An unusual concoction, this 1963 Georges Franju picture, which goes about its business as if the nouvelle vague never existed, among other things. An homage to the 1915 Louis Feuillade serial about an almost super-powered crime fighter who nonetheless has a fairly arduous time bringing the main evildoes to justice (the defining paradox of such serials, I suppose), it honors Feuillade as a surrealist precursor by introducing (or at least we believe we haven't seen him before) the title character as something out of a Max Ernst collage. Having warned the banker villain Favraux that unless he atones for his murderous deeds at midnight he'll be punished, Judex shows up at Favraux's costume party, the eyes of his bird mask more magnificently accusing than any of the others. He produces what seems to be a flock of doves with his bare hands. And soon Favraux collapses. Dead? No. Drugged. It's all part of an elaborate scheme that seeks justice rather than vengeance (and then there's the matter of Judex's affection for Favraux's delicate daughter, played by Edith Scob, so haunting in Franju's Les Yeux sans Visage
). Unfortunately, some villainous interlopers heretofore unknown to Judex, and hatching schemes of their own, will prove most vexing to our hero.
Villainess Diana (Francine Berge) is quite the adventuress, thinking nothing of attempting murder whilst dressed in a nun's outfit. Seen above, she's making the first in a series of daring escapes. She's quite a contrast to the handsome but rather impassive Channing Pollock, the real-life stage magician playing Judex. And so, it's fun, fun, fun all the way for a while, as Franju's pastiche grows ever more thrillingly absurd and self-referential. We see the incompetent detective Cocantin reading an adventure of Fantomas, another famous subject for Feuillade...
The film's climax constitutes one of the most hilariously arbitrary flauntings of the deus ex machina ever. Judex is trapped by the villains on the top floor of a tallish building, the entrance to which is barred. Hence, Cocantin and the young fella known as "The Licorice Kid' in Feuillade's original are sitting outside, disconsolate. A circus caravan passes by, and one of its coaches is that of, what do you know, one Daisy—in this film an old flame of Cocantin's. The gorgeous Sylva Koscina's cameo is an almost ineffable delight. Sad-sack Cocantin's explanation of what's going on doesn't sit well with Diana. Why aren't you helping your friend, she asks. He would, he explains, but he can't get to where his friend is. After all, he's not an acrobat—"But you are!" he brightens, and sends Diana up to the roof for what will be a helluva catfight with the villainess.
And it's at this point the film changes. From almost out of nowhere, the Franju who made his name as an unblinking observer of horror (with films such as Le Sang des betes
and the aforementioned Les Yeux sans visage
) suddenly asserts himself.
Hanging from the rim of the roof, Diana, once the personification of immorality's fearlessness, is now a pathetic, wide-eyed, impotent creature. And Franju doesn't let it go at that—her fall, its thud, her lifeless body, its horrific expression fixed on her face (and witnessed by that cute little Licorice Kid). The pall it casts hangs heavy even as we watch Judex finally unite with his beloved; their stroll on the beach somehow brings to minda similar seascape in Murnau's Nosferatu
... As Tim Lucas of Video Watchdog and others have observed, the otherwise superb Masters of Cinema Region 2 disc of the film is missing some two minutes of footage, the importance of which is subject to debate. The film plays beautifully, however, and is accompanied by the usual distinguished array of extras—not to mention a whole other feature film, Franju's minor but entertaining Feuillade-inspired Shadowman