Queued in Fridays: Fantômas I – In the Shadow of the Guillotine

FantomasI was hoping to have a greater variety of movies after the first four entries in this series were all silent films. I have nothing against that era. Some of my favorite movies were made during that time. But part of the appeal of this series was the random nature of it. One week I could be talking about a silent film, the next a 2002 thriller, and the next a 1972 romantic comedy. That really appealed to me and still does. Sadly, the randomness can also cause repetition. I cheated a couple weeks ago and skipped a few silents that were technically up next just so I could talk about something a little different. I decided not to do that this week and get back to the original intention of this whole thing: to watch the movies in the queue in whatever order they happen to be in. Because of that, another silent it is this week.

Fantômas (a five-part serial that ran from 1913-1914) is based on an extremely popular French series of crime stories that were originally published in serial form in French newspapers. Created in 1911, they follow the exploits of sociopathic French criminal and master of disguise Fantômas, whose origins are only ever vaguely hinted at. He is a man without mercy or loyalty and takes glee in the murder of others. It was a landmark in French crime literature and saw a transition from 19th century Gothic antagonists to 20th century serial killers. The stories were collected into 43 volumes in all, 32 were written by both creators of the tales (Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre) and 11 were written by just Allain after Souvestre’s death in 1914. The last volume was published in 1963. The stories have been adapted in various media, such as film, television, and comic books.

The undisguised Fantômas.

The undisguised Fantômas.

Our story begins with Fantômas (played by René Navarre) steeling money and jewels from Princess Danidoff (played by Jane Faber). This puts Inspector Juve (played by Edmund Breon) and his collaborator/reporter, Jérôme Fand (played by Georges Melchior), on Fantômas’s track. Eventually a man, Lord Beltham, goes missing and is found dead by Juve in a trunk of Fantômas’s. With the stakes raised, the race is on to capture Fantômas before he does any more damage, but that won’t be easy with his long list of disguises and aliases. Helping Fantômas is his mistress – the newly widowed wife (played by Renée Carl) of Lord Beltham. Fantômas and Lady Beltham are a dangerous couple. They come up with a dastardly scheme involving an actor, Valgrand (played by Volbert) – who just so happens to be doing a play about a murderer who he decides to have look and dress like Fantômas (the reason the two need Valgrand is clever but silly and the excuse for the actor to be doing the play as Fantômas is confusing and forced).

Most of the 1913-1914 serial consists of episodes under or just over an hour. So it would’ve been easy to rush through the story. The first episode takes its time, slowly setting up the characters, story, and mood. I don’t know if this nice speed will remain constant for the full five episodes but I hope so. It makes the experience more enjoyable and allows for the story to build tension.

The atmosphere the film creates is marvelously dark and thrilling. The cinematography is great with its striking use of lights and shadows. It also manages to be a little more dynamic than some of its contemporary films from the early to mid 1910s. The camera work is still very static, almost always comprising of wide shots of entire rooms, but it throws in the occasional mobile camera work to spice things up.

Fantomas

The newly composed music for the restoration is also a treat. It’s epic and intense immediately from the title screen onward. Not that it’s perfect. At times, it can slip into rather odd choices by the composer. One point, when Valgrand is in his dressing room backstage, we hear The Barber of Sevillee for some reason. Also, one musical theme is very strange and sounds like it was created for a scene on Tatooine in one of the Star Wars films. It’s still a fine piece of music. It just doesn’t mesh well with the story.

Obsessed with catching Fantômas, Juve's mind creates an illusion of the mysterious criminal.

Obsessed with catching Fantômas, Juve’s mind creates an illusion of the mysterious criminal.

Overall, a good beginning. I wouldn’t rate it highly because failed to fully immerse me and it was predictable at certain junctures. But It is just the first entry. I’m bound to get more involved in the goings-on as we progress. Right now, though, I would rate it three or maybe three-and-a-half out of five.

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