[Note: The 1913/1914 Fantômas serial by Louis Feuillade is actually a collection of five films ranging from 60 to 90 minutes in length, but I’m just posting one review here. For the record the five films I watched were Fantômas I: À l’ombre de la guillotine (Fantômas: In the Shadow of the Guillotine) (1913); Fantômas II: Juve contre Fantômas (Juve vs. Fantômas) (1913); Fantômas III: Le Mort Qui Tue (The Murderous Corpse) (1913); Fantômas IV: Fantômas contre Fantômas (Fantômas vs. Fantômas) (1914); and Fantômas V: Le Faux Magistrat (The False Magistrate) (1914). These have recently been restored and re-packaged as a centenary edition by Gaumont. I watched with intertitle cards and other text in the original French, which I just about managed to translate and understand.]
Louis Feuillade’s silent crime film serial – based on a long-running French series of novels – was originally released during 1913 and 1914, and among other things the films offer interesting snapshots of the sets, camerawork, editing and techniques of actors that I presume were typical of the era (though even within this series you can see rapid development in terms of all of those elements, and a clear case of expanding ambition with regard to the filmmaker). The serial details the ongoing game of cat-and-mouse between a criminal mastermind named Fantômas (René Navarre) and the man trying to bring him to justice, Insprector Juve (Edmund Breon), who is often aided by his journalist friend Jérôme Fandor (Georges Melchior); there are a couple of other actors who appear as the same characters in different instalments, such as Renée Carl, who plays Lady Beltham, Fantômas’ mistress, but the core cast is small. The films use intertitles regularly, and they also incorporate an increasing number of letters and newspaper articles to develop and explain the various plots, though they have clearly been made with the understanding that audience members at the time were familiar with the stories from the books. The plots gradually become more complex as the series progresses, and characters adopt alter-egos or wear disguises regularly, so it’s actually quite difficult to follow on occasion (though I dare say watching with English intertitles and translations would have helped). Each film ends with a cliffhanger, much in the way that the other popular serials of the time did; more often than not this involves a character in peril or Fantômas evading the long arm of the law (which he does with comical ease).
Feuillade’s first film In The Shadows Of The Guillotine is much slower, more rudimentary and less expansive than the rest: few locations are used, there aren’t many actors or extras and the glimpses of Paris that one does see do not give an impression of a busy capital city at all. At one point the director films a hotel lift going past each different floor as it moves between the ground floor and the third; today we’re used to seeing a character getting in a lift and then a cut to them getting out, unless the camera stays with the character inside the lift for the duration for some reason. (As David Bordwell notes in his essay on the serial, Feuillade filmed the lift from different angles and simply changed a sign above it to indicate the different floors.) It’s noticable that by the time he made Juve vs Fantômas the director’s style had evolved, and in particular his editing injected a greater sense of urgency, which in turn made the stunts and the action much more exciting. There’s a sense of gleefulness about the choreographed action set pieces in the second film, and it’s notable for the inventive special effects that are used: a house explodes, a shoot-out takes place at a distillery while barrels of alcohol burn, and there’s a train crash (i.e. two model locomotives filmed smashing into each other after rounding a papier mâché mountain). The addition of tense and imaginatively-staged scenes like these are complemented by the inclusion of other thriller staples, such as sudden twists, while there’s also a greater sense of Paris as a living, breathing metropolis, with more actors, more extras and more real people included in the background. Even the casual observer can see a difference between the first and second film in terms of the size and depth of the sets, which are ornately decorated in Juve vs Fantômas and even more impressive as the series wears on, presumably as funding increased.
Feuillade switches his protagonists regularly, so there are some films in which Juve’s pursuit of Fantômas is to the fore and others in which Fandor takes the lead. The villain himself isn’t overused, either; even five films in there’s still a certain frisson felt when the dastardly one appears on screen, and a sense that anything can happen while he is present. This keeps the series fresh, although by the time I’d watched all 337 minutes over the course of three days I was ready for a break. My growing weariness was probably a result of the convoluted plots more than anything else. The Murderous Corpse, for example, involves a long set-up so that Fantômas can commit a crime using a glove that has been made from the skin of a dead man (who he framed for an earlier murder). Still, such outlandish plotting doesn’t cast too much of a shadow over this otherwise bright and entertaining serial, and I’ll reiterate the point that audiences at the time would have been familiar with the source material. The five Fantômas films are entertaining enough in their own right, but today there’s an obvious added historical value: it’s fascinating to see a director and his cast and crew develop so impressively and so rapidly; additionally, for those of us who don’t watch many silent films, it’s always a treat to immerse yourself in that quiet world and pay attention to what you can see, rather than what you can see and hear. Feuillade would go on to make the popular 10-part serial The Vampires a year later – which by all accounts is superior to his clutch of Fantômas features – and his successes helped to establish Gaumont as the second biggest film production company in France after Pathé. Navarre and Breon both worked regularly as actors until the late-1940s, the latter successfully making the transition into talkies before emigrating to the US and working with Howard Hawks. Creators Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre wrote more than 40 Fantômas books between them, while the character has appeared in French crime films and TV serials regularly over the years, including a 1960s trilogy in which Jean Marias played the master criminal and the journalist tailing him. An updated version directed by Christophe Gans is currently in development.
Directed by: Louis Feuillade.
Written by: Marcel Allain, Louis Feuillade, Pierre Souvestre.
Starring: René Navarre, Edmund Breon, Georges Melchior, Renée Carl.
Cinematography: Georges Guérin.
Running Time: 337 minutes.