Before there was Mabuse, there was Fantômas.
The thing about movies is that they haven’t been around that long. Although a majority of the very earliest films are lost, you can still largely go back to the beginnings of cinema and see the foundations for the great art form of the 20th century being laid. And when it comes to European pulp cinema, arguably the single most influential figure was France’s Louis Feuillade.
Born in 1973, Feuillade become a director with Gaumont in 1906. By the time of his death at the age of 52 in 1925, he helmed over 630 (or even over 700 or 800, depending on the source) features and short subjects. In 18 years! This makes directors like William “One Shot” Beaudine look like slackers.
Mr. Feuillade found his métier (see, a French word) in 1913, directing the first of five short features adapting the literary adventures of the demonic supercriminal Fantômas. Past these, the director moved on to the similar but original adventures of seductive assassin Irma Vep. She appeared in the ten films, varying in length, that make up the serial known collectively as Les Vampires (1915). The seven hour work in total is considered to be Feuillade’s masterpiece.
Finally, bowing to criticism over glorifying villains, he made another serial, Judex (1916). This documented the deeds of an avenging if similarly rococo and occasionally sinister hero. It also happened to feature another sex villainess in a Vep-esque black cat suit. Judex proved popular enough that he returned in a second serial, The New Mission of Judex (1917). Sadly, I have yet to see this latter work.
Even breaking down the various chapters as separate works, this clearly represents but a handful of Mr. Feuillade’s insanely fecund output. They are, however, the films most remembered today, and the ones that had the greatest influence on European film to this day.
In terms of Europe’s fascination with supervillains—supervillains as the main protagonists, I mean—I won’t recapitulate what I have already written. (I know, when has that stopped me before?) In sum, though, Europe during the first half of the century was trapped in a cycle of horrific war on a previously impossible scale, broken up by periods of oft dire political turbulence of a sort so far unknown on these shores. As a result, its pulp works were more likely to be built around supervillains, rather the heroes featured in the most confident U.S.
Those interested in a more in-depth examination of Fantômas, as a literary and cinematic figure, are directed to Mabuse expert David Kalat’s two fascinating commentaries, found on Kino’s typically nifty collection of Feuillade’s five Fantômas movies. My only regret is that he didn’t record three more commentaries for the rest of the set.
The 55-minute long first chapter serves mostly to introduce the main and several prominent supporting characters. The highest levels of surreal craziness come later. This film serves to lay the groundwork for the four films to follow.
We open with what would become the series’ trademark, with an introduction of actor Renė Navarre as Fantômas. He stares directly into the camera and we watch as his visage fades through the several disguises he dons during the film. Multiple identities are a Fantômas trademark. They will also be employed by his opposite numbers, Inspector Juve and his dashing compatriot, newspaper journalist Fandor.
As Mr. Kalat notes in one of his two commentaries, Fantômas and his foes live in a world in which “total disguise” is possible. In the books especially Fantômas, Juve and Fandor serially adopt disguises that fool one another. Film, being a literal medium, often makes this sort of thing unpersuasive. A related analogue would be woman disguising themselves as men, a more successful literary than cinematic gambit.
Even so, total disguise remains a popular genre trope. It’s featured in works ranging from Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes (who often used his make-up skills to make poor Watson look like a chump) to The Wild Wild West, where somehow Artemis Gordon’s often not very cunning disguises managed to fool even veteran antagonist and super-genius Dr. Loveless.* The most familiar modern example of the idea is the flawless latex masks donned by members of the Mission: Impossible team.[*Dr. Loveless is certainly one of the more successful modern attempts at a Fantômas/Mabuse-like villain.]
Indeed, in the fever dream world of Fantômas, both from the books and in Feuillade’s adaptations, the word ‘disguise’ barely covers it. Fantômas has entire identities that appear to somehow live full lives of their own. In Feuillade’s films alone we see him several times appear in the role of, say, a head banker who apparently spends his day attending to the bank’s business and interacting with his staff. At the same time he is also a doctor, a shady landlord and others. He somehow maintains these identifies even when spending months on end in prison.
That Fantômas can live all these lives on a day-in, day-out basis is patently absurd. Although borrowed from the books, such narrative impossibility is perhaps Feuillade’s most enduring artistic contribution. A dismissive disdain for linearity and logic remains arguably the central defining characteristic of European genre fiction and films. From Feuillade to Bava, Argento and beyond, continental filmmakers remain more interested in artistic effect than in rationality.
This is, I admit, the reason I will never love such films as others do. My humble brain generally requires at least a semblance of internal logic. One of many reasons Dr. Mabuse speaks to me more than Fantômas or others of his ilk is that Lang grounds the character.
Admittedly, Lang grounds Mabuse in fantastical ways. Mabuse eventually sloughs off not just his humanity, but nothing less than his mortal body. Through his writings he becomes an immortal mental virus, capable of colonizing the minds of others. As crazy as this idea is, it’s an explanation. With Fantômas, you simply just ride with the craziness of it to enjoy the work. I greatly enjoyed the ride, though.
The Fantômas series ‘disguise’ intros proved popular enough that it was directly aped by Fritz Lang when he first brought Mabuse to the screen in 1922’s Dr. Mabuse the Gambler. Admittedly, as was generally the case, Lang’s version was more stylish. There Mabuse contemplates which identity to don by fanning a deck of cards featuring his disguises. It remains one of his most overt borrowings from Feuillade’s work.
For my own part, I find these openings problematic. Fantômas’ disguises are often pretty rudimentary, featuring a different haircut, fake beard or just change of clothes. They don’t seem likely to really throw off anyone who knows Fantômas’ appearance. This fact is accentuated by director Feuillade having (presumably) instructed Navarre to assume a menacing glare as each disguise rolls past. With each new identity featuring the same expression, it diminishes the disguise element even further.
More tellingly, there’s never really a possibility to be surprised or suspicious over whether any newly introduced character is a disguised Fantômas. We know what visages he will be assuming from these intros, so that element of doubt is eliminated. This seems counter-productive to me, for whatever that’s worth.
Despite this, said openings became a series hallmark, employed in all five features. If we don’t actually see this for the fifth film on the DVD set, it’s only because a lot of footage from The Murderous Magistrate was lost, including this sequence. As with, sadly, the releases of Les Vampires, it’s the last chapter of each story that has survived in the worst shape.
When we first meet Fantômas he’s engaged in a disappointingly conventional crime. Sonia Danidoff, one of the film’s several rich princesses and heiresses—Feuillade’s work generally features what to modern eyes are weirdly Rubenesque brunettes, even in its sexpot roles—deposits a packet of cash and a valuable necklace in the bureau in her hotel suite.
Having attended to this, she leaves the room. Fantômas, wearing a fake beard, emerges from behind some curtains. Casting a quick glance about, he stalks over to the bureau and begins to ransack it. He quickly retreats, however, when Danidoff returns. Then Fantômas reemerges from hiding and engages the woman in conversation. During this, he forthrightly pockets her cash and necklace. Several times she makes to cry out, only to be stymied by his menacing glare.
Eventually he leaves, whereupon his victim calls to the desk to have the hotel sealed off. Fantômas, however, jumps a bellhop in the elevator and steals his uniform. After this he saunters from the hotel in guise of going to summon the police. Oddly, considering how flat-out murderous Fantômas will prove in the later films, the bellhop is found alive, tied up and relatively unscathed.
On the whole, it’s a weirdly mundane introduction to Fantômas. Indeed, not just Fantômas, but Feuillade’s future characters like Irma Vep, basically a distaff version of Fantômas in the ten-part Les Vampires, and his menacing hero Judex. But then, this is Feuillade’s—and quite nearly anyone’s—first stab at this sort of thing. Therefore it’s understandable that he starts out slow.
Even so, our initial sight of Fantômas, sprinting to hide behind some curtains when a woman enters the room, hardly paints him as a nearly-omnipotent criminal masterfiend. Admittedly, his cool manipulation of the princess after he makes himself known seems rather more in character.
Moreover, there’s a neat bit where he introduces himself to Danidoff via a blank business card. Only after he’s gone does the name Fantômas appear on the card, whereupon the princess swoons in terror. Later a crowd of onlookers reacts with panic at the mention of his name. It’s clear we’ve entered things deep in Fantômas reign of terror. It’s a sign of how successful the books were that Fantômas is barely even introduced. It’s assumed the audience will know who he is.
The main design element of the sequence is the actual running elevator which connects the various hotel sets, from the lobby up to the princesses’ room. Elaborate design elements will appear throughout the series. These, along with some early location shooting, provide what will prove fairly rare instances of visual interest in the films.
The main reason for this is that Feuillade’s camera setups are amazingly primitive. Watching one of his Fantômas films is largely like watching a stage play. The camera is locked down in front of the set, and the actors walk around or are seated before it. Only rarely do we even cut to a close-up. Entire long sequences just play out before our static gaze. Even the blocking is rudimentary at best.
It’s actually a credit to Feuillade that the pictures remain so interesting given the lack of directorial finesse. Still, given that Feuillade directed between 600 and 800 (or even more) features and shorts during his mere 18-year career, and this in an era of incredibly ponderous film equipment, one can understand his technique. Even so, its surely one reason that Lang’s far more visually creative Mabuse films hold up so much better today.
With Fantômas established, we now meet his primary opponent, Inspector Juve of the French Government’s Department of Security. Juve is middle aged, balding, stocky in build and sporting a walrus mustache. Chances are he wouldn’t be cast as such today. Juve arrives at the princess’ room and reacts with consternation upon seeing Fantômas’ business card. The game is afoot.
We now move on to the second part of the film. Each of the five pictures is itself quite episodic, and we now shift our focus to the disappearance of one Lord Beltham. First, though, we meet our third main character. This is Fandor, Juve’s friend and partner in justice. He meets Juve at the latter’s home, where the two discuss the mystery surrounding Lord Beltham. They quickly agree that Fantômas is behind it. During this, Juve receives a telegram. He has been assigned to the case.
We cut to the villa of Lady Beltham. Mr. Kalat in his commentaries speaks of the lack of logic in the narratives, noting that the films play as if they were missing scenes. Sometimes the lack of logic is even bolder. Here we see Lady Beltham. She is meant to be a great beauty, despite looking like a slightly younger Margaret Dumont. (As, for that matter, does Princess Danidoff and several other aristocratic women in the films.)
She is being visited by Mr. Gurn, who we in the audience know is none other than Fantômas. A title card establishes that Gurn has presented himself to her as one of her missing husband’s business partners. Yet a few minutes later when she receives a card announcing the arrival of Juve, Lady Beltham quickly acts to hide Gurn. Indeed, before long we come to understand that she knows Gurn is Fantômas, but appears to be under his thrall. So much for Gurn’s supposed pretense of being one of Lord Beltham’s associates.
On the other hand, Gurn appears to be one of Fantômas alternate lives. Later we’ll see his apartment and learn that he’s well known to his landlady. So it’s entirely possible that ‘Gurn’ was indeed one of Beltham’s partners, and that Lady Beltham was always in on the scheme to murder her husband. Even so, the whiplash logic of Lady Beltham going from being introduced as Fantômas’ dupe to a minute later being revealed as his accomplice is exactly the sort of thing I’ve been talking about.*[*A card from the third film, The Murderous Corpse, probably sums it up best: “Lady Beltham: Fantômas’ mistress, accomplice and victim.”]
This being my first taste of Fantômas, I’ll admit I often found him weirdly inept. He allows Lady Beltham to escort him into hiding, yet leaves behind his hat in the sitting room. Arriving before Lady Beltham’s return, Juve examines this chapeau. Spotting a large ‘G’ in the interior of the hat, he checks in Lord Beltham’s address book and deduces that it belongs to the only ‘G’ listed there, one Gurn.
Lady Beltham returns and acts the distraught wife, while Juve plays along. First he asks her seemingly at random about this Gurn fellow in her husband’s address book. Then he pretends to stumble upon Gurn’s hat on the sideboard. Having observed her nervous reactions, he departs.
Gurn returns—I’ll refer to Fantômas by his character’s when he’s one of his identities—and decides to act quickly upon learning of Juve’s interest in him. He dashes off a note to a steamship office, telling them to send men to his apartment at once to pick up his trunks. Lady Beltham orders her staff to deliver the note immediately (by pneumatic tube!), while Gurn leaves.
Juve arrives before the workmen, however, and manages to stop them removing the trunks. When a beat cop is called in to officiate the dispute, Juve secretly reveals his identity his identity to him. The workmen are sent off, and a quick examination of the trunks reveals Lord Beltham’s corpse. This is our first taste of Fantômas murderous nature, although the grisly discovery of the body will seem rather prosaic by light of the later chapters. Juve next finds a box of blank business cards. He examines them closely before breathing on one to warm it. Sure enough, the word Fantômas appears before his eyes.
The search for Gurn proves futile, though. The audience quickly learns, however, that he is hiding out at Lady Beltham’s villa. She will continue to be a regular character in these films, her uncontrollable love/lust for Fantômas warring with her repugnance at his crimes. It is a war she is destined to lose every time.
Gurn eventually emerges from her house. Sadly for him, Juve has been waiting for just such an event. As the villain leaves the grounds Juve jumps out with several uniform cops and arrests him. He and Fandor shake hands in jubilation at finally capturing the fiend. Far more distraught is Lady Beltham, who has witnessed her lover’s capture from her balcony.
Things start a bit slow in this one hour initial film. Much of what happens here involves introducing characters who will reappear throughout the remaining four connected films. Not just Fantômas, Juve and Fandor, but several supporting characters who will reappear throughout the adventures. Lady Beltman is one of them.
Even taking that into account, the first film to this point has been disappointingly prosaic. Admittedly, we started to move into more macabre territory with the discovery of Lord Beltran’s body. Otherwise, Fantômas’ most noticeable trait has been fallibility. His first robbery was just a robbery, and that thing with leaving his hat behind kind of made him look like a garden-variety chump.
Luckily, we now start moving into Crazy Town. We jump forward six months, learning that Gurn has been tried, found guilty and is imminently to be executed. (The newspapers seem to know he is Fantômas , but refer to him as Gurn. This seems weird. And we know, of course, that Gurn isn’t Fantômas. Rather, Fantômas is Gurn.)
Lady Beltham, ironically wearing widow’s weeds for her murdered husband, is overtly—silent movie overtly—dismayed by thoughts of her lover’s death. So she moves to get him sprung. Meanwhile, Gurn still sits in evident frustration in prison. Again, this doesn’t exactly burnish his supervillain cred. After six months, his date with the guillotine fast approaching, the vaunted Fantômas remains behind bars. He clearly doesn’t have any plan in place. It’s entirely his good fortune that Lady Beltham on her own initiative is moving to break him out.
Lady Beltham waits to meet Nibet, a guard, in her plush carriage parked directly outside the prison. Because that’s the least suspicious place to try to bribe a guard, I guess. Still, he bites at the bait and accepts payment to deliver a note to Gurn. Her brief innocuous missive lets Gurn know that wheels are in motion. With Nibet’s corruption now established, Gurn offers him a far bigger bribe to arrange a 15 minute private meeting (if you know what I mean and I think you do) with Lady Beltham. Nibet can’t resist the money and agrees.
Meanwhile—a popular word in the Fantômas universe—famous stage actor Valgrand is the toast of Paris society for starring in a play dramatizing Gurn’s wait on death row. As soon as they tell us the actor bears a remarkable resemblance to Gurn, you can see where things are going. In point of fact, even with a wig and beard he doesn’t really resemble Gurn all that much. As noted, however, perfect disguises must be taken as a given in these things.
Lady Beltham is seen at the play, and soon after sends a note to Valgrand, arranging an assignation. It a bit both funny and believable, he doesn’t blink when she requests that he appear wearing his prison togs from the play. Valgrand indeed readily accedes, as her note describes her as being “the most beautiful woman in Paris.” Again, for a woman who looks like Margaret Dumont, this seems farcical to modern eyes. Yet Valgrand doesn’t evince any complaints when he meets her.
This occurs, naturally, the night before the execution, in the apartment to which Nibet has smuggled Gurn for his assignation. Now, if Gurn and Lady Beltham can bring in a third party while Nibet waits outside, presumably Gurn could have just escaped out through the same door. However, his scheme is far more elaborate and malign.
Things go according to plan. Valgrand is drugged, the switch is made and the unknowing Nibet smuggles Valgrand back to prison in Gurn’s place. There’s a nicely nightmarish quality to Valgard’s predicament. Valgard has gained fame for portraying Gurn on death row in a play that ends with him being lead to his execution. Now, befuddled by narcotics, he is living out that same fate. It’s a neat conceit.
Fantômas , proving kind of a dick, cackles with delight at the thought of Valgrand dying in his stead. I wonder if it’s more because of the egg this will put on Juve’s face, or if Fantômas is just that bloodthirsty.
For her part, Lady Beltham seems horrified by Valgrand’s impending death, despite the fact that she’s the one who arranged his current dilemma. According to Mr. Kalat, in the novel Valgrand is indeed executed. In the movie, however, Juve recognizes him at the last minute and he is saved. It’s interesting that even at the dawn of narrative film the cinema was rewriting books to achieve happier endings.
The film ends with Juve in his study. So obsessed is he that he experiences a vision of Fantômas, clad in a tuxedo and a domino mask. (This represents the series’ only nod to the famous poster art featuring a gigantic, similarly-dressed Fantômas looming over Paris.) Juve leaps up to grapple with his foe, but the figment of his imagine proves as hard to grasp as the real villain.
Fantômas in the Shadow of the Guillotine is interesting primarily for historical reasons. It’s Feuillade’s first crack at what would become his trademark genre. Indeed, as noted, it’s pretty much anyone’s first crack at such a thing. As such, its imperfections are forgivable. What we are watching here, after all, is arguably the very creation of pulp cinema.
Given the blood-free nature of the opening robbery, as well as Valgrand’s escape with his life, one wonders if the discovery of Lord Beltham’s corpse was meant to test the audience’s reaction to ghoulishness. If so, the verdict apparently came swiftly; more, please. Fantômas ’schemes would grow grislier, not to mention markedly more insane, as things went along. Indeed, Irma Vep’s escapades in Feuillade’s self-created follow-up, Les Vampires, would at times be nastier still.
Feuillade’s influence on French and in a larger sense continental pop filmmaking cannot be overstated. This influence would be especially pronounced in the periods between the world wars, as well as the ‘60s camp explosion epitomized by the Adam West Batman TV show.
Not only would Mabuse return multiple times to the screen—initially directed by Fritz Lang himself, in his first and only picture to be shot in (now Cold War) Germany since he fled Hitler—but Fantômas and Judex would live again as well. They would be joined by modern day nods to Fantômas such as Diabolik, Kriminal and Satanik.
On the other side of the camera, Europe’s great suspense directors—Chabrol, Bava, Argento, Hitchcock and so on—would all vastly outstrip Feuillade as filmmakers. They also had the advantage of standing upon Feuillade’s shoulders.
Join us here tomorrow for Fantomas vs Juve.