An Ungentlemanly Thief

Part Three: Being a tale of a hooded maniac obsessed with sowing anarchy and hiding bodies in wicker baskets

On July 15, 1905, the French magazine Je sais tout published the story L’Arrestation d’Arsène Lupin, the first of a long-running series of novels by Maurice Leblanc. The lead character, Arsène Lupin, wasn’t the first “gentleman thief” to appear in literature but is perhaps the most famous. Lupin grew out of a general zeitgeist that produced a number of similar characters around the same time, including E. W. Hornung’s A. J. Raffles, who debuted in 1898, in a series of six short stories published in the London periodical Cassell’s Magazine. Hornung was brother-in-law to no less than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes. The character of Arthur J. Raffles – gentleman, accomplished cricketer, and part-time cat burglar – was seen by many as sort of an anti-establishment antidote to Holmes (whose cocaine habit might have made him somewhat anti-establishment as well, though Holmes was still less likely to pay the rent by robbing a safe). Both Raffles and Lupin evolved from Rocambole, a character created by Pierre Alexis Ponson du Terrail and introduced in 1857’s Les Drames de Paris. Although little more than a highly resourceful teenager in this first novel, by later entries in the series (there were eight in total, with a ninth left unfinished and several more by different authors after du Terrail’s death in 1871) he was practically a superman, accompanied by a band of accomplices who helped him battle exotic enemies like the Indian Thuggees. Rocambole not only inspired characters like Arsène Lupin, but also later American pulp heroes like Doc Savage. And all of them come from the same wellspring: Alexandre Dumas’ endlessly influential 1845 novel The Count of Monte Cristo.

Raffles, like Holmes and many similar characters that came after them, was a master of disguise. And while Holmes and Raffles never locked wits, Holmes did meet Arsène Lupin — much to the legal disapproval of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle — in Leblanc’s 1906 short story Sherlock Holmes Arrives Too Late. Doyle and his lawyers saw that the name was changed when the story was later collected into an Arsène Lupin omnibus. Leblanc thumbed his nose at the ruling and just changed the name to Herlock Sholmes. Then, not one to let a good thing go, Leblanc featured Herlock Sholmes in two more Lupin adventures: Arsène Lupin contre Herlock Sholmes and again in L’Aiguille creuse. Altogether, Lupin was featured in twenty novels and twenty-eight short stories, with the last of them, Les Milliards d’Arsène Lupin, published in 1939. Lupin’s impact was far-reaching. Even today his name is well-known thanks to the Japanese anime and manga series Lupin III, about the adventures of Arsène Lupin’s grandson — though Lupin III is not quite the gentlemen that his grandfather was. In fact, he had at least as much in common with a character inspired by Lupin and similar ne’er-do-wells. That other character debuted in 1911, in a story simply called Fantômas.

Like Lupin, Fantômas was a thief. But he was far from the gentleman thief Lupin was. In fact, Fantômas was shockingly sociopathic, and more than willing to murder anyone who got in his way; actually, perfectly happy to murder even people who weren’t in his way, just in case he needs a spare corpse for one of his schemes later on down the line. Created by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre, Fantômas was a new type of protagonist, one who was unrepentantly villainous yet still the center of the reader’s fascination. No matter how vile Fantômas behaves, the reader never really want to see him get caught by dogged police investigator Juve and his sidekick, journalist Jerome Fandor. After all, that would mean the end of the series (well, it would if Fantômas wasn’t so good at escaping from prison). He was the prototype for the anti-heroes that became so popular in the Italian fumetti (comic books) of the 1960, the father of nasty customers like Diabolik, Kriminal, and Killing.

Allain and Souvestre wrote thirty-two entries in the Fantômas series (Allain continued the series alone after Souvestre’s death, starting with 1925’s Fantômas est-il ressuscité?). The final Allain and Souvestre story came out in 1913. That same year, Louis Feuillade went into production on the first of his five Fantômas movies, Fantômas I: À l’ombre de la guillotine (Fantômas: In the Shadow of the Guillotine). As his biography is eventually laid out, Fantômas is Archduke Juan North, a philanderer who ends up in a German prison, from which he escapes and flees first to India and later the United States, Mexico, and South Africa, where he fights in the Boer War under the name Gurn. It’s in South Africa that he meets and falls in love with the Lady Maud Beltham. At this point, with Fantômas masquerading as Gurn and courting Lady Beltham, both the first novel and the first movie pick up the mysterious swindler’s story. True to the novels, Feuillade’s Fantômas (played by René Navarre) is a right bastard, a master of disguise, a thief, a swindler, and a gleeful murderer. “He creates fear,” one character explains. The first film runs fifty-four minutes and begins with Fantômas living life as Gurn until he commits a murder in rather a sloppy fashion. This leads to his arrest by policeman Juve (Scotsman Edmund Breon, whose long career saw him appear in films as varied as the Fantômas series, Feuillade’s Les Vampires, the Academy Award nominated Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Basil Rathbone’s final Sherlock Holmes film Dressed to Kill, and the seminal science fiction horror film The Thing from Another World).

Being in prison doesn’t stop Gurn/Fantômas from scheming. He corrupts a guard, and with the help of Lady Beltham (Renée Carl, who appeared in both this and Les Vampires as well as the 1925 production of Les Miserables and the 1937 French film noir classic Pépé le Moko), conspires to escape and replace himself with a hapless actor who has made himself up to look like Fantômas for a stage show. The second film, Juve contre Fantômas, sees Juve hot on the trail of the recently escaped criminal. Assisting Juve is ace reporter Jerome Fandor. In the books Fandor is revealed to be Charles Rambert, a man framed for murder by Fantômas but given a new lease on life when Juve helps him adopt a new identity, that of Jerome Fandor the reporter. However, none of this backstory is given in the films. Assisting Fantômas once again is Lady Beltham, though this time around she seems to catch on that Fantômas is a madman, and she is in way over her head.

The series ran for three more movies – Le Mort Qui Tue (the longest of the bunch, at a modern feature-length 90 minutes, and the first to feature Fantômas donning his signature black satin hood), Fantômas contre Fantômas (which features the classic scenario of a masquerade ball in which multiple people show up dressed as Fantômas – including the actual Fantômas), and concluding with Le Faux Magistrat, released in 1914 on the eve of the Great War. Intellectuals, lead by the Impressionists, turned up their noses at Feuillade’s Fantômas films, considering them too visually bland and Feuillade himself too commercial to be worthy of artistic praise . Feuillade did not regard film with the same eye for the quixotic and esoteric as did the Impressionists, once saying that “A film is not a sermon nor a conference, even less a rebus, but a means to entertain the eyes and the spirit.” Arbiters of good taste and social decency also turned up their noses, charging that Feuillade’s violent potboilers glamorized crime, pretending to condemn the vile crimes of Fantômas while undermining their own moral message by making audiences thrill to and demand more of the fiend’s bloody exploits.

Dismissed by both the intelligentsia and the moral watchdogs, the series had to settle with being wildly popular with the French public, something with which Feuillade was more than satisfied. Although still in its infancy, we can see the evolution of cinema in the frames of Fantômas. Feuillade’s plots may make precious little sense at times, but they are satisfying complex and full of twists, a far cry from the days when the plot of a moving picture was “a guy sneezes.” Although his camera remains fairly static, Feuillade is doing much more than “filming a stage play,” as films from this era are often accused of doing. His scenes are intricately composed, even when they are of a tableau variety, often with important action taking place in both the foreground and background. He frames odd geometric patterns and layouts wonderfully and plays with close-ups and stunt work. His style is somewhere between the primitive films of the previous decade and the more sophisticated filmmaking that emerged in the 1920s. Feuillade relied on the fantastic taking place on the landscape of the mundane. Unlike the French Impressionists or the later German Expressionists, Feuillade did not use abstract or stylized sets. He did not use special effects, even though his mentor Alice Guy studied the work of Méliès and used some of his techniques in her own films. Instead Feuillade shot his films on the real streets of Paris, in very normal apartment sets, and in sparse basements and cellars. It was a familiar world, the world of the average Parisian who was likely to go see a Fantômas movie. And yet against these recognizable locations and somewhat bland settings, Feuillade staged some truly mad storytelling. The Fantômas movies take these locations and litter them with sadistic murders, with a hooded madman who commands an army of bloodthirsty cutthroats, with bombs and guns and knives and, lucky for Fandor, an endless supply of wicker baskets in which one can hide.

In bringing the fantastic and dangerous to the mundane streets of Paris, Feuillade’s serial reflected what was happening on those very same streets in real life. The 1910s were a tumultuous time for France, not just because they were looking down the barrel of a German invasion and four long, nightmarish years of trench warfare and suffering during the Great War. It was the golden age of French Anarchism, and as befits a philosophy like Anarchism, there were multiple schools of thought publishing newspapers, holding meetings, and furiously writing manifestos. Among these diverse forms of anarchism was Illegalism, very much a “might makes right” way of thinking; or perhaps more accurately, an early form of “wickedest man alive” Aleister Crowley’s most famous quote: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.” Proponents of Illegalism sought to commit crimes for no higher reason than to satisfy their own personal desires. The philosophy arose from the unrest of the 1890s, and at least some its proponents couched their criminal mischief in the language of revolution, justifying (through manifestos) their crimes by claiming the right of Robin Hood to steal from the rich or claiming that their crimes would inspire others to acts of civil disobedience that would lead to the always nebulously defined “revolution.”

Herein one found the roughest and most controversial aspects of the Anarchist movement. The stiletto-carrying assassin. The bomber. And herein, most definitely, one would find Fantômas, a man described as a master criminal but whose primary concern seems to be nothing more than creating mayhem. It’s probably not a coincidence that most of Fantômas’ disguises place him among the moneyed; he is a doctor, a banker, here a lord and there a money lender. He assumes their identities because he knows it is easier for a rich man to get away with a crime. It is easier for a rich man to rob other rich men. Most of the crimes viewers see him organize are inept and easily solved but leave a trail of bodies and burning buildings in their wake. He seems less concerned with “getting away with it” than he is with sowing as much chaos as possible. Sure, he wants their jewels, their pearl necklaces, and their francs. But mostly, Fantômas just wants to hurt people. As one of the ads for the movie trumpeted, “Il fait PEUR!”

Feuillade’s scripts often pick up Fantômas mid-scheme, totally unconcerned with the mechanics of how, in the span of a few days, Fantômas has been able to amass a fortune, a chalet, the identity of some count or lawyer or other, and dozens upon dozens of friends who seem to have known him as his false identity for years. Like Fantômas, Louis Feuillade isn’t concerned with the details or realism of his schemes. It’s the maniacal ride, the chaotic aftermath, about which he is passionate. There is an overall sense of anarchism in the plotting of Fantômas, though this might have less to do with Feuillade wanting to craft a narrative simulation of Anarchism and a lot more to do with production schedules and the fact that Feuillade made something like 800 films in his career. He operated under the assumption that most audience members were already familiar with the details of the stories thanks to Allain and Souvestre’s source material. Additionally, screenings of the films were often accompanied by supplemental materials that included a synopsis of the story and guides to which characters were played by which stars (however, the quality of these programs varied wildly, and while the copy that accompanied the premiere of the first film was a thorough affair, subsequent films in the series did not enjoy as detailed a set of supplements). So if he left big chunks of plot out, viewers would be able to fill in the gaps.

Other lapses in logic, however, cannot be chalked up to “well, they read the book already.” It may be that audiences simply did not care and were happy to go along on such a ridiculously fun ride. It didn’t matter about the details. It hardly mattered that the “big picture” even made much sense. The entire premise of À l’ombre de la guillotine, for example, is patently ludicrous: that Fantômas could sneak in and out of jail at will, and that he could successfully replace himself with an actor in a dodgy wig and obviously fake mustache that an entire precinct full of cops wouldn’t notice. Hell, Fantômas’ donning of his signature black hood and tights is itself utterly nonsensical and without clear function. He often puts on and removes the hood in the same scene, sometimes even in front of the person one assumes Fantômas would be wearing the hood to obscure himself from. Subsequent schemes seem to be even less plausible and make even less sense, as if Fantômas enjoys complexity simply for the sake of complexity and Feuillade is more than happy to accommodate the man’s sociopathic over-indulgences.

Fantômas isn’t the only one hatching utterly loony schemes, though. Inspector Juve matches his arch-nemesis nutty for nutty with such plans as capturing Fantômas by helping Fantômas escape from prison and taking his place in confinement. And then there’s the bizarre scene in which Juve, having been threatened with murder by a vengeful Fantômas, protects himself against assassination by wrapping himself in a suit of spikes (which, sadly for Juve, proves ineffectual against the assassin Fantômas sends after him: a python). The masquerade of many Fantômases hardly makes a lick of sense either. And no one cares. In almost no time flat though, the viewer is convinced to surrender any sense of logic. We willingly play along because Feuillade so deftly convinces us that the world of Fantômas is not bound by logic or plausibility. It operates by a different set of rules. It may look like our Paris, but it’s not. It is this subversion of the familiar that lends Fantômas an additional air of menace. Something uncanny. An uneasy feeling more at home in a horror film than in a crime thriller. Fantômas was a hit with the French public despite (and probably thanks to) the critics branding it “plates, sottes, et cyniques” – flat, foolish, and cynical.

The poster for the serial depicted a masked man in formalwear looming over Paris–specifically, over the Palais de Justice out of which Juve operates and from which Fantômas escapes with such contempt for his captors–and brandishing a bloody dagger. It was the first French movie poster to be censored. In Fantômas, and even more so in his next serial, Feuillade taps into the same sense of the uncanny as was used so effectively by so many horror films and later, by other directors who made films with one foot in horror and the other in thrillers, most obviously Alfred Hitchcock, and perhaps even more similarly, David Lynch with his propensity for twisting the ho-hum veneer of suburban and small-town America into something nightmarish and surreal. Feuillade’s “fantastic realism” twisted the familiar world and tapped into concepts Sigmund Freud described as being at the core of feeling unsettled something. Feuillade made the mundane dangerous; he brought into the plain, once-secure embrace of daylight “things that ought to have remained in the shadows.”


One Comment Add yours

  1. Steve says:

    Nice essay. I watched all these on Netflix a while back and the context you have provided really enhanced my experience (retroactively).

    Liked by 1 person

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