Based on the phenomenally popular French pulp novellas, Louis Feuillade's outrageous, ambitious FANTÔMAS series became the gold standard of espionage serials in pre-WWI Europe, and laid the foundation for such immortal works as Feuillade's own Les Vampires and Fritz Lang's Dr. Mabuse films.
René Navarre stars as the criminal lord of Paris, the master of disguise, the creeping assassin in black: Fantômas. Over the course of five feature films (which combined to form a 5 1/2-hour epic), Fantômas, along with his accomplices and mistresses, are pursued by the equally resourceful Inspector Juve (Edmund Bréon) and his friend, journalist Jerôme Fandor (Georges Melchior).
This 2016 Kino Classics edition is derived from Gaumont s 4K restoration, presented in association with Eclair Laboratories and the CNC, as a centennial celebration of Feuillade's timeless thriller.
Special Features: Louis Feuillade: Master of Many Forms (a ten-minute documentary), Two rare Feuillade films: The Nativity (1910) and The Dwarf (1912), Two audio commentaries by film historian David Kala
Storyline: Our Reviewer's Take
Fantômas: In the Shadow of the Guillotine
Based on the exceedingly popular French crime fiction novels by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre, 'Fantômas: In the Shadow of the Guillotine' is the first in a five episode series featuring the notorious and villainous thief Fantômas, played to wicked perfection by René Navarre. And rather than playing to expectations where the hero and villain are introduced and developed, the script, which Allain and Souvestre co-wrote with director Louis Feuillade, throws the audience right into the middle of the action. When Princess Danidoff (Jane Faber) arrives late at night to her hotel suite, the thief is already inside, patiently waiting as she removes a pearl necklace and hides an envelope with cash. The opening sequence is a great display of his predilection for violence and his talent as a master of disguise, which essentially explains why he continues to elude the police. Later, when disguised as the mysterious Gurn, he is also shown to be a seducer of women. He beguiles the wife of a respected dignitary, Lady Beltham (Renée Carl), to assist him in saving his neck from the guillotine. Hence, the film's title.
The man responsible for capturing the infamous burglar and ruthless murderer is the dogged super-sleuth Inspector Juve (Edmund Breon). A tenacious gumshoe fixated in bringing Fantômas to justice, the detective is shown more or less stumbling unto clues that lead him to the knave. From a hat, he easily surmises Gurn to be another of the thieving sociopath's disguises. Sadly, this is uncharacteristic of the inspector in the book series. There, he's a highly intelligent man employing logical reasoning in his pursuit of criminals, though he never quite reaches the heights of Poe's C. Auguste Dupin or Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. It's been argued the changes largely due to audience expectations. Since the books were already immensely popular, the adaptation was really more about seeing it portrayed on screen than on building towards a final twist. Still, the film is a good deal of fun with admirable camerawork and amusingly memorable special effects.
Serial films were already a popular genre at this time, but Louis Feuillade's 'Fantômas' introduced the concept of a detective going toe-to-toe with a quick-witted nemesis in a series of crime adventures. And as introduced in this first entry, the two foes are equally matched.
Juve vs. Fantômas
The villainous scoundrel is back to his usual thieving tricks in this direct follow-up, which premiered only a mere five months after the first movie. And this time, he has a troupe of henchmen throughout Paris at his disposal, including a rather well-dressed harlot (a lovely Yvette Andréyor) who unwittingly leads our stalwart hero (Breon) to Fantômas (Navarre). As before, connecting her relationship to the wretched rogue — when watching this movie, one can't help but be swept up in the outmoded name-calling — is all coincidental and pure happenchance. Nevertheless, Fantômas's aforementioned henchmen are ever ready to thwart Juve's dogged pursuit, such as when the inspector shadows the mysterious Dr. Chaleck, who, of course, is just Navarre sporting a pointy beard,or during a train robbery sequence that's quite amusing.
But in spite of whatever grumbling I might have, the end result is admirable because I was immediately captivated by the film's surveillance of suspects. In a way, Feuillade was essentially creating the police procedural, depicting Juve's investigation methods for capturing the criminal. This was the days before technology assisted in solving crimes, where police had to follow suspects in the streets by foot, staying out of sight and hiding in the shadows until witnessing some wrongdoing. In another clever but also comical device that eventually grew into a familiar trope, audiences are quickly brought up to speed after the events of the last installment in the opening moments. Journalist Jérôme Fandor (Georges Melchior), who was somewhat off-handedly introduced earlier, reads Juve's latest police report before volunteering to assist the inspector in the capture of the bandit. After ironically proving himself better at surveillance than his partner, the two are again thrown a bone when finally arresting the doctor at a popular nightclub. Only to be foiled once more by Fantômas's pranks, which is really nothing more than a Houdini-like escapist stunt.
Still, by this point, Feuillade has the character becoming more and more likeable with each thrilling near-miss and sensational escape. It's almost to the point of having us root for Fantômas as soon as Juve comes close to capturing him, and we start cheering the clever ways his flies the coop. At the same time, the film reveals Juve's frustration with the case, showing that his failed pursuit exhausting and wearing him down, which also gains our sympathies. And it's this constant tug-of-war with the audience between the hero and the villain that makes this second sequel such a joy to watch while leaving us wanting more after an action-packed cliffhanger makes us question if Juve lives or dies.
The Murderous Corpse
Picking up immediately after the events of its predecessor, essentially creating the formula of the cliffhanger and its resolution later popularized by Gasnier and MacKenzie's 'The Perils of Pauline,' audiences find Fandor (Melchior) recovering in the hospital without so much as a scratch on him. Not that meant to imply something intentional on the part of the filmmakers, but just that it's a funny sight given the seriousness of how the last movie ended. To really show the impact, Feuillade even goes so far as to have our bedridden but still plucky journalist read about the mayhem that ensued and presumably took the life of our hero and his best friend, Juve (Breon). To honor his partner's memory, Fandor continues his investigation and is all the more determined seeing the vile criminal Fantômas be brought to justice.
Not soon after, Feuillade moves us right along into the plot, introducing audiences to Mother Toulouche, a crooked old hag who runs a pawn shop we're made to assume serves as a front for Fantômas's criminal activity. To justify the sudden shift in point of view, we're also told that she's recently hired a dimwitted stop boy named Cranajour, who, surprise, surprise, coincidentally looks a lot like a certain dead inspector. It doesn't help that the man beneath the grime and dirt also looks very much like Breon in disguise — wink, wink. But we'll keep that on the down-low and hush-hush, info we'll need for later. For now, just know this is happening.
But more urgent and grave to the overall plot — and the meaning behind the fantastic title — is the death of Baroness de Vibraye in the home of a local and well-respected artist Jacques Dollon (André Luguet). Of course, we're made privy to the truth, another puzzling, sinister scheme calculated by the wicked Fantômas's, by which point, we should be hissing and booing at the screen. Or is that just me? Oh, well, Dollon is arrested for murder, and while in jail, he mysteriously dies, followed by his body disappearing from the morgue to commit other murders of seemingly important socialites. A real head scratcher, huh? This calls for the investigative expertise of Fandor . . . with the help of Dollon's sister, Elisabeth (Fabienne Fabrèges)?
Silly as it all sounds, 'The Murderous Corpse,' which is alternatively known as 'The Dead Man Who Killed,' is quite entertaining and arguably the strongest installment in the series. This comes partly from a story that better demonstrates the cunning genius of Fantômas and his talent for hiding his crimes, making more believable the reasons for our heroes failing to capture him. By contrast, we gain a better understanding of Fandor's unflinching determination as a journalist while Juve, who finally reveals his disguise in the second half of the movie, proves he's an equal match to Fantômas. Elisabeth doesn't really provide much beyond serving as a damsel in distress and literally handing Fandor clues to bring him another step closer at bagging the detestable villain. Feuillade's skill behind the camera is also better seen here with a couple amusing moments of suspense and a well-orchestrated action sequence.
Fantômas vs. Fantômas
Director Louis Feuillade lightens the mood slightly in the fourth installment to the series. Not by a great deal, but just enough for loyal viewers to take notice of the movie's deceptively subtle lighthearted tone, as demonstrated by a couple moderately comical moments. The reason for injecting a bit of humor into the franchise is largely due to Fantômas designing a grander scheme that would hopefully throw off the manhunt and placing suspicion elsewhere. The first part of his dastardly plan includes a pair of bumbling sibling thieves organizing a gang devoted at following his every word, even when coming from the mouth of Le père Moche, another of Fantômas's many disguises. Showing how much more ingenious and crafty he is than the police department, he also masquerades as the American detective Tom Bob, called in to assist in the investigation and capture of himself, hence the film's clever title.
At the same time as our villainous scoundrel sets things into motion, our hero Juve, risen from the dead and back on the case more determined than ever, has bigger fish to fry. His sudden return to the department paralleling Fantômas's continued crime spree terrorizing all of Paris has unexpectedly changed public opinion about his competency, fueled by the media and tabloid news suggesting the detective might also be the criminal. Unfortunately, the masses calling for justice force the hand of the district attorney to place Juve under arrest while under investigation, and he finds little support from fellow colleagues. The only person still on his side is the always loyal Fandor, the journalist who's been collaborating with Juve from the beginning. Believing the conspiracy to be another of Fantômas's sadistic ploys, Fandor attends a masked ball hosted by Lady Beltham supposedly raising money as a reward for Fantômas's capture.
Once again proving the master thief and murderer is always five-steps ahead of everyone, the ball and Juve's arrest was always part of the plan. And there is a sequence that unfolds just outside of Juve's jail cell where we can almost imagine the brass and percussion sections of the orchestra roar in unison, "dun-dun-duuuunn!!" I'm sure the scene was not originally meant to be comical, but the whole thing plays out as if with a sly smile and a wink at the audience. Partly because the thought of a prison guard still in possession of the tools incriminating him while proving Juve's innocence is rather silly, but more importantly, because it fools viewers into thinkingantômas will now surely face justice. Other notes of humor include Feuillade inserting a couple "breaking the fourth wall" moments, with the most memorable being René Navarre as Fantômas disguised as Moche briefly taunting the audience. It may not make for the strongest entry in the series, but with its more lighthearted tone, it makes it arguably the most fun.
The False Magistrate
In the final entry to the series, Feuillade wraps up the franchise with a mystery thriller tone that's darker than its predecessors. In fact, the fourth sequel opens on a rather glum and dour note percolating beneath the rest of the film. Fallen on hard times, the marquis of Tergall and his wife are selling jewelry worth 250,000 francs to a local jeweler, and as would be expected, both men are robbed on the day of the transaction. One at his hotel room while the other on midnight bike stroll with the bundle of cash in his coat pocket, the worst type of mugging that hurts deeply. The beauty of this setup is the elaborateness of the situation not only for the criminals making out with such riches, but also as exposition placing the pieces of the plot together. The intricate deception included a priest, a hole through the wall of two adjacent hotel rooms and the Tergall's nosy maid, probably insecure about the future of her employment.It doesn't take long before the presiding magistrate and detective conclude
It doesn't take long before the presiding magistrate and detective conclude Fantômas behind this dastardly deed, which is only natural given the events of the previous movies. Except the problem with their verdict is that the fiendish murdering thief has been captured and currently rotting in a jail in Belgium, which begs a few questions throwing a wrench into everything that follows. First thing that comes to mind is how and when was the infamous villain arrested and why so far away from Paris. The reason we're missing these pertinent details is because Feuillade decided to skip those books telling of Juve and Fandor pursuing Fantômas to Brussels where he was also captured. However, Juve is unsatisfied with this arrangement because Belgium doesn't have death penalty laws. And since Juve wants to see Fantômas hanged for his crimes, he devises a bizarrely complicated jailbreak that'd hopefully send him to France.
Of course, the whole ruse doesn't go as planned, let alone make much sense seeing as how the franchise's main villain has been is in jail for life and Juve's little sham only results in him now serving Fantômas's sentence. On top of that, our (figuratively) moustache-twirling fiend murders a magistrate and takes his place in the high court, which is where the story becomes interesting. Taking advantage of his newfound position of power and influence, Fantômas schemes to deprive the earlier burglars from their plunder while also blackmailing the marquise for 500,000 francs, which would bring him a grand total of one million. Although this is not directly expressed, we're allowed to assume he plans to retire from a life of crime with this bounty. But with a few minor coincidences grabbing the attention of Fandor, the career criminal is soon enough discovered, and Feuillade finishes the series with one final puzzling cliffhanger that comically warns audiences Fantômas remains loose on the streets of Paris.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Kino Lorber brings 'Fantômas' to Blu-ray as a two-disc package under the distributor's "Kino Classics" label. Housed inside a blue eco-elite case, the two Region A locked, BD50 discs sit comfortably on opposing panels. At startup, they both go straight to the main menu with a still photo of the cover art and music playing in the background.
According to the press release from Kino Lorber and an added title card in white text at the end of each film, the folks at the legendary Gaumont Film Company, in collaboration with the Centre National du Cinéma, remastered the entire series to celebrate its 100th Anniversary, as well as part of the company's 120th Anniversary. Louis Feuillade's five-part crime drama masterpiece was meticulously restored from the original nitrate negatives, along with the best available interpositives and release prints for certain, severely damaged sequences. The entire series was later scanned to make a brand-new 4K resolution master, which was used to create this AVC-encoded transfer for all five films.
The results are frankly nothing short of miraculously, offering a significant improvement over previous home video editions and making this the best the film series has ever looked. Immediately apparent is a considerable boost in the level of clarity and definition. Fine lines along the furniture, buildings and cars are incredibly sharp for five movies from a hundred years ago. Facial complexions and clothing reveal excellent textures. But arguably most impressive is that background information, specifically scenes shot inside a soundstage with painted interior walls, expose the beautiful work that went into the set designing with striking intelligibility. Contrast and brightness are terrifically well-balanced and consistent, providing the 1.37:1 image bright, crisp whites and rich, deep blacks, making an incredibly beautiful high-def video.
Of course, considering its age and the limitations of the source used, the 1080p picture is showered with various instances of dirt, white specks and vertical scratches, but they are so light they are near negligible. There are also a few moments of soft blurriness and shifts in resolution, but that too is expected and easily forgiven. And finally, about halfway into 'The Murderous Corpse,' there are signs of very mild telecine judder that was corrected and thankfully, doesn't distract much. But all in all, this a fantastic, reference-quality presentation of a hundred-year-old influential classic.
Unfortunately, producers did not see fit to give Feuillade's pioneering master work the same treatment in the audio department as they did with the video. Although made from a new orchestral recording, all five films have been equipped with a lossy Dolby Digital mono soundtrack rather than lossless mix.
Thankfully, the legacy audio codec delivers a strong and welcoming soundstage. Although largely constrained and sounding narrow down the center of the screen, imaging displays a great deal of warmth and fidelity, exhibiting distinct clarity and separation of various instruments in the orchestration. One can appreciate the discrete, detailed difference between the string and brass sections while the woodwinds and harpsichord subtly play in the background or occasionally come for creating a haunting melody. Even when other musically complex motifs and fragments reach their crescendos, the midrange remains dynamic and surprisingly extensive. A hearty, well-responsive low-end in the percussions provides the high-rez track with a palpable sense of presence, making the whole presentation a real joy to listen.
- Audio Commentary — Film historian David Kalat rides solo for an insightful discussion on 'In the Shadow of the Guillotine' and 'Juve vs. Fantômas,' sharing a wealth of knowledge and history behind the production and its place in cinema history.
- Louis Feuillade: Master of Many Forms (SD, 11 min) — An informative but all too brief look at the career of the director and his important contribution to Gaumont's history.
- Short Films (SD) — Included are a pair of Feuillade's early short films, "The Nativity" (1910, 14 min) and "The Dwarf" (1912, 17 min).
- Still Gallery (HD)
Largely paving the formula of the episodic film serial where each installment concluded with the requisite cliffhanger, Louis Feuillade's 'Fantômas' is a wildly entertaining crime thriller series following the adventures of the infamous murdering thief and the detective, Juve, hot on his trail. It also makes for a fun and enlightening watch as the forerunner for what essentially evolved into the film franchise. The Blu-ray from Kino Lorber, in conjunction with Gaumont, arrives with a stunningly beautiful picture quality, thanks to a brand-new restoration and 4K remaster of the original camera negatives. The audio is also strong and generally satisfying though a lossless option would have been preferred. With a light selection of supplements to boot, the overall package is well worth the asking price for owning a fantastic piece of cinematic history.
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