Thursday, May 21, 2020

Review - Fantomas (1964)

May 21, 2020

Fantomas – 1964, France

Andre Hunebelle’s Fantomas is not your great-grandfather’s Fantomas; it may, however, be your parents’. I realize this statement may not make much sense, but bear with me. The first appearance in print of Fantomas, a master of disguise and criminal mastermind, was in 1911. The creation of French writers Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestie, the character appeared in thirty-two books from 1911 to 1913; after Souvestie’s death in 1914, Allain contributed an additional eleven, the last one hitting bookstores in 1963. Audiences were enthralled by the character, and the first Fantomas film was released in 1913. It was followed by four sequels, each one ending with the villain living to continue his reign of terror. Fortunately, hot in pursuit were the determined Inspector Juve and his resourceful reporter friend, Jerome Fandor. The character returned three more times from 1932 – 1949 – four if you include a 1937 comic short.

One interesting aspect of the original series is the seriousness with which the story is told. Fantomas is presented as menacing and capable of great cruelty, and he is such a methodical planner that it is a shock to hear that he has been captured in the opening moments of the fifth film. After all, this is a man who had previously anticipated his own capture and build in escape mechanisms. By the time 1964 rolled around, I suspect the public no longer saw evil as existing in the form of someone like Fantomas. It had been not been masked criminals or wicked hypnotists that had terrorized the world during World War II, and the defeat of the Axis Powers had dealt a devastating blow to any mad man’s dream of world conquest. By the time James Bond first appeared on the silver screen in 1962, most people likely recognized that organizations like SPECTRE were more fantasy than possibility.

It makes sense then that Fantomas’s return in 1964 was not the start of a dramatic trilogy. In fact, it is from that film that the character’s most popular image – the blue mask, black gloves, and impenetrable three-piece suit – emerged, and it is one that seems intentionally designed to evoke laughter rather than dread. The film finds France in the midst of a crime wave. Jewelry stores are being robbed and police stations firebombed; the public is in a panic. However, while the police seem convinced that Fantomas (Jean Marais) is behind the rash of criminal activity, some members of the public are unconvinced. This can happen when the enemy is faceless. While Juve (Louis de Funes) continually rages about the impunity with which Fantomas seems to operate, across town a local newsman –Fandor (although I don’t think his name is ever actually given) - has written a column in which he posits a peculiar theory – that Fantomas is the brainchild of local authorities intent on diverting the public’s attention from the economic and social failures of the government. Fandor (also played by Marais) follows up this blasphemy by publishing a fake interview with Fantomas. One guess how the real one responds. Soon there are kidnappings, framings, and an unexplored plot involving the creation of a monster resembling the one Dr. Frankenstein assembled in his lab.

Fantomas is an interesting amalgamation of two genres: the crime thriller and the crime parody. In the James Bond role is Fandor, here presented as a brave, muscular ladies man who is more than able to come out victorious even when he is outnumbered. As for Fantomas, he has been made to resemble one of those early improbable Bond villains, you know, the kind that are impervious to pain or use shoes as weapons. He’s got an underground lair and frequently demonstrates Bond-villain logic, such as capturing his antagonist and explaining his plans to him instead of just offing him. So who does Juve most resemble? Would you be surprised if I said Inspector Clouseau? Made a year after the first Pink Panther movie, the film even includes a scene in which Juve is present as witnesses are asked to describe Fantomas, only for them to give a perfect description of Juve. If that description rings a bell, there’s a reason for that. I’ll give you another example that demonstrates these characters. In one scene, the three of them each jump onto a moving train, and their fortunes grow increasingly ludicrous. Fantomas lands well and flees in the direction of the locomotive; Fandor’s landing is a bit more awkward – he lands on a stack of hay - yet is still able to get to his feet and continue the pursuit; poor Juve finds himself on the back of a horse.

One additional character warrants mention – Fandor’s tall, thin and blonde girlfriend, Helene. While originally Fantomas’s stepdaughter, here Helene is a photographer for the newspaper that employs Fandor, and she eventually finds herself in the kind of role usually associated with that of a Bond girl. Unexpectedly thrust into the action, she rises to the occasion and eventually trails Fantomas in a helicopter before being forced out so that the men can be the ones to make the final pursuit. The character is played by Mylene Demongeot, and she displays superb comic timing, especially in the film’s final moments and earlier when she is left stranded on a beach. Also giving a truly fun performance is de Funes. He is truly a master of facial expressions and verbal frustrations, and a scene that we see from his perspective is hilarious. All I’ll say about it is that his character has earplugs in. And as the protagonist, Marais is both quite charming and heroic. Had he been born in the UK, he might played Bond at some point. As Fantomas, Marais doesn’t have much to do except stand upright and look at the camera. However, he is still able to imbue with charisma and humor. In a clever bit, he explains, “I kill, of course, but always with a smile.” This from a guy with a permanent deadpan.

While Fantomas is not official canon, it was the start of its own trilogy. 1965 saw the release of Fantomas Unleashed, followed in 1967 by Fantomas Against Scotland Yard. If they are anything like this film, a good time will be had by all. (on DVD and Blu-ray)

3 and a half stars

*Fantomas is in French with English subtitles.

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