It's the third of Louis Feuillade's series of five silent movies about the super-criminal Fantomas. It's also by far the longest, at 90 minutes. In addition I've seen people calling it the best of the bunch.
What it has going for it is a self-contained plot that you won't be able to predict. I couldn't work out what the dickens Fantomas was up to, or indeed for a while if there was rhyme or reason here at all. However the storyline makes sense in the end, despite a dubious plot point with a fingerprint, and could even be called good.
Furthermore you don't have to watch this as number three in the series and it would stand fine on its own. The few links to the previous films are explained in intertitles and given minimal screen time anyway. The plot is self-contained, while most of the cast is new. 1. Juve is officially dead. 2. Fandor has no personality, so you don't care about him. 3. Lady Beltham, easily the best character in this series, pops up briefly in chapter four and is otherwise forgotten. 4. Even Fantomas himself is more of a phantom (ho ho) than a man, spending almost the whole film either offstage or masquerading as an innocent party. He doesn't really have an identity of his own. He's in disguise, or he's getting black-clad ninja assassins to do his dirty work. I suspect he's actually on-screen more often than I realised at first and I'd probably enjoy this more on a rewatch when I knew what I was looking at, but right now I'm feeling increasingly nostalgic for the old days of In the Shadow of the Guillotine
In the first film
, Fantomas was the evil protagonist of The Adventures Of Fantomas. It was "Juve vs. Fantomas". That works for me. The second film
went downhill a bit, becoming "Juve vs. Largely Faceless Criminal Activity", but for this third film we don't even have that. It's "Personality-Free Fandor vs. Largely Faceless Criminal Activity", which isn't interesting. There are a million cool stories you could tell about Kingpin-like underworld bosses with agents everywhere, but such stories need good guys to struggle against the villains and I'm not sure if I'd have even noticed had Fandor walked under a bus.
Nevertheless the plot is definitely an improvement. Fantomas does horrible, difficult and apparently pointless things in this film, but in the end they turn out to have had a point after all. I liked that. His big idea's kind of sick, actually, which is impressive too. Oh, and he also murders people on-screen as Feuillade gradually ramps up the series's violence. Strangling is his favourite method this time, although it might have been nice to have something that looked more distinct from his magically fast-acting chloroform.
There are... production peculiarities, shall we say. You have to make allowances in 1913, given the state of move-making technology at the time, but even so there's a scene of hilarious day-for-night shooting. "Midnight" says an intertitle, whereupon we appear to be looking at the Sahara at high noon. A fingerprint is taken from someone's neck. Hmmm. Maybe I'm just behind the times and that can be done, but it surprised me. The whole plot is based around Fantomas having written a list of his plans for the next few months ("buy milk, murder a friend, embezzle funds from stock market, buy birthday card for Mum") and then left it lying around for some random passer-by to pick up. D'oh.
The cast is of little interest. The women are far more interesting than the men, but unfortunately they get little to do. Georges Melchior seems pleasant enough as Fandor, but no more. I like Navarre as Fantomas, though, while at one point some jowls turn up, attached to what appears to be a chunkier Geoffrey Palmer.
Did I like this film? Not particularly. It bears closer resemblance to a well-constructed film than its predecessors and it's in danger of having emotional resonance when we're looking at someone in a skirt, but fundamentally it's lacking in the departments of "protagonist and "antagonist". Fantomas doesn't spend enough time on-screen being Fantomas, although he perks the film up no end when when he does appear, while the heroes opposing him are... zzzzz, mph? Sorry. Well, I suppose Juve and his personal plot thread have their charms, but unfortunately he's restricted in his story role by spending the film officially dead. Nope, it's just not that interesting. It's okay, though. I'll probably like it better next time. You could also watch it as an experience in silent cinema and be impressed with Feuillade's ground-breaking movie-making, if you like.