Kino Lorber has released Andre Hunnebelle’s 1960s Fantomas trilogy on Blu Ray. The set includes 1964s Fantomas, 1965s Fantomas Unleashed, and 1967s Fantomas Vs. Scotland Yard. All three films star Jean Marais, Louis De Funes, and Mylene Demongeot. Though the transfers provided by Gaumont are erratic with each film having good looking and poor looking sequences, it is nice to have these available in America on any video format for the first time.
The Production: 3/5
Criminal mastermind Fantomas first appeared in the novel Fantomas by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre in 1911. There were over 40 novels in the series that lasted until 1963. Many are still in print. Fantomas made his first cinematic appearance in 1913 in a wonderful series of five approximately hour-long installments by director Louis Feuillade. There were four more Fantomas films made in France between 1932 and 1949.
Prolific French director Andre Hunnebelle (The OSS 117 series) directed a trilogy of Fantomas films starting in 1964. The first film Fantomas is the story of Fantomas’ pursuit of jewels while being pursued by newspaper reporter Fandor and police inspector Juve. The script by Jean Halain and Pierre Foucaud (they scripted all three movies) is lighthearted and casts Jean Marais as both Fantomas and Fandor. Louis de Funes is Inspector Juve and Mylene Demongeot plays Fandor’s newspaper photographer fiancé Helene.
In the second film Fantomas Unleashed from 1965 we find Fantomas abducting world renowned scientists in order to create a super weapon. Again, we have Marais, de Funes and Demongeot returning.
The final film 1967s Fantomas Vs. Scotland Yard takes place in Scotland with the criminal mastermind devising a brilliant plan to tax the rich; if they don’t cough up the scratch they get bumped off. What makes the plan brilliant is that Fantomas taxes anyone who is rich – honest or criminal. We could use a little of that today! The three leads return again.
This was my first viewing of these films. I had been aware of them for years; I read some about them and saw several stills over the years. Photos of Fantomas’ featureless blue face looked spooky, right up my alley. I was looking forward to what I thought would be something along the lines of Georges Franju’s 1963 Judex.
I was disappointed watching the first film. It wasn’t anything at all like I expected or hoped. It’s not a dark, eccentric action film; it’s a commercial 1960s European comic action film and not a particularly good one. It’s no That Man From Rio, also from 1964.
It’s not fair to judge a film with unfair expectations, so once I adjusted my expectations, I found the films more likable and enjoyed the second and third a bit more. I even liked the first film more while listening to Tim Lucas’ audio commentary. Each movie contains good chase scenes with lots of nice location work.
Jean Marais, whose career I’m embarrassed to say I always assumed didn’t extend much beyond his cinematic (Beauty and the Beast, Orpheus) and theatrical (Stanley in the Paris production of A Streetcar Named Desire) association with Jean Cocteau, is a very good, if a little old, action star. His career was far more diverse and was much longer than I realized. He’s over 50 and performs some remarkable stunts, particularly in the first film. Fantomas is a master of disguise, so Marais gets to wear numerous disguises throughout the series. These are always kind of funny because Marais has such distinct features you can always tell it’s him under the makeup. In any event, it looks like he’s having fun.
I had never seen Mylene Demongeot before but found her delightful as Helene. She’s feisty and adorable. Each film has a sequence where Helene is kidnapped or put in some sort of danger only to be rescued by Fandor. Despite their age differences Marais and Demongeot make an engaging team. Demongeot, in her ninth decade is still working.
Comedy is weird. I often wonder about what travels and what doesn’t? Did international audiences find Red Skelton funny? Or Hugh Herbert? Or Danny Kaye? How did Abbott and Costello’s word play sound dubbed in languages other than English? This leads me to Louis de Funes. He was a big star in France appearing first as comic support and then as star in dozens of movies over several decades, the only one outside of these films I heard of being The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob. I don’t know what to say, I just don’t get it. I find him charmless and broad without any grace.
Tim Lucas speculates a great deal about what inspired these films. He believes the major source of inspiration is the Bond films. I’m not sure about this as the first couple of Bonds are pretty straight, with a real sense of danger that these light films lack. Lucas does mention the German Krimis and here I believe he gets closer. If I had to hazard a guess, I would go with the German revival of Dr. Mabuse. The literary origins of Fantomas and Mabuse are similar. These films contain a criminal mastermind with almost supernatural powers bent on creating chaos. The 60s Mabuse films are stylistically similar to the Krimis which lean towards the gothic but are much lighter than the early Bonds. More Saturday matinee than Cold War. One of the Mabuse films from 1963 is even titled, Dr. Mabuse Vs. Scotland Yard.
As far as the Inspector Juve character in the films, I think he’s more Edwards, as in Blake, than Bond, as in James, as The Pink Panther was released in Europe in late 1963. Some of the sight gags are amusing, but Juve’s ranting and pompousness are irritating as opposed to endearing and the character lacks the childish innocence of Seller’s sublime Clouseau.
3D Rating: NA
Kino presents all three films in their original 2.35 aspect ratio. The transfers were provided by French Studio Gaumont and are extremely dodgy. Some shots and individual scenes look wonderful with nice bright colors and other scenes and shots look dupey and flat. The liner notes on the back state that the first two films were Eastman color and the last was Technicolor. Being the 1960s I believe all would have been shot on Eastman (or a French variant) stock with the third being dye transferred. In any event, the third might be the weakest looking of the three with several scenes looking subpar
The audio is DTS HD – Master 2.0 mono in French with optional English subtitles. There is no English track. The audio is fine.
Special Features: 3/5
An audio commentary by film historian/critic Tim Lucas. Lucas’ commentaries are always informative and dense. He packs a remarkable amount of research into these tracks. He states that these films were hits in Europe. In fact, Lucas claims that a fourth film was planned but that Marias didn’t sign on because he felt that he was too old and was not happy about the shift in emphasis from his reporter character to that of de Funes’ Inspector. The film was released in the US by United Artists subsidiary Lippert in the spring of 1966, where it was neither a critical or financial hit. Lucas lists some of the American playdates and reviews in those cities and even cites movies it played with after its first run. I would have liked to have caught this on a double bill with The Fortune Cookie. The saddest tidbit Lucas throws out is that Franju wanted to make a Fantomas film as a follow up to Judex but that Hunnebelle beat him to the punch.
Trailers for all three films.
If you’re expectations aren’t too high you might enjoy these movies. It’s unfortunate that Gaumont didn’t provide better transfers as movies like this play better when they look as good as possible. Kino Lorber is certainly to be commended in releasing these films on Blu Ray as the second and third movies never played theatrically in the US. I guess this makes this their US premieres?
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