Sunday, June 23, 2013

Fantomas (France, 1932)

The 1932 version of Fantomas is far from the first film to feature the celebrated French antihero, though it is, as far as I know, the first sound film to do so. Based on the first Fantomas novel by authors Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre, its first half takes the warmly familiar form of an “old dark house” thriller, and as such requires no knowledge of Fantomas lore to be casually enjoyed.

We begin with a group of silly rich people who are stuck in a remote castle, the property of one Marquise de Langrune (Marie-Laure). As we join them, they are working themselves into a right dither discussing the exploits of the shadowy master criminal Fantomas, and have managed to convince themselves that they are surely his next target. Fortunately, there is one among them with the common sense to point out the unlikelihood that, out of all the dithering rich people in France, Fantomas would settle upon them. Then another counters by pointing out the priceless necklace worn by the Princess Danidoff (Anielka Elter) and the fact that their hostess is poised to make a million dollar cash transaction that very night with Lord Beltham (Jean Worms) and they are back to dithering. Then, as if summoned like the Candy Man, a note appears from Fantomas decreeing that one of them will be murdered at midnight that very night. And I don’t’ need smell-o-vision to know that this quavering lot are now totally shitting themselves.

As well they should, as, come midnight, Fantomas, clad in a black mask and body stocking, appears in the Marquise’s bedroom and strangles her. Making off with her cash, he then attacks the Princess and Lord Beltham, who both appear to recognize him. The Princess faints and, shortly thereafter, after a cursory examination by a visiting doctor, is proclaimed to have “hysterical catalepsy”, thus necessitating we wait for her to come to before finding out if she really knows Fantomas’ identity. Soon thereafter, Fantomas’ nemesis, Inspector Juve, shows up on the scene, having also been summoned by a note from Fantomas. He and his bumbling assistant then make the rounds of the place, discovering all manner of hidden doorways and secret corridors, before officially declaring Fantomas escaped.

With this episode closed, Fantomas then veers from the gothic mood of its first act into more straightforward procedural territory, with Juve making his rounds and collecting evidence that brings him ever closer to learning Fantomas’ identity. Played by Thomy Bourdelle, Juve is far less of a figure of fun here than he would be in Andre Hunebelle’s farcical Fantomas films of the 1960s, where the character was played by the beloved comedian Louis de Funes. Still, something about the smug self regard displayed by Bourdelle’s Juve tells us that we are being invited to root for Fantomas, a flamboyant foil to the arrogance of authority, not to mention rampant upper class twittery. It also should be noted that one of the defining aspects of Juve’s character, throughout the series, is that he is again and again proven incapable of catching Fantomas.

Fantomas was directed by Pal Fejos, a Hungarian born director who, not long before, had done a stint in Hollywood, helming a string of pictures for Universal. He also, before that, studied under Fritz Lang. That tutelage seems to have served him well in Fantomas, especially in the shadowy, jump scare-ridden confines of its opening scenes, which are satisfyingly expressionistic and moody. Yet Fejos also proves himself a steady hand in the film’s second half, which is comparatively sunny and action packed. A car race and a climactic fight involving a lot of broken furniture, in particular, are lensed with a lot of verve, suggesting the breakneck, go for broke aesthetic of an old Republic serial.

To those familiar with the Fantomas mythos, I doubt that it will count as much of a spoiler (and to the rest of you: spoiler) that, at the end of Fejos’ Fantomas, the arch criminal manages to slip from the clutches of the authorities. A resolute Juve swears to catch him next time and, indeed, Fantomas itself seems poised to go another round. After all, Louis Feuillade’s series of silent Fantomas serials lasted through five entries. Nonetheless, it appears that Fantomas wouldn’t again receive feature treatment until 1946, when Marcel Herrand and Simone Signoret would go through the paces of introducing the character all over again to cinema audiences.

Since then, Fantomas’ screen incarnations have returned at periodic intervals, like a passing comet. In fact, it seems that we’re due for another one any day now (despite the proposed version from Silent Hill’s Christophe Gans running aground not too long ago thanks to a recalcitrant Vincent Cassel). Whatever version does come, however, we can count on it being a lot louder, more violent, more winkingly self referential and CG filled than Pal Fejo’s statelier take on the subject. Consider this pleasant little film, then, a sort of vaccine against what’s to come.


Anonymous said...

The 5 part serial by Louis feullade is a surrel piece of awesome. How you seen the 1946 veesion or the 1980 set of films with some directed y claude charbrol?

Todd said...

I confess I have not. But they're on my list.

Danny said...

Definitely piqued my interest with this one. I'll have to check it out. Thanks!

Todd said...

You're welcome. Thanks for reading!