Synopsis: In the third installment of the parodic Fantomas series, the eponymous arch criminal imposes the “right-to-live” tax on the rich, threatening to kill those who dare not to pay. Journalist Fandor (Jean Marais) and commissioner Juve (Louis de Funès) are invited to the Scottish castle of Lord McRashley (Jean-Roger Caussimon), one of Fantomas’ potential victims, who has decided to set a trap for the elusive fiend.
eyelights: its more down-to-earth plot. its more subtle humour.
eyesores: its absurd ending. its mildly nonsensical plot developments.
By 1967, Louis de Funès was HUGE star in his native France: he had commanded the box office with eight films in the course of three years – and was just coming off of his career best, 1966’s ‘La Grande Vadrouille’. By the time ‘Fantômas contre Scotland Yard’ rolled around, he was its star attraction.
The thing is, the ‘Fantômas‘ series was initially conceived as a vehicle for Jean Marais, who was disappointed in not getting the part of OSS 117, and wanted to showcase his action hero and master of disguise abilities. By the sequel, which initially wasn’t to involve de Funès, his part was slightly smaller.
In ‘Fantômas contre Scotland Yard’, his part was reduced further still: he not only shared the screen with de Funès, but the latter had all of the most memorable scenes – and got top billing. This completely skewed the balance and the ensuing picture became less action-oriented than its predecessors.
This time, Fantômas takes it upon himself to charge the world’s richest people with a “life tax”, demanding astronomical sums in return for letting them live. But he makes headlines by killing one of them upon his visit to Lord MacRashley in Scotland, leading Fandor and Commissioner Juve to investigate.
The whole picture revolves around MacRashley’s castle: the Lord has invited Fandor, Juve and many of the world’s wealthiest men for a getaway, with the intention of setting a trap for Fantômas. But little does he know that the master criminal has gotten wind of his deception and is planning to retaliate.
Expect duplicity, thrills, murder, and… a few chuckles.
In my estimation, ‘Fantômas contre Scotland Yard’ is the most consistent picture of the series: the performances are good, the script isn’t too sloppy, the production is the best thus far, and it flies by breezily. Even the humour is more subtle for the first act, rooted mostly in the situational and in sight gags.
By the second act, de Funès is let loose: Juve sees ghosts, but doesn’t know that they are the doing of Fantômas, who keeps leaving cadavers his room. Each time he sees one, Juve runs off to get the others – but, when they return, there is never any sign of it. So Juve begins to crack, becomes erratic.
It’s all very ‘Scooby-Doo’, but de Funès is good at what he does – and it’s not TOO over-the-top this time.
It’s only in the third act that the line is crossed: There’s this peculiar routine in which Juve’s assistant, who is helping out the ailing Commissioner, drops his gun in the bed, and then spends time trying to find it – much to the consternation of Juve, who wakes up and doesn’t have a clue what is going on.
It’s a poorly-executed shtick to start with, but it just doesn’t make any sense that he was holding a gun, that he dropped it and didn’t know where.
It’s a crap sequence.
But then that same scene goes for the jugular:
The bed gets activated remotely by Fantômas, who, after making the bed dance around a bit, brings the pair through a hidden door and elevator, down to his hidden lair under the castle. Horrid stuff, and it also made me wonder how Fantômas managed to set all that up in the castle in the matter of days.
Thankfully, there are other set pieces that make up for this, most notably when Fantômas, disguised as MacRashley, uses the fox hunt to get revenge for the trap being set on him. This leads to a lengthy fox hunting sequence in which he and his hoods trick guests with a fake fox and kidnap them.
But little does he know that Lady MacRashley has a lover and that they are intent on getting rid of her spouse. So Fantômas is unmasked in his fight with Lady MacRashley’s lover – and Hélène, Fandor’s fiancé, sees him. So he has her taken away, which inevitably leads Fandor to come to her rescue.
This leads to Fandor chasing a small plane on horseback, climbing aboard and freeing her. However, he has the pilot radio in to tell Fantômas that they’ve been executed, so that they can trick him. Except that it doesn’t make sense because that wasn’t Fantômas’ plan – and Fandor wasn’t part of it.
But hey, let’s not be too uptight about it – this is a comic-booky film for general audiences, after all.
What’s most interesting about this installment in the series, is that it gives the first real indication that Fantômas might be alien. This is proposed by some of the characters, and he also claims to Lord MacRashley that he wants to collect riches before he pulverizes the planet and goes to another one.
This is reinforced by the finale, which finds the criminal escaping in a rocket that was secretly hidden in MacRashley’s chimney (Again, how this was installed is beyond me). Granted, he never leaves the atmosphere due to an attack by the Air Force, but his intention might have been to leave the planet.
This is a huge departure (no pun intended) for a character that was created at the turn of the 20th century as a basic criminal. Its creator Marcel Allain, was already upset about the many changes brought to his characters, but this must have totally taken the cake: Now Fantômas was a planet-hopping alien!
But that’s plenty.
Still, ‘Fantômas contre Scotland Yard’ has its moments of pure, simple fun. Plus which it’s a good looking picture with nice location filming and brilliant set design (even if it doesn’t mesh with the location stuff) that compensate for the poor plotting and cut-rate effects. It’s not great cinema, but it’s a good send-off.
Sadly, due to the afore-mentioned castings shifts and the stars’ growing asking price, there would never be another film in the Fantômas series. Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre’s iconic villain has not returned to the silver screen since; Hunebelle’s series was so popular that no one dared to try.
At least, on the big screen: there have been a few telefilms…
Date of viewing: March 17, 2016