My favourite so far of Louis Feuillade's Fantomas silent movies. This is number four and it's basically the same as its predecessors, but with some story and production factors that for me made it more fun.
Firstly, they've resurrected the introductory close-up of Fantomas looking shifty in his various disguises. This is great. I missed it in the previous movie
, perhaps because Feuillade was worried about the running time or else perhaps simply because the footage originally existed but has since been lost. Anyway, personally I think this apparently trivial introduction is deceptively important. Firstly, it's a close-up of the main character. Make the most of it. Remember that face. You'll never see him this clearly again in the film itself, thanks to the technical restrictions of movie-making in 1914, which is doubly important because he's an evil master of disguise. Left to your own devices you'd neither know nor eventually care which incidental characters might really be Fantomas, but in this introduction here we see them. Old man? Gotcha. Look out for old man.
The simpler reason I like it though is that it's cool. It's characterisation. It's Fantomas in disguise looking dodgy, which is the foundation of this franchise.
It's possible of course that I'm simply training myself in how to watch this series. I'm sure I'd get more out of the previous instalments if I returned to them, but even so I still maintain that a Fantomas film should ideally contain Fantomas. In other words, I want to see him. I want to watch him being evil. I got my wish here and so for instance it's fascinating to see him impersonating a kind old man and dropping in and out of character, e.g. to perpetrate violence. Note what Rene Navarre does with his body language. I loved that whole sequence, actually.
They start with a discontinuity. The previous film had Juve officially dead, yet this one opens with a press campaign vilifying him for not catching Fantomas so fiercely that it's been decided that they must be one and the same. He's thus fired from the Surete and thrown in prison. Eh? Undercover Juve was one of the more interesting elements of the previous film and I was slightly distressed to see it being tossed out of the window like this, even if there's later a reference to it. The upside though is that for the first time this allows Georges Melchior's Fandor a bit of personality. He's angry on behalf of his friend. I don't actually blame Melchior for any of this because Feuillade has been short-changing him something rotten, stripping out all his backstory and any subplots that might have turned him into a human being (e.g. the romance that didn't happen in the previous film). Anyway, Fandor in this film isn't entirely a null. Further plus points.
Incidentally, it's interesting to see the mirroring that's growing up between Juve and Fantomas. They've both used disguises, they've both lived in the Paris underworld and now we have Juve even being imprisoned for being his arch-enemy.
The plot is the usual gangster stuff, but enlivened by Allain and Souvestre's love of the outre. It's not enough to call it lurid. Ideas like The Wall That Bleeds add a bit of grand guignol and are so much more stylish than "look, we found a corpse!" Similarly I actually laughed at how Fantomas escapes from Juve and Fantor at the end this time. Previously he's just had things like a hidden door in the wall behind him. That's dull. What he has here is more entertaining. Silly, yes, but if there's one thing we know about Fantomas, it's that he likes to be flamboyant. He hardly ever takes a straight line from A to B if there's a more outrageous alternative, e.g. the snake in Juve vs. Fantomas
Besides, the story's fun too. Fantomas is recruiting henchmen and organising a crime wave, but even gangsters soon learn that he's a poor excuse for an employer. Eventually this turns into a three-way clash between Fantomas, his henchmen and our heroes, with entertaining misunderstandings along the way. The henchmen going after Juve is another comedy highlight. In addition this is good because it means Juve and Fantor can win a battle by capturing the henchmen, even if they're doomed as always to lose the war, i.e. going after Fantomas himself. It's the usual problem in an ongoing series of how to stop the returning villain from looking incompetent, but the other way up. Juve here is cool, believe it or not, despite spending most of the film in a prison cell. Way to go.
Mind you, if I were them at the finale I'd have shot Fantomas. They've got him at gunpoint. He's a mass-murderer who's already been tried in a court of law and sentenced to death. Trying to arrest him always leads to his escape, so why not think of his future victims and put a bullet in his skull? They're not Batman, after all.
Lady Beltham reappears. She's remarried! I like Lady Beltham, who of course maintains her status as The Interesting Fantomas Character. However I was also entertained by the American detective called Tom Bob, because of his name. (I was also wondering if this French film was about to go in for Yank-bashing.)
The production is as always a marvel for its age. It's barely a decade since Georges Melies was going on A Trip to the Moon
! It's a primitive filmmaking era, yet Louis Feuillade is helping to invent the cinematic thriller and also inspiring a young Fritz Lang. He creates a living Paris for us, with recurring sets from earlier films (the prison, the newspaper offices). It has visual energy. It still looks good today, although for the first time I regretted the static cameras in the masked ball scenes. The ballroom is far deeper than it's wide, so we're clearly getting a poor view of this highly expensive spectacle. (The Three Musketeers!) It also doesn't help that the ballroom is functioning as a backdrop, with the foreground kept mostly clear as if we were looking at a stage.
Overall, I liked it. It's fun and even occasionally funny. Fantomas, Juve and even Fandor were all more entertaining than I'd previously found them, with Fantomas's masquerades and Juve getting to be cool. They beat the bad guys! I might be looking up Feuillade's Les Vampires...