‘Fan­tô­mas’ is fi­nally on the scene

The ex­ploits of the mas­ter crim­i­nal are out on disc in the U.S.

Los Angeles Times - - Calendar - KEN­NETH TU­RAN ken­neth.tu­ran@latimes.com

His name made all Paris quake, his ex­ploits in­spired su­per-vil­lains with­out num­ber, his films con­tinue to thrill crit­ics and au­di­ences alike. Yet un­til now, his ad­ven­tures were un­avail­able on do­mes­tic DVD. Ladies and gentle­men, make way for “Fan­tô­mas.”

Even if you are un­fa­mil­iar with this French crim­i­nal ge­nius, you’ve likely seen the clas­sic im­age that ap­peared on the cover of the first “Fan­tô­mas” pulp novel, pub­lished in 1911 and show­ing an enor­mous in­di­vid­ual in evening clothes and evening mask, a bloody dag­ger in his right hand, strid­ing across Paris like a colos­sus. This was a man who knew how to make an en­trance.

That book was the first of 32 wildly pop­u­lar nov­els writ­ten over a three-year pe­riod by Pierre Sou­vestre and Mar­cel Al­lain, nov­els that sold up­ward of 5 mil­lion copies. All fea­tured the mas­ter crim­i­nal Fan­tô­mas, his im­pla­ca­ble neme­sis In­spec­tor Juve of the Sûreté and Juve’s right-hand man, jour­nal­ist Jerome Fan­dor.

Nat­u­rally, these sto­ries caught the at­ten­tion of Léon Gau­mont, one of the ti­tans of the emerg­ing French film in­dus­try, and be­tween 1913 and 1914 the stu­dio had one of its top di­rec­tors, Louis Feuil­lade, turn out five “Fan­tô­mas” silent fea­tures rang­ing in length from 54 to 90 min­utes: “Fan­tô­mas in the Shadow of the Guil­lo­tine,” “Juve vs. Fan­tô­mas,” “The Mur­der­ous Corpse,” “Fan­tô­mas vs. Fan­tô­mas” and “The False Mag­is­trate.”

The films starred Ed­mond Bre­ton as Juve, Ge­orge Mel­chior as Fan­dor and René Navarre as Fan­tô­mas, a ge­nius at dis­guise who looked best dressed in head-to-toe black. Feuil­lade di­rected these films with so much en­ergy and flair that critic David Thom­son has called them “the first great movie ex­pe­ri­ence.” And ev­ery­thing Feuil­lade learned from the job went into his later, even more in­tri­cate works, “Les Vam­pires” and “Judex.”

These nov­els and films not only pleased the masses, they de­lighted the avant­garde. René Magritte and Sal­vador Dali were fans, as was Guil­laume Apol­li­naire, who founded the SAF (So­ciété des Amis de Fan­tô­mas) that still ex­ists to­day. It’s not clear why it has taken so long for these films to ar­rive on DVD, but hats off to Kino for mak­ing it hap­pen at last. Fan­tô­mas is the se­cret sauce of mod­ern pop­u­lar cul­ture, adding pi­quancy and taste to a va­ri­ety of dis­ci­plines. He’s in­spired gen­er­a­tions of film­mak­ers, and the plea­sure of his ex­ploits await the dis­cern­ing eye. For more cov­er­age of arts and cul­ture, visit the Cul­ture Mon­ster blog.

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