It's the second Fantomas film and quite a step down from the first one. It's a dazzling feat of movie-making, but unfortunately the plot's incoherent.
Admittedly it's split into chapters, like all the others, and is furthermore the second movie in a series of five. It thus doesn't seem entirely fair to criticise it for not having a self-contained story. It's also a partial adaptation of the huge series of Fantomas novels, which won't have helped make it more cohesive either. However even in 1913, the principle of adapting literary works was a long-established one thanks to stage plays, so I think we can safely put the boot in.
The four chapters are:
- 1. Disaster on the Simplar Express
- 2. At the Crocodile
- 3. The Haunted Villa
- 4. The Man in Black
We begin not only with Fantomas's usual "shifty glancing around" close-up, but with a similar one for his nemesis Inspector Juve too. Unsurprisingly Edmund Breon manages to seem friendlier and more trustworthy while doing this than Rene Navarre.
Chapter 1 is theoretically simple enough. It's a train heist, ending with Fantomas deliberately crashing the train afterwards in order to kill everyone on board and eliminate witnesses. Charming guy. (This is particularly welcome since the first film didn't let him kill anyone on-screen.) Unfortunately Fantomas isn't the protagonist this time. I've read that he's supposed to be a shadowy, faceless character in the books, so we end up following Inspector Juve and his friend Fandor as they trail some woman across Paris. After a while we find ourselves watching a train robbery. No, I don't see the link either. Admittedly there are letters, telegrams and so on to communicate the plot, but even so that wasn't brilliantly structured.
Later there's a scene with men shooting at Juve and Fandor from behind barrels. This looks quite good, but by this point we're basically watching an action movie.
It also doesn't help that Fantomas is operating at arm's length. Instead of doing his dirty work himself, he's employing men to rob and kill... and in any case it's not obvious even when we really are watching Fantomas, because he's a master of disguise.
Chapter 2 is at a restaurant and is forgettable. Chapter 3 though is good, since it brings back Lady Beltham from the previous film and putting Fantomas centre-stage as he seduces her back to evil. This is a powerful scene. It's like watching a vampire with its victim as he practically hypnotises her into doing his bidding. She wants him to renounce crime, but before long she's "under his control again".
This chapter has one of the silliest bits of plotting I've ever seen, though. Inspector Juve is getting ready for bed with Fandor. (No, not like that.) However he's rightly worried about murder attempts from Fantomas, so he takes the precaution of putting on his special pyjamas with dozens of outward-pointing nails. It's like an inverted Iron Maiden. It turns him into a hedgehog. Satisfied that he's now taken all possible precautions against his enemy (and not bothering to lock the window), he goes to sleep.
Now put yourself in Fantomas's shoes. You're a homicidal sociopath with your enemy sleeping in his bedroom. You want to kill him. Naturally you have a million weapons at your disposal, including bullets, fire, poison gas and that army of thugs you had in Chapter 1. What do you choose? A SNAKE! Inspector Juve did well in choosing to put on an anti-snake vest that could serve no possible purpose against anything else, didn't he? Better still though is the fact that Fantomas chose a serpent that's non-venomous! Juve wakes up with the stupid animal wrapped around him (eh?) and thus manages to wriggle free, instead of, say, dying in agony as his nervous system gets shut down by neurotoxins.
Mind you, the snake looks impressive. That's one big python they've found.
Chapter 4 has nothing to compare with this magnificence, but it does end on a cliffhanger.
It was hard to keep watching this one, frankly. It's disjointed and it's just a bunch of stuff happening without enough story or emotion behind it. Chapter 3 is good, but the rest of the film also needed more Fantomas and Lady Beltham. I have nothing against Inspector Juve, but he's Clouseau up against Professor Moriarty and frankly I didn't care what he was doing. I certainly didn't expect him to catch his adversary.
That said though, Louis Feuillade has made an even better-looking film than last time. For 1913, it's stunning. There's model work so good that I wasn't entirely sure if those were models until they showed up again later for the train crash. Unfortunately the big money shots (explosions, crashes) aren't exciting, but at least they're reasonably convincing and you can tell Feuillade's busting his guts to make the silent-era equivalent of a Michael Bay movie. Besides, the scene where gunmen are popping up from behind barrels is still genuinely good today. You've got no idea where the buggers might be. It's like whack-a-mole.
There's also so much location shooting that I return to my speculation from last time that Feuillade didn't actually build any sets. Chapter 1 is almost all exteriors, which absolutely isn't just some side street at 5am. He goes out on the boulevards of Paris and shoots what he sees, going for almost as much tourist value as City of Death. It really feels as if you're seeing Paris in 1913, which is cool even though the fact that Paris doesn't look that different from its appearance today means that this has less documentary thrill than, say, the Carpathian peasants in Nosferatu. It's still the best thing about the movie, though. You'll never be sure if you've just seen an actor or a real passer-by. Cars share the roads with horse-drawn carriages. The film looks fantastic, basically, to the extent that even today it comes across as classy visuals propping up a dodgy storyline rather than the other way around.
I've heard that the next one's better. That said I don't hate this film, since it's clearly a triumph of silent cinema and everything in it works on a scene-by-scene level. The snake is ludicrous, obviously, but even that arguably does its job since it's providing the film's most memorable imagery. I just found it hard to concentrate on, that's all. Stuff would happen and my attention would drift. As a movie it's mostly just a magnificent technical achievement, really.