Fates Worse Than Death: Fantômas (1913-14)

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Paris, 1913: The Princess Sonia Danidoff checks into the Royal Palace Hotel late at night. After she picks up an envelope containing 120,000 Francs in cash from the front desk, the elevator operator takes her to her room on the fourth floor (we see the elevator ascend all the way to make its importance clear). She puts the envelope and a string of pearls in a drawer and leaves the room to change into a nightgown.

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While she has stepped out, a mysterious bearded man appears from behind a curtain in the room and heads straight for the drawer. But he is interrupted by her return, and once the maid is gone he reveals himself to the Princess. Since this is a silent film, we don’t know his exact words, but when the Princess expresses her shock and demands to know his identity, he hands her a calling card: blank! He warns her not to make any noise as he takes the cash and jewelry, and then makes one last threat before gallantly kissing her hand and making his escape. The front desk is called, and the manager sends the elevator operator up to assist. The stranger lies in wait on the fourth floor, and when the operator opens the door, he pounces! The elevator begins its descent, showing each floor again on the way down. At the ground floor, the elevator operator emerges and says, “I’ll go for the police!” He leaves–but his face looks familiar. Alone, waiting for help, the Princess examines the blank card the stranger gave her, and to her astonishment, a name appears: FANTÔMAS!

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Of course, when the police arrive and the elevator is opened, the operator is discovered, unconscious, his uniform gone. A fake beard and mustache, worn by the thief, are discovered. This is a job for Inspector Juve of the Department of Security! Juve has his work cut out for him, as Fantômas always seems to be one step ahead: through his network of informants and contacts in all levels of society he always knows where the ripest pickings are to be had; he has no scruples against, murder, kidnapping, blackmail, or any other crime; and because of his penchant for disguises, no one even knows what he looks like! Why, anybody could be Fantômas–even you! Thus begins the first chapter of the 1913 film Fantômas in the Shadow of the Guillotine, the first of five Fantômas features directed by Louis Feuillade.

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Feuillade’s crime serials neither begin with Fantômas nor end with Judex (the first was preceded by a series of shorts in which Fantômas star René Navarre played a detective, and Judex was followed by a sequel, The New Mission of Judex), but the trilogy of Fantômas, Les Vampires, and Judex are widely available today in restored editions, and taken together they convey the sense of his influence (I had intended to cover Les Vampires in this entry, but instead I will get to it and Judex at a later time). Fantômas is not strictly a serial in the same format as the other “chapter plays” I have explored in Fates Worse Than Death (it is made up of five films, all but one around an hour in length and released in theaters at intervals of two or three months, although they are divided into chapters), but it is highly serialized nevertheless and is so influential in its imagery and plotting, particularly its characterization of the master criminal, that it feels like splitting hairs to exclude it from discussion.

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The Fantômas series was based on a popular series of pulp novels by Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain, which followed the endless (almost literally) struggle between the villainous Fantômas and the team of Inspector Juve and his friend, journalist Jerôme Fandor. Earlier this summer I said that Fu Manchu was “perhaps the model of the criminal mastermind.” Well, I am willing to admit when I am wrong, and Fantômas has Sax Rohmer’s “devil doctor” beaten by at least a year, first appearing in print in 1911 and solidifying an archetype, the modern criminal genius, that had been coming together in a nebulous way in the previous century.

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To digress: when I first read the Sherlock Holmes stories, I found it a little anticlimactic that Holmes’s archenemy, Professor Moriarty, appeared in only one story, introduced and eliminated as part of Arthur Conan Doyle’s attempt to rid himself of his most famous creation. Aside from later writers’ use of Moriarty as a recurring nemesis in their own Holmes pastiches, many of the long-running villains of the early twentieth century like Fantômas, Fu Manchu, and Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse struck me as attempts to justify and expand upon Doyle’s description of Moriarty as “the Napoleon of Crime.” However, learning that there were in the nineteenth century several criminals who engineered clever international schemes, committed infamous crimes that captured the public imagination, and who inspired grudging admiration even among those professionals who failed to catch them, and one of whom was literally described as a “Napoleon of Crime,” did serve to put Moriarty in context. Doyle’s audience didn’t need a long history of enmity to be established in the pages of Holmes’ adventures, for they already knew the type of figure Holmes described when speaking of Moriarty, and the detective’s movement from solving smaller crimes to tackling the kind of worldbeater they read about in newspapers and magazines next to the Holmes stories probably seemed like a natural progression. As in Chester Gould’s creation of Dick Tracy to battle forces of criminality that the real police couldn’t get a handle on, Doyle directed his pen toward the real crime bosses of his day, at least within the pages of his fiction.

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Such was Fantômas, but in Souvestre’s and Allain’s books, and in Feuillade’s films, the crimes he committed became surreal and grotesque, and his powers seemingly unlimited. A dead man’s fingerprints are stolen to divert blame for Fantômas’ crimes; a “silent executioner,” sent to destroy Fantômas’ enemies, turns out to be a deadly snake. As his “ghostly” name implies, Fantômas can appear or disappear almost at will, and as a master of disguise he maintains multiple identities, both respectable and criminal: posing as a landlord, he hides a corpse in a freshly-plastered wall, only to take credit for “discovering” the body in one of his other roles, an American detective. Through such strategems he is even able to convince the public and the authorities that Juve, the man hunting him, is actually Fantômas!

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Fantômas and his pursuers are closer to archetypes than fully realized characters, at least in the films (I’ll admit I haven’t read the books): there’s not much evidence that Juve or Fandor have any existence aside from their jobs, and as for Fantômas, there’s even less to him, a hollow man of a thousand faces, an embodiment of pure sociopathy. While I’ve seen the Fantômas series classified as “espionage” (a label that makes sense for its embrace of secret, international conspiracies, multiple disguises, double-crosses, and singularly heroic agents acting alone), there is little to no reference to politics in the external sense–If there is a war being waged, it is between the secret underworld of crime and an orderly society that reacts to it: in short, a “return of the repressed.” The series’ sense of morbid fantasy puts it closer to The Man Who Was Thursday than The Secret Agent.

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However, perhaps we should not be surprised that Fantômas, like Fu Manchu, or the icons of later horror films, gradually came to be treated as the hero of the series, with audiences rooting for him to get away so he can return some other time to continue entertaining us and titillating us with displays of power. As we have seen with Brazil’s Coffin Joe, conservative societies frequently find outlets for antisocial instincts in conscienceless, charismatic antiheroes. Fantômas is, as far as we know, purely in it for profit and personal power, and in a repressive society, such a figure is the ultimate individualist, and thus a potent symbol. The Surrealists who embraced Fantômas as an icon or mascot surely responded to his embrace of freedom at all costs (and generally at the expense of others) just as much as they loved the weird imagery and non sequitur plotting Souvestre and Allain cooked up in their rapid, free-associating writing partnership.

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In his commentary on the Kino Inernational DVD, film historian David Kalat comments on the series’ implicit belief in the possibility of “total disguise,” observing that when Fantômas impersonates a physician, he takes on a practice and even sees patients; when he poses as a real person, copying his appearance and mannerisms, he fools even close friends of the original. I am reminded of the later sound serials’ frequent habit of casting two different actors to play characters in disguise, so that their transformation appears to be truly complete, and their revelation is suitably surprising to the audience. Here, star René Navarre does it all himself with body language and various wigs and mustaches: in fact, most of Feuillade’s Fantômas films begin with close-ups of Navarre showing off the various disguises Fantômas will be wearing in the upcoming episode (in some, Edmund Bréon, who plays Juve, shows off his own disguises in a similar manner). Thus, even though a character is introduced as “Gurn” or “Nanteuil” or “Father Moche,” we the audience already know that it is Fantômas. Sometimes Juve or Fandor recognize their quarry right away, but other times the disguise is completely foolproof. In such cases, the suspense comes from the audience’s knowledge of what is going on, and wondering how long it will take the film’s heroes to catch on and unravel the scheme.

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In other cases, however, the audience is as mystified as Juve and Fandor, and what we get are only fragments of a plot seen from the outside, with the pleasure of seeing the pieces fall into place only at the climax, a conception of the suspense film that has come to be the norm: it feels more “traditional” to save revelations for the most dramatic moment, but it is actually the opposite, a modern approach that withholds information until the tension is at its breaking point.

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Aside from the fluidity of his identity, the other constant is Fantômas’ slipperiness: several times he is cornered, even taken into custody by the police, but each time he wriggles free by some last-minute escape hatch (one of the hallmarks of the mastermind type as seen in later serials and pulp fiction). When apprehended by Juve and Fandor outside a nightclub, Fantômas slips out of his coat, leaving the two men holding a pair of false arms; held at gunpoint in his office, he leaps backward through a false panel behind him and escapes yet again. In fact, one major difference between the Fantômas saga and most of the other serials I have covered is its open-endedness: at the end of each feature, including the last one, Fantômas manages to get away and “Once again, Fantômas, the uncanny, the master of crime, was free.” (The original novels by Souvestre and Allain ran to 32 installments, with 11 more by Allain alone; Feuillade had no more reason to close off his series permanently than the producers of the James Bond movies would.)

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While episodic, there are a few cliffhangers in the modern sense: at the end of the second feature, Juve vs. Fantômas, Fantômas blows up the house in which Juve, Fandor, and the police are searching for him, exulting at his victory. “Were Juve and Fandor killed by the explosion at Lady Beltham’s villa?” the title card asks. Answers would not be forthcoming until deep into the next feature, The Murderous Corpse, which begins with Jerôme Fandor (Georges Melchior), recovered from his injuries and investigating in the footsteps of his presumed-dead friend. (Again, the audience knows from the beginning that Juve, alive, has infiltrated the Fantômas gang in disguise, but it takes a while for Fandor to learn the truth.)Fantomas.triumphant

I would be remiss if I failed to mention one of Fantômas’ most iconic disguises: in a few episodes, when Fantômas himself deigns to get his hands dirty, he dons an all-black costume complete with a long hood like that of an inquisitor or executioner. I have frequently commented on the ubiquity of hooded villains in the later serials, and this seems to be one of the primal founts for that particular costume.

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Fantômas was an international hit: in addition to European success, the films were imported to the Americas and proved very popular (at the time, at least). William Fox handled the series in the United States and produced his own Americanized Fantomas serial (now lost) in 1920. Prior to the explosion of costumed superheroes in the 1940s, the serials and pulp magazines were full of villains (and sometimes heroes) who looked like they all shopped out of the same catalog for members of secret tribunals: it was a standard-issue costume.

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(Interestingly, Fantômas is seen only once in the film series in his other iconic costume, the eveningwear and domino mask seen on the cover of the first book and made famous as a popular poster, and that is as a daydream in which he appears to Inspector Juve, taunting him and daring him to arrest him.)

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The worldview cultivated by the Fantômas features is ultimately a paranoid one: just as the queasy ethnic stereotyping of the Fu Manchu series means that any Asian character is a target of suspicion, for they could be one of Fu Manchu’s agents, so in these films anyone you meet could turn out to be Fantômas or someone in his pocket! Lady Beltham (Renée Carl), one of the few recurring characters aside from the trio of Fantômas, Juve, and Fandor, is compromised, having been the mistress of one of Fantômas’ alter egos and subject to blackmail ever after: even the convent is no escape for her.

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The sense of persecution extends to the inexorable workings of justice, in case you were tempted to take comfort in Inspector Juve’s opposition to Fantômas. In Fantômas in the Shadow of the Guillotine, an actor who specializes in making himself up as the master criminal finds himself in prison and scheduled to be executed in Fantômas’ place! (In the film, Juve discovers the imposture just in time, but apparently in the book the miscarriage of justice is permanent; again, I haven’t read it.)

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As mentioned previously, in Fantômas vs. Fantômas (the fourth feature), the public turns against Juve, believing him to be the criminal himself (with more than a little help from Fantômas in his various identities), and he is arrested and imprisoned; incredibly, Fantômas goes so far as to bribe a guard to drug Juve and cut him so that he will have an injury matching one Fantômas had recently incurred in public, so that it will seem as if Juve had escaped to commit the crime. Yes, it is a little convoluted: no scheme is too baroque for Fantômas, and few ordinary people would have the resources and stamina of Juve and Fandor to stand up to them. In the fifth and final feature, The False Magistrate, Juve willingly takes Fantômas’ place in a Belgian prison in order to lure Fantômas back to France, where he can be subject to the death penalty, as clear an example of the policeman adopting the criminal’s way of thinking as you’ll find.

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In the Fantômas series, the ubiquity of masks, assumed identities, and deadly secrets is thrilling to watch, but becomes oppressive after a while. The setting also contributes to this feeling: beneath the modern Paris of neat row houses and elegant society are the catacombs and secret passages through cellars and abandoned warehouses, and above are the moonlit rooftops over which black-clad cat burglars and assassins nimbly make their way. The secret world of cutpurses, fences, and killers is separated from ordinary life by only the thinnest of membranes, and the naïve forget it at their peril. Although largely filmed on location in and around the city, the persistence of shadows and crumbling, empty places anticipates the stark, agonistic productions of German expressionism that would arise in the next decade. Paris á la Fantômas is a place full of wonders, but dangerous in which to linger.

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What I Watched: The Fantômas series (Gaumont, 1913-14)
Where I Watched It: A 3-DVD set from Kino International (This is a restored version undertaken in 1998; it also includes the commentary by film historian David Kalat I have alluded to above.)
No. of Chapters: As mentioned, this isn’t quite in the format of a serial as it would be understood later, but the five features that make up the Fantômas saga are themselves divided into chapters, so taken altogether there are 22 including prologues.
Best Chapter Title: I like the title of the second chapter of Fantômas vs. Fantômas, “The Bleeding Wall,” which is not a metaphor.

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Best Peril: As noted, there are only a few genuine cliffhangers (I don’t really count Fantômas’ inevitable escapes, which are more like hooks for future adventures), but chapters within each feature are (unsurprisingly) more like chapters in a book than the sequence of perilous episodes found in a serial proper, each chapter developing one of several mysteries which, when taken all together, explain Fantômas’ overall scheme. Although not a peril faced by Juve or Fandor, it’s hard to top the sequence in The False Magistrate in which Fantômas sends one of his underlings to fetch some jewelry hidden inside a church bell and then leaves him stranded in the bell tower; the next time the bell is rung, a shower of hidden jewels and blood from his mutilated body falls on the funeralgoers below. No, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it demonstrates the degree to which the world of Fantômas is one of free-associating dreams and nightmares. In a series full of Grand Guignol horrors, this is one of the grandest.

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Sample Dialogue: “If you are Fantômas, we want our cut, tout de suite. If you are Juve, then it’s bad news for you.” –a member of Fantômas’ gang, still under the impression that Inspector Juve is secretly their leader, in Fantômas vs. Fantômas Chapter Four, “Settling Accounts”

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What’s Next: Next week, I’ll continue the Feuillade theme with his follow-up serial, Les Vampires (and this time I really mean it!).

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