Reputedly, French director Louis Feuillade made over 800 films during his career which collectively allowed him to sample pretty much the entire spectrum of what cinema could offer during its earliest years. Yet despite this heroic prolificacy Feuillade is a filmmaker who remains best known for only four of his big screen ventures, all of them serials: Fantômas, made between 1913 and 1914; Les Vampires, made in 1915; Judex from 1916; and finally 1918’s Tih Minh. Indeed, his reputation exists almost squarely on these four foundations with Fantômas generally considered to have set the template for the later three – each of which, incidentally, has since earned a place on the BFI’s 360 Classic Films list. As such Artificial Eye’s new two-disc set makes sense as the first Feuillade to hit the UK on the digital format as it really is the perfect place to begin. Here we find all five episodes in the serial, each ranging in length from roughly 60 to 90 minutes and weaving yearns of the master criminal (and master of disguise) Fantômas and the police officer on his case, one Inspector Juve, here aided by journalist and youthful sidekick, Jérôme Fandor.
The Fantômas serial was based on a whole series of novels written by Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain. More importantly they were still pumping them out when Feuillade went into production and as a result his particular version shouldn’t be considered definitive in narrative terms. There’s little or no overriding story arc to these five films and certainly no attempts at either backstory or any grand conclusions. The first, subtitled In the Shadow of the Guillotine, reveals Fantômas’ true identity and his sheer ruthlessness - here is a man, it would appear, who is perfectly happy to see an innocent man die in his place – whilst the remaining four pepper their brisk narratives with odd bits of intrigue and various dastardly schemes. Juve versus Fantômas sees our eponymous super-villain derail a train solely to kill off a number of witnesses and then later burn a villa to the ground in an effort to do away with his arch-nemesis. The Murderous Corpse (aka The Death Which Kills) has him appropriate the skin of a dead man as a means of perpetrating his heinous crimes undetected. Fantômas versus Fantômas introduces one of his various alter-egos in the form of Tom Bob, US detective(!) and final instalment The False Magistrate comes nowhere near to tying up the various loose ends as once again he manages to evade and elude his would-be captors. Furthermore, each tale is liberally peppered with numerous other additions, in some cases leading to grander schemes and widespread conspiracies, in others to simple, more manageable plotting. Meanwhile, each of these details in their own way adds to the overall flavour: criminals with false arms; snake assassins; bleeding walls; even what would appear to be an earlier 20th century equivalent of a gimp suit – all of which contribute to a melting pot of pure hokum.
And it is pure hokum – on a par with the 1960s series of Batman, in fact – but also truly wonderful hokum. This is a serial simply to relax into and enjoy, to lap up its pulp charms, its potboiler plotting and the almost ridiculously swift endings in which Fantômas evades capture yet again. Essentially such pleasures come down to the conviction of Feuillade’s part; the sheer weight of his filmography may suggest someone no more than a hack, yet this very clearly isn’t the case – he believes in the material and, more importantly, respects it. There’s a highly professional base to Fantômas, from the intelligent use of location filming to the quality on the actors’ part. Histrionics are few and far between, whilst the characters themselves – save for our master criminal of course – are pleasingly ordinary. Inspector Juve, for example, is just another balding, portly, middle-aged gent with a cane, bad comb-over and very few of the typical silent movie attachments. Indeed, Feuillade’s camerawork itself may be fairly standard – cutting only for a change in location or an insert; returning to the very same setups four or five scenes down the line – but it’s what happens inside the frame which is important: the pace, the playing, the views of Paris and the sheer playfulness of it all.
Stepping outside of the efforts put down in the early 1910s, it’s also worth noting the score which Gaumont have prepared for this edition, here performed in dramatic stereo and full of great sweep and passion. All told it’s really quite immense and as such Fantômas becomes near impossible not to get caught up in. Furthermore, its energy and drive also reflect the more modern seeming elements and allow us note the cinematic lineage which Feuillade created. As Kim Newman points out in the accompanying featurette, this is a series which essentially begat the Dr. Mabuse tales, the screen adventures of Fu Manchu, even those of James Bond. Then there’s the succinct dialogue delivered via the intertitles which is defiantly hard-boiled and thus paves the way for the Warners gangster cycle and the whole of film noir. Plus we have a murder in a bell tower as darkly comic as anything you’re likely to see and really quite nasty to boot. Indeed, it’s not all that far removed from Hitchcock or Henri-Georges Clouzot. Yet ultimately Fantômas is no mere progenitor of strictly historical interest, but a living, breathing piece of cinema in its own right and once which easily stands comparison to any of these later efforts.
Artificial Eye’s two-disc release of Fantômas takes the 1998 restoration from Gaumont as its source. Thus we have the films in mostly splendid condition, tinted as per original intentions and, where applicable, replaced long lost sequences or scenes with text explanations. In other words, what is best described as sterling work and as such impossible to find fault with. Moreover, the discs themselves handle the episodes well (three on the first, two on the second alongside the extras) and offer few problems. There are minor instances of edge enhancement during some of the blue tinted scenes, but certainly nothing you could describe as a distraction. Even more impressive is the soundtrack, here presented, as said, in really quite dynamic stereo. Utterly flawless in all areas, it makes for a terrific experience and simply tops off a really quite fine presentation.
As for extras, this particular release isn’t exactly weighed down by additional material, but the major piece – Kim Newman’s 23-minute featurette entitled ‘Who is Fantômas?’ – makes for excellent viewing. Accompanied by a brief biography for the serial’s director, this documentary proves to be a wonderful introduction to the world of Fantômas, from the original novels through to the long line of those films which have been influenced. Indeed, Newman covers a huge amount of ground during his time, touching on everything from the admiration it won from the surrealists to the various screen adaptations which sprung up during the 1960s. Furthermore, the sheer weight of information means that we never feel as though we’re missing out in extras terms – had the disc included a commentary or two would we really have learned much more?
For those wishing to know how the Artificial Eye release compares to Gaumont's previous French Region 2 edition, the latter two-disc set contains the following extras: each film is accompanied by poster artwork, photo galleries, period extracts from the crime journal 'Le Petit Journal' and audio extracts read from the original novels. There are also photo galleries of Feuillade and the Fantomas creators, a gallery of the wonderful original Gino Starace pulp book cover designs, a gallery of posters for other Feuillade works, a gallery of commemorative postage stamp designs from 1996, and an archive interview with Fantomas creator Marcel Allain. The box set (a limited numbered edition) also contains a heavy and beautifully illustrated 32 page booklet containing essays, interviews with Feuillade and memoirs by Marcel Allain. (With thanks to Noel Megahey.)