It’s funny sometimes how we as Americans can be so eager to and expert at exporting our pop culture characters to other countries, and yet can still be so insular and resistant to exploring what those countries might have to offer us along the same lines. Case in point: Fantomas.
Created in 1911 by French writers Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre, Fantomas is one of the most popular characters in the history of French crime fiction, yet is almost completely unknown here in the U.S. He is a thief and a serial killer, and is always on the run from, and always manages to outsmart, his police couterpart Juve. He is a master of disguise, very rarely showing his true face, and he often appears in the guise of the person he has just killed, taking on their full persona and living their lives for quite a long period of time. Fantomas appears in a series of 43 novels spanning the years from 1911 to 1963 – most of them written as pulp novels similar to later creations such as Doc Savage or The Shadow – which were released monthly during the years 1911-1913. Over the years, there have been many different Fantomas films and television shows, the most recent being a series of four 90-minute television episodes produced in 1980 and starring Helmut Berger. There’s even supposedly a new movie currently in production which is to be directed by Christophe Gans.
And yet, despite the fact that he is the type of anti-hero that could prove quite popular with U.S. audiences, the character is almost completely unknown in America, except among silent or foreign film enthusiasts.
So how does all of this fit in with our ongoing look at the history of serials? The answer to that is quite easy, actually, as the character’s first film appearance was in a series of five serial films which were released in France during the years 1913-1914. These films, each running somewhere between an hour and an hour and a half in length, represent a sort of transition between the stand-alone film serials we have recently explored and the more traditional cliffhanger type serial that we traditionally associate with the term. For example, while the first film tells what could be considered a stand-alone story, ending with Fantomas making a dramatic escape from police custody and Juve swearing to track him down at any cost, the second one has a more dramatic ending, with Fantomas blowing up the a manor house with Juve and Jérôme Fandor (who is a journalist and basically Watson to Juve’s Holmes) trapped inside and the audience left wondering if and how the pair survived. Each film also begins with a recap of what has gone before, thus again distinguishing itself from those film series in which each movie could be watched in whatever order the viewer came across them.
In all, the serial is quite entertaining (I should note that it is available for viewing in its entirety on Netflix with the first episode here), and it is largely considered a silent classic for good reason.
One final note before we move on to today’s chapter of The Crimson Ghost: I should mention that there was a 20 episode American Fantomas serial made in 1920 and directed by Edward Sedgwick which might have brought the character some recognition in this country, however none of the episodes have survived, and it is unfortunately now considered completely lost.
Okay, I suppose it’s time once again to move on from the past and return to the present – well, the “present” of 1946 anyway – and see what happens in Chapter 7 of The Crimson Ghost.
Next time: Chapter 8 of The Crimson Ghost: “The Slave Collar” and more serial history.