Monday, October 7, 2013

Fantomas vs. Scotland Yard (France, 1967)

That a blue-headed super criminal piloting a rocket launched from the tower of a gothic castle is something that cannot be presented without tongue in cheek is an attitude not exclusive to the mid-1960s, although it is the most inevitable there. That said, we have to take what we can get. True, Fantomas vs. Scotland Yard, the final in French director Andre Hunebelle’s trilogy of mid-century Fantomas films, is also the silliest, yet it also represents a return of sorts to Fantomas’ roots. The film presents us with an “old dark house” scenario similar to that seen in the first sound treatment of the character, 1932’s Fantomas, which was itself based on Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre’s first Fantomas novel. As such, the perennial super villain manages to retain some of his menace despite all of the tomfoolery on display, as, like in that earlier film, he is an ominous, unseen presence for much of the story, terrorizing his victims from the shadows as more of an idea than an actual flesh and blood man.

This time out, Fantomas is subjecting some of the wealthiest men in the world to an exorbitant “life tax”, an amount that they must pay him annually for the simple privilege of not being murdered by him. One of these men, Lord Rashley (Jean-Roger Caussimon), knowing an excuse for a party when he sees it, invites all of his fellow extortionees to a soiree at his gloomy, fog enshrouded old Scottish castle. With an eye toward drawing Fantomas out, he also invites Fantomas’ nemesis, the reporter Fandor (series regular Jean Marais) and his photographer girlfriend Helene (Mylene Christophe, likewise). Also on the guest list is Comissaire Juve, the man who has made repeatedly failing to capture Fantomas his life’s work.

Juve, as in Hunebelle’s two previous Fantomas films, is portrayed by comic actor Louis de Funes, who again plays him as a pompous, self-regarding martinet who flies into hysterical pieces at the slightest pressure. Fantomas, working behind the scenes, makes the best of this high strung nature by rigging Juve’s guest room with a series of spook show contrivances, from hanging corpses to cheesy man-in-sheet ghosts. Each time, Juve reliably goes on a frantic tear through the castle’s corridors, loudly announcing to all the guests the horrors he has witnessed, only to have them all dutifully file into his room to see absolutely nothing. In between, the guests busy themselves with séances, games of cards and hushed speculation about Fantomas’ whereabouts and motives.

Meanwhile, a consortium of gangsters whom Fantomas has also subjected to the tax decide to seek an alliance with Lord Rashley and his group in order to present some kind of united front against Fantomas. Unfortunately for them, by the time they reach Rashley, he has, unknown to them, been murdered and replaced by Fantomas. During a climactic fox hunt, Fantomas tasks his black masked minions with abducting and imprisoning some of Rashley’s guests to show them that he means business (an end to which his men employ a dog in a fox costume). At the same time, Rashley’s assistant Berthier (Henri Serre), who is having an affair with Rashley’s wife, attempts to kill Rashley/Fantomas, tearing off his mask in the process. Fantomas kills Berthier and is witnessed by Helene doing so. Fantomas’ men chase her down and capture her, necessitating that Fandor – who has been lying pretty low up to this point – spring into action to rescue her. At this point, Fantomas vs. Scotland Yard sheds its genteel trappings and becomes more what we’ve come to expect from the previous films, spotlighting a runaway remote-controlled bed, an underground lair, and that manned rocket I mentioned launching from one of the castle’s towers.

As wearying as the 60s fever for camp may be, I have to admit that Fantomas vs. Scotland Yard is a very entertaining film: breezy, brisk, colorful, and, yes, even funny. It is also very well made, with high production values and excellent cinematography by Marcel Grignon (the equestrian scenes are especially well shot). It’s one of those films that give us the infrequent pleasure of seeing what is traditionally B movie material -- masked villains, haunted castles, cliffhanger thrills -- given A list treatment. And what character could be more deserving of such treatment than Fantomas, he of such purring decadence and regal sense of entitlement to all the world’s riches? As always, Hunebelle scores a coup with the casting of the suave Jean Marais as both Fantomas and Fandor, which is the only way to insure that these films’ protagonist could be remotely as cool as their villain.

It’s inevitable that some ambitious young director will eventually give us a grittier version of Fantomas, complete with a deep, tragic backstory awash in CGI blood spatter – and that I will be prompted to then look misty eyed at all of Hunebelle’s reflexive goofiness. For, indeed, there’s a loss in the fact that we’ve replaced that era’s need to regard such Comic book creations from behind a cupped palm with a need to take them deadly serious. What really matters in the end is that, whatever their attitude, those involved have sincere affection for the material -- which, in Hunebelle and company’s case, is abundantly clear.


Dave G said...

I'll take candy-colored camp over orange & blue grimdark any day.

Todd said...


Anonymous said...

"It’s inevitable that some ambitious young director will eventually give us a grittier version of Fantomas"

This statement chilled me to the marrow. Not least because I know it to be true. If there is a pop culture paradigm shift I'd love to see in my lifetime, it's the understanding that fun and enjoyable does not have to equal camp and cheese, and that grim and dark does not by definition connote existential depth or having a damn thing worth saying.

Todd said...

Well said. I couldn't agree more.