A legendary cinematic achievement of early silent cinema, Louis Feuillade’s hefty Fantômas serial is a cultural touchstone of a pre-WWI France. Based upon the popular series of French pulp stories, Fantômas centers on the exploits of its titular character (René Navarre), a devious criminal mastermind of the Parisian underworld and a master of impersonation, constantly on the run from his archenemy Inspector Juve (Edmund Breon) and the reporter Jérôme Fandor (Georges Melchior). Characterization and deep storytelling are not the foray of the Fantômas serial; rather, the saga itself is largely cinematic spectacle. With the exception of the third and fifth episodes, every chapter begins with a fade-in of Fantômas and his multiple alter-egos and disguises featured within the ensuing hour, an overture of sorts for the duplicity and mystery to come. And while these scenes may rob the individual episodes from some suspense, its appeal rests on its audience’s immediate proximity with the Fantômas character. Providing us with identification of Fantômas’ alternate personas beforehand, viewers have the pleasure of seeing the criminal’s schemes executed as he outwits the Parisian police force.
Although Fantômas was undeniably a key influence for the conspiratorial crime dramas of Fritz Lang (with Lang’s 1922 opus Dr. Mabuse the Gambler being Fantômas’s clearest heir) and the paranoiac thrillers of Alfred Hitchcock, Feuillade’s fondness for static long takes and abstention of heavy editing and stunt-centric scenes may distinguish Fantômas from the fast-paced action-based genre it spawned. And while often times Fantômas feels a bit stagnant and archaic in juxtaposition to its successors, Feuillade’s deliberate mise-en-scène cannot be simply dismissed as lethargic. As noted by Dave Kehr in The New York Times:
Feuillade stages his scenes… as [if] they might be witnessed by a spectator sitting in the auditorium of a theater, using long takes to cover action presented within a proscenium space… The opening scene of Episode 3, “The Murderous Corpse,” makes a very sophisticated use of blocking and composition to direct the viewer’s eye to different areas of the frame as characters enter and leave a second-hand clothing shop, climaxing with the revelation of a trap door leading to one of Fantômas’s secret escape routes. What might have been visual chaos in the hands of another director here seems crisp, clear and logical. There may be no cutting within the scene, but Feuillade’s way of sequentially focusing attention on different details makes it seem as if there were… At times Feuillade seems to have jumped over the entire period of classical filmmaking to arrive somewhere in that heightened sense of materiality that characterizes such modernist masterpieces as Roberto Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy or L’Eclisse by Michelangelo Antonioni.
The outbreak of World War I caused a premature end to the serial, with the pontifical final title card of Episode 5 providing Fantômas with its sole semblance of a definitive conclusion to an otherwise open-ended storyline. Yet while Fantômas may have been produced as primarily a piece of escapist entertainment, it resonates well as a keen commentary on a pre-WWI Europe on the brink of implosion, its eponymous antagonist’s free reign over Parisian society an omen for the impending anarchy of the war. And although the repetitious plotting of the serial may hinder the last few episodes of Fantômas, it remains an enduring symbol of silent cinema, perhaps as critical as the contemporary epics of D.W. Griffith, and is unmistakably a significant genesis of the noir genre.