Synopsis: Mysterious Fantomas is terrorizing France. Inspector Juve, with the help of a reporter called Fandor and a lovely photographer, decides to put an end to the criminal’s operations. But Fantômas counter attacks. The three law enforces are baffled, made fools and kidnapped during their terrifying adventures.
eyelights: its ambitious set pieces.
eyesores: its nonsensical plots developments. its cheapie production.
Fantômas is a literary creation by French authors Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre. A master criminal, his misdeeds were fit to print in 43 novels between 1911 and 1963. He also transitioned to the silver screen, appearing in five silent films in 1913-14 alone and eight times since. He’s even found himself on the radio, on television and in comics.
But it’s the trilogy directed by André Hunebelle (of ‘OSS 117‘ fame) in the sixties that has had the most impact. Only loosely based on the books, these were a monstrous box office success that not only redefined the characters for a new generation, but are so tightly connected to this series now that Fantômas has never made a return.
All three films star Jean Marais (who, it is said, originally wanted to play OSS 117) in a dual role as Fantômas and journalist Fandor, Louis de Funès as Commissioner Juve, and Mylène Demongeot as Fandor’s fiancé. Fans of these actors savoured their omnipresense as their characters take on many disguises, allowing them to play other parts.
1964’s ‘Fantômas’ begins with its namesake disguised as a wealthy man shopping for jewelry, purportedly for his daughter’s wedding. After being offered a number of eye-catching pieces, he takes them all, paying 5 million with a cheque. Unfortunately for the jeweler, their customer used invisible ink which quickly disappears to reveal his calling card.
By then he’s long gone.
And thus begins a crime caper picture clearly inspired by the more crowd-pleasing aspects of the early James Bond series: large-scale action pieces, outlandish plot developments, strange villains, gadgets and a liberal dose of humour (Marcel Allain was understandably not at all pleased that his edgy novels had been completely revamped this way).
The main plot of ‘Fantômas’ revolves around the abduction of Fandor after he writes a fake interview with the criminal mastermind (whom he believes the police have invented) that portrays him in an unflattering fashion. After taking the journalist to his lair, Fantômas brands him and blackmails him into retracting the piece and writing a real one.
Upon his return, Fandor is arrested because Commissioner Juve believes that he’s conspiring with the villain. To compound his problems, on his way out of jail he’s kidnapped yet again – for not having written the piece he was asked to publish. To get revenge, Fantômas plans to commit crimes looking like Fandor, soil his good name and then kill him.
After Juve interferes with his subsequent caper, Fantômas decides to do the same to him, dressing up as the Commissioner and committing a series of crimes. Fandor and Juve are then arrested for the robberies, and then kidnapped by Fantômas. Somehow, the cops catch up to Fantômas and all hell breaks loose, allowing Fandor and Juve to escape.
Thus begins the finale, a lengthy motorcycle chase as Fandor and Juve try to catch up to Fantômas, that winds up on the top of a train. After Fantômas leaves them behind, they commandeer a car and chase the train. He escapes by boat. So they chase after him with a helicopter. Still he escapes – this time via a small sub. But Juve vows to get him at all costs.
It’s a spectacular, if ridiculously convoluted, ending. And a memorable one.
Another noteworthy scene is when Juve challenges Fantômas to rob a diamond collection being modeled at a fashion show. It’s an obvious trap, but Fantômas gasses the cops and models and steals most of it. Then he escapes by the roof, chased by Juve, who follows him on a crane and dangles from it before the madman releases him and escapes by helicopter.
What’s fascinating about these sequences is threefold: 1) They’re pretty ambitious for what’s ostensibly a crime comedy, and 2) They are far more elaborate and exciting than anything in the OSS 117 series that Hunebelle was directing and producing concurrently, and 3) Jean Marais did all his own stunts and Louis de Funès did a few as well – and they’re risky!
Interestingly, there were a few amusing scenes that were reminiscent of the ‘Pink Panther‘ films, such as when Juve decides to tail Fandor in the hope that it’ll lead to Fantômas: As he skulks around in the dark, dressed as a homeless person, he gets arrested by the police for loitering. ‘A Shot in the Dark‘ came out only months prior. Coincidence…?
But for all the fun bits and stunning set pieces, there were a number of aspects to the picture that made it feel subpar, sometimes due to the light performances, sometimes due to the writing, sometimes due to the quality of the production itself. At no point do we get the impression that we’re watching a sophisticated romp made by consummate professionals.
- Fantômas’ secret lair looks like a set, a bit cheap, and very ’60s. To add to its kitschy-ness, Fantômas’ entrances are highlighted by dramatic organ music, à la ‘Phantom of the Opera’.
- Unlike his literary predecessor, Fantômas wears a featureless blue mask with holes for his eyes and gape for his mouth. He looks weird like the member of a poor man’s Blue Man Group.
- While Marais gets to have many different guises, as both Fandor and Fantômas, the make-up is horrible. At no point is it convincing; anyone encountering them would naturally wonder what’s up.
- When Fantômas disguises himself as Fandor, and then Juve, we can tell him apart from the originals because he has a smeared skin tone and bushy eyebrows. Well, if we can easily tell, why wouldn’t the movie’s other characters?
- When Fantômas dresses up as Juve and commits crimes in his name, no one seems to notice that the real Commissioner is extremely short and that the fake one is very tall (and let’s not forget the make-up, too!). Somehow, people still think Juve is the culprit.
- Fandor and his fiancé, who had also been kidnapped, wake up in a car, freed. The theory is that Fantômas’ lady friend didn’t quite like that he was planning on bedding Fandor’s fiancé and this is her revenge. Fine. Could happen, I guess.
Except that she also had the brakes on their car cut so that they’d die in an accident. It simply makes no sense. Finally, after a long ride down a cliff-side road, causing many accidents along the way, they come out unscathed. Truly the perfect plan.
It just doesn’t make any sense.
But, I supposed, ‘Fantômas’ was intended to be a crowd-pleaser, not a serious, gritty crime picture. And on that count it succeeds – the proof being its massive success at the time. It’s not quality filmmaking, and it could do with a number of significant improvements, but if one wants a goofy comic book-y old time, one could do far worse.
Date of viewing: March 13, 2016