Fantômas Part 1
France (1913) Dir. Louis Feuillade
It may seem that these days a bestselling novel or series is immediately leapt on for that lucrative cinematic tie-in, but a precedent has been set back in the silent days – although quite often there would be a few years before famous works and literary characters (Dracula, Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, Frankenstein, etc) arrived on the screen.
Leave it then to the true innovators of early cinema, the French, to leap on a popular franchise and give it an onscreen adaptation while the ink was still drying on the latest manuscripts. The stories of the evil criminal mastermind Fantômas first appeared in print in 1911 – the collaborative creation of Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre who wrote thirty two novels together until Souvestre’s death in 1914, after which Allain wrote a further eleven alone – the first film appearing barely two years later.
While Fantômas was a literary contemporary of Arsene Lupin, he was more villainous and sociopathic than the gentleman thief, thinking nothing of murdering anyone for his own ends. Thus the stories and the films are remarkably dark for their time, creating the blueprint for many a fictional serial killer to come.
Taking up the directing duties was the prolific Louis Feuillade, a journalist and scriptwriter who became a student of film under the aegis of legendary female film pioneer Alice Guy-Blanché. However Fantômas wasn’t a serial as we know it, with a twenty minute run time and each episode ending with a cliffhanger – this is a series of five films ranging from 54 minutes to 90 minutes in length.
In the title role is René Navarre, a sharp featured actor whose face is mostly obscured by the many disguises his dastardly character adopts. His history and penchant for such anti-social behaviour is not, as yet, explained in these films, making him an intriguingly cold but difficult character to reconcile. Fantômas is aided by his lover Lady Beltham (Renée Carl) who uses her wealth and influence to aid her paramour but seems somewhat hesitant to endorse his murderous ways.
Every villain needs a hero to challenge him and in this tale, that honour falls to Inspector Juve (Edmund Breon), a slightly bumbling but canny policeman aided by a plucky young journalist Jérôme Fandor (Georges Melchior). Much like their adversary, both men are quick to indulge in some cosplay to infiltrate the known hideouts and haunts of Fantômas and are just as resourceful in getting out of the inventive traps set for them.
The first of three films in this set is In the Shadow of the Guillotine, in which the evil criminal commits an audacious theft in a hotel then abducts Lord Beltham to make way for him to get together with Lady Beltham, all the while under the guise of Mr. Gurn. However Gurn is subsequently caught and sentenced to death but still manages to plot his escape thanks to Lady Beltham and a stage actor named Valgrand (André Volbert), who has created a show about Gurn.
Part two is entitled Juve vs. Fantômas, another slightly disjointed affair that involves a cross country game of cat and mouse as Juve and Fandor follow Fantômas on his quest to rob a distillery owner of his money. After this Juve learns that his arch enemy plans to kill him and while the policeman does his best to avoid this, he may not be so lucky. This was the first film to end with a cliffhanger but not quite like the ones which would define the genre later on.
Finally in this set, film three is The Dead Man Who Killed, a slower paced affair but one with a focused story. With Juve still missing after the second film Fandor has to go it alone when a murder is committed and the man arrested for it is then found dead in his cell. However the body mysteriously goes missing and later when a princess is attacked and robbed of her jewels the fingerprints of the dead man are found at the scene of the crime.
Of the three this is quite a gruesome tale due to the bold exploration of the depths Fantômas will go in order to commit and cover his ghastly crimes. There is an impressive sense of ingenuity to these escapades which would shock even today, so audiences in 1913 must have wet themselves! Even in their truncated state the inventiveness of the plots and the mechanics of the criminal activities offer plenty to admire, while noting their influence on the next generation of crime writers.
The films themselves are an odd mix of innovation and cinematic style while beholden to the trappings of the period, vis-a-vis the overacting and camp theatrics. A train crash in the second film using models looks impressive while the real live snake used to kill Juve seems every scarier here. Feuillade directs everything with enthusiasm and energy and while he understands how to create a sense of danger, he can’t help but subconsciously infuse serious scenes with a touch of his earlier comedy style.
By condensing the source material the shorter films possess a narrative which is often confusing and rushed, with the last film given time to play out at a steady, if occasionally sluggish, pace. The outcome requires much acceptance of the events from the viewer without question and bearing in mind the period we are talking about, film fans weren’t so fussy to entertain such challenging thoughts.
Fantômas is totemic of early French silent cinema – very much a product of its time yet rich in its exploration of the development and possibilities of the medium. It might look hokey to modern audiences but much of the foundation of the classic cliffhanger serial as we know it is found here.