The Fantômas Films: The 1931 Fantômas

Fejos PosterForget Féjos! by Robin Walz

I saw this movie at the Vidéothèque in Paris. The poster is the best thing about it. Paul Féjos's 1932 Fantômas was the first sound-era adaptation of the serial archvillain of Souvestre and Allain's novels and Feuillade's films. The movie draws upon familiar elements from first novel, such as the murder of the Marquise de Langrune and the robbery of Sonia Danidoff, and attempts to modernize the Fantômas myth by updating technological gadgetry, including airplane escapades, grand prix auto racing, and silencer-outfitted revolvers. The print quality is excellent, and Féjos makes particularly good use of lighting. But overall, the film is a disappointment. The "Lord of Terror" lacks a powerful persona. His genius for crime is eclipsed by stock crime and horror conventions. The demonic dynamism of Souvestre, Allain, and Feuillade's antihero only exists offscreen in Féjos's film, if at all. The genealogy of director André Hunebelle's Fantômas (1964), appropriately designated as a "detective comedy"(comédie policière), begins with Féjos.

As with the Souvestre-Allain novel, the film begins with the after-dinner conversation at the chateau of the Marquise de Langrune, whose assorted guests include the young Charles Rambert (who becomes Jérôme Fandor in the Fantômas series). That night, a Fantômas en cagoule (dressed in black tights and hood) enters the Marquise's bedroom from a secret wall passage and strangles his victim. After the murder, Fantômas slips back through the secret passage and emerges in nearby field, where a small airplane becomes his getaway vehicle. Inspector Juve, wearing a standard detective overcoat, arrives at the chateau. He interviews the Marquise's guests and collects forensic evidence. Juve takes the evidence to the Laboratoire Municipal, and he and the police chemist sit around and smoke cigarettes as they try to piece things together. Later, Fantômas steals princess Sonia Danidoff's necklace from her hotel room. Investigating the robbery, Juve picks out Charles Rambert from among the hotel boys as one of the guests from the murdered Marquise's chateau. To this point, Féjos's film recapitulates crimes from the first Fantômas novel.

But for the remainder of the movie, Féjos leaves the novel series behind and he creates an entirely new story. The scene shifts to the "Grand Prix des Nations" race course, where Lord Beltham is among the auto racers. Lord Beltham scans the stands, and alerts Juve that a shadowy figure is with his wife in her viewing booth. As the race gets underway, the arm of Fantômas reaches out from the stands and pours a can of oil on the track. When Lord Beltham's car races by, it spins out on the oil slick and crashes. The wounded Lord Beltham is whisked away in an ambulance, accompanied by Juve, to the Hotel Dieu hospital. An arm holding a silencer-outfitted revolver appears in a hotel window across the street from the hospital, and Lord Beltham is shot on the operating table. After these incidents, Juve decides that "Gurn" was Lady Beltham's companion at the race track. Juve communicates his suspicion that Gurn is Fantômas to Charles Rambert, and he and the young man become friends.

In the film's closing sequence, Juve pays a visit to Lady Beltham. Their conversation is interrupted by the arrival of a very trim and suave Gurn, whose black and white evening formal wear and monocle gives him the apperance "gentleman-burglar" Arsène Lupin. Gurn has all the self-composure of a cocaine addict, as he agitatedly draws cigarettes from a metal carrying case and exchanges verbal insults with Juve. Quickly, the conflict between Gurn and Juve turns into a grand physical brawl. Fists fly, shots ring out, furniture is tossed about, lamps come crashing to the floor. Charles Rambert enters into the fray on the side of Juve and, with the subsequent assistance of the police, the representatives of the law subdue Gurn.

Juve accompanies Gurn out of Lady Beltham's houses and into the back of a police car. During the ride, the villain bums a cigarette from the inspector. By fortunate coincidence, an open gas can sits on the backseat floor. Gurn tosses his lighted cigarette into the gas can and dives out the back door, as Juve's car explodes into flame. Gurn picks himself up off the pavement, and climbs into Lady Beltham's car, which had been following close behind, and the two race off. Cut to the credits.

With this cliffhanger ending, it seems clear that Féjos intended to make a series of Fantômas movies. But no sequels were made, and it is hardly surprising. In "Pas d'accord avec Paul Féjos!" reproduced in the "Documents" section of the Laffont "Bouquins" series of FantÙmas novels (vol. 2, 1988, pp. 1207-1220), co-author Marcel Allain raised several problems which plagued this film adaptation. First of all, Allain noted, the narrative line in Féjos's film is woefully disconnected. The mere juxtaposition of sensational scenes, he criticized, was no substitute for a good plot. It could have been otherwise. As a popular genre, Allain insisted that Fantômas was open to new adventures, as well as adaptations. According to Allain's formula, Fantômas is a genius of crime, a monstrous and superhuman being, simultaneously demonic and self-composed, who exercises enormous cruelty in the execution of his meticulously calculated crimes and murders. In Féjos's Fantômas, crimes merely happen without the presence of such a malevolent criminal spirit, either in character or atmosphere. The audience does not even have the opportunity to see Fantômas until the closing sequence with Gurn (all previous encounters are either en cagoule or partial body shots, hiding the villain's face). Further, Allain continued, Inspector Juve should be a heroic character. Féjos's Juve lacks the obsessive and paranoid edge of the villain's antagonist, locked in an manichean struggle of good versus evil, and the detective is reduced to the role of a mere police functionary. Finally, Allain wondered, who wrote the awful dialog for this film? These problems of plot, character, and dialog not only rendered Féjos's film a poor adaptation of Fantômas, it produced a bad movie.

Allain's criticisms of Féjos's Fantômas have larger repercussions when considering the degeneration of the Fantômas myth in film and print over the decades. The image of the "Lord of Terror" is not timeless. Fantômas is pulp fiction straight out of the Belle Epoque, whose settings and sensibilities strike the late twentieth-century reader or viewer as arcane and melodramatic. As an historical curiosity, this is part of its retro-nostalgic appeal. But in order to strike terror into the heart of a reader or viewer, atmosphere, characters, and terror must thoroughly commingle. The elements of Féjos's Fantômas fail to evoke such a bodily shudders. Instead, this movie constitutes the early ossification of an archvillain type, an incantation and image which is supposed to invoke terror, but amounts to a legend without substance. So if you are looking for genuinely updated Fantômas-inspired cornball and thrills in a movie, forget Féjos's Fantômas. Go see John Woo's Face Off instead.

—Robin Walz

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