Fantomas III: The Murderous Corpse (1913)

The further I get into things, the want to go into details. Surely interested readers will want to seek out the Fantômas set (perhaps through your local library) and give it a look for themselves. That said, this third film, the only one to follow a traditional cliffhanger, is easily the most morbid and nutty. In other words, it’s exactly what you want.

If Fantômas seems to terrorize and perplex upper class French society with no apparent larger goal—a laissez-faire Frenchman to Mabuse’s fanatically organized German—it’s here that he goes to the furthest extremes to do so. His scheme in this picture is incredibly weird and pointless, presumably meant only to sow fear and perhaps yank on the authorities’ chain.

We open with Fandor in the hospital, recovering from the explosion Fantômas set off to kill his adversaries in the previous chapter. Worse than his injuries, however, is reading the news. Inspector Juve, his great friend and mentor, is presumed dead, although his body has yet to be found.

I don’t think I need a *SPOILER* warning before I reveal that Juve is, in fact, alive. Moreover, he’s taken advantage of his apparent demise. In the days since the explosion he has assumed the guise of Cranajour, a previously unknown “simple” fellow hired “a few days” ago to work at a skid row pawn shop. This is run by Mother Toulouche, a fence. Moreover, the shop is one of Fantômas’ front organizations.

It’s too bad that Cranajour’s real identity is so obvious, surely even to audiences back in 1913. In point of fact, he represents the only really good disguise we see in the five films. If it weren’t so evident that he was Juve because of external circumstances, I might well have been honestly surprised at the revelation of his real identity. It’s a credit to Edmund Breon’s performance as well as to some really quite decent make-up.

Even if the viewer somehow fails to put the pieces together, however, the film telegraphs that Cranajour is not what he seems. Although purportedly simple, in private we see him doing things like spying on none other than the newly recovered Fandor. This as the latter is engaged in his own parallel investigation.

I will say again that Fantômas runs a very sloppy organization. The ease with which Cranajour gets a job that immediately exposes his fencing and smuggling operation is highly convenient. Moreso is the fact that Nibet, the corrupt prison guard who helped Fantômas escape from prison earlier, often comes to visit and deal in illicit goods. This allows Juve to pretty easily connect the dots.

The aforementioned Fandor’s investigation, meanwhile, involves the mysterious death by strangulation of Dollon, a famous young artist. Recently accused of murder (Fantômas ’ work, of course), Dollon was quickly thereafter found dead in his prison cell. Dollon’s killer, naturally, is Fantômas’ pet prison guard, Nibet. Man, the cops really suck in this thing. How many felonies in a prison can Nibet commit and not even get investigated?

The humiliation of the justice system continues (surely Fantômas’ goal) when Elizabeth, Dollon’s ingénue sister returns from a trip soon after. She arrives at the prison immediately after the discovery of Dollon’s death, wanting to see her brother. Even Fandor, having just arrived in pursuit of the story, must sit awkwardly through the introductions and watch her horrified reaction to the news of her brother’s death.

She requests to see Dollon’s body. Then, as if having a suspect murdered under their nose wasn’t embarrassing enough, they discover that his very corpse has mysteriously disappeared from his jail cell. This occurrence fans a spark of hope in Dollon’s sister. She is crushed when they confirm that her brother was definitely dead.

Even this isn’t the final horror, however. Soon after this several further crimes are committed, including a murder. In each case fingerprint evidence suggests that the culprit, impossibly, was the deceased artist.

We never find out why Dollon was the one Fantômas targeted. His ordeal even before his death is nightmarish, and even after his demise his corpse becomes a plaything for Lord of Criminals. It’s all part of the randomness that often seems to define his action. This makes him seem more dangerous, rather than less. Anyone can draw his attention at any time, to their tragic misfortune.

This is also perhaps the prime moment of the series where Fantômas most foreshadows Mabuse. Most of Fantômas’ schemes at heart are basic robberies, albeit executed with a chilling disregard for human life. The elaborate charade he executes here, however, seems designed to achieve nothing save bewildering and mortifying the police and creating fear and panic amongst the public.

This is also far more hard edged than the previous films. In the first, perhaps wishing to establish the audience’s tolerance for cruelty, Feuillade changes the events of the book to have the life of actor Valgrand spared. No such luck for our artist here, however. He is doomed, and his sister another innocent whose life is destroyed for Fantômas’ amusement.

Meanwhile, there’s a neat little bit earlier on, when Dollon is being booked for murder. We see him sitting in the “police anthropometry department,” having his biometrics taken. Although unidentified as such, this was the Bertillion System, a series of measurements invented by French policeman Alphonse Bertillion.

Bertillion also, to his eternal shame, misrepresented his expertise as an expert on handwriting at both of Alfred Dreyfuss’ court martials. Bertillion’s elaborate but entirely dubious ‘scientific’ evidence helped bring about one of the most infamous miscarriages of justice in the annuals of law enforcement.

The success of fingerprints as a source of identification soon did away with the entirely too elaborate and impractical Bertillion System, but it was used in France during this period.  However, as the plot demands it, his fingerprints are also taken. I guess the police having measured the circumference of his head with calipers was less effective for setting up a frame of the dead artist.

“So even if you were to escape, all we’d have to do is measure the head of every man in France with these calipers, and you’d be right back in jail!”

Fandor traces the path the body was taken by to the sewer lair primarily used for smuggling and storing stolen goods. (Again, Fantômas needs to work on his compartmentalization skills.) Our dashing hero is nearly murdered by Nibet before Cranajour intercedes. The latter manages to save Fandor’s life while maintaining his own cover.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth is herself endangered after finding an incriminating note Fantômas inadvertently left behind whilst framing her brother. Again, these sorts of boneheaded lapses are why he can never for me ascend to the heights of a Moriarty or Mabuse. And why did he even need to write out what was basically a villainous “To Do” list? Yeesh.

“Hey, where’s the incriminating note…oh, man. Oh, no. Did I leave back at Dollon’s? Dammit, sometimes I don’t even know why I write them in the first place.”

Anyway, that becomes the MacGuffin that Fantômas chases for much of the picture. Meanwhile, he is hiding in plain sight as the banker Nanteuil. This role allows him both to keep up on sensitive financial information, but gains his entry into high society. Per usual Fantômas is somehow able to run a bank full time in this identity and still squeeze in all his other activities. The guy is a great multitasker, you have to give him that.

I wonder what he does in his spare time?

It’s while in this guise that Fantômas cruelly again targets Princess Danidoff, his first victim from the initial film. Sadly for her, Fantômas unlike lightning does seem to sometimes strike twice. Indeed, he not only steals another valuable necklace from her, but later murders her fiancée as part of a stock-fixing scheme. These are the crimes that Fantômas frames the dead Dollon for.

These are the crimes threatened by the note Elizabeth finds. Fandor saves her life at one point (although she clearly should have been dead by then). Later he ends up being carried off by Fantômas’ men while hiding in a basket. Apparently nobody thinks it oddly heavy or anything. Eventually he cuts his way to freedom, only to discover yet another body. As an example of “Fantômas’s sinister humor,” the corpse had been strangled with a police sash worn by the villain when he was disguised as a cop.

“If only Fantomas would make one tiny slip, leave behind one little clue!”

“Hey, waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaiiitt a minute!”

Meanwhile, Fantômas again forces his hapless, powerless lover Lady Beltham to take part in his plans. It is clear she will never be free of him, until he finds it convenient to kill her or have her imprisoned on his behalf. As much as she wishes to be free of him, a simple touch of his still turns her into jello.

Eventually Juve reveals himself to Fandor in an amusingly puckish manner worthy of Sherlock Holmes himself. Back to himself, Juve solves the mystery and again captures Fantômas. His triumph is short-lived, however, as the villain inevitably slips through his fingers in the last few seconds of the film. Fantômas can never kill Juve, Juve can never (permanently) capture Fantômas. And so it goes.

This 90-minute chapter is the longest of the five films*, not to mention most convoluted and certainly most macabre. The nearly Grand Guignol solution to the case of the murderous corpse is as obvious as it is ridiculous, but it’s genuinely nasty and pulpish. Given that the entire literary detective genre started with a story featuring a murderous orangutan—a tale set in France, nonetheless—well, you can forgive the manifest implausibility. Indeed, it’s the meat you crave when you watch stuff like this.

Is this the end of Fantomas?! (No. The answer is no.)

[*I’m not sure if the final film wasn’t originally longer. The version remaining is truncated due to several lost scenes.]

Return again tomorrow as our archfiend faces his deadliest foe in Fantômas vs. Fantômas.

  • chrisjmagyar

    The first two Fantomas films (at least) are currently on Netflix!

  • Thanks for the heads up!

  • Otto Black

    When I commented on the first Fantômas serial, I hadn’t noticed that the next two serials had already been discussed – this blog updates so seldom with anything more substantial than Monster of the Day that I wasn’t expecting three new reviews in the same year! So I might as well reply here.

    Naturally, I entirely agree that Fritz Lang was a far better director than Feuillade, but then, he was better than just about everyone. Also, it didn’t hurt that Dr Mabuse was played by one of the all-time great bad-guy actors. But is he a better character? I would say not. For starters, Fantômas had one huge advantage over Mabuse – he got away with it! Every time!

    Whereas poor old Mabuse basically self-destructs when the woman he’s in love with, who, ironically, was in love with the ruthless but rather glamorous Supervillain she imagined him to be before she met him, can’t stand the real man, who is so flawed he’s utterly incapable of loving someone because he doesn’t know how to. Also, he probably shouldn’t have abducted and (implicitly) raped her. Girls generally don’t appreciate that sort of thing.

    It could be argued that, after he eventually dies in a lunatic asylum, his return from the grave as bug-eyed brainiac made of pure willpower is a good trick if you can do it. However, it’s very debatable indeed whether this actually happens. “The Testament of Dr Mabuse” is a thinly-veiled allegory about the rise of the Nazis made in Nazi Germany – so thinly-veiled that Himmler saw through it and Lang had to flee to America – and the basic point of the whole film is that horrible ideologies can be infectious, therefore the possession of the late Mabuse’s doctor by Mabuse is probably a hallucination; he’s really “possessed” because he read Mabuse’s writings.

    Is Mabuse really a master criminal? In “Dr Mabuse the Gambler”, the only film in which the real Mabuse is definitely alive and at liberty, his criminal empire consists of a tiny handful of lowlifes, including an unreliable junkie. He also has superpowers, but they’re used very inconsistently. You’d think that a man who can control minds well enough to make everyone in a packed theatre have the same vivid hallucination would be able to make a killing on the stock-market in ways that didn’t rely on an over-complex robbery that could easily have gone wrong, or escape from a building under siege by overwhelming numbers of soldiers in ways more effective than trying to shoot it out long after it’s clearly hopeless, then fleeing through a sewer, only to make an incredibly stupid mistake and get trapped by his own security precautions! By the way, is it just me, or is one of those blind guys in the forgers’ den a time-traveling Spike Milligan?

    Giving your Supervillain amazing mental powers that sometimes make him more powerful than Professor X, and allow him to force a person anywhere in his line of sight to do suicidally stupid things, and keep doing them long after he’s stopped concentrating, while at other times it’s a major effort for him to cause somebody sitting a couple of feet away to make silly decisions while playing cards, even with the help of mechanical devices to improve his more or less conventional hypnotic ability, but mostly forgets he can control peoples’ minds at all – that’s bad writing!

    Also, Mabuse is his real name, and he has a full-time job as a very well-known psychiatrist. He also has another job as a magician who is clearly the same guy with a bit of makeup, and seems to be internationally famous (since his tricks would even today be utterly impossible, he certainly should be!), plus he’s a lot of other apparently quite well-established people too. Even if he never sleeps, how does he find the time?

    Fantômas, on the other hand, doesn’t have a real name at all (except possibly Gurn, but that’s soon forgotten about). All his identities are temporary and disposable, and none of them are A-list celebrities who constantly draw attention to themselves by exhibiting impossible superpowers just like the ones Fantômas is rumored to have! And he never went mad because he’d accidentally locked himself in a room with Spike Milligan. He’s in many ways both more believable and more dangerous – Dr Mabuse never caused an outbreak of bubonic plague just because he could!

    Mabuse and Fantômas run comparably small and unreliable organizations. Mabuse is ruthless when he has to be; Fantômas is ruthless for fun. Mabuse has a very public real identity; Fantômas has no real identity at all. Mabuse lived on through his written work after going nuts, being captured, rotting in an asylum for 13 years, dying, and just possibly coming back as a telepathic energy-being whose host pretty soon went insane. Fantômas was last seen alive and well in 1963, 30 years after Mabuse died, and 43 years after his criminal career effectively ended. He never spent more than a few months behind bars, and was so dangerous that his nemesis Inspector Juve deliberately sprang him from a Belgian jail because Belgium had no death-penalty, and he would have escaped at some point anyway, so the only rational thing to do was let him out, try to keep tabs on him, and hope he could be arrested in a country such as France that could legally chop his head off. And Alan Moore described Fantômas as being a worse monster than Dracula, because even Dracula was human once!

    Oh, by the way, if you take the Joker to be the character who first appeared in 1940, Fantômas is just the right age to be his dad, and has almost exactly the same personality, including a tendency to give his worst enemies unnecessary chances to escape when he has them at his mercy, because setting up a situation where Juve and Fandor each believe the other to be Fantômas and will probably kill each other is much funnier than simply murdering them. Also, the Joker once borrowed a stratagem directly from Fantômas – going to elaborate lengths to become a foreign ambassador, thus gaining diplomatic immunity. So I think there’s quite a bit of circumstantial evidence for a blood relationship between those two. And it’s an established fact that Phantom Limb on “The Venture Brothers” is Fantômas’ grandson.

    Incidentally, that 1963 “Judex” movie by Georges Franju was supposed to be a Fantômas film, but he couldn’t afford the rights. That’s why Franju portrayed his hero as an oddly pointless character who spends almost the entire film accomplishing nothing, and was far more interested in the baddie, who was near-as-dammit Irma Vep; like Feuillade and Lang, he was always more fascinated by evil characters. You’re of course correct to say that there’s one extraordinarily bizarre and hallucinatory sequence; do you by any chance mean that bit right at the very beginning where Judex wears a bird mask? I think you’ll find that’s directly inspired by the Surrealist collages of Max Ernst, many of which featured Loplop the Bird Superior, who could be a bird or a man, but was usually a bird-headed man.

    So I’m still firmly in the Fantômas camp in the Fantômas vs. Mabuse debate, while conceding that “Dr Mabuse the Gambler” (both parts) is a true work of cinematic genius and an utterly fantastic film. Go on, review some Fritz Lang, even though they’re not “bad movies” fit for your “dimension”! How about the lesser-known stuff like “Spione”? Or “Rancho Notorious”? Or even “The 1,000 Eyes of Dr Mabuse”?

  • Rggrgt

    Are do some brain damage film