Louis Feuillade | Le Récit du colonel / The Colonel's Account
| Le Printemps / Spring | La Fée des grèves / The Fairy of the Surf
| Le Tare / The Defect
| Le Trust | La Hantise / The Obsession
| Erreur tragique / Tragic Error | Bout de Zan vole un éléphant / Bout de Zan Steals an Elephant
Fantômas: Fantômas / Fantômas - A l'ombre de la guillotine | Juve contre Fantômas / Juve Against Fantômas
| Le Mort qui tue / The Dead Man Who Killed | Fantômas contre Fantômas / Fantômas Against Fantômas
| Le Faux magistrat
Serials: Les Vampires | Judex
Classic Film and Television Home Page
Louis Feuillade was a prolific director of French silent films.
Feuillade worked in many genres, including comedy and realistic
dramas. But today he is most admired for his spectacular serials.
These often pitted master criminals against great detectives.
Feuillade's work is of very high quality, and is still gripping
and entertaining today.
A detailed discussion of Feuillade's staging technique, can be found in
David Bordwell's book, Figures Traced in Light (2005).
Some common subjects in the films of Louis Feuillade:
- Sympathetic looks at social outsiders (heroine: La Tare, dwarf: Le Nain)
- Kidnapping, often in boxes (inventor: Le Trust, Juve and police kidnapped by gang: Fantômas contre Fantômas,
hero in Episode 5, switchboard operator in Episode 7, heroine in Episode 10: Les Vampires, Licorice Kid: Judex)
related (body hidden in trunk for shipping: Fantômas - A l'ombre de la guillotine, stolen body, Fandor hides in hamper: Le Mort qui tue)
- Conspiracies (stealing formula: Le Trust, Les Vampires, Judex)
- Loving parents and children (couple: La Hantise, Mazamette: Les Vampires, Judex)
- People waking up (fairy of the spring: Le Printemps, drugged secretary: Le Trust,
heroine: Le Nain, child: La Hantise,
drugged artist, drugged princess after robbery: Le Mort qui tue,
drugged Juve in prison: Fantômas contre Fantômas)
- Heroes who live with their mothers (Le Nain, Les Vampires)
- Spying on people (telephone exchange: Le Nain,
hiding in radiator: Juve contre Fantômas,
undercover police always monitor big parties: Le Mort qui tue,
listening through floor in apartment upstairs in Episode 9: Les Vampires, mirror surveillance technology: Judex)
- Crooked financiers who exploit the public (Le Trust, Judex)
related (phony banker: Le Mort qui tue, crooked businessman Moche: Fantômas contre Fantômas)
- Strange eruptions of bizarre events into daily life (elephant on Paris streets: Bout de Zan vole un éléphant,
wine barrels and shooting: Juve contre Fantômas,
blood coming from wall: Fantômas contre Fantômas)
- Parties that are attacked destructively (orgy: L'orgie romaine,
sugar trader's engagement party: Le Mort qui tue,
costume ball: Fantômas contre Fantômas,
gas attack in Episode 5, poisoned wedding dinner in Episode 9, police raid on crooks' wedding in Episode 10: Les Vampires)
related (attack on deadline in Prologue: Judex)
- Social events that develop into strangeness (dinner party: Le Récit du colonel,
luncheon: Bout de Zan vole un éléphant)
- People and animals intergrading in behavior or appearance (woman fairies with wings: Le Printemps,
statute of Sphinx is half-human and half-animal: La Nativité,
elephant does human tasks: Bout de Zan vole un éléphant,
humans wearing spines to ward off snakes: Juve contre Fantômas,
flying in bat costume: Les Vampires, smart dogs: Judex)
related (husband tampering with horse and looks similar: Erreur tragique)
- People linked to mythology (water fairy: La Fée des grèves, nymphs: Le Printemps, Water Goddess: Judex)
- Criminals impersonating cops (fake investigator searches pension: Le Mort qui tue,
Tom Bob the American detective: Fantômas contre Fantômas,
Episode 5: Les Vampires)
- Cops impersonating crooks (Juve and police officers: Fantômas contre Fantômas)
- People with multiple identities (Fantômas changes disguise to bellboy in elevator: Fantômas - A l'ombre de la guillotine,
Fantômas changes disguise and identity during car ride: Juve contre Fantômas,
Fantômas as banker, Juve undercover: Le Mort qui tue,
Fantômas: Fantômas contre Fantômas,
Fantômas as justice, Juve as prison visitor, crook as priest: Le Faux magistrate,
Grand Vampire, Irma Vep: Les Vampires, hero: Judex)
related (heroine's hidden past: La Tare)
- Shots recreating famous paintings of historical events, but with Feuillade's characters
(Jacques-Louis David's The Oath of the Horatii, Emanuel Leutze's Washington Crossing the Delaware: Judex)
- Anonymous gifts (play: Le Nain, clothes for prison escape: Le Faux magistrate, ring: Les Vampires)
- Identity theft (using strange gloves: Le Mort qui tue,
impersonation in Episode 1, through sound recording in Episode 7: Les Vampires)
- High technology, used by villains (gas: Le Trust,
strange gloves: Le Mort qui tue,
tampering with gas fire: Le Faux magistrat,
gas in Episode 5, sound recording and switchboard in Episode 7, cannon in Episode 8, gas in Episode 10: Les Vampires)
- High technology, used by heroes, especially with laboratories or tech locales (ship radio room: Le Trust,
telephone exchange: Le Nain,
police anthropometry lab, fingerprints used by police, photography at crime scenes, hospital room: Le Mort qui tue,
prison light control panel: Le Faux magistrat,
- Unusual phones (phone on wall near bed: Le Nain, two-receiver phone: Judex)
- Telegrams (Le Trust, La Hantise, fake telegram from Fandor: Juve contre Fantômas, Episodes 1, 9: Les Vampires)
- Flashing, regularly repeating lights (ship radio room: Le Trust, Eiffel tower: La Hantise,
code message from lights sent to Fantômas in prison: Le Faux magistrat,
letters of fire: Judex)
- Attacks on pseudo-science (expose of palmistry: La Hantise, medium in Episode 10: Les Vampires)
- Sympathetic technologist characters (inventor: Le Trust, doctor and nurse in hospital: Le Mort qui tue,
hero and lab: Judex)
- Going to the movies (Erreur tragique, Les Vampires)
related (text projected on screen in theater: Le Nain,
reporters include newsreel camera man in Episode 6: Les Vampires)
- Hiding places (document in blotter: Le Mort qui tue,
body plastered into wall, loot in floor cavity: Fantômas contre Fantômas,
jewels in bell: Le Faux magistrat,
cavity behind sliding painting in Episode 1: Les Vampires)
- Streetcars (Paris: Juve contre Fantômas, Louvain: Le Faux magistrat)
- Large bodies of water (Titanic at sea: La Hantise, Fandor pushed into river from sewer outlet: Le Mort qui tue)
- Women and moving water (nymph of the spring: Le Printemps, Musidora and water mill, the Water Goddess: Judex)
- Shadows (Episode One: Judex)
- Silhouettes (man leaving theater: Fantômas - A l'ombre de la guillotine,
after explosion: Juve contre Fantômas, sewer attack: Le Mort qui tue)
- Mirrors (dressing room mirror within mirror: Les Vampires, mirror surveillance technology: Judex)
- Depth staging (entrance of Juve in double door, theater: Fantômas - A l'ombre de la guillotine,
restaurant: Juve contre Fantômas, party, sewer: Le Mort qui tue,
party: Fantômas contre Fantômas, ballet theater in Episode 2 Les Vampires)
- Still women and moving trains (Irma Vep under train: Les Vampires, mother saying goodbye: Judex)
- Women dancing (Le Printemps,
couples in restaurant: Juve contre Fantômas,
couples doing tango and waltz: Le Mort qui tue,
couples dancing at ball: Fantômas contre Fantômas,
ballet, Irma Vep dancing, dancing at crooks' wedding in Episode 10: Les Vampires)
- Pans (hotel entrance, across room: Fantômas - A l'ombre de la guillotine,
over to telegraph office: Juve contre Fantômas,
in studio over to corpse and back to door, in Rue Lacourbe building as Fandor discovers corpse: Le Mort qui tue,
through wall in two hotel rooms, tailing in street in Louvain, street car in Louvain: Le Faux magistrat,
Musidora swims in Episode 5: Judex)
- Vertical movements (up ladder in belfry: Le Faux magistrat)
- Moving camera shots down roads (panicked horses: Erreur tragique,
two people on horse in Episode 6, car in Episode 9, car leaking oil, bicycle in Episode 10: Les Vampires,
dogs and car: Judex)
- Forward movement from fixed shots in moving vehicle (man walks along edge of moving train: Le Faux magistrat,
hero and unconscious heroine in boat Episode 5: Judex)
- Double doors, one open, one shut (La Tare, Le Trust, many rooms: La Hantise,
hotel room, living room, Gurn's home: Fantômas - A l'ombre de la guillotine,
Juve's office: Juve contre Fantômas,
investigating judge's office, newspaper office: Le Mort qui tue,
police station: Fantômas contre Fantômas,
Marquis' home, judge's office: Le Faux magistrat,
opening shot, exterior at magistrate's building: Les Vampires, Judex)
- Rows of doors, along a building, corridor or train (train, walk along moving train edge: Le Faux magistrat,
ballet theater exits in Episode 2. apartment in Episode 10: Les Vampires,
Vallieres apartment hall, train and station in Episode 3: Judex)
- Hallways with doors (pension: Le Mort qui tue, Moche's building: Fantômas contre Fantômas,
Saint-Calais Palais de Justice: Le Faux magistrat)
- Other repeating modular rows of architecture (row of train windows, row of cellar windows: Juve contre Fantômas,
sidewalk cafe with repeating tables and decor: Fantômas contre Fantômas)
- Strange rapid stunts involving people exiting from high windows or balconies
(kidnapping of hero from his apartment, of heroine in Episode 10: Les Vampires, Little Jean's rescue from Cocantin's apartment: Judex)
- Polygonal rooms, with cut-off corners (investigating judge's office: Le Mort qui tue,
dressing room in Episode 2, apartment upstairs in Episode 9: Les Vampires,
mother's room as teacher, Giselle's: Judex)
related shapes (window in hotel room door in Episode 6: Les Vampires, writing pad in Episode 5: Judex)
- People climbing up or down sides of buildings, or on roofs
(roof of Palais de Justice: Le Mort qui tue,
last stage of workmen climbing down scaffolding: Fantômas contre Fantômas,
end of Episode 1, Episode 9, rolling down on rope, garden wall in Episode 10: Les Vampires,
Musidora's descent down mill: Judex)
- Diagrammatic, non-realistic architecture (Fandor climbs down chimney: Le Mort qui tue)
- Deserted architecture, often at twilight (Episode 1: Judex)
- Large building facades (construction site: La Tare, chateau: Erreur tragique,
steps outside train station, bookstore and shops, telegraph office: Juve contre Fantômas,
Palais de Justice steps: Le Mort qui tue,
Palais de Justice in Saint-Calais, prison, wall and gate of prison: Le Faux magistrat,
Dr. Nox's chateau, magistrate's in Episode 1, wall and chateau in Episode 9, Avenue, crooks' house in Episode 10: Les Vampires)
- Spiral metal work (bed in ward: La Tare,
gates: Erreur tragique,
top of fence at Beltham mansion: Fantômas - A l'ombre de la guillotine,
top of grillwork outside sidewalk cafe: Juve contre Fantômas,
street doors of Rue Lacourbe hideout: Le Mort qui tue,
gates in Episode 1, wall decoration, gates in Episode 10: Les Vampires,
door, gates: Judex)
- Helix (chair spokes in artist's studio: Le Mort qui tue)
- People sticking out their arms to make X shapes (Fantômas after explosion: Juve contre Fantômas, Irma Vep dance in Episode 8: Les Vampires)
- Circles (photo of actress: Le Nain,
pavement circles around Paris street trees, barrels in shoot-out, vat: Juve contre Fantômas,
masked view of roof through binoculars, curb after Palais, wall plaque in artist's studio: Le Mort qui tue,
masked view of cellar, barrel hiding Fandor in cellar: Fantômas contre Fantômas,
curved tracks of street-cars, round tower at prison gate: Le Faux magistrat,
building windows and arches in Episode 1: Les Vampires)
- Triangles (chimneys on Palais de Justice roof, composition with stair in Rue Lacourbe: Le Mort qui tue,
wall worker's ladder and sawhorse, ladders in abandoned quarry, chains in quarry pit, stair in quarry cellar: Fantômas contre Fantômas)
- Men with desks (doctor, heroine: La Tare, good businessman, private eye: Le Trust,
hero: Le Nain, hero: La Hantise,
Juve: Fantômas - A l'ombre de la guillotine,
Juve: Juve contre Fantômas,
investigating judge: Le Mort qui tue,
crooked businessman Moche, police chief, police interrogator: Fantômas contre Fantômas,
judges: Le Faux magistrate,
editor, Dr. Nox, hero at home, Satanas: Les Vampires,
- Good organizations using common tables (clinic: La Tare, reporters: Le Mort qui tue,
reporters: Fantômas contre Fantômas,
reporters in Episode 1: Les Vampires)
related (dinner party: Le Récit du colonel, wedding dinner in Episode 9: Les Vampires)
- People hide behind curtains (lost finale: La Hantise,
princess' room, rendezvous with actor: Fantômas - A l'ombre de la guillotine,
art studio, princess' boudoir: Le Mort qui tue,
hero in magistrate's office in Episode 1, medium, Mazamette in Episode 10: Les Vampires)
- Letters (text projected on screen in theater: Le Nain,
letters on card that appear, initials in hat and address book: Fantômas - A l'ombre de la guillotine,
anonymous message of cut-out letters: Le Mort qui tue,
animated anagrams, invisible writing appears in Episode 9: Les Vampires, letters of fire: Judex)
- People in related-but-different clothes, often with degrees of formality
(white tie and tuxedo at party: La Hantise,
Juve and Fandor at restaurant: Juve contre Fantômas,
policeman and sugar trader at party: Le Mort qui tue,
villain and hero at ballet: Les Vampires, Judex and brother: Judex)
- Men's evening wear (villains in tuxedos with masks: Le Trust, white tie and tuxedo at party: La Hantise,
(white tie and tuxedo at restaurant: Juve contre Fantômas,
white tie and tuxedo at party: Le Mort qui tue,
hero in tuxedo in Episode 1, men at ballet in white tie: Les Vampires, Judex in tuxedos: Judex)
- Men's top hats and canes (guests get them when leaving party at end: Le Récit du colonel,
men get top hats and canes after theater performance: Le Nain,
Juve's cane: Fantômas - A l'ombre de la guillotine,
Juve and Fandor's top hats in restaurant, Fandor's cane: Juve contre Fantômas,
Fandor's cane while escorting woman on street: Le Mort qui tue,
hero's cane in Episode 1, villain's top hat in Episode 2, Moreno's cane in Episode 7: Les Vampires, Vallieres' top hat and cane: Judex)
- Men's cloaks (actor: Fantômas - A l'ombre de la guillotine,
Fantômas over body suit: Le Mort qui tue,
reporter when impersonating Fantômas: Fantômas contre Fantômas,
villain with evening clothes in Episode 2: Les Vampires,
- Body suits or stockings, all-black (Fantômas: Juve contre Fantômas,
villains: Le Mort qui tue, Fantômas, impersonators of Fantômas: Fantômas contre Fantômas,
black in Episodes 1, 2, dancers in Episode 10: Les Vampires)
- Body coverings, all-white (doctor, nurse, patient Fandor: Le Mort qui tue,
workers' white coats: Fantômas contre Fantômas,
white lab coats and masks in Episode 9: Les Vampires,
banker in white shroud: Judex)
- Hoods (villains: Le Mort qui tue, kidnapper at window in Episode 10: Les Vampires)
- Women's shawls or wraps that can be spread out or closed up (bat costume, Irma Vep's shawl in dance: Les Vampires)
- Kohl (that dark stuff Musidora wears as eye shadow)
Influence from Earlier Directors
Feuillade was brought into the cinema
by the pioneer director Alice Guy.
The linked article explores some ways Guy might have influenced Feuillade.
The article on Edwin S. Porter also explores
points of similarity between Porter and Feuillade.
Feuillade followed the traditions of earlier filmmakers. The comedy
short La Course des sergents de ville / The Policemen's
Little Run (Ferdinand Zecca, 1906) alternates exteriors shot
on Paris streets, with artificial but interesting looking studio
sets representing interiors. This is the same ground plan as in
Feuillade. The Paris exteriors, with their vast facades, ornate
architecture and deserted streets, look almost as eerie in this
comedy short as they later will in Feuillade. They seem to be
concealing mysterious secrets. They convey a strong atmosphere.
Zecca's police climb up some of these buildings, and walk along
the roof, just as in later Feuillade. But while Feuillade has
his daring villains along real building facades, Zecca cuts to
cardboard imitations, in the campy manner of the 1960's Batman
TV show. Of course, Zecca is aiming for slapstick comedy, not
thrills like Feuillade, and it is hard to tell if he intends these
climbs along phony walls to be as silly as they now look, or not.
Le Récit du colonel / The Colonel's Account
Le Récit du colonel (1907) ("The Colonel's Account") is a short comedy. It is an unpretentious film,
shot on a single set. But it also seems like some sort of masterpiece.
It has a highly unusual approach, one that allows unique scenes to develop.
The film seems to bring thought to life.
The dinner party, with men and women sitting around a common table, anticipates the
benevolent institutions in some later Feuillade films, which also feature people sitting
at common tables.
The dinner party is one of those Feuillade social events that develop into utter strangeness.
Unlike some social events, this one is not attacked by outside forces - and its guests
seem more decent and likable than some of the upper crust party guests who sometimes get
attacked in Feuillade. Instead, these likable people turn into a very strange group,
all by themselves, without outside prodding. They anticipate the strange luncheon in
Bout de Zan vole un éléphant.
Le Printemps / Spring
Le Printemps (1909) ("Spring") is a short film, showing nymphs and mythological beings
joyfully welcoming Spring.
Le Printemps is one of the more beautiful silent films. Its images of women dancing
anticipate the ballet in Les Vampires, and Irma Vep’s dance in front of the
Vampire gang to celebrate her recovery. Dancing is seen as an expression of the life force.
The wings on some of the fairy women also anticipate the winged bat costume in Les Vampires.
The nymph of the spring in the opening shot of Le Printemps recalls the association of
women and moving water in Judex: Musidora near the water mill, and later
the good gal swimmer known as The Water Goddess.
Feuillade also shows the interest in myths and legends, that used to play such a role in Western culture.
A look at folk myths and classical legend like Le Printemps shows the deep vitality of such traditions,
and their ability to evoke nature.
One wishes that mythology would undergo a revival of interest in modern times.
La Fée des grèves / The Fairy of the Surf
La Fée des grèves (1909) ("The Fairy of the Surf") is a brief fairy tale.
It is light-hearted, but rich in atmosphere.
It sometimes feels as surreal or as moody as Feuillade's thrillers or serious dramas.
The architecture is both similar and different from such Feuillade thrillers as Les Vampires:
A key scene involves the heroine having an attack during the procession that succeeds and
celebrates her wedding. This anticipates the wedding banquets in the last two episodes of Les Vampires,
and the attacks on the celebrants. The scene in La Fée des grèves differs in being a procession
of people walking, not parties at a table as in Les Vampires. And also in the heroine's
fainting spell being natural, and not the result of an outside force, as in Les Vampires.
- The characters twice walk down very steep staircases. These recall a bit the characters climbing down
building facades in Les Vampires. Both involve nearly vertical movement straight down. Yet
these are also staircases, and have a different feel from facade climbs. The trips also seem like spiritual journeys.
- The high battlements of the castle, on which the characters walk, recall a bit the roofs
on which the characters move in Les Vampires.
- The sides of the boat are marked with strange, elaborate abstract geometric designs.
These evoke the geometric, ornamental wall paper and wall stencils in Les Vampires and other Feuillade.
- Some castle stone-work rather anticipates the garden wall, in the final Episode 10 of Les Vampires.
La Tare / The Defect
La Tare (1911) ("The Defect") is a forty minute drama. It is one of Feuillade's most involving films.
La Tare is best seen with few preconceptions. It is often hard to tell where the film is going:
one of its major assets is its unpredictability. SPOILERS AHEAD.
La Tare shows great sympathy with a social outsider. Like Le Nain to come the next year,
the heroine of La Tare is a woman who is disrespected by society.
Le Trust, ou les batailles de l'argent (1911) ("The Trust, or the battles of money") is a half-hour film thriller.
Le Trust mixes serious social criticism about the ruthlessness and bad ethics
of big business, with melodrama and thrills.
Le Trust shares many elements with Feuillade's later serial Judex:
The gas attack on the secretary anticipates the gas attack on the partiers in Les Vampires.
The telegrams and business card also anticipate the first episode of Les Vampires.
- Both have unscrupulous financiers as villains.
- Both villains create evil schemes that exploit the public and rip off its money.
- Both films have people kidnapped, and taken to underground caves as prisoners.
- Both have rooms full of high technology: the ship's radio room in Le Trust,
the hero's secret laboratory in Judex. The visual design of the rooms is quite similar.
- Both rooms have text machines that emit flashing lights.
- Both have water scenes.
- Both have a dramatic, eerie young man of great ability: the evil private detective in Le Trust,
the noble hero Judex in Judex. Both men execute the main schemes of both films.
The strange face masks worn by the villains anticipate other disguises in later Feuillade.
These are black and worn with jet black evening clothes.
While Le Trust shares elements with later Feuillade serials, its story-telling is not as good.
The story-telling lacks the ease and flow found in the best Feuillade. Events sometimes seem stiff.
This does not prevent it from being a worthwhile viewing experience.
La Hantise / The Obsession
La Hantise (1912) ("The Obsession") is a half-hour film drama.
It looks at the suffering caused by a palm-reader's prediction to a woman that a loved one will die.
The poor woman really endures agony over this. La Hantise is in some ways an early
film example of a soap opera, the kind of tale featuring a "noble woman who suffers and suffers".
This kind of story can be very hard to take.
More positively, La Hantise is also an early example of exposing pseudo-science junk
like palmistry, and all the harm fake pseudo-science does in our society.
Unfortunately, in the 2000's the United States media is deeply awash in the supernatural, paranormal and esoteric:
all worthless garbage that causes social harm. Feuillade's approach is vastly better.
It is often thought that Feuillade was an influence on Fritz Lang,
although there is apparently no documentary evidence backing this up.
Lang, too, would include scathing exposes of false supernatural mediums in
Ministry of Fear (1943) and The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960).
Other people in the 1910's were also exposing such frauds: Bayard Veiller's stage play
The Thirteenth Chair (1916) is an example.
Flashing lights are an image that runs through Feuillade. They are highly dramatic.
And as a purely visual image, they are well suited to silent film.
One of the best scenes in La Hantise shows the revolving lights
on top of the Eiffel Tower at night.
Feuillade's enthusiasm for evening clothes returns, with the man the heroine
talks with at the party in a tuxedo, and another man in the background in full
white tie and tails.
It is somewhat atypical in real life to have men in two different degrees of formal dress
at one event. Etiquette would rather have all the men in tuxedos, or all the men in tails.
This is perhaps an example of Feuillade's image of "two men in similar clothes,
but with different degrees of formality". Judex and his brother will be the most striking example.
The nice guy husband is unexpectedly played by René Navarre, best known for clever villain
Fantômas. Navarre can be memorably creepy, in other films. But here he is playing a type that will recur
in much subsequent cinema: the blandly decent, ideal husband, a steady man
who is everything a woman in a melodrama can ask for in a good guy spouse. He is a loving husband,
a devoted father, cheerful and a great provider. Like almost all such movie Good Husbands,
he is also strictly bland, so he will not upstage the heroine and her traumas.
Navarre does all this very well. No one seeing La Hantise would ever suspect
him of being a master villain.
Erreur tragique / Tragic Error
Erreur tragique (1913) ("Tragic Error") is a nearly half-hour film drama.
In some ways it recalls La Hantise, which shows how a wife's mistaken belief torments her.
In Erreur tragique, it is a husband who is tormented by a false idea, this time by a belief
in his wife's infidelity. This basic situation is both painful and hackneyed. In and of itself,
it is not very interesting.
However, Feuillade dresses the story up with some interesting sequences. These are
probably why Erreur tragique is being revived today (SPOILERS):
- There is an early "going to the movies" episode, which develops some creative wrinkles on
the use of film itself as a subject matter. The same year, the Thanhouser Company in the USA
will release a nicely done mystery tale with a film industry background,
The Evidence of the Film (Lawrence Marston, Edwin Thanhouser, 1913).
- Feuillade will include an action sequence, about a horse and a carriage.
This starts with the husband standing next to the horse - and looking oddly similar to the horse
himself, in his tall boots. Humans and animals often "intergrade in appearance or behavior"
in Feuillade. Soon, there is a pair of Feuillade's interesting camera
movements, following a vehicle down a country road.
Erreur tragique includes one of Feuillade's chateau facades, a building
that comes complete with that Feuillade standard, giant gates with spiral metal work.
A bureau stands in one corner of the husband's hotel room. It has an odd-looking,
even surreal construction: one half is drawers, the other half a mirror. It is
oddly like the double doors of rooms in other Feuillade. Like such "one door open, one closed"
constructions, the bureau is half one thing, half another.
The bureau also is at an angle in the corner, something that recurs in other Feuillade.
The husband at home is seen in a room, whose background walls are both at an angle from
the plane of the screen. This seems atypical for Feuillade. Perhaps he is experimenting.
Bout de Zan vole un éléphant / Bout de Zan Steals an Elephant
Bout de Zan vole un éléphant (1913) ("Bout de Zan Steals an Elephant") is one of Feuillade's
long series of comedy shorts, about roguish child scamp Bout de Zan. In this one the kid
does indeed steal a baby elephant from a circus wagon. The elephant is adorable, and gives a great performance.
Two subjects run through Bout de Zan vole un éléphant. One is the delight the kid and elephant take
in knocking over established order. Feuillade's crime films like Les Vampires
show criminal gangs attacking bourgeois groups, often in full-fledged criminal assaults.
The elephant does similar things, but on a comedy level. We see him attacking an army post,
and going after law and order on a Paris street. It is played for laughs, and no one really gets hurt.
But it has a disturbing, surreal undertone all the same.
The other subject emerges in the film's second half. The clever elephant does tasks,
that are normally associated with humans. This relates to one of Feuillade's most surreal themes,
"animals and humans intergrading in behavior". Watching the elephant eat lunch like a human being,
is a genuinely odd experience. These scenes seem like the best parts of
Bout de Zan vole un éléphant to me.
Fantômas / Fantômas - A l'ombre de la guillotine
The Fantômas Series of Films
Fantômas is a series of five crime films, with continuing characters. Arch-criminal Fantômas
is pursued by police Inspector Juve, and Juve's young reporter friend Jérôme Fandor.
There are five episodes, each of which ranges from around an hour to 90 minutes.
The first episode of the Fantômas series is called Fantômas - A l'ombre de la guillotine
(Fantômas in the Shadow of the Guillotine) on the DVD, and in several film history books.
However, this first episode is called simply Fantômas by the IMDb. This is confusing!
I enjoyed the Fantômas series less than I did such later Feuillade serials as Les Vampires and Judex.
There are some excellent scenes and episodes in Fantômas, but there is also a lot of padding and routine material.
Examples: the long opening scene of Juve contre Fantômas, where a villainess is trailed on a train;
the scenes at the pension (rooming house) in Le Mort qui tue. Even the better scenes often have thin sections or materials.
I also dislike the title character, fiendish criminal Fantômas. He is just a jerk, always attempting
to rob or kill someone. What is interesting about this?
On the other hand, this might just reflect my personal tastes. All my life, I have greatly preferred
heroes and good guys, to villains. Books and films built around villains have never had any appeal to me.
So I am far from an ideal audience for Fantômas.
The Fantasy Fantômas
The famous illustration of Fantômas, showing a giant Fantômas astride the city of Paris, is perhaps misleading.
In the illustration, Fantômas is shown as a glamorous, good-looking man dressed up to the max in top hat, white tie and tails,
wearing the sort of mask associated with burglars. In the movies, Fantômas is shown only once this way, at the end of
the first film Fantômas - A l'ombre de la guillotine. This shot shows Juve thinking about Fantômas,
who appears as a sort of specter on-screen. This fantasy or "mental image" version of Fantômas is taunting Juve.
Fantômas' power and skill are represented by his glamourous clothes. We learn that Juve is now obsessed with capturing Fantômas.
By contrast, most of the "real" images of Fantômas throughout the series are not glamorous at all.
Fantômas is played by an ordinary looking guy, his clothes are proper to his disguises, but not especially sharp, and the character has little real glamour.
And he rarely if ever wears a burglar's mask. Fantômas is NOT a "gentlemanly" society jewel thief like Raffles, or any sort of burglar.
He is a cold-blooded killer.
The Bellboy Disguise
The "real" Fantômas comes closest to a sharp appearance in Fantômas - A l'ombre de la guillotine in his brief scene
in the bellboy uniform. The uniform is reasonably sharp. And Fantômas is without the facial hair disguises that often engulf him.
I don't know how this facial hair appeared to audiences in 1913; but today it looks unglamorous.
The bellboy scene anticipates later episodes of Fantômas:
- Fantômas is trapped upstairs, with the police summoned; he escapes by donning a uniform (the bellboy's),
pretending to be somebody else, and walking out past observers. Fantômas will escape from prison by a similar
donning of a uniform in Le Faux magistrat.
- Fantômas changes his disguise, unseen by the audience, during an elevator ride. In Juve contre Fantômas,
he will change his disguise during a car ride.
- Fantômas throws away his old disguise; it is found and studied by good guys who stumble over it.
Similarly, a thief will discard his priest disguise, and it will then be found, in Le Faux magistrat.
Feuillade likes "double doors: one door open, one door closed". Such a paired door is in the
princess' hotel room. Inspector Juve makes his entrance in the film (and the whole film series Fantômas)
through this door. He is first seen in the far background through this door. He is waiting out in the hall
to be admitted to the bedroom. The door precisely frame's Juve's figure.
A dramatic depth staging at the theater, shows Lady Beltham in her box in the foreground, the audience in the middle ground,
and the stage and actor in the background. This anticipates a famous, similar shot in Les Vampires Chapter 2,
of the ballet theater.
Some very simple pans show the camera being turned to center on action:
- The princess' car arrives at the hotel, then the camera pans to watch the princess move to the hotel entrance.
This anticipates a similar pan in Juve contre Fantômas, showing a car arrive at a telegraph office.
- At the rendezvous, the camera pans across the room to the door, then back.
Juve contre Fantômas / Juve Against Fantômas
This hour long film Juve contre Fantômas (1913) is Episode 2 of Feuillade's serial Fantômas.
It deals with the "duel" of wits between master criminal Fantômas,
and the policeman Juve who is trying to capture him. The scenes
capture the elaborate, often Art Nouveau look of pre World War
I France, with over-designed, fantasy bedrooms, elaborate metal
work gates and fences, and people dressed to the max as boulevard
dandies and fashionable ladies. Much of this looks dream like,
other parts seem expressive of sexual fantasies - and French design
of the era on the whole does seem designed to promote sensual
gratification. Into this paradise of the upper middle classes
come the most outrageously melodramatic plots by Fantômas,
including snakes in the bedrooms and armies of sinisterly dressed
hoods. The counter plots by Juve often seem equally outré.
These scenes evoke bizarre fantasies and unconscious desires.
The scenes in the bedroom recall those of Conan Doyle's
"The Adventure of the Speckled Band" (1891) in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.
Feuillade brings this to life with a surreal flair.
The restaurant scene in Juve contre Fantômas resembles the party scenes in Le Mort qui tue
and Fantômas contre Fantômas:
At the restaurant, Juve and Fandor are that Feuillade tradition, men in different levels of formality in clothes.
Juve is in full white tie and tails; Fandor is a bit less dressed up in a tuxedo with tail coat.
- All are staged in deep focus, with crowds stretching from the foreground to elaborate architecture in the far background.
- All are full of upper class, well-dress revelers.
- Couples dancing and an orchestra are prominent.
Both men wear that Feuillade favorite, shiny top hats. Neither carries a cane, though.
In other scenes, set in the day-time, we see Fandor as a man about Paris, with a cane.
A simple pan occurs outside the telegraph office. First we see a car coming down the street;
then the camera pans a bit to the right, to bring the facade of the telegraph office in full display.
Le Mort qui tue / The Dead Man Who Killed
This ninety minute film Le Mort qui tue (1913) is Episode 3 of Feuillade's serial Fantômas.
The second chapter, with reporter Fandor investigating, has some of the best architecture:
- Brilliantly composed shots show the roof of the Palais de Justice.
These include many strange cone-shaped objects, perhaps chimneys.
These shots are highly geometrical, with the cones making triangular outlines.
They have a dream like quality, with Fandor wandering in a strange world.
- A non-realistic, diagrammatic look at Fandor climbing down a chimney. This is a cut-away view.
It makes the action very clear to the viewer; and it succeeds as drama. But it is utterly
non-realistic, showing us a digram of the chimney with its front wall removed.
Roland West would later use a diagrammatic view of a man climbing an inner staircase
in The Bat (1926).
- The sewer. This is interestingly staged, with characters jumping from one side of the sewer to another, and back again.
It has Fandor climbing down a ladder. Towards the end, it uses silhouettes.
And has Fandor wind up in the water.
At the sugar trader's engagement party, we have that Feuillade favorite, men in
different levels of formality in clothes. The undercover policeman is in full white tie and tails,
the dressiest clothes men can wear. But the trader himself is in a tuxedo variant: formal, but less dressy.
There is a perverse charge in that the "real" character, the trader,
is less well-dressed than the fake monitor from the police.
We learn from a title card, that the police always have an undercover surveillance presence at parties of the wealthy.
So surveillance is a massive force in society, and the undercover police specialize in being spiffed up to the nines,
as fake members of the upper class.
The doctor, nurse and patient Fandor are in white, at the start.
Labs and Technology
The police have a full laboratory, like many Feuillade good guys. Here it is an anthropometry lab,
measuring suspects and taking their fingerprints. We get a detailed look. We later see
the police taking photos at a crime scene. This is a fairly extensive look at the police using
Scientific Detection, at the early date of 1913. (This site has a detailed article on
Scientific Detection in prose mystery fiction.)
The nurse tending Fandor has a hospital room with some lab equipment at the back.
This reminds one a bit of the hero's lab in Judex.
A fascinating pan is used when Fandor emerges from the hamper into the sinister deserted apartment.
First we only see Fandor and the area to the right of the hamper. Then Fandor makes a shocking discovery to the left,
and the camera pans left to reveal things neither he nor the audience knew.
It is a striking use of a pan to represent new knowledge.
Earlier, a pan is used to represent another discovery of a body. When the artist wakes up,
neither he nor we in the audience know that a murder has occurred. Then the camera pans to the right,
revealing a corpse. It shocks both the audience and the artist. Soon, the camera will pan to the left,
to the door of the studio.
A Mysterious Film Still
Sheldon Renan's book An Introduction to the American Underground Film
includes a still attributed to Feuillade's crime serial,
Les Vampires (1915 - 1916) (it is a non-supernatural mystery
story, and there are no vampires in it, by the way). The still
is remarkably poetically suggestive and surreal, and I have enjoyed
looking at it for many years. I have been unable to find it in
the modern version of Les Vampires, however, and suspect
it is from some other Feuillade movie. In his massive guide to
early French silent film, The Ciné Goes to Town: French
Cinema, 1896-1914 (1994) Richard Abel ascribes it to one of
the chapters of Feuillade's Fantômas, Le Mort qui tue (1913).
This book has a huge amount of commentary about Feuillade and his contemporaries.
Richard Abel's book is a companion to his French Cinema: The First Wave, 1915-1929
(1984), and he has also written guides to early American filmmaking,
The Red Rooster Scare: Making Cinema American, 1900-1910 (1999) and
Americanizing the Movies and “Movie-Mad” Audiences, 1910-1914 (2006).
One can see why the Surrealists were fascinated by Feuillade's
work. The still shows a couple about to enter a room through a
door. Two men inside, dressed in black, are pressed against the
wall on either side of the door. They are waiting to capture the
man and woman as soon as they enter the door, and have some sort
of hood or net they are ready to throw over their heads. The men
are dressed identically in some black satiny material from head
to toe, including hoods over their heads, and are clearly part
of some army of bad guys. The couple, on the other hand, are dressed
for the French boulevards of the era. The man, although in a fashionable
suit, looks brave and courageous, and is clearly some sort of
hero. The woman is a heroine; her face is in deep shadow from
a hat or veil, however. Her appearance recalls Gaston Leroux's
mystery novel, Le Parfum de la dame en noir (1909) ("The
Perfume of the Woman in Black"); I always thought this was
one of the most perfectly titled of all mystery novels.
The room looks empty of furniture or ornament. The couple are about to
step from the Normal World, represented by the hall, into the
Abnormal World, represented by the room. Melodrama is going to
take over their lives completely. If the couple represent normalcy,
they do not represent simplicity however. They look like a romantic
couple, and look as if they have very complex feelings and desires.
Their complex fashionable clothes suggest an elaborate personal
history. So does the staircase seen behind them through the door.
The small region of the shot seen through the open door, which
includes the couple and the diagonal staircase, seems far more
complex than the broad, empty expanse of room which they are entering.
So do their elaborate clothes contrast with the minimalist, identity
concealing uniforms worn by the bad guys. The deep focus of staircase
behind the couple suggests a long history in time, a past, in
other words; whereas the blank wall behind the two bad guys suggests
that they are at year zero, or pastless.
The still also reveals
Feuillade's skill with visual composition. It combines rectangular
forms with diagonals. Two symmetrical lines extend from a point
midway along the top of the frame. One consists of the rail of
the staircase, followed by the head and shoulders of the right
hand bad guy. The other eventually takes in the crouched left
hand villain, and his head and extended right arm. This sort of
geometrically organized composition goes back to Titian and other
This analysis only begins to hint at the
feelings this image stirs up in me. The door is a double door;
one half is closed, one half is open, showing the couple, hall
and staircase. Each half of the door takes up exactly the same
space in the shot, the same size and shape. But one is just blank;
the closed door; the other evokes all the complexity that can
be revealed when closed doors are opened. I was fascinated by
the architecture of buildings as a child, and have often seen
complex rooms in my dreams. Feuillade captures this dream like
feeling with uncommon skill.
Note added later. I read Sheldon Renan's book An Introduction to the American Underground Film
in 1971; wrote the above analysis of the film still around 1996; and finally saw
Le Mort qui tue in 2012. My parents told me that I had a very long attention span as a baby,
and would spend an hour studying something whereas most infants would get bored after five minutes!
The scene is indeed in Le Mort qui tue. The man is a good guy, but not quite a hero:
he is the sugar dealer who is a victim of the villains. The veiled woman is not a heroine:
she is luring the trader into a trap. They are not a romantic couple.
Otherwise, the above analysis still seems to reflect the actual film.
A later scene opens both of the doors, and shows us more of the staircase. What was concealed
behind the closed left hand door, was a curved region of the stairs.
This adds geometric complexity: the concealed curved region, and the straight diagonal stair we have long seen
through the open right door.
A later scene in the same locale has Fandor exploring this building by himself.
He starts out in an inner room; then moves back to the "empty room" locale of the above still;
then moves through the door to the hall with the staircase; then leaves the building
entirely, through street doors with spiral grill work. The succession of rooms,
seems like a progression through different kinds of environments. Each room has its own
atmosphere and style.
Fantômas contre Fantômas / Fantômas Against Fantômas
This hour long film Fantômas contre Fantômas (1914) is Episode 4 of Feuillade's serial Fantômas.
Good Guys and Impersonation
Reporter good guy Fandor is clearly having fun.
He gets to do things that are mildly socially transgressive: dressing up as villain Fantômas,
crashing parties to which he is not invited. These are clearly gratifying to him.
One notes, that neither action turns out to be effective in capturing the bad guys, or advancing the plot.
They are larks, rather than truly effective developments.
At the end, the previously hapless Inspector Juve also gets to have some fun: impersonating Fantômas,
passing off his police officers as crooks. Juve's gambits are not just fun: they turn out to bring
the bad guys to justice.
Costumes: All White
Fantômas contre Fantômas is full of the all-white clothes found in Feuillade:
- The construction worker on the apartment wall, and his replacement Tom Bob, wear white covering workmen's clothing.
- The construction workmen at the Palais de Justice are in white work clothes.
The party is a big set piece. Like the party in Le Mort qui tue:
- It uses depth staging, with guests receding into far background architecture.
- We get a "multi-focus" staging in both parties, with numerous guests and their activities on which the viewer can focus attention.
- Both have a host at front, in the foreground, greeting guests.
- Both parties feature extensive dancing: a reminder that silent films were full of dance sequences.
- Both parties have a bad guy undercover as a guest, as well as good guys undercover.
The worker on the sinister wall has a ladder and other equipment. These add triangles to the composition.
Later, Fandor will track the apaches down to what seems to be an abandoned quarry. Triangles abound:
- Ladders are tilted against ruined walls. The wall, ladder and ground form a triangle.
- Tilted chains hold a platform that is raised and lowered into a pit. The chains make triangles.
- Soon, a staircase makes a diagonal line in a cellar.
Le Faux magistrat / The False Magistrate
This 71 minute film Le Faux magistrat (1914) is Episode 5 (the last episode) of Feuillade's serial Fantômas.
It is quite an absorbing film, considered purely as a work of story telling.
The Prison Escape
The flashing light that is a code, is another example of Feuillade's use of repeating flashing lights.
Juve enters the prison cell, and gives Fantômas clothes that help him escape. But Juve keeps his face averted,
so Fantômas will not learn who Juve is: another of Feuillade's anonymous gifts.
The belfry scene recalls the sewer in Le Mort qui tue. Both:
The long shots, showing the belfry as a whole, are masked. This isolates the belfry region.
- Take place in a behind-the-scenes area of infrastructure.
- Are a bit on the grungy side.
- Are full of fascinating architectural features.
- Have people climbing up or done steep ladders.
- Are settings of bravura sequences in Feuillade.
A camera moves up, following a character climbing the ladder. Such vertical camera movements
appear in L'Enfant de Paris (Léonce Perret, 1913).
Camera movements following climbing characters would became a stage of Allan Dwan's
films with Douglas Fairbanks, later in the 1910's.
Le Faux magistrat shows Feuillade experimenting with camera movement. A striking pan
goes through the wall of two adjoining hotel rooms. The two rooms are linked in the crime plot, and
the pan establishes their next-door nature. Because of the pan, the audience thoroughly understands the layout.
The pan is also a vivid visual experience.
The year before director Léonce Perret used pans through the walls of adjoining rooms
in his classic L'Enfant de Paris (1913). Perret and Feuillade both worked for the same film studio Gaumont.
Both Perret and Feuillade move slowly, allowing us to linger on views that show both rooms at once.
There is also a nice panning shot showing trailing in the streets of Louvain, Belgium. Fantômas crosses the street,
and the camera pans with him. The panning stops then starts more than once. His police tailer makes a surprise entrance into the
foreground of the shot, soon after.
The same scene contains a second nice pan, showing a street car. Earleir,
Juve contre Fantômas showed streetcars in Paris; Le Faux magistrat shows us them in Louvain.
These scenes have a documentary fascination, showing a key part of public transportation 100 years ago.
The curving lines the street car tracks make in the street are also interesting, as visual style and composition.
The ruined train car as a hideout for crooks is also a fascinating idea. It too looks like a view into the past.
Logical Story Telling
The restored version of Les Vampires seems vastly more
coherent than earlier accounts suggest. Henri Langlois used to
show a print of Les Vampires, back in the 1940's and 1950's,
that was missing all its titles - the only available print then.
Not surprisingly, viewers of that era described the serial as
a jumble of surrealistically strange scenes, that made little
However, the current version has a logically
constructed story, one which is easily followed by viewers. It
seems in a direct line with many movie crime thrillers since.
Its story telling logic reminds one of the numerous crime shows
on 1980's American television, for instance. Feuillade's exposition
is in fact easier to follow than many 1930's Hollywood whodunits,
which were often full of characters that were only briefly introduced.
Feuillade's plot is usually quite linear, with all events being
made clear to the viewer, as they happen. Occasionally Feuillade
will introduce a mysterious situation or character; but usually,
within five or ten minutes, all the mysteries concerning this
will be explained completely. This is a narrative strategy that
seems identical with most subsequent crime films.
A Diversity of Characters: Audience Identification
Feuillade anticipates later film tradition, by including characters
which whom all kinds of people can identify. There are a little
kid, a middle class hero, a working class sidekick, a glamorous
vamp, and the hero's mother, a middle-aged lady who proves uncommonly
gutsy and resourceful. Hollywood films regularly used to contain
characters of all ages and genders. This allowed everyone in the
audience to fantasize that they had a role in the adventures.
This tradition is now dead; few contemporary action films would
include the hero's mother as a major character, for instance.
As recently as the mid-1980's, the TV show Simon and Simon
featured the detective heroes' strong willed mother, and Remington
Steele often featured the agency's middle-aged secretary,
played by the excellent Doris Roberts. All of these characters
broadened their shows' appeal to all age groups.
The titles of the episodes of Les Vampires in the original
French, and in the restored English version distributed today:
- La Tête coupée / The Severed Head
- La Bague qui tue / The Ring That Kills
- Le Cryptogramme rouge / The Red Codebook
- Le Spectre / The Spectre
- L'évasion du mort / Dead Man's Escape
- Les Yeux qui fascinent / Hypnotic Eyes
- Satanas / Satanas
- Le Maître de la foudre / The Thunder Master
- L'Homme des poisons / The Poisoner
- Les Noces sanglantes / The Terrible Wedding
The Severed Head
Feuillade gets things off with a bang, with one of his rooms with a
"double door, one half open, one closed". The reporters share a table, like the clinic
directors in La Tare. Such shared tables seem to indicate admirable,
Architecture: The chateau of Dr. Nox has one of the large, spectacular facades that run through Feuillade.
This particular building is full of a riot of circular forms: circular windows, rounded arches,
The rectilinear magistrate's building is simpler, but also imposing and moodily evocative.
The huge gates combine spiral, curving and rectilinear forms in complex designs.
They are impressively rich in their visual "flow" of line.
The sliding painting shows architecture with nested curving forms.
Such receding, nested architecture is emotionally suggestive. It perhaps suggests
female symbols, as does the hidden cavity behind it.
The Ring That Kills: The Ballet
Background: Feuillade sets his thriller plot, against a whole portrait
of a night at the theater. We see both the press and a lover in
a star's dressing room; the audience watching the show; an on-stage
performance, including special effects; panic at the theater, on stage
and in the corridors, and finally people leaving the doors and have
their cars brought to them. It's like a documentary on theater life.
Costumes: Feuillade's favorite costumes appear here. The handsome villain is
in full white tie and tails. Plus he is wearing a cloak, like Judex to come.
The hero Philippe is dressed like the villain, but not as lushly (he is lacking a cape or top hat).
This is the same pattern of costumes we see in Judex and his brother Roger in Judex:
two men dressed similarly, but one not as spiffed up as the other.
Meanwhile, both the dancer and the bad guys are in body stockings,
Feuillade's other favorite garb. Everything about such clothes is surreal.
There are also hoods for the bad guys, and a bat head costume for the dancer.
These two form a pair of related-but-different costumes.
The dancer's bat costume is a human impersonating an animal. Animal costumes
fascinate many people. There is a dimension of fantasy here, including sexual fantasy.
Like the Surrealists to come, Feuillade often explores hidden sexual feelings.
The costume also involves flying. People often experience flying in their dreams.
Architecture: The mirror is the dressing room is at an angle. This gives the effect
of a polygonal shaped room: a Feuillade (and later a Fritz Lang)
favorite. The mirror also reflects a second mirror, making a complex image.
Feuillade's staging sometimes makes it easier to see a character in the mirror,
than through a direct view.
The exit to the theater involves two whole rows of doors. This anticipates
a bit the corridor in the Vallieres apartment in Judex, which has three doors.
The theater has no less than two rows of door exits, one leading from the auditorium
into the corridor, the second leading outside. The two rows of doors echo each other.
They too form surreal variants. The two rows of doors form rhythmic pulses, one after the
other. There are contrasts too: the inner row of doors is well-lit, full of both men
and women, and full of innocent bystanders. The row of doors to the street is a night scene,
it contains men only, and mainly involves the crook and the hero who pursues him.
The Thunder Master: Irma Vep at the Night Club
Irma slowly recovers from her escape, being helped by working people to whom
she lies. This plot situation recalls The Three Musketeers of
Alexandre Dumas, and the way its villainess Milady
can tell plausible lies that make her look like a romantic heroine.
Irma Vep winds up re-introducing herself to the Vampires, at their Howling Cat night club.
Her dance has her wrapping herself in a black shawl: echoing the batwings used by
the ballet dancer in "The Ring That Kills". Like the dancer, she can completely wrap
the shawl around her figure.
At the end, she raises her arms, stretching them out. This echoes the triumphant gesture
in Fantômas, where the villain spreads his arms and body in an X shape, after
demolishing the building. Earlier in this episode, when the two men at the railway yard
carry Irma Vep after she's fainted, she also stretches her arms out wide, in a similar vivid gesture.
The Terrible Wedding: Influence on Fritz Lang
The big police raid that concludes the film, anticipates several police raids
in Fritz Lang.
The gas attack at the keyhole also recalls the use of tear gas in the raid in Lang's
Feuillade continued his mystery serials, with Judex (1916).
Influence from Edgar Wallace's The Four Just Men
Plot elements in the Prologue of Judex recall Edgar Wallace's
prose mystery thriller, The Four Just Men (1905). Just
as the Just Men are noble outlaws who attack the evil powerful,
seeking justice, so is Feuillade's heroic avenger Judex. Both
avengers make demands on a powerful figure: the minister in Wallace's
story, the banker in Feuillade. In both works, this man is given
a deadline, by which time the avengers demand he make an important
concession. In both, they threaten to kill him at a certain time
if he does not accede to this demand. In both, he is attacked
in his own home at exactly the hour specified in the threat, even
though he is surrounded by colleagues and detectives. Both deadlines
are at night, which adds to their spookiness.
Wallace's plot has been echoed countless times in other prose
thrillers, movies and comics.
Even the names of the Four Just Men and Judex have similarities, with "Ju"
in common. "Judex" means "judge" in Latin,
so the names have a similar invocation of the search for justice.
Both Wallace and Feuillade express a liberal skepticism about
the wealthy and powerful. I have seen articles that describe Feuillade
as a conservative. This is not consistent at all with the politics
in Judex. Feuillade does seem to have been an ardent family
man, something that is reflected in the many family ties in his
However, Wallace might be more deeply liberal than Feuillade,
at least in these two works. The villain in Wallace is a politician
who is refusing to help poor refugees. The victims in Feuillade
are middle class people who have been swindled by crooked financiers.
A Prototype Super-hero?
The hero Judex has been described as an ancestor of super-heroes
to come. This is perhaps misleading: Judex has no super-powers
whatsoever. He is not an ancestor to Superman, the first super-hero (1938).
Judex does have a headquarters full of high tech devices.
And he uses advanced technology to bring the heroine out of her
coma. In this sense, he anticipates Batman,
who also was a master of high tech devices. Judex appeared during
the 1910's, when interest in scientific detectives
was at its peak. Such detectives appeared regularly in British
and American prose mystery fiction. The Four Just Men were also
expert users of technology.
Judex' striking style of dress, with a cloak and an unusual tunic, also
anticipates such pulp heroes as the Shadow. The cape also anticipates all
the comic book super-heroes who wore them.
Judex differs from the Shadow, Batman, and other later figures
in that he is not a general purpose crime fighter. Instead, he
is mainly concerned with avenging the ill deeds of the banker
The tuxedo like garments Judex wears at the end of Episode Five
are the most flattering looking of any in the serial. They are
echoed at the end, where Judex wears a tuxedo, but with a more
festive looking white waistcoat. These show him in good, regular
clothes for one of the few times in the serial, as opposed to
his outré garments as the avenger.
Brother Roger's clothes tend to be like the hero's, but less heightened:
Morales' shirt, at the start of the Prologue, has horizontal stripes.
These later became known in the fashion industry as Gordon Gekko shirts,
after the villain who wears one in Wall Street (1987).
- While Judex is in the tuxedo, his brother Roger is in a suit
(at the start of the next episode). Roger's suit has trousers of a
different color from the coat and vest, making it less dressy.
- Similarly, when Judex is in his
avenger's tunic and boots, Roger tends to wear his patch pocket
suit with puttees. The patch pocket suit looks great, with a uniform-like
feel, but it is not as formal as Judex's tunic, and his puttees
are not quite as dressy as Judex's boots. Both brothers wear flared
When the banker is bound in a white shroud in Episode One, it echoes the
black coverings used by women in Les Vampires. All of these wrap the
entire body. The white / black duality echoes the change of male / female
and involuntary / voluntary in this scene.
Prologue: The villainess (Musidora) is seen through the first of
the spiral grillwork doors in Judex.
The heroine is associated with Feuillade's trademark
"double doors, one open, one closed". She makes her entrance through such
Kerjean is associated with white posts. First, in the cemetery. Then in the
strikingly curved white fence he follows along the road.
Episode One: The Mysterious Shadow: When the heroine leaves Les Sablons,
she exits the room through the "double door, one door open", and is seen through the glass
framework. Soon, she also goes out the grilled gates, with one gate open, the
other closed. These scenes where she wanders through the huge deserted estate
at dusk are haunting. They have a dream-like quality.
The shot where she is trailed by the shadow of Judex is outstanding.
Episode Three: The Fantastic Dog Pack: The spectacular moving camera shot
showing the dogs accompanying Judex's car, echoes an earlier moving camera
sequence following a vehicle down a country road in Les Vampires.
Such shots seem to allow for large scale camera movement in Feuillade.
In Les Vampires, we had humans dressing in animal costumes (the bat ballet).
Here, we have animals that seem to be intelligent, and which convey messages
and guide people. This is a surrealistic effect.
The mother says goodbye to the kids at the train station. First, the station
building has many covered porticos. Then the train has a long row of doors.
Both images echo the rows of doors at the theater in the ballet sequence of Les Vampires.
The doors of the left train carriage are all closed, those of the right train
carriage are all open: a variation on the Feuillade pattern of a
"double door, one door open, one closed".
The mother is shown standing, with the moving train in the background. This echoes
an even more surreal shot in Les Vampires, where Irma Vep lies down in the tracks,
and a train passes over her. In both cases, the film links a woman with the
high energy of a moving train. This is a surrealist linkage. It is unclear
whether this image tries to contrast the still woman with the dynamic train,
or whether it somehow tries to equate her with the train's propulsion.
Episode Four: The Secret of the Tomb: The underground lab reminds
one of the many laboratories in the work of Edgar G. Ulmer
to come. Like them, it is full of visually impressive high tech
Typically, Judex sits at the desk, while Roger
stands next to it. The tall, vertical telephone is positioned
so that it forms a phallic symbol in front of Roger's body, while
a picture on the desk serves a similar function with Judex. The
hat Judex always wears is a similar phallic symbol. So are the
tall top hat and cane carried by Vallieres. The boat Judex pilots
in the next episode is also strongly phallic, as is the boat pole
he uses to steer to shore.
Episode Five: The Tragic Mill: Musidora's descent down the mill,
recalls her ascent of a building wall in Les Vampires.
Feuillade's camera concentrates with steady intensity on Musidora's
progress in both scenes. She seems remarkably athletic.
The swimming scene in Judex is a relatively rare camera movement:
the camera pans along with the swimming Musidora.
Earlier, the camera
also traveled (panned?) along with Musidora, as she was carrying
the heroine's unconscious body into the mill. After Judex rescues
the heroine, the camera will be fixed in his boat, while the boat
moves forward. This is a different sort of camera movement, this
time fixed on the hero. Once again, the shot depicts transporting
the unconscious heroine. This moody subject is made more atmospheric
and trance like by the camera movements in both cases. Musidora's
shot involves a forest, Judex's a river: two archetypal locations,
laden with emotion. Both the mill and the forest are important
settings in fairy tales. They return in Vampyr (Carl Theodor
Episode Six: The Licorice Kid: Little Jean's rescue from Cocantin's
apartment recalls the kidnapping of the hero from his apartment
in Les Vampires. Both are startling scenes that happen
with great rapidity. While both are exciting to watch, one hopes
that no one will try either stunt in real life. Both look very
dangerous and hard to pull off.
While Cocantin is a bumbler, and none too honest, he turns out to be a loving
father. This is one of the most appealing part of his characterization,
both in Judex, and in his role in Les Vampires. He seems to
represent a type: a man whose main virtue is devotion to his family,
and who is otherwise struggling along unsuccessfully with life. Probably lots
of audience members can identify with this.
Episode Seven: The Woman in Black: The hero's kidnapping in Les
Vampires is followed by a scene of the hero in a box, being
dragged by car through the streets of Montmartre; a similar incident
in Judex concerns a box and the Licorice Kid. Both of these
scenes are comic.
In general, the Prologue and first six episodes of Judex
(the first 3 hours) seem more crime oriented; the last six episodes
(the last two hours of the film) seem more like a domestic melodrama,
focusing on the hero's messy personal life. I tend to like the
earlier episodes more, but the whole film has interest. This episode
marks the start of the domestic scenes, with flashbacks to the
This episode takes place largely in the hero's homes: the ancestral
Tremeuse mansion, and the Vallieres apartments. Both are heaped
to the skies with Art Nouveau features. Once again, the presence
of such design in a Feuillade film seems deeply creepy. The spectacular
Nouveau staircase at the Tremeuse home seems to symbolize all
of that dysfunctional family's emotional problems, for instance.
And the bedroom decor at Vallieres' is equated visually with the
hero's trauma over his family-romance conflicts.
The Vallieres apartment is in four linked sets whose geometry are precisely
defined: something of a rarity in Feuillade serials. The long
hallway corridor links to the hero's bedroom, his study and the
heroine's room, in that order. The different rooms are the sites
of different issues and relationship struggles of the family,
a useful visual schematic in Feuillade's staging.
In addition to Art Nouveau, there are also classical elements
in the Tremeuse mansion. There are Roman-looking busts everywhere.
The mother makes her sons swear revenge, using the same salute
as seen in Jacques-Louis David's painting set in Ancient Rome,
The Oath of the Horatii (1784). This famous Neoclassical
work would probably have been familiar to both Feuillade, and
many of his viewers. The three adult brothers in David's work
are swearing an oath to their father. Feuillade modifies this
by having two young boys swear an oath to their mother. There
are perhaps suggestions here that the young boys are being made
unfairly to accept grown-up duties, and that also they are entering
into a pact without fully understanding it. Feuillade perhaps
suggests that the parents are exploiting their children here,
that they should not be emotionally coerced into such a bad idea
Episode Eleven: The Water Goddess: The scenes of Judex going bravely
into danger are striking. He is standing up in the boat, like the famous
painting of Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851) by Emanuel Leutze.
This is not recommended in real life (it's unsafe): but it does make a striking image on film.
Washington wears a cloak in the painting, like Judex.
Feuillade includes a whole long-held shot, showing the ship crossing
the screen from right to left. Like the other water imagery, it seems to
have an emotional-atmospheric-symbolic effect beyond any easily apparent
The Water Goddess makes a parallel with Musidora's skill with swimming, earlier
in the film. She is as good as Musidora is evil. Water is sometimes seen as a
female symbol. It certainly has female associations in Judex.
Judex is bound on the boat. He is also hooded, like villains in earlier
Feuillade serials. This gives him an affinity to these earlier characters
- only he is a force for good, while they were a force for evil. An interesting cut
to an external scene elides his unbinding: he is bound, there is a cut to outside, and when
we return to him on the ship, his cords are loose. Perhaps Feuillade did not want
Judex to look helpless, or dependent on another character.
Episode Twelve: Love's Forgiveness: The serial ends with forgiveness between the
characters. One wishes that today's films would preach a similar lesson of love and
non-violence! There are anti-war subtexts, too, in a film which insists that violence is
not the way to solve problems.
Plot Structure and Robert Bresson
The same large group of characters keep interacting with each
other, often in new and unexpected ways. This is somewhat similar
to the story construction Robert Bresson would use in
Au hasard, Balthazar (1966). There are other similarities, too:
- Both films largely take place in the French countryside.
- In both, a woman loses her ancestral home in the country, due to
her father's problems.
- Both films have a sympathetic, prominent role played
by highly intelligent animals: see Judex: Episode Three: The
Fantastic Dog Pack.
Influence on Fritz Lang
Judex anticipates the films of Fritz Lang,
in a number of ways. Traditionally, many critics have speculated
that Feuillade influenced Lang. But there was no actual proof,
in the form of Lang interviews mentioning that he liked or had
even seen Feuillade's work. Lang did tell Peter Bogdanovich that
he saw Rocambole (1913), a French crime thriller directed
by Georges Denola. Lang lived in Paris in 1914, and saw a lot
of French movies, according to his interview in Bogdanovich's
Who the Devil Made It?. He could easily have seen Feuillade
In any case, Judex has features that suggest Lang's work:
By contrast, Feuillade's use of natural locations throughout Judex
would NOT be followed by Lang, who preferred to shoot even his
"exteriors" on studio sets.
- The mirror surveillance mechanism used by Judex anticipates
the one in Lang's The Spiders (1919). (A similar, but simpler, periscope
shows up in the detective spoof The Mystery of the Leaping Fish
(Christy Cabanne and John Emerson, 1916), so one suspects that there
was a common tradition of such devices in detective films.)
- Mirrors are everywhere in the film, as in Lang.
- In addition to the mirror, the phone with two receivers (Prologue)
and the pigeons and the letters of fire (all in Episode Two: The Atonement)
also anticipate Lang's interest in media of communication.
- The mother's room rented by her while teaching has a cut-off
corner; so does her pupil Giselle's room: such polygonal rooms
would become a Lang trademark.
- The writing pad used by Judex in Episode Five: The Tragic
Mill also has cut-off corners, making it octagonal.
- Characters with disguises and multiple identities.
- The major villains are rich and powerful, with social respectability.
- Minor henchmen bad guys reform in Judex, and support
the hero instead: a Lang tradition.
- The comic private eye in Judex anticipates the one
in Lang's Ministry of Fear (1943).
- Many of the male characters work from desks, as in Lang to
- The spiral scroll work on the doctor's gates (Episode Three)
and mother's gates (Episode Four) anticipates spiral imagery in
- The double doors that run through Judex and other Feuillade
films also show up in Lang.