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The Forgotten: The Fantomas Menace


"What did you say?"

"I said: Fantômas."

"And what does that mean?"

"Nothing. . . . Everything!"

"But what is it?"

"Nobody. . . . And yet, yes, it is somebody!"

"And what does the somebody do?"

"Spreads terror!"

This extract from the opening of Marcel Allain & Pierre Souvestre's original Fantômas novel crystallizes the character's sinister appeal. Louis Feuillade's first 1913 serial capitalizes on the same abstraction and threat. The title figure is a function, rather than a character. It's fruitless to think in terms of motivation. His actions are all that matters. Despite the period decor, the immediacy of Feuillade's street locations gives his work a modern edge, like a gaslight melodrama gatecrashing a newsreel, and so does his antagonist: the shadowy, violent, incomprehensible force of destruction and terror.

 "Criminals who operate in the grand manner have all sorts of things at their disposal nowadays. Science has done much for modern progress, but unfortunately it can be of invaluable assistance to criminals as well; the hosts of evil have the telegraph and the motorcar at their disposal just as authority has, and some day they will make use of the airplane."

Can any twenty-first century reader not think of Bin Laden when reading those lines? The leaders of the free world speak of an evil arch-opponent whose motives, if they even exist, it is futile to try and comprehend, and we are plunged into what documentarist Adam Curtis calls "a Manichean fantasy." This has once more become the age of Fantômas, and yet in the years after Feuillade, the master-criminal often seemed a campy figure of fun.

The first Fantômas of the talking era came from Pal Fejos, innovative and idiosyncratic Hungarian emigre. Rather than following the hectic series of scrapes and perils that typify the original novels, serial, and rip-offs like Fu Manchu, it begins as an old dark house thriller with whodunnit structure and frequent thundercracks: part of the plot hinges on railway timetables, in the drabbest tradition of Agatha Christie. The traditional characters, Inspector Juve, Fandor the reporter, Fantômas, and his accomplice Lady Beltham all appear, and there's an appearance by character player Gaston Modot, the classic French cinema's most psychotronic actor (from L'Age d'Or to The Testament of Docteur Cordelier).

Unusually for a 1931 feature, the filming involves a huge number of camera angles, jaggedly edited into a disorienting fruit salad, but after Inspector Juve's belated appearance and our escape from the confines of the gloomy country house, things pick up. Fantômas actually does use a monoplane to facilitate his crimes in this film.

As interesting as all this is, it's a little sad to see the character trivialized to Saturday morning serial proportions. Never as solemn as Fritz Lang's master villain Mabuse, he still needs some dignity to inspire the appropriate alarm.

How much more melancholy, then, is the 1964 Fantômas, directed by Andre Hunebelle as a caper/farce. Jean Marais, who just doesn't have the face for comedy, plays reporter Fandor and, more effectively, the masked maniac of the title. Louis De Funes makes Inspector Juve a strutting, puffed-up idiot, and the whole thing could easily be folded up and packed under the heading "Witless." So naturally it led to two sequels, in which Fantômas, portrayed as a Bondian supervillain, attempted to destroy the world, then scaled down his ambitions to merely blackmailing a Scottish aristocrat.

I haven't managed to see the 1980 TV series with Helmut Berger as Fantômas. I'm sure it's bad. I'm sure I would watch it, though.

Feuillade's other serials have done better in their remakes and re-imaginings. If Franju could make a poetic gem of Judex, and Assayas caught some of the mystique and grace of Les vampires with his Irma Vep, who will give us the modern Fantômas? Christophe Gans, director of Silent Hill (2006), is said to be in production right now. Dare we hope?


The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

Does the 1980 series have a dodgy reputation? All I could find were three positive user reviews on imdb. For the time being I’ll be optimistic and believe that any series directed by Claude Chabrol and Juan-Luis Bunuel must be somewhat decent. Fantomas, being a creature of serials, is certainly better served on television than modern film. Perhaps I’m not remembering correctly, but there’s an extra on the DVD of Franju’s Judex wherein he says his original goal was to film Allain & Souvestre’s original Fantômas novels, rather than remake Feuillade, and that settling for Judex was a disappointment. I don’t agree about the latter, but I see where he’s coming from regarding a new adaptation of Allain & Souvestre. Masterly as Feuillade is, he was not permitted to fully capture all of the sleek depravity of the novels, or their nihilism. There is also another area where a new adaptation can do something new… Having read four of the books, I was struck most by the total facelessness of Fantomas. With Feuillade, Fantomas had a base appearance in René Navarre—the viewer has a “real” face to anchor the character, an actor to tie him to. In the books, with their heavy (and fantastical) reliance on perfect disguises, Fantomas can be anyone and often is, with a cumulative effect that is frightening in a peculiarly dreamy way. For those reasons I’d love to see a TV show where Fantomas is played by no one. Various cast members could take their turns under the hood, or use their real faces as Fantomas’s disguise of the week. But the real face of Fantomas, along with his voice, body, and soul, would forever remain unknowable.
The later movies do get closer to this conception of a faceless Fantomas. In the 60s outings, Marais plays both Fandor and Fantomas (making sense of the similar names, in a way), and at one point Fantomas impersonates Fandor by putting a rubber Marais mask over his rubber Fantomas mask. (Marais in any kind of mask looks like Cocteau’s Beast, somehow).
As to the 1980 series… it does sound more intriguing than I gave it credit for, although Chabrol’s take on Mabuse, Dr M, doesn’t inspire so much confidence.

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