It's the last of Louis Feuillade's five Fantomas silent movies. As with the third film (The Murderous Corpse
), I don't really like it even though I can see its technical strengths and approve of its unusually coherent plot.
Firstly, it's another long one. This is 1914, so 70 minutes is long. Feuillade made about eight hundred movies in a twenty-year career, you know. This time the opening credits give the name of the novel they're adapting and possibly as a result the movie has a stronger narrative shape. Like The Murderous Corpse
, it has a self-contained story with a beginning, a middle and an end. You don't need to have watched the rest of the series and indeed you might be disappointed if you have, because this time there's no Lady Beltham.
Mind you, "self-contained" isn't the same as "sane". This series has been nothing if not lurid and here they have what we'll call impressionistic plotting. It doesn't make a lick of sense, but it's sensationalist. The film begins with Fantomas serving a life sentence in Belgium, where they don't have the death penalty. Surprisingly Juve is unhappy about this. As a good policeman, naturally there's only one thing he can do... break Fantomas out of jail, have him tailed as he returns to France, let him rejoin his gang and then have them all arrested and executed! Naturally I was dumbstruck by this plan. "Brilliant" isn't the word. I'll let you think up a few alternatives for yourself. The reasoning, for what it's worth, was that: (a) Fantomas was surely going to escape anyway, (b) Fantomas must die, (c) Juve's brain is made of blancmange.
This plan goes swimmingly up to the "Fantomas escapes" bit, but less well when it comes to Fantamas not shaking off his tails. Next he murders some random guy (Pradier) in a railway carriage, steals his identity and finds that he's just become a magistrate. Fantomas is the wielder of the law, in charge of life and death. Juve, you prat.
That's the film's plausibility highlight, but there are other gems for the connoisseur. Note the scene in which Fantomas's disguise fools a woman who's in love with the real Pradier, even when he talks to her despite having never heard the original's voice. Uh-huh. I also must have missed the scene explaining how Juve and Fandor jump to the correct conclusion about Fantomas's identity at the end, although in fairness the film's not in great condition and at least one important scene is indeed missing. Maybe that was it? However all this does further the Juve-Fantomas mirroring, since this time Juve is voluntarily taking Fantomas's place in prison while the man himself takes up a career in French law-enforcement. There are substitutions of substitutions. Had this series continued much further, they'd have been stepping into each other's brains and going to bed together. Making them twin brothers seems almost the only possible continuation.
What the movie's really about though is the over-excited plotting and set pieces of the original authors, Allain and Souvestre, which are the fuel for what Feuillade's doing to cinema. What he achieves here is remarkable. I was particularly impressed by the sequence where Juve's men are tailing Fantomas, which is as clear and compelling as it would be in a modern Hollywood film, despite the technical limitations of the time. You always know what's happening, even when the camera's practically half a mile away. The film's most memorable scene though is the grand guignol of the bell tower. I wouldn't have climbed that ladder, even with someone trustworthy at the bottom... and Fantomas of course is as trustworthy as Dracula.
The Belgian prison is clearly the same set as the Paris prison in previous films, mind you, but that's forgiveable. There's much to admire here. So why didn't I like it?
It's the same as before, I'm afraid. I didn't care. Admittedly this film gets one thing right in putting Fantomas centre-stage and making sure we're following his misadventures all times, but unfortunately he has no opposition. Juve's put himself in jail. Fandor barely appears. Most of the film doesn't have a good guy. Fantomas doesn't have anyone trying to track him down. This movie doesn't have a clash of good vs. evil, but instead is merely about an evil man murdering, lying, blackmailing and generally having its will unopposed for an hour's screen time. He has victims, not enemies. He has more trouble dealing with his allies than with the police. I liked the unfortunate woman who loves Pradier, who could be seen as a second-rate variant on Lady Beltham, but even she isn't enough to give the movie suspense.
In summary, dull in a vivid, spectacular way. It's working hard to be memorable and in its own way succeeding impressively, but at root the storyline contained nothing that I cared about. Fantomas here is a villain without a hero. His victims are too hapless to oppose him. Obviously I don't care about the man himself, except to have my fingers crossed for his guillotining and unfortunately that's never going to happen. I'd been wondering if there might be a big wrap-up for the final film in the series, but no. This doesn't feel like the culmination of a saga, but merely the latest sequel. Fantomas escapes at the end, as always. It's not even an interesting escape this time, although its irony partially makes up for the lack of visuals.
Looking at the series as a whole, it's obviously of historical importance but I also don't think it really works. They're technical marvels of filmmaking in service of storylines that often contained nothing of interest for me. I didn't care. Big dumb blockbusters started here. Fantomas vs. Fantomas
is clearly the best of them, for what it's worth.