Although by some counts Louis Feuillade directed over 800 films throughout his 20-year career, and while he famously left no genre untried, dabbling in bibilical epics, religious scenes, melodrama, hard-nosed “realism,” and two series of comedies starring toddler protagonists, his reputation will be forever linked with the run of crime serials he made during the 1910s for France’s Gaumont studios. Ridiculously entertaining and nearly immeasurable in their influence, works like 1915’s Les Vampires and the following year’s Judex not only laid the groundwork for nearly every policier to follow, but first showed the cinema’s potential for extended narrative, unfolding their perpetually engrossing, if inevitably episodic, plotting over five-plus hours of screen time.
Feuillade’s first great serial and the work that set the pattern for his subsequent output began in 1913 with Fantômas in the Shadow of the Guillotine, the initial entry in the five-film series detailing the adventures of the eponymous arch-criminal, all of which are collected in Kino’s new set Fantômas: The Complete Saga. Opening with a title sequence showing the protean star morphing via dissolve into his various disguises (prefiguring Dr. Mabuse’s own store of camouflages by nine years), Feuillade’s movie serves notice of both the complexity of narrative to follow and his penchant for a proto-surrealism.
A compendium of train robberies, mistaken identities, and bizzaro touches, each of the films follows roughly the same pattern: A crime is committed, Inspector Juve of the Paris Security Office and/or his assistant, the journalist Fandor, trace the deed to a certain individual, who turns out to be the shape-shifting Fantômas, but just as they close in to apprehend the criminal, he eludes their grasp. As the films progress, Feuillade treats the formula with an increasing perfunctoriness; by the fifth episode, The False Magistrate, Juve and Fandor are virtually eliminated from the narrative, the former serving principally to set the unspeakably odd plotting in motion (he arranges to surreptitiously switch places with Fantômas who’s serving a life sentence in a Belgian jail, knowing the villain will return to France, commit another crime, and be subjected to the death penalty) before returning at film’s end to attempt to re-apprehend the criminal.
Shot almost exclusively in the fixed-take tableau style that marked the decade in European filmmaking (by 1917, Feuillade would begin incorporating Hollywood-style analytical editing), the Fantômas films show the director to be an early master at blocking scenes, using depth staging and subtle movements to highlight key actions even as he crowds the screen with dozens of figures. This capacity for directing attention amid clutter reaches its apex in the fourth film, Fantômas vs. Fantômas, where Feuillade stages a masked ball in which no less than three guests show up in the villain’s trademark disguise (a black body suit with accompanying executioners mask) one of which turns out to be the man himself, and the director never lets us forget for a moment which “Fantômas” is which.
The eerie sight of three ebon-clad figures set off against a rollicking fête typifies the films’ penchant for outré imagery (much of it no doubt inspired by Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain’s source novels), a store from which Feuillade draws whenever the plotting becomes too predictable. (And in all fairness, much of it is fairly predictable when seen in the light of a hundred years of imitators). Among the touches that mark the director as a surrealist avant la letter and which anticipate Vigo and Franju as much as the Langian crime films of the next decade are the aforementioned facial morphing of Fantômas (sequences which open three of the five episodes), the appearance of a glove constructed from the hand of a dead man which Fantômas uses to leave behind false fingerprints (and which, in a detail that’s uncannily disturbing, slips off the hand as easily as if it were made of rubber), and the serial’s most bizarre sequence which occurs at the end of the second film Juve vs. Fantômas. Having overheard that the villain plans to send a “silent executioner” to kill him in his sleep, Juve arms himself with a spiked midriff cover and spiked shoulder plates which he wears over his pajamas. (How this will protect him from someone bent on taking his life is somewhat less than clear.) But no sooner does he settle into bed than an impossibly long snake slithers through his window and surprises the inspector, who does his best to fight off this unexpected “executioner” and it’s the utter inassimilable strangeness of such sequences that keeps Fantômas continually compelling even after so many of its innovations have long ago been hardened into formula.
The set uses Gaumont's 1998 restoration which, despite some inevitable wear to the image and a single burst of nitrate decay, looks impressively sharp, retaining the tints that presumably accompanied the original. Kino includes a single score that, while undistinguished, provides perfectly adequate accompaniment and sounds cleanly recorded.
Kino reprises the 10-minute documentary Louis Feuillade: Master of Many Forms from their Gaumont Treasures: 1897 – 1913 set. While the featurette gives a good idea of the variety and sweep of Feuillade's work, it seems an odd choice here, given its complete avoidance of the crime serials. Still, it's an interesting contextual piece that helps situate the set's two short bonus films, 1910's The Nativity, a straightforward recreation of Jesus's birth, and 1912's The Dwarf, a melodramatic study of unrequited love and intolerance. Also included are commentary tracks by film historian David Kalat that appear on the first two of the five films and an image gallery.
The film's first great adventure finally comes to DVD. Could Tih Minh be next?