Fantomas (1964)

Country: France / Italy
Director: André Hunebelle
Starring: Jean Marais, Louis De Funes, Mylène Demongeot, Jacques Dynam
Music: Michel Magne

Fantomas is an ages old criminal character from France. He has appeared in books, movies and on television. One of his earliest and most popular incarnations was in a silent movie serial made by Louis Feuillade in 1913-14. In the 1960’s, director André Hunebelle decided to revive the character for three feature films featuring Jean Marais in a duel role as Fandor, the hero; and Fantomas, the evil villain. This is the first of the three movies.

This one opens in Paris. A Rolls Royce weaves it’s way through the traffic and makes it’s way to Van Cleef and Arpels. Inside, a distinguished gent and lady are shown a selection of diamond necklaces and chokers. The gent in question is Lord Shelton and he is buying up big. He forks out 5,500,000 New Franks for the trinkets. Shelton writes out a cheque, and he and his mistress make their way out of the building with their purchases. Later, one of the sales staff is examining the payment, when shock, horror, the writing and signature on the cheque disappear before his very eyes. It becomes a blank cheque. Then slowly a new name appears: “Fantomas”.

Who is Fantomas? He is a super criminal; a man of one thousand faces – and so far, the French police have been unable to stop him.

After the theft, Police Comissioner Juve (Louis De Funes) appears on television assuring the public that Fantomas’ day are numbered. In a slightly comical speech, he intones that Fantomas is just an ordinary murderer,… a man like you and me,… he’s claimed fewer victims than car accidents,…and even though he has blown up planes and derailed trains, he is not as bad as dangerous drivers! Yeah, right. From Juve’s speech you get a little of the idea of the tone of Fantomas. Yeah, it is a crime movie, and it’s a caper movie, but it is also a comedy (and probably an appropriate comparison would be with the Pink Panther films).

A crowd of people have gathered around a shop window and are watching Juve’s press conference on televisions mounted inside, when Fantomas makes his presence felt once more. From a moving vehicle he lobs a hand grenade at the shop. The crowd flee, the grenade explodes, and the television go up in smoke.

With all this strife the newspapers are having a field day, but one journalist, Fandor (Jean Marais) is looking for a different angle. First he writes an article claiming that Fantomas does not exist and is a creation by the police department to cover up for their failure to catch the perpetrators of criminal acts. Fandor reads his article to his girlfriend and photographer, Hélène (Mylène Demongeot). She is not impressed. She suggests he gets an interview with Fantomas. But that isn’t easy.
But Fandor has a brainwave. He has Hélène photograph him in a black mask and cape pretending to be Fantomas – after all, nobody really knows what he looks like. Then Fandor writes a fake interview and it gets published in the morning papers. In the fake article, it is calimed that Fantomas now possesses the ultimate weapon and could blow up the planet, and intends to do so on the following night.

Comissioner Juve isn’t happy about the article. Apart from the fact that it makes him look like a buffoon, he suspects it is a fake. he storms into the newspaper offices and threatens to ‘BLOW the lid of this web of lies!’ Well, Juve is the only one upset by the article, and not the only one intent on BLOWING things up. Fantomas plants a bomb outside the newspaper office, and as Juve speaks his mind, one of the walls disappears in a shock of flame.

Once Fandor is out of hospital, he returns to his apartment. Taped to his door is a calling card from Fantomas. ‘See you soon!’ it says.

Meanwhile out on the street, Juve has hatched a scheme where he will follow Fandor, believing the journalist will lead him to Fantomas. As he waits, dressed in a cunning disguise as a hobo, he is arrested by two gendarmes. Despite Juve’s protests, he is taken back to the station. (Interesting note, that a similar thing happens to Peter Seller’s Inspector Clouseau in the second Pink Panther movie, A Shot In The Dark, but as both movies were released in 1964 and only a few months apart, on different sides of the world, I doubt that there is any plagiarism on anyone’s behalf).

Meanwhile upstairs in his appartment, Fandor receives a telephone call saying that Fantomas is sending a car and will pick him up in five minutes. Fandor thinks it is a prank call and hangs up. He has barely put the phone back in it’s cradle, when an arm appears behind his chair holding a blackjack. Fandor doesn’t see it, and is bopped on the head and passes out.

Understandably he wakes up confused, in a cavernous underground lair, with high arched ceilings, a pipe organ (all super villains must have one), statues and other objets d’art. And then through an elevator door, Fantomas emerges (also played by Jean Marais). Fantomas appears wearing a surreal featureless blue mask.

Fantomas isn’t happy about the article that Fandor wrote. It made him look foolish. As recompense Fantomas orders Fandor to write another article admitting that the previous story was a concoction. It also has to paint Fantomas in a flattering light (or at least flattering to Fantomas’ own perception of himself). If Fantomas isn’t happy with the article, he will make sure that Fandor dies a slow agonising death. Fantomas then seals the deal by branding Fandor’s chest with an “F”. The journalist has 48 hours to complete his mission.

When Fandor awakens he is back in his appartment, and Hélène is banging on the door. He let’s her in, and recounts his encounter. Meanwhile Commissioner Juve isn’t too chuffed about having spent a night in the drunk tank, and he immediately heads to Fandor’s apartment to arrest him for being Fantomas’ accomplice. Fandor tells Juve the truth, but the dimwitted Commissioner does not believe him, and holds him in jail for 48 hours. Naturally while he is in jail, Fandor cannot write the article to appease Fantomas.

Once Fandor is released from jail, Fantomas has him kidnapped once again, and brought down to the underground lair.. But this time, Fandor is being held as a prisoner. In his place, Fantomas will go out into the world and commit crimes as Fandor. Fantomas rips off his blue mask to reveal Fandor’s visage. You see this is Fantomas’ talent. He is a man of a thousand faces because he has perfected a way to make lifelike artificial skin. With this, he can make himself up to look like anybody. In this instance, it’s Fandor. Fantomas intends to go a crime spree which the whole world will attribute to Fandor.

Fantomas is one wild film, and it is extremely enjoyable, especially when the Fantomas character is on the screen. With his featureless mask, he is slightly disturbing, which is exactly how a villain should be. For me the weakness in the film is Louis De Funes’ character, Juve. He is too much of a buffoon. Early I compared the film to the Pink Panther series – this is only the sequences with Juve. The rest of the film is colourful and always interesting, with great set pieces, and plot twists and turns. Outlining them all would ruin the fun, but the extended chase scene at the end bears special mention, where Fantomas uses a train, a car, a motorbike, a boat, and finally a submarine to make his escape.

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