Fantomas II: Juve vs. Fantomas (1913)

Click here to read about the previous film, Fantomas in the Shadow of the Guillotine.

With our cast introduced in the first film, our second hour-long feature can hit the ground running. As the title indicates, our hero moves closer to center stage this time. Indeed, he’s joins Fantômas  with his own opening montage of disguises.

Sadly, once more the literal medium of film works against the franchise’s lynchpin of total disguise. If, as Kalat notes, in the Fantômas  universe “a fat man can become a thin one,” sadly, in real life there’s only so much one can do. Encumbered with a broad, stock build as well as a large mustache, Juve’s range of disguises is by definition somewhat limited. In general he must make himself look heavier; there’s only so much a person can do to look thinner.

As for Fantômas, the opening disguise montage gives us our first look at his trademark skulking uniform of black shirt, pants, boots and a face-obscuring hood. This ebony ensemble paves the way for the similar but tighter black catsuit worn (as one might imagine, to much greater effect) by Feuillade’s next supervillain, the malign assassin Irma Vep.

We open with Juve in his home office, working on the Fantômas  case. He is soon joined by Fandor, who Juve shows a newly arrived police report. A disfigured female corpse has been found in the home of one Dr. Chaleck. The mangled body, apparently crushed to death in some fashion, can’t be identified on its own. However, upon it they found papers belonging to Lady Beltham. Has Fantômas murdered his lover and accomplice?

“If only there was a clue as to what killed her!”

Cut to Fandor and Juve following the refined Dr. Chaleck. The physician climbs into a car. However, when he disembarks in a ramshackle part of town it’s in the guise of Loupart, a “violent rogue” Yes, Chaleck is another identity of Fantômas’. Why Fantômas would ‘discover’ a mutilated body in the home of one of his alternative selves…well, that’s just how he rolls. Apparently he has so many personas that he can toss them away on a whim.

Loupart walks past an evident streetwalker, Josephine, who surreptitiously passes him a message. Seeing this, Juve tells Fandor to follow the woman while he tails the man. Arriving back at Chaleck’s car, Loupart reads the note. It’s clear from this that Josephine is another of the lovers Fantômas has inveigled for his schemes. Although I’d guess she’s a rather more willing accomplice than Lady Beltham.

Josephine has hoodwinked Martlalle, an agent for some wine merchants, convincing him that she’s a virginal naïf waiting to be plucked. She’ll be meeting him later for a train trip, at a time when he’ll be carrying a fortune in cash for his firm. Loupart leaves in Chaleck’s car, unaware that Juve is following in his own automobile. However, a member of Fantômas’ gang sees this. He jumps aboard the back of Juve’s car and cuts up his rear balloon tire with a knife. Juve jumps out of the disabled car in frustration, but it’s too late. Loupart has escaped.

This is another moment that foreshadows Dr. Mabuse. Although Fantômas maintains a gang (albeit one he regularly betrays as the mood strikes him), it seldom comes into play like this. Off the top of my head, this is the one time the films suggest an invisible army with standing orders to protect Fantômas’ schemes. That sort of thing is much more in Mabuse’s line. Fantômas has underlings, but it seldom really feels like an organization.

Indeed, one central difference between Mabuse and Fantômas is that Fantômas remains, when all is said and done, a criminal. While Mabuse’s aim is nothing less than the subversion and eventual dissolution of the German state, and from there, perhaps, all governments, we never really get the sense that Fantômas is stealing for anything but the sake of the loot and his own ego. Yes, he clearly enjoys terrorizing society, but that seems more like a hobby than his main focus.

If Juve’s pursuit ends in failure, Fandor has more luck. He follows Josephine to her apartment building, which he stakes out. He resumes the tail when she leaves in more demure garb to meet Martlalle. He follows her on the train when she meets her would-be beau. As in the later Les Vampires, a meeting on a train has tragic results.

Teams of masked hoods enter the car and not only rob Martlalle, but Fandor as well. They then leave along with Josephine, having uncoupled the car they are in from the rest of the train.  This, with Fandor and Martlalle still aboard, slowly begins to careen down the tracks. Fandor and Martalle manage to jump to freedom. Indeed, they manage too easily for drama’s sake, as the car is initially moving very slowly. However, the errant train car eventually smashes into an oncoming express train, presumably killing dozens or even hundreds of innocents.

“Good grief! Is it April 15th already?!” (How’s that for biting political satire?)

Thus this chapter establishes the sheer scale of Fantômas’ cold-bloodedness. It also introduces on of the central tropes of serials through the decades; retardedly complicated death traps. We are told that Fantômas engineered this disaster just to eliminate witnesses. Well, just moments earlier both prospective witnesses were helpless with multiple guns jammed in their faces. Shooting them surely would have been easier, not to mention surer.

I don’t want to beat the Mabuse comparisons to death. However, such an event committed by that latter mastermind would have been intended to strike terror in society at large. This is never implied about Fantômas, and again, a title card explains the main goal was to eliminate witnesses. Mabuse seems to work on an epic scale, while Feuillade’s Fantômas always seems to be playing the small game.

Moreover, after failing to eliminate “witnesses”—i.e., Fandor and Martlalle—even after engineering a massive train wreck, Fantômas is further chumped when “Loupart” discovers that Martlalle was only carrying half the bills. Not half the amount, literally half the bills; they were cut in half as a partial payment to seal a business deal. Yep, that’s just the kind of universe we’re talking about here. Anyhoo, the other halves are in the brokerage offices. If Fantômas wants the money, another heist will be necessary.

Believing Fandor to be dead, Loupart sends Juve a telegram in Fandor’s name, meant to lure Juve to his death. By sheer coincidence, or as they call it in this universe, “business as usual,” Juve arrives at the site of the ambush to find…Fandor, who just happens to be staking out the same area. Amusingly, the two initially shoot at each other, thinking the other to be Fantômas. Good detective work, you two. Surely nothing can go wrong from shooting at the first person you barely glimpse in the dark of night.

Realizing their mistake, the comrades greet each other happily. However, scads of Street Apaches then literally pop up from behind the nearby rows of wine barrels. The hoods attempt to gun the two down, and then set a fire to immolate them. Needless to say, however, our heroes narrowly escape.

“Good work! We’ve got them over a barrel!”

Juve and Fandor soon manage to capture Fantômas while he’s out partying in the guise of Dr. Chaleck. Per usual, though, the wily villain escapes, here by…well, that would be telling. It’s pretty hilarious, though, take my word for it. There’s even a subtle callback to the event later in the series, which is nice continuity considering the chapters would have been released months and months apart.

Meanwhile, style points to Fantômas for going right back to the nightclub to resume the date (with two women…well, they’re French) that Juve and Fandor interrupted when they arrested him. It’s a rare moment of whimsy in what is otherwise generally a pretty grim series. And it’s certainly the closest the vile Fantômas ever comes to seeming like a charming rogue.

This escapade by the boards—in fact, they pretty much just forget the whole ‘cut in half money’ thing, despite Fantômas’ pledge to steal the rest of it—we now check in again with Lady Beltham. In case you were wondering, no, she’s not dead. Unidentifiable or missing bodies always mean the presumed victim is alive.

Released by the police for lack of evidence, Lady Beltham has sought refuge in a convent. Even there she isn’t safe from the Devil, however. She receives a letter from Gurn, the identity under which Fantômas was her lover in the previous film. He commands her presence Wednesday at midnight at her country villa. Unable to resist him, she goes, and is further ordered to meet her there every week at that time.

Meanwhile, Juve and Fandor suspect Fantômas may be using the villa as a hideout. To investigate, the pair disguise themselves—in Juve’s case as an even more portly fellow (again, “total disguise” is far easier in books than in movies)—and visit during the day, playing the role of prospective buyers of the property.

“Psst. Fandor? Is that you? These disguises are so good even I can’t tell!”

They are taken on a tour by the unwitting groundskeeper. He eventually warns them that the house is haunted. “Every Wednesday at midnight,” he exclaims, “the light comes on and one hears strange sounds!” I laughed at the latter; being pretty sure the French imagination was readily able to supply an explanation for said sounds.

Conveniently for our heroes, the cellar holds a simply gigantic furnace (a nicely elaborate piece of set design), with, of course, commensurate air ducts. When next Fantômas and Lady Beltham meet, they are unaware that Juve and Fandor as spying on them through the heating grate.

“Psst! Juve! This is a ‘grate’ place to eavesdrop! ‘Grate’ place! Get it?”

Lady Beltham begs Gurn to give up his life of crime and to live with her in peace and connubial bliss. To our surprise, he agrees, although surely this is a ruse. In any case, he vows that before leaving his old life behind he will first have his “silent assassin” dispose of Juve four nights hence. The lovers depart, unaware the Fantômas’ target has heard his plans. (Why not just arrest him now? Shut up, that’s why.)

We cut to the appointed night, as Juve prepares for bed. The nature of this assassin is pretty nifty but possibly predictable. The forewarned Juve’s defense mechanism, however, is downright hilarious, not to mention utterly impractical. In other words, it’s spectacularly great. Needless to say, Juve survives, no thanks to Fandor who spent the night hiding inside a nearby wicket basket.

Man, I want so badly to talk about this scene and show some awesome stills, but I don’t want to ruin it for people. Dammit.

Having surmounted this peril, Juve now leads a police raid on the villa. The archfiend Fantômas is not unprepared for such an eventuality, however, for he has wired the house with explosives. Evading capture via another pre-planned gimmick, he climbs out a window and sets off the charges. The house immediately blows apart and collapses.  As the film ends, the fate of Fandor and Juve remains very much in doubt.

It’s always dire when Fantomas engages in jazz hands.

Oh, and a trigger warning; the last bit of the film offers up a very real instance of animal cruelty. Lyz Kingsley in particular is warned.

I found the climax pretty interesting. It’s the first of the films to end with a cliffhanger, just as it was also the first to offer a silly death trap. I must also assume that in a larger sense it was one of the earliest examples of the breed in film, period. I imagine it kept audiences on pins and needles until the next film was released two and a half months later.

You won’t have to wait nearly so long, however. Join us again tomorrow as we are threatened by The Murderous Corpse.

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