Posted by David Kalat on December 1, 2012
Having brought up Dr. Mabuse recently, naturally my thoughts also flit to Fantômas. I had promised a while back that I would eventually address Andre Hunebelle’s 1960s Fantômas revival in this blog, and now seems the best time to live up to my word. Along with last week’s visit to Dr. Mabusiana, I’m going to spend the next several weeks exploring the world of pulp mysteries on film—specifically how different filmmakers have approached the task of rendering in cinematic terms a corpus of literature that flourished in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
The Hunebelle Fantômas films are not readily available for viewing. It is the case that anyone with an Amazon account can obtain a DVD box set of the entire trilogy—but this import set will come without English subtitles and will only be playable in a region-free player, so it’ll alienate most casual American viewers. With that in mind, I’m going to be fairly heavy on clips this week, so give you a good sense of what these three films are really like. I’ve added subtitles to these clips from an online source of fan-created subtitles. Given the awkward wording, I’m guessing by “fan-subbed” they really mean “ran the French script through Google Translate and performed no proof-reading at all.”
Before we get to Hunebelle’s Pop Art take on Fantômas, we need a quick recap of the premise and history of this franchise.
A black-clad faceless figure capable of limitless disguise and prone to outlandish acts of terrorism, Fantômas’s evil is the stuff of legend: no one is quite sure if he even really exists. That is, no one save master sleuth Juve and his headstrong associate, brash reporter Fandor.
This cycle of 32 books published in the dawn of the 20th century chronicle the ongoing adventures of this criminal mastermind, the brilliant mastermind of baroque crimes that border on works of antisocial art: In jail for his crimes, Fantômas convinces a theatre troupe to stage a dramatic reenactment of his trial, just so he can secretly switch places with the actor playing him and have that poor thespian beheaded in his place, the ultimate Method actor! Fantômas plots to kill a prominent doctor, but knows the police have been tipped off, so he builds an exact duplicate of the man’s study, mounts it on mechanized joists so that it can brought in and out of play, and kills the doctor on cue while the cops stupidly lie in wait in the fake room. Fantômas frames a poor artist for murder, pays off the prison guards to kill the guy and make it look like a suicide, steals his corpse and makes gloves out of the corpse’s hands so he can commit other crimes leaving only the fingerprints of a man known to be dead. Blood rains down on a church congregation because one of Fantômas’ victims has been substituted for the gong of the church bell. Plumbers fixing a leak cause blood to shower out of a wall that has been packed with the corpses of Fantômas’ victims. Like you do.
It is not for nothing that his creators introduce him in book one, page one, with the words “Nobody—and yet it is somebody!” The tension between Fantômas’s being and nothingness enlivens the whole saga.
Fantômas only occasionally appears as “Fantômas” in the books—that is, identified as such, wearing his Fantômas costume of black tights and a black hood. Most of the time, the reader is not even aware of his presence in the story, save as an ominous shadow in the margins. Fantômas assumes various fake identities, several per book, and functions “as” these other characters until unmasked towards the end. Thus, the burden of audience identification falls to his opponents, Juve and Fandor.
Juve is an obsessed policeman with a single-minded fixation on Fantômas. Never in the series do we find Juve investigating anything else, and he eagerly follows his prey around the world (who was signing off on this man’s expense vouchers?). His Fantômania is total: the world around him starts to doubt his sanity, or his integrity. Perhaps there is no Fantômas, it is merely a myth concocted by Juve to brush off too many unsolved case files? Or, perhaps Juve himself is Fantômas, using the resources of his office at the Sûreté to build a secret empire of crime? Over the course of the series, Juve will be often arrested as Fantômas, even accepted as Fantômas by the criminal’s own gang.
Which brings us to Jerome Fandor, reporter for La Capitale. The similarity between the names Fandor and Fantômas is no accident—Fandor is every bit as made-up of an identity as Fantômas is. Fandor was once Charles Rambert, possibly Fantômas’ own son, framed by the crook in book 1. To give the poor kid a new lease on life unburdened by these false accusations, Juve helps him concoct a new identity as Jerome Fandor. Every bit as obsessed as Juve, and for more personal reasons, Fandor is a crack reporter singlemindedly dedicated to cracking the Fantômas story.
Like Juve, Fandor successfully impersonates Fantômas at times, and is occasionally mistaken for being Fantômas. In later books, he falls head over heels for Hélène, daughter of Fantômas. He even marries her—the reader is expected to forget that they are most likely half-siblings. Or perhaps the suggestion of incest is not meant to be entirely forgotten, just one more taboo nonchalantly disregarded.
The criss-crossing of identities is absolute: anyone can literally be anyone else. Consider this: In The Long Arm of Fantômas (book 6, for those of you keeping score), our multitasking supervillain has managed to pass himself off as FBI agent Tom Bob. In this guise, Fantômas moves freely in the world of law enforcement, ostensibly on hand in Paris to lead the hunt against the Genius of Crime! Meanwhile, Fandor puts on the legendary black cloak and mask to disguise himself as Fantômas for a masquerade ball. No less than three Fantômases (Fantômi?) put in an appearance at this soiree—the real deal, Fandor’s fake, and a third just for compositional balance. All this while Juve languishes in prison, suspected of being the real Fantômas.
Louis Feuillade’s silent masterpieces were the first and best of Fantômas’ excursions into cinema, but there would be competition. Hollywood’s remake factory (just as busy in the 1920s as today), took first crack with a serial now lost to the ravages of nitrate.
Fantômas returned to his native France for a 1932 talkie written and directed by Hungarian filmmaker Pál Fejös. The cast included Jean Galland as Fantômas and Thomy Bourdelle as Juve (later that year, Bourdelle joined the cast of Fritz Lang’s French language version of The Testament of Dr. Mabuse). Intended to launch a new cycle of Fantômas films, with a cliffhanger ending enticing viewers back for more, it was a creative dead end. Even Marcel Allain took to the press to attack the film as misguided and disappointing.
Setting aside the 1937 short film Mr. Fantômas Chapter 280,000 by Surrealist Ernest Moerman, Fantômas laid low through the war years until a 1947 revival. Director Jean Sacha was one of many postwar French filmmakers trying to reconnect with the virtues of France’s silent era. Star Simone Signoret remembered the project in her memoirs as “a modernist version, with helicopters, electronic gadgets, and death rays.”
The horrors of WWII served up examples of true-life master criminals that put pulp fiction to shame. The sinister apparition of Fantômas clambering across the rooftops of Paris, so nightmarish in an innocent past, was now tame and quaint. Enter French farciste André Hunebelle in the 1960s to revamp Fantômas for a flippant counterculture.
With lavish budgets and a clever cast, Hunebelle created three colorful, lush, campy comic thrillers about the Lord of Terror: Fantômas (1964); Fantômas Strikes Back (1965); and Fantômas vs. Scotland Yard (1967). They received virtually no distribution in the United States but set the world on fire in France.
The core of Fantômas as a cultural experience had always been about shattering social taboos, unmasking the hidden menace in deceptive appearances, and how (no matter what they tell you) crime often does pay: the guilty evade punishment, innocent people may be executed, and the forces of authority and the forces of evil may switch places while you’re not looking. In short, ideas that still held relevance in the 1960s. Fantômas à la Hunebelle touches those ideas only in passing, while embracing escapism for its own sake, but does dig into the identity confusion inherent in the source material.
French comedian Louis De Funes stars as Inspector Juve, now depicted as an arrogant fool rather than an expert detective. The original Juve was as much a master of disguise as his nemesis, but here we find Juve’s attempts at disguise only backfire.
Opposite De Funes’ Inspector Clouseau act is Jean Marais pulling double duty as both Fantômas and Fandor, both played straight. The curious juxtaposition of serious thrills and slapstick farce produces a heady blend of comedy and horror distinctive to these three films.
Simply by casting Jean Marais as both Fantômas and Fandor hints at some deeper and more personal link between these two. Fandor comes to believe that Juve has invented the myth of Fantômas to justify the high rate of unsolved crimes in Paris. Fandor invents a phony “interview” with Fantômas, illustrated by a photo of Fandor in a Fantômas costume. The real Fantômas, angry at people taking his name in vain, starts committing crimes disguised as Fandor.
Juve then concludes that Fandor equals Fantômas, until the villain switches to committing crimes in a Juve mask!
Both Juve and Fandor are arrested by a police force convinced they are Fantômas, who helpfully pops by to help them escape! Before long, everybody’s chasing everybody.
Take note of the fact that this is 1964—the same year as last week’s Death Ray of Dr. Mabuse. The Mabuse films were sputtering out of money and energy, but this Fantômas revival commits to the idea that this early-20th century pulp notion has enough relevance to mid-century audiences to be worth spending serious money on. But at the same time, there is serious doubt that Fantômas‘ relevance has much if anything to do with its original content.
The emphasis on broad farce and escapist spectacle can be attributed in part to the afore-mentioned March of History: an audience that has been through WWII and the Holocaust, seen cities erased from the map by nuclear weapons, and watched as the world’s two superpowers stockpile even more devastating nuclear missiles in a horrifying game of chicken, is simply not going to feel spooked by a single criminal in a black hoodie. The premise of Fantômas is rooted in a more innocent age—it doesn’t update easily.
So instead, Hunebelle grabs the rudiments of the premise and some familiar iconography, and then builds something new out of it, which embraces lighthearted fantasy most obviously comparable to TV’s Batman and The Avengers, the James Bond cycle, and the Pink Panther films. But here’s the trick: just like Death Ray of Dr. Mabuse mysteriously cribbed bits of Thunderball before there was a Thunderball to crib, Hunebelle’s Fantômas is aping the Batman TV show before it existed. In 1964, The Avengers hadn’t yet turned into the campy Pop Art gem it would once Diana Rigg showed up in 1965. The first Pink Panther film came out in 1963, but the similarities between Louis De Funes’ Juve and Peter Sellars’ Inspector Clouseau would become most pronounced beginning with A Shot in the Dark, which was made more or less coincident with Fantômas. In other words, Fantômas’ similarities to these other properties isn’t the result of any attempt to cash-in, but rather an indication that “something was in the water,” as it were.
Like a virulent disease, Fantômas mutated to keep up with the times. Every few years, a new artist or creative team would embrace the Lord of Terror as their own, remaking the character to suit their own aesthetic inclinations and the needs of their audience. Unlike other enduring pop cultural mainstays, the story of Fantômas is not a long cycle of continuity and intertwining mythology—each new manifestation of Fantômas is a fresh reboot.
Fantômas was ever an absence, a shadow, a mask concealing the facelessness beneath, the nobody-who-is-yet-somebody. It is easier to reinvent Fantômas for each new generation’s needs because there is so little fixed in his universe—he is an empty void onto which the audience projects their own desires and fears. Since he was never here in the first place, he can never properly go away.
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