Fantomas was created in 1911 by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre. They'd draw up their plots together, but then write alternate chapters independently of each other and only consult each other to tie it all up in the final chapter. This way they wrote almost a novel a month and created one of the most popular characters in French crime fiction, who's since appeared in film, television and comic book adaptations.
Fantomas is a thief. However what makes him more palatable (for me) than contemporaries like Raffles or Arsene Lupin is the fact that he's not meant to be a good guy. He's a sadist who enjoys killing. He's incapable of showing mercy and knows nothing of loyalty, not even to his own children. He's also a master of disguise, often going under the identity of someone he's previously murdered. He's the main character of his stories, yes, but we're following the misadventures of a villain and the hero of this particular film is his nemesis (and according to one internet source I found, twin brother) Inspector Juve.
As far as I can tell, this film jumps into the Fantomas saga without starting from the beginning. If you want to see how the Marquis de Langrune gets murdered and how Charles Rambert is framed and then later becomes Fandor, apparently you should watch the film from 1932. However I'm sure there's plenty of plot to come given that this is actually the first of a five-part serial, apparently regarded as a masterpiece of silent cinema. All the films come in chapters, this one having three:
- 1. The Theft at the Royal Palace Hotel
- 2. The Disappearance of Lord Beltham
- 3. By the Guillotine
Chapter 1 is a theft. Princesse Danidoff has a lot of money and a necklace, although she's not going to have them for long. This is a perfectly watchable little episode but also potentially confusing, since after the robbery she drops out of the film and we find ourselves following a completely different plot instead. In fairness I think Princess Danidoff returns in future instalments of the series, but you should still take care not to confuse her with Lady Beltham.
Chapter 2 has the police looking for Lord Beltham, who according to the books had had the misfortune of (a) being the superior officer of Fantomas in the Boer War, and (b) having a beautiful wife. The film never hints at all this backstory, let alone showing the incident with the hammer and the strangulation, but that doesn't matter because we get the idea when we see Lady Beltham being intimate with Fantomas and hiding him from the police. We're clearly not meant to like her either because the actress playing her, Renee Carl, looks a bit like a man. Anyway, taste in boyfriends: zero.
The only problem with the film's abbreviation of the source material is that it introduces a plot hole. Fantomas has Lord Beltham's corpse lying around, just waiting to be discovered, and he only decides to do something about this potentially incriminating detail when the police show up. D'oh.
Chapter 3 is mildly surprising because it has Fantomas on death row, awaiting the guillotine. Fortunately he has Lady Beltham outside, trying to get him out, which is impressive in itself since you'd think her lawyer must have been red-hot not to have her sitting on death row alongside him. She's guilty as sin. However I suppose it was Fantomas who did all the hammering and strangling, while furthermore it wouldn't have been in his interests to snitch on Lady Beltham because she's more useful to him outside. Their eventual scheme involves a look-a-like actor, which here gets spotted in the nick of time, but in the original book results in an innocent man getting guillotined. Fantomas still escapes, though. This is technically a cliffhanger ending since he's the bad guy, but it would be hard to find a lamer cliffhanger without actually watching Dragonfire.
Anyway, it's disappointing that the film chickens out of showing the consequences of Fantomas's actions, but it's still disturbing to see Fantomas's sadism about the prospect of an innocent man getting beheaded. Lady Beltham can be sinister too.
As a production, it's slick. The camera never moves and the usual staging is a wide shot of a large set on which the actors move as if in the theatre, but apart from that it looks great. The sets are so realistic that I was wondering if maybe they weren't sets at all, but instead Louis Feuillade borrowing his rich friends' houses. There's exterior filming. The storytelling is impressively visual, with the main use of intertitles being for scene-setting purposes. (People have conversations, but it's assumed most of the time that we don't care what they're saying.) Feuillade even does a bit of jiggery-pokery to contrive tension with an elevator and pulls off a couple of pseudo-action scenes, with someone crouching to pounce on an approaching victim. This happens twice and works well both times.
As for the acting, it's fine. Inspector Juve is capable of overacting when he says his enemy's name, which made me laugh, and Fantomas himself is playing to the gallery a bit with those intense, sinister darting glances near the beginning. However these are nitpicks and basically, like everything else in this film, these performances are realistic. It's still watchable today. The actor who's going to get duped in Chapter 3 even manages to be really good, pulling glorious faces in his dressing room as he tries to get into character.
Curiously the actor playing Inspector Juve isn't French. He's a Scotsman called Edmund Breon, who I think had a tiny career in French silent cinema that ended with World War One, after which he took a fourteen-year break from the industry and became a character actor in Britain and America in the 1930s and 1940s.
There's also one historical curiosity. At one point someone sends an urgent letter by pneumatic tube, which were all the rage in the late 19th and early 20th centuries for transporting mail or money around buildings, or even sometimes cities. Obviously they've since fallen to the march of technology, but they're still sometimes used, e.g. in hospitals.
Overall, far more accomplished than the other films I've seen from its era. L. Frank Baum's three Oz movies
are from 1914, for instance, while Otis Turner's thirteen-minute Oz absurdity
is only 1910. It's way slicker than those. I wouldn't say it's a must-watch, but it stands up perfectly well even by modern standards and it's on far stronger moral ground than more heroic thief characters like Lupin (or indeed Lupin III
). Besides, the film also has historical value in that it's first of many movies about a famous and influential French fictional character. (Kim Newman has argued that Fantomas inspired the Pink Panther movies, for instance, since in the original 1963 Pink Panther film, David Niven is playing a thief called the Phantom and Peter Sellers is in more of a supporting role as Inspector Juve/Clouseau.)
I didn't adore it, but I thought it was impressive for its vintage and I'll certainly be watching the sequels. It's pretty good.