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 (with many articles on directors) | 1910's Articles

Louis Feuillade

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:

Surreal disruptions: Identity: Technology: Water: Staging: Camera Movement: Architecture: Geometry: Sets: Writing: Costumes:

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.

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

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.

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.

Attacking Pseudo-Science

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

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.

Evening Clothes

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.

René Navarre

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):

Settings

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. (SPOILERS AHEAD.)

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:

Depth Staging

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.

Camera Movement

Some very simple pans show the camera being turned to center on action:

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

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.

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.

Camera Movement

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.

Architecture

The second chapter, with reporter Fandor investigating, has some of the best architecture:

Costumes

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.

Camera Movement

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 Renaissance painters.

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 Party

The party is a big set piece. Like the party in Le Mort qui tue:

Composition: Triangles

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:


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

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.

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.

Camera Movement

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.


Les Vampires

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 narrative sense.

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 Episodes

The titles of the episodes of Les Vampires in the original French, and in the restored English version distributed today:
  1. La Tête coupée / The Severed Head
  2. La Bague qui tue / The Ring That Kills
  3. Le Cryptogramme rouge / The Red Codebook
  4. Le Spectre / The Spectre
  5. L'évasion du mort / Dead Man's Escape
  6. Les Yeux qui fascinent / Hypnotic Eyes
  7. Satanas / Satanas
  8. Le Maître de la foudre / The Thunder Master
  9. L'Homme des poisons / The Poisoner
  10. 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, democratic organizations.

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, curving lintels.

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 Spies.


Judex

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.

Liberal Politics

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 films.

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 Favraux.

Costumes

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).

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.

The Episodes

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 a door.

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 lab equipment.

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 Dreyer, 1932).

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 hero's childhood.

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 as revenge.

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 significance.

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:

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 then.

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.