertainment label – on the first two episodes. He provides context for the novels as the first original publications of Fayard after success with budget-priced pulp reprints of earlier serialized detective fiction, the beginnings of writers Allain and Souvestre at an auto magazine, and the breakneck thirty-two book, thirty-two month writing and publishing schedule of Fantômas novels. He also discusses Gaumont's beginnings as a camera equipment manufacturer – rival to Pathé and Éclair – and the films mounted to advertise the equipment by early movie mogul Alice Guy who then hired and trained Feuillade (who would become her successor as head of production when she left for America). He classifies the period in which Feuillade was working as "primitive cinema" telling stories on-camera rather than with the camera, and that it is unfair to compare his style during this period with the works of Lubitsch, Lang, Murnau, Eisenstein, and even D.W. Griffith just a few years later. He also discusses the breakneck production schedules, the anti-cinematic staging, largely improvised staging, lack of coverage, close-ups, and inserts, and his waste-not-want-not approach to filming. He spends the length of the second episode tracing the real-life and fictional precursors to Fantômas and Juve, as well as those inspired by the series including Feuillades' JUDEX and LES VAMPIRES (sold by Fox in the United States as a sequel to FANTÔMAS), Fox's own American Fantômas, Lang's SPIES and Mabuse films, Fantômas' pop-art makeover in the sixties (which in turn influenced the sixties BATMAN), along with Chabrol and Bunuel's TV miniseries adaptation.
Extras on the second disc start with "Louis Feuillade: Master of Many Forms" (10:37) which explores the other genres in which Feuillade worked concurrently with the crimes serials, including comedy, "Le film esthétique" historical and mythical enactments meant to be more visually dynamic than Hollywood's historical epics, and "La vie telle qu'elle est" an alternative to melodramas which examined modern social mores. Besides the documentary clips, examples of the latter two genres are provided with the full Feuillade shorts "The Nativity" (1910; 13:57) and "The Dwarf" (1912; 16:37). The set closes out with a gallery of artwork courtesy of Video Watchdog's Tim Lucas (10:19). (Eric Cotenas)
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