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Getting away with murder
A region 2 partial DVD review of FANTÔMAS by Slarek
 

The Fantômas stories first appeared as a series of novels, produced at the dizzying rate of one a month by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre, whose working method was to draw up the general plot between them and then go off and write alternate chapters independently of each other, meeting later to tie the two halves of the story together in the final chapter. In a move that prefigured modern Hollywood by almost a century, the books were snapped up for the film rights almost as soon as they appeared. 32 novels were published in total between February 1911 and September 1913 and were a huge popular success. The first Fantômas film, produced by the Gaumont studio and directed by Louis Feuillade, was released in 1913. In all, five films were produced by the studio and, also anticipating modern trends, American studios soon became interested. Fox made their own version in the 1920s, only for France to recapture the series in the 1931 with the first Fantômas sound film, produced by Braunberger-Richebé Studios and directed by Paul Fejos. Further films appeared in the 30s, 40s and 60s, and a TV series in 1979. As you may gather, the stories appear to have both popular appeal and longevity.

Fantômas himself may sound like a superhero from the shadows, but he was actually a master criminal and a pretty damned ruthless one at that. As if that wasn't enough, at the end of every story he evaded capture and went on to fight, rob and even kill another day, making Fantômas one of the silver screen's first anti-heroes. Known for his black costume and mask and his various convincing disguises, his true identity remains unknown to the authorities and the public at large, and he repeatedly outsmarts the Parisian police, especially his determined but luckless nemesis Inspector Juve.

All five films are included in this Artificial Eye 2-disc set, which has been licensed from Gaumont in France, the studio that both produced the series and oversaw the restoration work done for this DVD version. Now before I go any further I should mention that the review copy supplied to us was a missing a disc, and I am thus only to cover disc 2 at present. I debated for a couple of weeks about whether to go ahead with what effectively amounts to half a review, but decided to cover it anyway on the basis that even this one disc provides a solid sampling of the films themselves and the quality of the transfers, and also contains the key extra feature. Of course, coming to the series on films 4 and 5 is hardly ideal, but at the same time is a somewhat intriguing experience, as arriving in the middle of a story and having to put together the pieces as the plot unfolds provides its own pleasures.

The first three films – Fantômas: In the Shadow of the Guillotine, Juve versus Fantômas and the brilliantly titled The Murderous Corpse – are on disc 1. First up on disc 2 is Fantômas versus Fantômas, in which Inspector Juve, having repeatedly failed to catch or even identify Fantômas, is himself suspected of being the master criminal and locked up accordingly, leaving the real Fantômas free to carry on his work relatively unhindered. Regarded by many fans as one of the best of the series, cinematically it's less than thrilling stuff, with whole scenes covered in single, long-held wide shots that contain a great deal of dialogue, little of which is identified by inter-titles. But stick with it and the rewards are there: Fantômas disguising himself as a detective from the US (complete with calling cards announcing himself as "Tom Bob – American Detective"); a moment of surrealistic horror (the Surrealists were huge fans of the original stories) announced as "The Wall That Bleeds," in which a workman hammers a nail through a wall and into the body of a murder victim concealed within; the fancy dress party attended by multiple Fantômas impersonators, one of whom could be the real deal; the very neat tying together of various story strands in the final chapter. Perhaps most surprising, given the age of the films, is how low key the performances are, often naturalistic and with very little of the playing to the gallery we sometimes inaccurately associate with silent cinema.

Far livelier cinematically is The False Magistrate, which finds Juve back in prison again, but this time though his own volition. As the story kicks off, Fantômas has been caught and is banged up in jail, which you'd think would make Juve happy, but does it hell. He's been apprehended in Belgium, you see, where his death sentence has been commuted to life imprisonment, whereas if he'd been nicked in France he would have been executed, and that's what Juve wants. The inspector thus devises what must rank as his barmiest ever plan, to spring Fantômas from jail by visiting him (in disguise) and swapping places with him, setting him free and leaving his hapless colleagues with the task of following him and nabbing him when he returns to French soil. No prizes for guessing what happens. But this is merely a fanciful springboard for the thoroughly engaging and inventively told tale that follows, one that feels almost as if director Feuillade had experienced a cinematic epiphany between the two films, or was given a considerably larger budget and a longer shooting schedule (and remember, this guy directed thirty-eight films in 1914 alone!). Camera placement and editing are really impressive here, creating a real sense of pace and reaching their artistic peak in a memorable scene set in a church bell tower, which boasts some remarkable composition work and camera movement and builds to a supremely grim conclusion. The sinister side of Fantômas is certainly emphasised more here, most disturbingly in a sequence in which he coldly murders the Marquis de Tergall, and once again the storytelling builds to a climax with a nice series of twists to round things off.

Both are intriguingly told tales in which conventional storytelling morality is turned somewhat on its head. Certainly to find yourself aghast at the actions of the title character in one scene and later be secretly smiling that he has again outwitted the police gives the series an edge that would present real issues for a modern Hollywood remake, but should find considerable favour with those who prefer their characters not to be painted in purely black and white terms.

sound and vision

As mentioned above, this release from Artificial Eye is effectively a port of the French Gaumont 2-disc set, minus a couple of the extras, and it's Gaumont and la Cinémathèque Française, under the direction of Jacques Champreaux, who were responsible for the restoration work done here. It is important to remember that the films here are over 90 years old and have suffered from extensive damage over the years – both of the films on disc 2 are even missing a scene, which Gaumont have replaced with similar sequences from elsewhere in the series, something announced up front and indicated in the film itself. A lot of this damage remains in the shape of dust and scratches, and in The False Magistrate there is brief examples of disintegration so spectacular that it would not be out of place in Bill Morrison's Decasia. Those not suffering from TV overscan will also notice some glitches at the top and bottom of the screen. But elsewhere the prints are surprisingly clean, and more importantly the image itself is at times strikingly clear and detailed, with some of the untinted and less damaged sequences as close to perfect as you could expect from a film of this vintage. Contrast is very good, though obviously less strong in the tinted sequences. All in all, a very impressive restoration job.

The score, or rather scores, are in Dolby 2.0 stereo and sound terrific, having excellent clarity and dynamic range. The music, by the way, although credited to 'catalogue Sonimage', what sounds like a music library rather than a specific composer, is first rate and really work compliments the films effectively.

The subtitles of the title cards, it should be mentioned, are not just English, but Anglicised – the arrival of the police in Fantômas versus Fantômas is greeted with the cry, "Hey! The Rozzers!"

extra features

Fortunately for me, the key extra feature here is on disc 2 in the shape of Who is Fantômas? (23:21), which consists of an interview with horror critic and Fantômas enthusiast Kim Newman, who supplies some detailed and interesting background information on the novels and the subsequent films, and draws comparisons with Sherlock Holmes and The Pink Panther. Honestly, it makes sense when Mr. Newman explains it.

Also on this disc is a very brief Louis Feuillade Biography. In disc 1 you'll apparently find Poster and Image Galleries too.

summary

OK, this is half a review rather than a full one, but given that the films are part of the same series and have undergone the same restoration, it should at least give a flavour of what you'll get for your dosh. The two films covered here certainly have me intrigued enough to add the 2-disc set to my shopping list, but it's a long list, and as we don't have sponsors here, a good many of the discs we do cover are bought by us, and we do have bills to pay as well.

If you're at all interested in silent cinema then you should definitely give this series a look, and if you like your crime stories to have a darker edge then Fantômas himself seems happy to oblige. The restoration done by Gaumont from prints that are in far from perfect condition is remarkable, and although £30 may seem a little steep at first glance, you're getting five films and a total running time of 5 hours 35 minutes, plus extras, which I think is pretty reasonable, especially as you'll find the discs discounted on-line.

Fantômas

Fantômas: In the Shadow of the Guillotine
Juve versus Fantômas
The Murderous Corpse
Fantômas versus Fantômas
The False Magistrate

France 1913-14
335 mins
director
Louis Feuillade
starring
René Navarre
Edmund Breon
Georges Melchior
Renée Carl

DVD details
region 2
video
1.33:1
sound
Dolby stereo 2.0
languages
French intra-titles
subtitles
English
extras
Who is Fantômas? featurette
Director biography
Galleries
distributor
Artificial Eye
release date
Out now
review posted
19 March 2006

related review
Les Vampires

See all of Slarek's reviews