The Fantômas Films: Fantômas (1964)

Jean Marais as FantômasEssay on André Hunebelle's Fantômas (1964), from George Lellis's "Fantômas," Cinema Texas Program Notes, Vol. 5, no. 10, September 19, 1973. (Images from

Extended quotes:

"[Hunebelle's] Fantômas is acceptable only on one condition: forget the title and the names of the characters. Graced with Marais' acrobatic talents and artistry of disguise, the Emperor of Crime becomes an elegant joker. De Funès's grimaces for Inspector Juve draw a fine caricature of the average French cop. Mylène Demongeot [Hélène], as a photographer here, will hardly trouble, uncustomarily, the sleep of schoolboys. As for Lady Beltham, she is one of the extras. Always painstaking, [in the closing sequence] Hunebelle takes everyone away in a boat and a submarine, to save his story—one never knows—for another episode. But don't count on Fantômas to put our republic in peril any longer."

—Albert Bolduc, Positif, nos. 67-68, Feb-March 1965. Trans. George Lellis

"But [for Hunebelle] to show so little imagination in bringing Fantômas up to date seems to me a crime for which the real Fantômas should take stern revenge. For the truly contemporary equivalents of his crimes would be fun. If I were Fantômas, I should run a mental home in which drug-bewildered patients are subtly driven madder. I wouldn't just put guards and models to sleep; I'd slip LSD into their champagne, and what a psychedelic orgy those beautiful, blind, helpless people would be reduced to. I'd stage atrocities in Africa so as to sell photographs of them to the magazines. I wouldn't brand my helpless slaves with an F certificate on their chests, I'd implant a capsule in their brains which would give them psychopathic guilt feelings if they didn't carry out my commands. I'd pose as a Maharishi, though my real intention would be to get the entire youth of the free world addicted to Speed. I'd stir up race riots by getting men dressed as cops to rape coloured girls, and setting girls posing as Black Pantheresses to castrate cops. I'd help the Welsh National Army to kidnap the Royal Family. I'd run an organ supply service for ailing millionaires who needed a new heart in a hurry. Oh, there's all sorts of lovely delicious topical mischief a modern Fantômas could get up to."

—Raymond Durgnat, Films & Filming, Vol. 15, no. 4, January 1964.

Jean Marais as FandorFantômas (1964) represents a fusion of two cults that were almost embarrassingly popular in the mid-1960's. One, that of the James Bond-style film, with its love of elaborate gadgets, eccentric and power-mad villains, and plot intrigues held together by sheerest chance and luck rather than by developing characterizations, all but changed the face of the adventure film. The Bond and post-Bond films were future-oriented, a kind of science fiction in the present. The other cult, involving the revival of interest in the fantastic heroes of the recent past from comic strips and movie serials, like Batman, Buck Rogers, and Flash Gordon, was more nostalgic in its attitudes. Fantômas may have its own distinctive touches, but its basic elements are common to both.

...Like its [Belle Epoque novel and film serial] forerunners, the 60's Fantômas was immensely popular, one of the largest grossing films in France that year. Surely its producers' alert timing had something to do with this success. Made when the Bond cult was cresting, Fantômas also hit Parisian screens about a full year before Batman was revived on American television. Two sequels were even spawned: Fantômas se déchaîne (1966) and Fantômas contre Scotland Yard (1967).

The characters in the late re-make remain those of the original: Fantômas himself, the police inspector Juve, the newspaper reporter Fandor. What has always been most remarkable about the popularity of Fantômas as a hero is that he is a criminal and flaunts his law-breaking—the original raised objections from moralists in his time. How appropriate, then, that he should be revived in the 60's, a period of prosperity in Europe in many ways parallel to that of pre-war France, and one characterized by a revival of similar sentiments of anarchic anti-authoritarianism! Despite the new Fantômas's lack of a crime-does-not-pay ending, it does not quite seem—and Durgnat would doubtless agree—in the true spirit of Fantômas for him to be reincarnated in such a wholesome family film.

Fantômas was not quite so successful in America, where it ran a meager first-run week at the Plaza Theater in New York and received virtually no subsequent bookings. It is not difficult to see why. Neither artistically successful enough to get good critical reactions nor highbrow enough to attract the usual "art house" audience, and without stars, sex, or even much violence to attract a less demanding crowd, the film was caught adrift without enough artistic or commercial viability to keep it afloat. Indeed, had United Artists not put a significant amount of American money into it, it would probably never have been imported at all.

Seen almost a decade after its original release, Fantômas surely seems no more impressive now, and one would be hard-pressed to talk about its vast artistic achievements. It is blessed, to be sure, with two stars of some stature (and not the clever—if almost tacky—device whereby Hunebelle gets double duty out of his two main leads). Louis de Funès, as Inspector Juve, is always watchable as he flails about, tumbling his hands over each other constantly, his unimpressive, balding head and dumpy figure striving to be assertive in a world in which he can only be an eternal loser. His gross incompetence, Durgnat rightly asserts, "makes Peter Sellers' Inspector Clouseau look like Sherlock Holmes." Fantômas himself is played by Jean Marais, the French actor most noted for his romantic leads in the films of Jean Cocteau; his chiseled features are just artificial looking enough to suggest both the deviousness of the reporter and the super-human presence that at times lurks underneath them in the real Fantômas.

Fandor versus FantômasOther departments in the film are much less commendable. Possibly because of the way it splits its time among the three main characters—Fantômas, Fandor, and Juve—the script, written in part by the director's brother and frequent collaborator, Jean Halain, seems somewhat diffuse, particularly in the first reel. If the plot is, in the main, unoriginal standard stuff, the film is a visual disappointment as well. The soft-focus, low-definition color photography drains much of the character out of its image, this despite the fact that it is credited to Marcel Grignon, a veteran cinematographer noted for his technical meticulousness...

Looked at sociologically, however, as a reflection of popular attitudes of the day, Fantômas is a richer subject for observation. If the technology in the Bond films is always a bit threatening and 1984-ish, this author was struck by the near awe with which Fantômas often presents modern transportation and communication. The final chase, which moves from car to motorcycle to train to boat to submarine (a helicopter appears earlier) is all but a hymn to 20th-century man's mobility. Becoming, even forcibly, a servant for Fantômas (or, by extension, to modern technology) is not persuasively portrayed as a negative thing at all—one would expect it to be exciting, profitable work. Indeed, this Fantômas is just this side of being fascistic, for it knocks the police, not for being repressive, but for being inefficient and stupid, while praising Fantômas, not for any good he does or justice he performs, but simply for being pragmatic and effective, and despite intimations of egomania and a tyrannical spirit.

Finally, consider some random, unrelated oddities: Hunebelle's quaint use of vertical wipes along the skinny scope screen; Marais's tumble from the moving train, without a stand-in; the unexplained chinoiserie in Lady Beltham's boudoir; the theater marquee spelling out F-A-N-T-O-M-A-S in brightly lit letters; the subtle transition, via a cobalt blue pack of Gauloises, from de Funès's night table to the top of his desk at the police station. The film's score, by Michel Magne, is only marginally comparable to television's Batman theme, for which this writer can never remember the words.

—George Lellis, Department of Radio, Television & Film, University of Texas at Austin.

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