Wednesday, September 5, 2012

158-161. FANTOMAS (1980)

The individual titles of these films would be:

158. L'ECHAFAUD MAGIQUE ("The Magic Scaffold"), directed by Claude Chabrol.
159. L'ETREINTE DU DIABLE ("The Devil's Embrace"), directed by Juan-Luís Buñuel.
160. LE MORTE QUI TUE ("The Corpse That Kills"), directed by Juan-Luís Buñuel.
161. LE TRAMWAY FANTOME ("The Phantom Railway"), directed by Claude Chabrol.

This sequence of films is regarded as a French television mini-series, yet they are in every vital way four self-contained, feature-length adaptations of Pierre Souvestre & Marcel Allain's early 20th century pulp novels about the genius of crime, Fantômas. The character had previously been dramatized in five silent serials by Louis Feuillade; a 1920 American serial (that was rumored, perhaps falsely, to feature Boris Karloff in an early, small role); a 1932 feature directed by Paul Fejos; a 1947 film by Jean Sacha, and a trilogy of proto-BATMAN camp comedies made in 1964-65 starring Jean Marais and Louis de Funès. This group of films follows the intermediary examples of Georges Franju's 1963 Feuillade adaptation JUDEX and his 1974 pastiche SHADOWMAN (NUITS ROUGES), both scripted by Feuillade's grandson Jacques Champreux, to film a version of the character that is at once true to the novels and their societal effect on such early 1900s groups as the Surrealists. They cherry-pick the best attributes of all these forebears, add a sense of Franju's poetry and a visual palette that recalls Edward Gorey (himself a devotée of the books), while restoring to the character his right to viciousness. Too often, the cinema has done to the character exactly what Feuillade's serials were charged with doing -- romanticizing his criminality -- which Chabrol and Buñuel prove isn't necessary to make Fantômas riveting. In Chabrol's first story, however, there is the added wink of making all his victims overbearing characters guilty of selfishness or egotism.   

Helmut Berger plays Fantômas, who is initially thought by many to be a figment of the hard-working Inspector Juve's imagination. Juve is played, superbly, by Jacques Dufilho, as a quirky but on-the-money sort whose own battery of crime-fighting tools runs the same gamut as that of his demonic adversary -- funny disguises, elaborate traps, faked deaths. They are so comparable that, as in the books but never before in the films, one might easily suspect them of being bound in some way -- as brothers, as a delusion, as a psychological inverted projection. (This is now standard-issue hero/villain dynamic in today's superhero films.) Gayle Hunnicutt, so wonderful as the svelte cat-suited familiar of The Man Without A Face in SHADOWMAN, here plays Lady Beltham, a wealthy amoral socialite who falls for Fantômas after he murders her husband. Pierre Malet is the male ingenue hero Jérome Fandor, itself a false identity assigned by Juve to an orphaned acquaintence so that he might infiltrate a gossip sheet newspaper and help him to blame (the as-yet-unproven) Fantômas in a series of sensational news stories.

I'll be writing about these films at greater length in an upcoming issue of VIDEO WATCHDOG.

Viewed via INA French import DVD. Unfortunately, no official release of these films has yet been issued with English subtitles or dialogue, though the lip movements sometimes suggest that the films may have been shot (at least partly) in English.

1 comment:

  1. Can't wait to read up about these films in VW. I used to watch that series on German television and remember being quite impressed. This year I have started reading the novels and am gradually making my way through the various adaptations.