The Uncatchable Legendary French Criminal Comically Eludes the Law Throughout Trilogy of Films
STREET DATE: APRIL 30, 2019/KINO LORBER STUDIO CLASSICS
The French fiend with the blue head is now loose on Blu-ray! And who is responsible for his return? None other than Kino Lorber Studio Classics, having released the prototypical super villain three times over, and all at once.
A long running pulp villain, Fantomâs had been prolific for decades throughout books and films. Created in 1911 by created by French writers Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre, he’s had an epic run across media platforms and even genres. In every case, though, Fantômas himself remains the slippery-smart crooked crook of all time, the villain so effective that his trademark is the fact that almost every story ends with him escaping to stealthily plunder another day.
In this very mid-1960s permutation, the unstoppable baddie that French people love to hate is reimagined as a blue-masked menace with endless resources and a flair for mod Bond-villain lairs. Expressionless and lizard-like, trilogy director André Hunebelle (juggling this with the straighter-faced OSS-117 spy adventure series) back-burners Fantômas in terms of screen time, focusing instead on two others. These are his increasingly bumbling primary protagonists, French Police Commissioner Juve (Louis de Funés) and the big-boned intrepid-to-a-fault journalist Fandor (Jean Marais, conspicuously doing double time as Fantômas himself). Also along for all three films is French starlet Myléne Demongeot as Hélène, though she’s given far less to do. Her role basically requires her to sometimes be glamorous, look concerned, and be Fandor’s attractive sounding board.
Though a defining presence in the series with his happenin’ turtlenecks and sculpted coif, Jean Marais’s Fandor doesn’t make much of an impression. Fortunately, the other guy does. The hilariously inept Commissioner Juve may never be able to foil Fantomas the villain, but he handily steals Fantomas the series away from him and everyone else. Actor Louis de Funés, with his perfectly timed manic bumbling routine, puts Herbert Lom’s famously twitchy Pink Panther chief to shame. He’s just that good at playing awful at his job. (Which, the character inexplicably gets to always keep). As the series goes on, Funés is given more and more screen-time, sending the whole vibe into sillier and sillier territory, and proving that Hunebelle knows what he’s doing after all. (Following the first picture, one might not be so sure. But hang in there… and hang on tight!)
DIRECTED BY ANDRÉ HUNEBELLE/FRENCH/1964
Fake news!! According to the morning edition, Paris’s most notorious criminal mastermind- none other than the elusive Fantômas! – is a Halloween costumed buffoon.
He’s not, of course. Could a buffoon orchestrate a reign of terror that sustains a feature film, much less three of them? One would deduce not! But of course, it’s a ploy on behalf of the paper’s star reporter, intended to luuuure the villain into the light. And so is triggered… the wrath of the real Fantômas!
Elusive and impartial to illuuuuuusion, Fantômas (the film tells us) is an unprecedented master of disguise. (Though all of his disguises are of the student theater variety, and render his face glaringly greasy. Nor can they conceal his barrel-like build). Also, he has a creepy blue head, itself another mask. His lair is a stone dungeon; quite nice as far as far as stone dungeons go. But the paper has it all wrong- he’s no manifesto-spouting madman bent on blowing up the world. Oh sure, he’s killed a few people here and there, but what really, truly floats his boat is stealing ultra-rare, mega-expensive jewelry. And more-so, he loves the challenge. Looooves it.
A simple police station procedure of witnesses piecing together the fiend’s true face results in minutes of transparency mix n’ match. It’s as though the director refuses to move on to the next scene until every drawing and combination of hair, eyes, noses, and mouths has its moment on the opaque projector. And still, this fickle crowd can’t be pinned down. Who- or what!– is Fantômas??
By the end, our over-confident heroes are in hot pursuit of Fantômas on land, air, and sea. (Generally in that order). But, [Egads here comes a SPOILER!!] true to long-established character form, Fantômas ultimately escapes to taunt society, particularly the authorities, another day.
Director Hunebelle never seems unwilling to have mischievous fun with the characters and premise; also the case with the actors. But Fantomas lands as a curiously uncertain thing, lingering in an urban no man’s land between light adventure and out-and-out comedy. The result is an amusing watch, if not altogether satisfying beyond a potential MST3K treatment. Fortunately, Henebelle and his cast would have two more films to refine their approach…
DIRECTED BY ANDRÉ HUNEBELLE/FRENCH/1965
With the first sequel to 1964’s Fantomas, director André Hunebelle manages to find his footing for the material, assuming a reinforced horse-stance in the realm of broad comedy. It is of course wrapped up in a pleasing facade of comic book crime caper, but one needn’t forcibly unmask Fantomas Unleashed to find that it is here to make us laugh.
All of the actors, with the exception of Louis de Funés as the spastically overconfident police commissioner, play it absurdly straight. That, along with its fantastically colorfully mod aesthetic and unblinking flights of fancy, firmly position this film as a valid forerunner to the even straighter-faced American 1966 Batman TV series.
The confident tonal shift into out-and-out comedy works, and works well. Of the three films, Fantomas Unleashed strikes the best balance between nonsense and intrigue. Think of this entry as the Evil Dead 2 of the series- firmly go-for-broke; big on gusto, never flailing, and certainly not pinned down by something as trite as a plot. It’s as good as these movies get, though the two it’s surrounded with are noteworthy in their own right. (And yes, the Evil Dead series analogy holds up with the other two Fantomas films as well).
A highlight of the film, indeed the whole trilogy, is Commissioner Juve’s whackadoodle third arm contraption, a barely controllable rig that replaces his right arm with a false one; his true arm hidden with a gun under his coat. The film
obsesses over the stupid thing just as much as the character does, making his misadventures with it all the funnier. He handles it not unlike someone who’s not only seen every James Bond movie, but fancies himself James Bond. After suffering the humiliation of every last one of his plans failing miserably in the first film, any victory, however hokey, can’t help but be a crowdpleaser this time. And, it is.
FANTOMAS VS. SCOTLAND YARD
DIRECTED BY ANDRÉ HUNEBELLE/FRENCH/1967
Alas, all good things must come to an end, and so too must this Fantomas series. In this third and final installment of André Hunebelle’s increasingly wacky trilogy, the action hopscotches over to dear ol’ Scotland, the latest country who’s millionaires find themselves targeted by that blue-headed terror, Fantômas!!
The kilted fat-cats gather to brainstorm In Defens of their threatened fortunes, sniped at every turn by the evil master of disguise, and his superior technology. More often than not, Fantomas himself is in attendance at these very gatherings of wealthy rich guys, always outing himself by the end, much to their dire fear and shock. The plan, states the criminal mastermind early on, is to finally transcend the planet Earth for a better one. From there, he will rain down his perpetual blackmail and contained cosmic wrath. But that sort of plan ain’t cheap. Fantômas will need all their collected fortunes to pull it off. (Payable to him immediately in one lump sum, or in interest-bearing installments).
Huh? Does this mean that Fantômas really is an alien being after all? Or is he something different…? Maybe… a ghost? Or a bad dream? All of these notions comes into play in the comparatively freewheeling Fantomas vs. Scotland Yard. Kind of.
Just as Fantômas resurfaces in Scotland for his annual crime spree (a timetable both sequels comment on, meta style), the key heroes of the previous films also coincidentally converge on the country. The chases they give our badguy, though sometimes lengthy, prove modesty effective for the most part. (The highlight being a long-winded and, for the good guys, ultimately pointless regal fox hunting sequence, complete with Fantômas’s own crew of black-clad ninja-like workaday thugs, and their dumb scheme that actually works, involving a dog disguised as a fox).
With this film, Hunebelle’s capable camera has found and rested upon de Funés the way that Jules White’s Three Stooges camera fixes upon Curly. As such, Fantômas is just toying with him at this point. After all, is a police commissioner who can be convinced he’s in a dream, or who decides going literally undercover as a ghost is a good idea, truly an effective lawman?
But still, this being the final film of the series, the thought does occur… will this be the time that he finally bags that blue-headed hackit nyaff… Could it be?
Could it be????
Though this Fantomas series is undeniably riding the wave of James Bond popularity, in actuality it’s several steps removed. Primarily, though they are French, the movies are completely innocuous- no sex, whatsoever. Violence is also nearly non-existent, though characters do chase each other with guns an awful lot. Essentially, this trilogy is perfect for families to sit down together and shed their aversions to subtitles. Gadgets and goofiness don’t necessarily abound with the aggressive dominance that contemporary audiences have been made accustomed to, but then, one must keep in mind that this is still a French restaurant, not an American buffet.
On hand to explain all of this and more, and in far more detail, is Tim Lucas- intrepid film historian, former publisher of the late lamented Video Watchdog magazine, and nowadays a busy recorder of audio commentaries. (Congrats to Mr. Lucas, by the way, on the recent occasion of wrapping his 100th such commentary). Lucas always brings his A-game in terms of research and preparedness, but his track for this set, which can be played over the duration of the first film, finds him particularly in the zone.
Aside from trailers, Lucas’s commentary on 1964’s Fantomas is the only bonus feature. More would’ve certainly been welcome, even justified, but as is, this Three Film Collection is entirely worthwhile. And though all three films show their age at times in terms of transfer quality, this is no doubt as good as they will get.
Those in search of intellectual contextualization or a deeper through-line will come up wanting. No clever reason or notion of duality is ever floated as to why Jean Marais plays both Fandor and Fantômas. He just does. But, for those inclined to pick up this fine if also stark two-disc/three-film Blu-ray collection from KL Studio Classics, perhaps current notions of a culturally dominant, media savvy, and wealthy villain who proves himself too slippery to catch holds some relevance. A far larger conversation might be, “why are we drawn to bad guy, and why do some like to see him succeed again and again? If greed is good, then what does that make the good guys?”
We’d love to stay and ponder these ponderings, but… Fantômas is back! And this time, in high-definition!!! We suggest you run for it, now!
The images in this review are not representative of the actual Blu-ray’s image quality, and are included only to represent the film itself.