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April 15, 2019

Fantomas: Three Film Collection

fantomas poster.jpg

Andre Hunebelle - 1964

Fantomas Unleashed / Fantomas se dechaine
Andre Hunebelle - 1965

Fantomas vs. Scotland Yard / Fantomas contre Scotland-Yard
Andre Hunebelle - 1967
KL Studio Classics BD two-disc set Region A

I can't quite explain it, but for myself, these three films from the 1960s feel more dated than the classic French 1913 serial by Louis Feuillade. The original character was introduced by writers Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre in 1911 in a total of forty-three volumes. A criminal genius, Fantomas was the master of disguise, and had outlandish means at his disposal of committing his crimes. His goal was world domination. Fantomas battles the police inspector Juve and journalist Fandor. The three films here comprise the most recent theatrical version inspired by the books and silent serial. What is of interest to me is the way the films were made as a French response to the popularity of the James Bond films, and the ways the three entries differ from each other.

The three films are generally much lighter than the serial, with more comic moments. For all of his supposed villainy, this Fantomas most revels in acts of anarchy and thumbing his nose at the rich and powerful. He is introduced in the guise of a British lord shopping for jewelry at Van Cleef and Arpels in Paris, buying various diamond necklaces with the casualness of someone picking up groceries at 7-11. The purchase turns out to be theft as the check is written with disappearing ink. A group gathered in front of a store watch the wall full of televisions, all with Commissioner Juve declaring his intention to arrest Fantomas. Someone, Fantomas or one his his henchmen, tosses some dynamite through the shop window. I would think that for the average Parisian, Fantomas might be more of an annoyance than a threat.

In addition to all three films directed by Andre Hunebelle, there is Jean Marais in the double role of Fantomas and Fandor, Mylene Demongeot supplying the eye candy as Helene, news photographer and perpetual fiancee of Fandor's, and comic Louis de Funes as Juve. Marais, who was well into his forties when he became an action star in French movies, was 51 at the time of the first film. De Funes, who actually was a year younger, but looked older, was an established supporting actor at the time of production, becoming a major star with the release of one of his other films prior to the second Fantomas film. Between the physical demands of the roles played by Marais, and de Funes ascending stardom, the three films show a distinct shift in emphasis between the two actors, as well as a diminishing presence of Demongeot.

There are various set pieces that stand out, especially considering that the films were made without the use of CGI. Especially noteworthy is that Jean Marais did much of his own stunt work, especially in the first film. At one point, Marais is walking across the top of a very high crane, and climbs up the ladder from a helicopter, whisking him away from de Funes. The shot was done in a long single take which shows a bit of bravery or foolishness or both on the part of Marais. There must of been some well hidden safety devices used as one of Thailand's top action stars died doing a similar stunt because he was unable to hang on to the airborne ladder.

There is also a chase through a narrow winding road, with Marais and Demongeot going downhill fast in a car lacking brakes or a working transmission. As soon as I saw the car rolling sideways on two wheels, I assumed this was the work of stunt driver Remy Julienne. As it turns out, this is where Julienne's film career began.

The first film's comic highlight has de Funes plugging his ears, blocking out all noise for a night's restful sleep. He is woken by his none-too-bright assistant played by Jacques Dynam, who is seen from de Funes' point of view, miming getting an emergency call about Fantomas' most recent crime. The sound in the film is restored when de Funes removes his ear plugs. The second film features an amusing animated credit sequence which essentially covers the key moments of the first film. There is confusion taking place in Rome, with Fandor and Fantomas both disguises as a scientist, with the real scientist unexpectedly showing up. At a costume party, de Funes dresses up as a pirate with an eyepatch that won't stay down and peg leg that may well have inspired Quentin Tarantino. The third film mostly showcases the perpetually exasperated de Funes and clueless sidekick Dynam in a supposed haunted Scottish castle. Fantomas threatens to kill everyone on earth and move to another planet, but settles for scamming a dozen of the world's wealthiest people for a few million dollars.

The first disc is the first Fantomas film, with a commentary track by Tim Lucas. The history of the character is discussed along with notes on the film, the stars, locations, some of the crew members, and a couple of points on the two sequels. As usual, Lucas is able to add to previously known information regarding the films and filmmakers. This is especially helpful as only the first film received a limited release in the United States, while this is the first legitimate stateside release of the sequels. Lucas is right about cautioning viewers not to take anything that happens in these films seriously. The films also provide a reminder that while French cinema of the 1960s is often thought of in terms of the Nouvelle Vague and Left Bank filmmakers, the Fantomas series represent the kind of films that most French viewers were watching.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at April 15, 2019 07:09 AM