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.
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.
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.
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.
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.[*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.