The super-villain Fantomas was created by French writers Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain over a hundred years ago. The character appeared in a mammoth silent movie serial produced in 1913-14 and directed by Louis Feuillade. This legendary screen adventure was the forerunner of many of the blockbuster action spectacles we take for granted today.
Fantomas was updated and rebooted for a series of films produced by the French studio Gaumont in the mid 1960s. The three films were all directed by Andre Hunebelle (the man behind the Eurospy OSS 117 series). The 1960s Fantomas collection is now out on Blu-ray courtesy of Kino.
The Fantomas of the original novels and the silent serial was a true threat to society, an anarchic fiend who would kill anyone or destroy anything to accomplish his nefarious plans. The 1960s Fantomas films are much more lighthearted. Fantomas is still a villain, and he's still dangerous, but for all his malevolent posturing, he doesn't really cause all that much havoc, and he's not shown actually killing anyone (at least until the last entry in the series). The films certainly have some James Bond influence to them--but I would also cite the first Blake Edwards Pink Panther movie as an inspiration as well. The Inspector Juve character in the 60s Fantomas series, as played by Louis de Funes, is rather comic, and at times he comes close to Inspector Clouseau-like silliness. All three of the films in the series look as if they could have been directed by Blake Edwards--they have a traditional style to them, they feature exotic locations, impressive sets, and effective stunts. Where the Fantomas films fail to match the standard of the Bonds and the Pink Panthers is that they have almost no risque elements or suggestive lines of dialogue. I would even call the Fantomas movies somewhat tame--the violence (what little there is of it) is toned down, and there's no bloodletting or gore. All three entries in this Fantomas series are fanciful, imaginative adventures that are meant to amuse and entertain. I would liken them to a light brunch rather than a full course dinner.
All three of the movies star Jean Marais (best known for Cocteau's BEAUTY AND THE BEAST) in a dual role as Fantomas, and intrepid newspaper reporter Fandor. The gorgeous Mylene Demongeot is Fandor's girlfriend Helene, and Louis de Funes plays Fantomas' comic foil, Inspector Juve.
Jean Marais as Fantomas
The first film in the series, simply titled FANTOMAS (1964), has the titular villain angry over a number of articles written about him by Fandor. Fantomas kidnaps Fandor and disguises as him (false identities are a major plot point of the entire series). Fantomas also disguises himself as Juve, causing all sorts of complications. Fandor, Helene, and Juve eventually chase Fantomas down, but the super-criminal escapes in a submarine.
The audience never gets to see what Fantomas really looks like--when he's not in disguise, he wears a bluish-grey mask that covers his entire head and makes him resemble an alien from an original STAR TREK episode (see picture above). The effect is quite creepy, though a more serious film would have taken better advantage of it. This movie features a number of chase scenes and stunts, and nearly all of them are performed by Jean Marais himself--that fact is even more impressive when one realizes that the actor was in his early fifties when these films were made. The city of Paris provides an authentic background to the more fantastical elements of the tale.
The second film is FANTOMAS UNLEASHED (1965). This story concerns Fantomas' kidnapping of an elderly scientist. The scientist is also played by Jean Marais, which leads of course to several mistaken identity sequences (both Fandor and Fantomas disguise as the older man). Much of the story here takes place in Rome, which enables the production to take advantage of many Italian locales. We get to see a super-secret lair inhabited by Fantomas (located at the base of a volcano), and its interior design would make Ken Adam jealous. Here Fantomas desires Helene as his companion (can you blame him?), and Mylene Demongeot gets more to do. Once again Fandor, Helene, and Juve disrupt the super-villain's plans, but he still gets away at the end, which leads to.....
FANTOMAS VS. SCOTLAND YARD (1966), the last film of the series. The title reminds one of the many German Edgar Wallace krimi films which were set in the United Kingdom, but the Scottish castle where most of this story takes place is actually a chateau in France. The movie's plot--Fantomas is demanding that the wealthiest men in the world pay him a "tax" in order to keep living--has a krimi-like tone to it, as does the fact that Fantomas actually kills people in this entry. The Scottish castle is supposedly haunted, which leads to some typical fake ghost comedy scenes involving Inspector Juve. (Louis de Funes' performance as Juve in the series may amuse some, while others might be annoyed by him.) Fantomas, as usual, escapes in the end....but according to Tim Lucas' audio commentary on the first film, Jean Marais did not want to continue in the series.
All three films are presented in their original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and all are unedited, with the French voice tracks (English subtitles are provided). FANTOMAS is by itself on one disc, while FANTOMAS UNLEASHED and FANTOMAS VS. SCOTLAND YARD reside on disc two. The transfers on all the movies look superb, with vibrant colors and clear, sharp visuals. (It still amazes me how colorful films and TV shows of the 1960s look compared to the filmed entertainment we see today.)
The main extra is the aforementioned audio commentary by Tim Lucas for the first film in the series. Lucas states that he is a major fan of all aspects of the Fantomas character, and he provides much information on all the different versions of the super-villain. Lucas greatly enjoys these films, and he makes the excellent point that viewers should appreciate them for what they are, instead of worrying about how some of the plot details don't make perfect sense. Lucas also points out that the 1960s Fantomas series anticipated the BATMAN TV show in many respects. Original trailers for the entire Fantomas and OSS 117 series are also included.
I had never seen any of the 1960s Fantomas series of the films before I purchased this set. I was expecting them to be James Bond knock-offs, but they are really bright, enjoyable films that will appeal to the more imaginative minded. I would also suggest that because of their tame nature, these movies would be a great way to introduce pre-teenagers to different types of cinema.