This film is the fifth and last entry into the Fantomas myth during the silent era. He will be remade again and again but he will never again have the luxury of being completely silent but deadly. But the ending of this entry suggests that there were plans to make more entries. If only pesky World War I hadn’t interfered. Gaumont was forced to shut down production most of its studio productions including this one when France was pulled into the conflict. If Fantomas would have kept going, I probably would have gotten sick of the almost misses and the silly disguises. But fortune was on my side (but of course not on the side of the people of France at the time…) and the premise was kept fresh until the very end. And what an ending it is.
We start out with a prologue. A marquis and his wife are having money troubles. They decide to sell off some of her jewelry in order to pay some debts they have. The marquis meets a man in a hotel room in order to sell the jewelry. Next door to them is a priest. He leaves the man in the room locked from the outside while he goes to cash a check. When he comes back, the jewels have mysteriously vanished, despite them being locked in a dresser in a room that was locked from the outside. A magistrate comes and investigates. They find out that the there was a hole in the wall behind the dresser and that was how it was stolen. They are confounded by the robbery, but the marquis is free to go with the money. On his way home, he is accosted by two men who steal the money from him. This is all speculated to be the handiwork of Fantomas.
Of course Juve knows better and he realizes that this was all to fund an escape for the real Fantomas who is locked in jail in Belgium for life. Juve decides to beat the vagrants to the punch and breaks Fantomas out for himself so that he can be arrested in France and hung. (Belgium apparently did not have the death penalty at this time.) Fantomas escapes through a series of disguises. He accost the magistrate from the jewelry robbery and becomes him. The fake magistrate now becomes judge of the same town that the jewelry was hid. Fantomas as the magistrate tracks down his lackeys who had orchestrated the robbery and get them to tell him where everything is hidden. Fantomas now puts a whole master plan into action. He goes to the marquis’ house and kills him, placing the blame on the marquise and blackmailing her for a quite a bit of money. He then gets the lackeys to dispute over the placement of the jewels and they try to rescue them. But of course lackeys always bicker amongst themselves so one lackey betrays another lackey resulting in the Judge having custody of the jewelry. He then takes the cash from the chambermaid who was one of the lackey’s girlfriends. But the ever curious and meddling Fandor goes to this town to report on the story for his paper. Fandor finds out pretty quickly that it is Fantomas underneath all of that disguise and conspires with the police force to have Juve as Fantomas transferred to the town where they can both arrest him. While Juve is getting released, Fantomas realizes that the man who took his place is his greatest enemy. He calls the chief guard and gives him an order. Juve, Fandor and a bunch of policemen arrive and arrest Fantomas. But he is not in jail long before he is released again.
This film should have been called the Master of Disguises. Despite him dawning many disguises in the past, Fantomas really ramps it up in this installment. The reason he is able to escape prison the first time was just because he dressed up like a guard. Such an obvious escape ploy would not go over well in today’s flicks. In fact disguises have mostly gone by the wayside unless they are used for comic purposes. But in the silent era, everyone dawned a disguise at one point or another. Maybe it is because disguising oneself is a purely physical in the silent era. You don’t have distort your voice in order to fool the viewer that you are someone else. All you have to do is change the way you stand, glue on a beard and get some new clothes. Blamo! You are now a new person for the audience to watch.
There is one scene in the film that really stands out. When the two lackeys go to retrieve the stolen jewels, they have to climb into a church bell to get them. The whole set can be seen by the audience at all times. You see the man climb the ladder while the other one holds the ladder and the rope used to clang the bell. You know something bad is going to happen because the director puts so much emphasis on it. Once the lackey on the ground gets the jewelry box, he let’s go of the ladder and the rope, leaving the other lackey stranded on top of the clapper. This sequence is shot with the importance of a traditional action scene. But there are no gunshots, no fantastic crashes or explosions. No there is just a ladder, a rope, and a bell. Simple yet highly effective. Blockbuster directors should take note that if done in the right way any scene can become just as intense as a scene with tons of special effects in it.
As this series is coming to an end, I am reminded again how little things change in telling a good story. Despite being about a hundred years old, this series seems to me like it could have been made yesterday. Isn’t that the mark of a truly great series?