Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan drops by the Hero Complex to celebrate the new home-video collection featuring the great masked man of old Paris…
His name made all Paris quake, his exploits inspired supervillains without number, his films continue to thrill critics and audiences alike. Yet, until now, his adventures were unavailable on domestic DVD. Ladies and gentlemen, make way for “Fantomas.”
Even if you are unfamiliar with this French criminal genius, you’ve likely seen the classic image that appeared on the cover of the first “Fantomas” pulp novel, published in 1911 and showing an enormous individual in evening clothes and evening mask, a bloody dagger in his right hand, striding across Paris like a colossus. This was a man who knew how to make an entrance.
That book was the first of 32 wildly popular novels written over a three-year period by Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain, novels that sold upward of 5 million copies. All featured the master criminal Fantomas, his implacable nemesis Inspector Juve of the Sûreté and Juve’s right-hand man, a journalist named Jerome Fandor.
Naturally these stories caught the attention of Léon Gaumont, one of the titans of the emerging French film industry, and between 1913 and 1914 the studio had one of its top directors, Louis Feuillade, turn out five “Fantomas” silent features ranging in length from 54 to 90 minutes: “Fantomas in the Shadow of the Guillotine,” “Juve vs. Fantomas,” “The Murderous Corpse,” “Fantomas vs. Fantomas” and “The False Magistrate.”
The films starred Edmond Breton as Juve, George Melchior as Fandor and René Navarre as Fantomas, a genius at disguise who looked best dressed in head-to-toe black. Feuillade directed these films with so much energy and flair that critic David Thomson has called them “the first great movie experience.” And everything Feuillade learned from the job went into his later, even more intricate works, “Les Vampires” and “Judex.”
These novels and films not only pleased the masses, they delighted the avant-garde. René Magritte and Salvador Dali were fans, as was Guillaume Apollinaire, who founded the SAF (Societe des Amis de Fantomas) that still exists today. It’s not clear why it has taken so long for these estimable films to arrive on DVD, but hats off to Kino for making it happen at last. Fantomas is the secret sauce of modern popular culture, adding piquancy and taste to a variety of disciplines. He’s inspired generations of filmmakers, and the pleasure of his exploits await the discerning eye.
– Kenneth Turan
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