Fantomas was first a series of novels by Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain, published in France, as you may have guessed. In 1913-14 the director Louis Feuillade made five films based on some of the novels: “Fantomas in the Shadow of the Guillotine”, “Juve vs. Fantomas”, “The Murderous Corpse”, “Fantomas vs. Fantomas”, and “The False Magistrate”. These are the titles of the films, not the novels (at least not in every case).
The French public was rather mad for Fantomas; 43 novels were published, and perhaps more films were planned. Certainly more were made years later, by different directors with different actors, but seeing the DVD release of the five Feuillade films was my first exposure to these tales of an evil, totally unprincipled genius.
Fantomas is first and foremost a master of disguise. The first film begins “Navarre as Fantomas” and we see a film of the actor Rene Navarre as himself, clean-shaven and smiling gently at the camera. Then through the use of fades we see him as Fantomas, mustached with a sinister grin, and then in two disguises Fantomas will use in the movie. Feuillade’s decision to show the disguises Fantomas would use later may be seen as a spoiler by some, but in this first film I didn’t know what to expect and had forgotten the disguises by the time they appeared. In subsequent films I considered it helpful to keeping up with the action. In this film Fantomas commits a particularly brazen robbery of jewels from the Princess Davidoff in her fourth-floor hotel room. The Princess is played by Jane Faber, who bears more than a passing resemblance to the English actress Miriam Margullies. Inspector Juve (Edmond Breon) interviews the Princess, and later in his office he is visited by friend and sometime collaborator Jerome Fandor (Georges Melchior), who works for the newspaper La Capitale. Together they read the latest edition about the mysterious disappearance of Lord Beltham, and then Juve is assigned to that case. Lady Beltham (Renee Carl) is visited by a man, Mr. Gurn, claiming to be a business associate of her husband, and the famous actor Valgrand (played by Andre Volbert, using the very simple billing, Volbert) begins the run of a play in which he takes the role of the elusive Fantomas. And the prison guard Nibet (played by Naudiet) is on Fantomas’s payroll! The story cleverly weaves all these plot strands together, yet ends with the escape of Fantomas. Now we know why the five films are called a serial – each ends without the justice we crave. But the title cards say that now Juve is completely obsessed with capturing Fantomas, so we will have to watch the next chapter and hope.
In the second film Fantomas is Doctor Chaleck, who allegedly comes home from a trip of a few days to find a mutilated corpse. Papers on the body belong to Lady Beltham, but both the identity and cause of death of the corpse are undiscoverable: apparently the body was crushed. Lady Beltham is not dead, but is now Fantomas’s lover.
The third film, “The Murderous Corpse”, starts with the arrest for murder of a young painter/ceramicist. Nibet murders him in prison and then spirits the body away. The authorities think the man’s guilt is confirmed by his escape, and then when his fingerprints begin to turn up at the scenes of various crimes, almost all those who held out for his innocence are convinced as well. The method of using a dead man’s prints is especially grisly. Fingerprints and other types of forensic evidence (head measurements for instance) are covered by the Police Anthropometry Department.
The fourth film features Fantomas’s gang, called the apaches (the novel is called “Le Policier Apaches”). More problems for Juve: a local paper attacks him saying that the fact that he cannot apprehend Fantomas proves that they are one and the same! Then the famous American detective, Tom Bob, arrives in Paris to uncover the truth behind Fantomas.
In the fifth film Fantomas takes on the identity of a magistrate who has been transferred to Saint-Calais. He dispenses his brand of justice and gets away with it until Juve and Fandor arrive. And then a twist!
These movies are a lot of fun and truly do not seem dated, except that they are silent films. Fantomas is not only a master of disguise but is also an early example of a serial killer. All of the films are about an hour long, except for number 3 which is an hour and a half. The restoration is by Jacques Champreux, in association with Gaumont and the excellent Cinematheque Francaise.