Combustible Celluloid
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With: René Navarre, Edmund Breon, Georges Melchior, Renée Carl, Jane Faber, Volbert, Naudier, Maillard, Yvette Andréyor, Laurent Morléas, Marthe Vinot, Luitz-Morat, André Luguet, Fabienne Fabrèges, Mesnery, Jean-François Martial, Germaine Pelisse, Suzanne Le Bret
Written by: Louis Feuillade, based on novels by Marcel Allain, Pierre Souvestre
Directed by: Louis Feuillade
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: Silent, French, with English subtitles
Running Time: 340
Date: 09/21/2010

Fantômas (1913)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Bad Guy

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Louis Feuillade worked at the great French movie studio Gaumont, making dozens upon dozens of films, of all different stripes. He made comedies, historical films, "realist" films, and even a series of films with child stars, such as "Bout de Zan." But out of his 700 or so films, his reputation rests mainly on his lengthy crime serials, including Les Vampires (1915), Judex (1916), Tih MinhFantômas (1913). These remarkable films were among the first to employ location shooting, and to use a sustained, intertwining plot that lasted for more than a couple of reels. They also perfected the use of the cliffhanger and the maintaining of suspense; D.W. Griffith had learned how to create thrills with his cross-cutting, but Feuillade slowed this down and stretched it out for a richer and deeper experience. His techniques would later be passed on to Fritz Lang, Alfred Hitchcock, and many others.

So far Les Vampires and Judex have been released on DVD in the United States (the former has gone out of print), and now Kino provides us with the long-awaited U.S. debut of Fantômas. Based on the novels of Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre, Fantômas was released as five separate films, running roughly an hour each, though sometimes up to 90 minutes and sometimes as little as 54 minutes. It was restored in 1998. Some footage is missing, and text cards now provide the absent information. Since it was Feuillade's earliest crime serial, it's also the most primitive, relying on wide, stage-like setups and rudimentary cutting. But Feuillade was already very sophisticated in his storytelling, and he uses these basic building blocks admirably. For something that's now 97 years old, it's a terrific, hugely entertaining film.

The movie is also notable for the fact that its main character, Fantômas (René Navarre), is a villain, pure and simple. He has no other motivation other than evil and greed. He has no family, no conscience, and no redemption. The movie simply marvels at his uncanny skill in doing bad things. This movie could never be made today with our "moral police" demanding that every criminal find either redemption or death.

The next two characters are police inspector Juve (Edmund Breon) and newspaperman Fandor (Georges Melchior), who are good friends and who work tirelessly together to bring down the bandit. Various plot threads include Fantômas seducing and blackmailing the upper-crust Lady Beltham (Renée Carl), killing an artist and using the artist's fingerprints to commit more crimes, and stealing the identity of a powerful judge. There are many escapes and disguises, my favorite one being "Tom Bob," the detective from America (he has a business card that reads "Tom Bob, Détective Américain").

Kino's 2010 DVD includes the five films split up onto three discs. Extras include two earlier Feuillade short films The Nativity (1910) and The Dwarf (1912), and a brief featurette about his life (which was also included on Kino's Gaumont Treasures box set from last year). I had been booking forward to seeing this movie for years, and it was worth the wait; this is one of my favorite DVD releases of the year.

In 2015, the movie passed its 100-year anniversary, and a we have a new 4K digital restoration, making the movie look astoundingly crisp, with a surprising amount of detail visible. It looks as if timing has been adjusted as well; the episodes on the Blu-ray each run a couple of minutes longer than on the DVD. All the audio tracks and bonus features seem to have been preserved from the DVD release; the main reason to upgrade is for the high-def picture.

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