Fantomas I: In the Shadow of the Guillotine

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Fantomas is a French silent serial. Before the advent of television, movie serials were a very popular trend in filmmaking. They usually involved Cowboys and Indians or Superheroes or my favorite Cops and Robbers. These stories were conventional but with a hook at the end that kept you coming back to that theater in order to see the next installment. Fantomas was one of the first popular serials ever created. (I say popular because there were other serials being made at the time, they just weren’t smash hits like this serial was.) Fantomas has influenced several different directors and actors to produce or build upon this Fantomas character. Because I am interested in the evolution of the tropes that films come back to again and again, I am going to watch each installment and comment on the themes and figures that have now become common place. Each week you will see me exploring the next chapter until I have finished.

Fantomas is roughly translated to the Phantom. The killer of these serials is called the Phantom because he seems to vanish into thin air after wreaking havoc on the normal population. At the beginning of the story, we see him enter a woman’s bedroom to steal her jewels or money (it isn’t quite clear what she has in the envelope) and charms her into being distracted while he does the deed. He hands her an seemingly blank business card, only to see once he has vanished as if in thin air that a name has appeared on it (Fantomas). He is eventually caught and put on death row for some killings he committed. This trial and imprisonment has captured the population’s imagination and produced a dramatization of his proceedings to be very successful on stage. The actor who plays Fantomas looks just like him once he puts on makeup and fake hair. Fantomas and his accomplice decide to switch out himself for the actor the night before his beheading. Through a clever bit of plotting, the actor is drugged and switched out. At the very last moment the inspector that was working the case notices there is something wrong with the man they are about to behead. He realizes that it isn’t the real man at all but rather the actor. The inspector right then and there vows to get him at no matter what cost. This is how the first installment ends.

After watching this first segment, I started to watch Luther for the first time. As I traveled from episode to episode, I was reminded again and again of this silent serial. That plot I just described could have easily been inserted into the plot machinations of this series or a number of other modern detective stories. The clever villain, the obsessive cop and the series of unique crimes are all present here in this serial. At the end of the first series (or season) of Sherlock, Moriarty (the super villain of Sherlock Holmes stories) slips once more out of the obsessive Sherlock’s hands after threatening to kill Watson. Now if you substitute Fantomas for Moriarty and Juve (who is the cop of this series) for Sherlock, you have a another chapter of this movie serial. My point is that these stories that people praise as being innovative are only on the surface unique. Sherlock or Luther follow a long tradition of storytelling that date back even further than this serial itself.

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