This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 23, 2010 - "To her great relief, the Grand Duchess did not recognize the dead man."
That almost-ridiculous title card is the kind of thing that makes "Fantomas," Louis Feuillade's 5 and a half hour adventure serial such an unexpected treat.
"Fantomas" -- the films take their name from their villain -- has long been the kind of film one reads about in history books but never expects to see; nearly a century old and in an unwieldy multi-episode form, it's the kind of film easily lost to the ravages of time. The appearance of a nearly complete "Fantomas" on DVD, painstaking restored in France in 1998 and now released with English intertitles by silent-film experts Kino , is a welcome surprise on many levels. It's a strange, entrancing film that lives up to - and surpasses - its own reputation.
Based on a series of popular novels - more than 30 volumes published between 1911 and 1913 - about a criminal mastermind terrorizing Paris, "Fantomas" is actually a series of five feature films, released in 1913 and 1914. (It's usually described as a serial, but it doesn't follow the model of American serials, which were only one or two reels long.)
Filmed at a time when features were still fairly new, there's a primitive simplicity to the films at first: The direction is simple, mainly concerned with keeping the actors in position on the almost claustrophobic sets. Within a year, by the time of the fifth film (ironically the only one not fully restored), Feuillade was feeling more adventurous, making use of multiple locations, more elaborate settings and a more varied directorial style. But even at its most static, "Fantomas" is dominated by a spirit of mad excess, with plot maneuverings that fall just short of hysteria and a willingness to toss logic aside in favor of pulpy thrill.
Feuillade's films were revered by the Surrealist writers and painters, who appropriated images for their paintings (https://www.fantomas-lives.com/savage.gif) and even wrote what could be described as Fantomas fan-fiction. Feuillade, a conservative monarchist who directed hundreds of films and was dedicated to bringing refinement to the cinema, might have been puzzled by their praise - if he even knew of it, but in retrospect it's not too hard to imagine why figures like Breton and Magritte found the films so appealing. As devoted readers of Freud, they would have recognized the thief as pure id, an incontrollable force who not only devotes his life to mayhem for its own sake but even manages to infect everyone else with his manic irresponsibility.
A master of disguise, Fantomas takes several forms throughout the series - each episode begins by showing actor Rene Navarre in each of the disguises that will follow - but in very little time the criminal's knack for changing identities is shared by his own arch foes, intrepid police Inspector Juve and newspaper-reporter Jerome Fandor. With melodramatic glee and a wholesale disregard for logic, the films become a carousel of confused and compromised identities in which the game of masquerading outweighs all else.
Consider the line about the dead man I quoted above. The fact that the relieved Grand Duchess is Fantomas' former mistress, and that she's hosting a fundraiser to raise a reward for his arrest - a costume party at which three Fantomas look-alikes show up, only adds to the play of identities. At that point -- in "Fantomas vs. Fantomas," the fourth installment -- the dead man in question was one of three guests who came to the Grand Duchess' costume party dressed as the master criminal Fantomas. In fact, one of the three actually was Fantomas, disguised as an American detective (with the extraordinary name of Tom Bob) disguised as Fantomas.
Fantomas poses as Juve. Juve poses as Fantomas. Juve is even sent to jail by a judge who assumes that his failure to capture Fantomas is proof that he must actually be the criminal himself. Juve even disguises himself to enter a Belgian prison so he can provide the captive Fantomas a disguise with which to escape, allowing him to take the villain's place.
Adding to this confusion are an occasional striking image or surprisingly brutal twist - a wall that bleeds when struck by a pickaxe, a pair of gloves made out of human flesh (to plant the dead man's fingerprints), exactly the kind of thing that allows Feuillade to maintain a constant state of excitement over the length of five films. The plot(s), taken more or less from various "Fantomas" novels, fall by the wayside, but the films run on energy and imagination that has nothing to do with logic.