South West Silents Speak Up: Fantômas

Welcome to the first in a series of posts from our friends, South West Silents.

While we here in the video store can talk about Hal Hartley, 1980s horror and Nicolas Cage movies until well after closing time, we’re not so au fait with the silent stuff. That’s why it’s good to have friends in quiet places. If you’re wondering where that is, it’s over here. Read on friends!

SOUTH WEST SILENTS RECOMMENDS… FANTOMAS

by James Harrison

‘The first great movie experience’ David Thompson

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There is no argument about it. Louis Feuillade had an impeccable track record for bringing chaos to the cinema screen. Over the course of his directing career, which only lasted just under 20 years (he made roughly 600 films between 1906 – 1924) Feuillade would bring audiences an extensive amount of assassinations, a big concentration of exploding buildings, the destruction of national monuments, bridges and the French public transport system; to be honest, Feuillade’s creations made the likes of SPECTRE look like a bunch of amateurs!

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And that is the fun thing about Feuilade’s first major serial, Fantômas (1913-14). You hardly ever find yourself rooting for the good guys such as Inspector Juve (played by Scottich born Edmund Breon) or his collaborator, the reporter Jérôme Fandor (Georges Melchior). You are always rooting for the bad guys. In this case, the master criminal Fantômas (René Navarre) who is not only incredibly ruthless and cunning but also very well dressed throughout (apart from the full cover black suit).

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The same can be said for many later villains in cinema of course, Robert Mitchum’s ‘preacher killer’ Harry Powell in The Night of the Hunter (1955), the many incarnations of Hannibal Lecter, Darth Vader in the Star Wars films, Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty in Blade Runner (1982) as well as Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber in Die Hard (1988); although, Gruber is a personal favourite of mine to be honest. These are all villains who, in many ways, you want to keep watching instead the main protagonists. They are all very well dressed as well, apart from Rutger Hauer I guess.

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It is also worth noting that the likes of the villains listed above were cut from the same cloth as Fritz Lang’s Dr Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) and Haghi (also played Rudolf Klein-Rogge) the criminal mastermind of one of Lang’s most underrated of thrillers, Spione (1928). These earlier villains were most certainly highly influenced by Fantômas, especially when it came to the subject of bringing chaos to a contemporary society as well as the ability to dramatically change their appearance and identity within a few seconds.

There are however flaws with Fantômas. The use of the camera in particular is incredibly simple and basic. A scene which could last almost 10 minutes could well be shown in one single shot (with the odd cutaway if you are lucky). Even for 1913/1914 standards in filmmaking the camerawork in Fantômas is painfully basic for the time. Other filmmakers such as Evgenii Bauer and of course D. W. Griffith were advancing the use of the camera in every film they made. Sadly none of this transpires in Fantômas. So you have been warned.

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However, do not let this turn you off. Fantômas is thrilling throughout because of what happens in front of the camera and that is the important factor here; the sense of, where are we going now? What is going to happen next? In many ways, Fantômas is one of those pioneering titles which formed the basis for future film and television serials; so your recent addition to HBO and other Television programmes could well be blamed on Fantômas as well.

If anything it’s a key title in the history of cinema, and one which establishes many themes  we would see throughout the future of cinema, even today! Enjoy!

Written by James Harrison of South West Silents for 20th Century Flicks.

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