Across the rooftops of Paris…

Louis Feuillade was the Christopher Columbus of cinema—a pioneer explorer of newly uncovered lands, a touchstone to all who followed in his footsteps.  Generations of filmmakers after him called him out as an inspiration: Fritz Lang, Georges Franju, Jacques Rivette, Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard… French film auteur Alain Resnais said simply, “He is one of my gods.”

Feuillade!

Louis Feuillade was born in 1873 and joined the movie business in 1905.

At the time, the center of the movie universe was in France, and it was there that the two biggest movie studios in the world were competing in a life-or-death struggle.  One of these two powerhouses was Pathe, and the other was Gaumont.  Gaumont had begun as a manufacturer of movie equipment, and in 1896 was keen to publicize their 35mm projectors.  So the company hired Alice Guy to make some sample movies as marketing tools.  Her films proved so popular in and of themselves, the company changed direction and decided to focus on film production.  Alice Guy became the first woman movie mogul.

Alice Guy

Under her direction, Gaumont started to mount a serious challenge to Pathe.  In order to expand her empire, in 1905 she hired a struggling journalist and wine merchant named Louis Feuillade, and started to train him as a filmmaker.  He learned quickly and established himself as the director of the company’s most popular creations.  Three years later, when Guy quit to get married and move to England, Feuillade took her place as Gaumont’s head of production.

Eventually Feuillade would be credited with having made upwards of 800 movies.  And that’s not counting all of those officially directed by others, but produced at Gaumont under his supervision.

Although Feuillade is remembered today as the granddaddy of suspense thrillers, during his prolific career he was an eclectic filmmaker who explored all possible genres.  He made a great many short comedies—typically split reel things that ran less than 10 minutes apiece. This is one of the reasons his comedies aren’t as well remembered today—there’s a prejudice on the part of serious film critics in favor of feature-length films at the expense of what are considered lightweight shorts.  The history of film is often told as the progress from shorts to theatrical features, and so any step that moves forward down that path is seen as being important and worthy, while steps that linger behind are seen as retrograde.  By this calculus, Feuillade’s comedies were backwards looking things, duly forgotten in favor of his feature-length crime thrillers.

But some of Feuillade’s comedies survive today, and they offer a valuable insight into his filmmaking style, and sometimes they’re quite amusing.

There’s one terrific Feuillade comedy from 1908 called A Very Fine Lady that is basically just a juvenile sex joke in which Renee Carl goes strolling down a Parisian street.  If there was a soundtrack you’d hear a parade of ahoogas and boiings as she passes various men, who run into street lamps and trip over themselves because they’re so busy looking at her.  Any man who happens to be holding some vessel of water like a bucket or a hose finds it erupting all over as she walks past.

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The sequence was remade basically frame for frame by Frank Tashlin in the movie The Girl Can’t Help It, with Jayne Mansfield repeating Renee Carl’s implacably unperturbed walk.  The fashions changed between 1909 and 1956, but Tashlin recycled Feuillade’s emphasis on the undulating female anatomy.

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Feuillade’s most popular comedy series was a cycle of 70 films starring precocious child star Rene Dary, and co-starring Renee Carl.   Dary’s folks were typical stage parents, that is to say pushy and self-important, and they wanted more money for their kid than Feuillade thought he was worth.  So when they started demanding more money, Feuillade happily fired Dary, whom he never liked anyway, and replaced him with another little boy named Rene Poyen, keeping Renee Carl as the adult costar.  Poyen is sometimes referred to in the press and histories of the time by his character name, Bout-de-Zan.  He and Feuillade got along famously.

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But as fun as Feuillade’s comedies are, stuff like that isn’t why we’re here today.  To understand the whole cycle of serial thrillers for which Feuillade is known, we have to take a step back and establish the larger context:

In 1908, the two biggest movie studios in the world, Pathe and Gaumont, suddenly faced the arrival of a new competitor, an upstart firm called Éclair.

The Éclair Studio was launched with an innovative business model—they wanted to make serialized movies, releasing a cycle of single reel films about the continuing adventures of a character, one every two weeks.  The films would be basically self-contained, so as not to punish people who missed one, but would rely on their continuing nature to cross-publicize one another.  Naturally enough, Éclair turned to the world of serialized fiction to find existing characters to license.  They hit upon the American detective hero Nick Carter, whose weekly dime-novel adventures had been thrilling American readers since the late 1800s and which had recently and for the first time started appearing in France in French translations.  Victorin Jasset was tasked with translating these pulp novels into bi-weekly movies.

Nick Carter

Jasset’s Nick Carter serials were an instant sensation, driving Pathe and Gaumont to co-opt the Éclair approach with their own detective serials.  Pathe took to adapting the stories of detective hero Rocambole, while Gaumont’s entries included Louis Feuillade’s Jean Dervieux series, starring Rene Navarre as the hero.  (Yes, hero.  Make a note of that—we’ll come back it to later on in this post)

Éclair fought back, and from 1911 to 1912, Jasset headed up the strongest, best, most influential and popular serials yet—a cycle of films about the super criminal Zigomar.

Zigomar

There are many things about the Zigomar cycle to take note of—the story involved a dedicated lawman who turns into a master crook, his “Z-gang” go around dressed in black body suits and hoods looking exactly like what Fantomas would look like a few years later, the stories were sometimes scripted by Gaston Leroux (!), and the stories involved the perpetual struggle between Zigomar and his opponent, Broquet—although in a seminal crossover film, Zigomar went head to head with Nick Carter.

Zigomar’s massive popularity rested in part on its daring use of what came to be called “fantastic realism.”  Jasset took his crew out on location so that the environs would be recognizably real, and there staged his outlandish action and invoked Melies-style trick effects.  In publicity materials, the Éclair studio announced that Zigomar was intended to “explore the strange and fantastic within the very real fabric of modern life.”

Another of Éclair’s innovations was the emphasis on feature length films over shorts, and what this all meant was that as Pathe and Gaumont struggled to catch up with their new rival, they felt compelled to copy the longer format, the crime thriller genre, and the style of fantastic realism.

Not long after Jasset pitted Zigomar against Nick Carter, the author of the original Zigomar, Leon Sazie, came calling in disgust.  He complained that Jasset was taking too many liberties with his creation, and he revoked the license.

Unperturbed, Jasset simply kept going in the same vein using his own original creation, Protea, about the adventures of a female secret agent.

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Jasset died suddenly in June of 1913, however, and while Éclair tried to keep churning out Protea films without him, they found that without Jasset they didn’t have the same magic. Meanwhile, Jasset’s competitors found his tragic absence gave them the opportunity to flourish.

One of the first Zigomar rivals was Gaumont’s Iron Hand series, which ran from 1912 to 1913.  It told of the endless chase between ace detective Necker, the titular Iron Hand himself, and his various criminal opponents, all of whom were played by the director of the series, Leonce Perret—who along with Max Linder would be one of the most significant French film comedians of the early silent era.  Perret found himself battling against the censors so much, it eventually shut down the Iron Hand cycle altogether—and certainly provided an object lesson for Feuillade as he began his own run of Zigomar clones–Fantomas.

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I cannot overstate this no matter how much hype I slather on–Feuillade’s Fantomas was a global blockbuster.  These films thrilled audiences around the world and planted seeds in the minds of filmmakers who took up the cause and made their own films in response.  In Germany, Feuillade’s films inspired Fritz Lang, who more or less spent the rest of his life embellishing on Feuillade’s lessons.  In Russia, Fantomas inspired a local adventure serial, Miss Mend, which combined pulp mystery thrills with Soviet socialist propaganda.

In the United States, the Fantomas serials were handled by William Fox, whose Fox Film Corporation led the charge into talkies in the 1930s and still exists as one of the Hollywood majors.  Fantomas was such a huge hit for Fox, when Fox distributed Feuillade’s next serial, Les Vampires, he retitled it and promoted it as a Fantomas sequel.  Then in 1920, Fox produced his own American-made Fantomas serial, because American Fantomania had not abated in the intervening 6 years.

Rene Navarre

Meanwhile in France, actor Rene Navarre found he could barely move around in public without attracting huge crowds.  He had been a famous actor, at least by the standards of the day, for quite some time already before taking the role of Fantomas.  He was Louis Feuillade’s cinematic alter ego—together they made 50 films over the years, before Navarre joined up with writer Gaston Leroux, to launch his own movie company.  And as we discussed above, from 1912 to 1913 Navarre starred as the heroic sleuth Jean Dervieux.  But now that Navarre played Fantomas, all that prior history was erased.  He became known as Fantomas—and at one public appearance the crowd’s reaction bordered on a lynching, with the public unable to distinguish man from character.  Three people were killed in the ensuing riot.

Partly as a response to the panicked mobs that Navarre triggered wherever he went, the French police attempted to ban the Fantomas films, and even went so far as to ban all crime thrillers from some theaters.

Watching Fantomas today, you may be puzzled by these reports—it does not really feel like the silent films you may be used to (assuming you’re used to any silent films).  It feels really primitive at times, and to grapple with what made Feuillade special and what made this film effective, we need to first establish what “primitive” films were like at the time.

Primitive film technique was fairly straightforward: the camera tended to be placed at a good distance from the action and just left there, the actors were not generally staged for the camera and so their action is not centered in the frame or even directed towards the audience.  Scenes go on, and on, until the scene comes to an end—cuts to alternate points of view, such as close ups, are rare—an edit usually signals the end of a scene and the start of a new event.

There is a seemingly artless quality to Feuillade’s work, an almost anti-style.  The camera has been plopped down perfunctorily in front of a set in which the actors meander around within the frame without any sense of composition.  In several scenes, the actors nonchalantly turn their backs on the audience completely.  Only rarely does a shot appear in which the actors seem positioned in front of the camera for any specific pictorial effect.  The shots ramble on with hardly any change of point of view, until the scene ends and a new one takes its place.

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Instead of stories being created, the effect here is more akin to the camera being a witness while the story happens in front of it.  Aesthetically it is not at all unlike the documentary films that were the mainstay of the cinema of attractions—these things happened, and our camera was lucky to be there.

This is the 1914 equivalent of the fake-documentary approach of things like Paranormal Activity, in which the audience is encouraged to accept the fantastic because of its unadorned presentation.

Unlike the later classical films, which work at pulling you into the story and connecting you emotionally to what’s happening on screen, this film is content to keep you disconnected.  Characters sit and talk and talk, but there’s little inside the frame to help you know what they’re talking about—without the explanatory intertitles you’d be lost.  The difference is between a story made by the film and one made on film.

That being said, you have to bear in mind that these films were adaptations of extraordinarily popular books, and it was safely assumed by Feuillade that the audience came to the theater already familiar with the story.  Moreover, the theaters handed out programs at the shows in which a plot synopsis was printed.  It was not unlike going to the opera or to a Shakespeare play, in which the theater provides you with a written synopsis of the story so that you can familiarize yourself beforehand and sit back and enjoy their interpretation of that story.

It’s important to understand that context of primitive film technique before trying to evaluate Feuillade’s creative choices, because I’ve read some very thoughtful and intelligent analysis of these films by scholars who seemed to think that Feuillade’s static camera and long takes could be contrasted directly with the editorial rhythms of Sergei Eisenstein or the fluid camerawork of Murnau, artists of a distinctly different era, without recognizing that to a certain extent Feuillade’s technique was typical of his era.

It would take the likes of DW Griffith to come along and pioneer new techniques, to show that the camera could roam about a single scene to take in a variety of points of view of the same action, and that the audience would accept these discontinuous images without objection—that you could interrupt a scene with a different one and then come back, cross-cutting between events for dramatic purposes.

It must also be said that some of Feuillade’s style was an inevitable consequence of his production technique.  To say the man worked fast was an understatement—you couldn’t make 600 movies if you agonized over each frame. Film scholar Francis Lacassin compared Feuillade’s production technique to a form of automatic writing, something done so hurriedly and thoughtlessly that it expresses the hidden unconscious self.

Usually he mapped out a vague plot outline for himself, as often as not scribbled on a napkin, but then didn’t bother to show it to anyone else, and had the production team meet on set with at best a sketchy understanding of what they were supposed to do.  Films were mostly improvised as they were shot.  Rene Clair, the legendary French filmmaker, got his start as Feuillade’s assistant, and he said that usually the finales of each movie were devised during the production.

As an example of Feuillade’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach and his waste-not-want-not work ethic, here’s a story for you: Feuillade was passionate about bullfighting, and somewhere around the end of making the Fantomas serials he set out to make a Spanish thriller about toreadors.  He went to Spain and started shooting—all improvised, of course—but the outbreak of the first world war interrupted the work and he returned home.

Later, he was working on the Les Vampires, about a journalist chasing the nefarious crimes of the legendary Vampire Gang and their black catsuit-clad lady assassin, Irma Vep.  Episode 6 of Les Vampires makes a bizarre and unprovoked narrative detour, as a character suddenly dips into a reverie, with a flashback to the Spanish War of 1808.  Why?  So Feuillade could finally use all of that footage he’d shot in Spain, that’s why—and as soon as the footage was used up, then the story leaps, just as abruptly, back to the main plot.

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Feuillade’s screenplays (which, as discussed, were just working drafts to get things started) are full of non-sequiters and incoherent juxtapositions.  The recurring word is MEANWHILE—over and over again, MEANWHILE as the link between scenes, an open acknowledgment that cause and effect are disconnected, and scenes have no direct relationship to each other anymore.  This happened, and then this happened, and then this happened—wasn’t that exciting!

Irma Vep

For the filmmakers who came in his wake this would be a revelation.  It was proof that thrillers did not need elaborate atmosphere in order to create sensations—and in fact, in certain instances a deliberate avoidance of atmosphere would be powerful.

And that’s the key—what may look like Feuillade indulging in interminably long scenes are actually deceptively staged to appear more complete than they are.  Significant developments are omitted, and the audience is kept ignorant of the omissions, and it is from these gaps that the suspense is created.  The thrill is in a story told in flashes, as if a cosmic narrator keeps hitting the fast forward button to jump over the details that would make the story make sense.

What we have are a series of events told in medias res—we just jump right in and watch characters executing complex plans that we are never shown in deliberation.  In other words, effects without cause.

Conventional storytelling establishes a character’s motivation, their goals, then the obstacles to achieving those goals, and then you watch as the characters work towards their goals and past the obstacles.

By contrast, let’s take a look at an early scene in Fantomas vs. Fantomas.  We are shown a shady businessman, and he’s visited by a tax collector.  The tax collector then goes upstairs to collect from a Mr. Paulet, but Paulet and his girlfriend kill the man and steal his money.  Suddenly, the shady businessman barges in and robs them!  Then he proposes a deal—“let’s divide the spoils and I’ll take care of everything.”  They agree, but the deal makes almost no sense—the businessman was clearly capable of committing the entire crime himself, but didn’t, and he already has all of the money and can’t be made to share, so why volunteer?  And the way he deals with the corpse of the taxman is to plaster it into a wall—and immediately upon doing so, the same man now disguised as a workman then pounds a nail into a precisely chosen spot in that wall so that blood rains out of the crack, revealing the body inside.

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If you had walked into the theater late and missed the opening titles showing that the businessman and the workman were both Fantomas in disguise you’d be well lost, but even if you do know that, it still seems madly strange.

The Fantomas films defy the norms of conventional storytelling.  It is difficult to make out who’s chasing whom, and even to the extent that you can, it’s all subject to sudden reversals and re-reversals, none of which is really given any proper narrative preparation.  The audience knows less than the characters do, and even they are surprised.  The abstract plot loops through thematically connected events that never lead anywhere, just an endless chase.

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While the disconnected narration is something Feuillade borrowed from the novels, it is also true that as an artist he had demonstrated pre-existing interests in the ability of film to manipulate meaning and mislead viewers.

Right before Fantomas, Feuillade made a highly regarded melodrama called Tragic Error.  It starred Rene Navarre as a man who goes to the movies, and is surprised to see his wife in the background of a scene in the movie he’s watching!  Evidently when that film-within-a-film was shot on location, his wife sauntered through unaware that she was being filmed as an unwitting extra.  But here’s the thing of it—she wasn’t alone.  What was his wife doing in the company of another man?

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Navarre buys a print of the movie to take home and study frame by frame.  Examining it closely, he is convinced that indeed that is his wife, spending her day with another man!

In jealous fury, he arranges to avenge his wounded pride with what will appear to be her death by accident.

What he doesn’t realize is the larger context of that isolated clip of film, the bits before and after what was caught on celluloid.  His wife is faithful after all, the man in the film is her brother, and Navarre has made a “tragic error”—the sort of thing you’re apt to do if you trust what a camera shows you.

These are the same ideas that Georges Melies played with at the dawn of motion pictures.  However, where Melies manipulated what the camera recorded in order to create visual fantasy, Feuillade’s manipulations are visually prosaic, but contain narrative fantasy.

The plainness of Feuillade’s world is a crucial part of this effect.  When you watch, say, Todd Browning’s Dracula, the fact that Dracula can transform into a bat, or make no reflection in a mirror, or suck blood from the living—these bizarre elements are fully integrated into a filmic world that is already dominated by deep shadows and gothic architecture and enormous spiderwebs.  Everything about that movie combines to create an atmosphere of supernatural horror.

There is in Feuillade’s most looney thrillers a distinct lack of horrific atmosphere.  Of all the crazy things that happen, they are presented matter-of-factly, the most nightmarish visions packaged in a plain brown wrapper.  And the things that happen are crazy indeed.

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Objectively speaking, Feuillade’s technique is literally primitive. That Feuillade’s films, manufactured at the very dawn of the medium, can enthrall and enrapture modern audiences speaks to something else in their construction: Feuillade’s simple, austere camerawork and blandly realistic production design gives way to dreamscapes, irrationality, and illogic that intrudes casually into the frame.  It is an ordinary world, prone to unexpected eruptions of the fantastic. The world is not as it seems, horror can break through the surface of our reality without notice.

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Feuillade understood the inherent menace of new technology, the pervasiveness of evil, the untrustworthiness of appearances. But it is the not the case that Feuillade’s films were ahead of their time. Watching many silent films of that era gives one the impression of looking through a window into the past, a vision of a simpler and more innocent age. Feuillade’s films offer a window into some alternate dimension, to a time and place that never existed.

0 Response Across the rooftops of Paris…
Posted By Grand Old Movies : January 28, 2012 12:15 pm

Fascinating post – so many of our movie tropes today have their origins in the early silent era – the ‘Mission Impossible’ franchise, for example, could be traced back to ‘Fantomas’ and its use of disguises and amazing escapes. On a lighter note, the sighting of the wife’s appearance in the movie on display in ‘The Tragic Error’ recalled a similar instance in ‘Sons of the Desert,’ when Laurel & Hardy’s wives see their presumably deceased husbands frolicking onscreen in a newsreel.

Posted By Grand Old Movies : January 28, 2012 12:15 pm

Fascinating post – so many of our movie tropes today have their origins in the early silent era – the ‘Mission Impossible’ franchise, for example, could be traced back to ‘Fantomas’ and its use of disguises and amazing escapes. On a lighter note, the sighting of the wife’s appearance in the movie on display in ‘The Tragic Error’ recalled a similar instance in ‘Sons of the Desert,’ when Laurel & Hardy’s wives see their presumably deceased husbands frolicking onscreen in a newsreel.

Posted By dukeroberts : January 28, 2012 1:51 pm

I didn’t realize that the scene from The Girl Can’t Help It and various other similar scenes in movies, cartoons and TV originated in a silent French film. It’s probably never been done better than with Jayne Mansfield though.

Unfortunately, the Fantomas movies are not currently available through Netflix for rent or to stream. You get me all excited about seeing these old silents and then I get let down because I can’t see them for myself. Shame on you!

On an unrelated topic, what do you think of the cover art for the new Criterion Godzilla disc?

Posted By dukeroberts : January 28, 2012 1:51 pm

I didn’t realize that the scene from The Girl Can’t Help It and various other similar scenes in movies, cartoons and TV originated in a silent French film. It’s probably never been done better than with Jayne Mansfield though.

Unfortunately, the Fantomas movies are not currently available through Netflix for rent or to stream. You get me all excited about seeing these old silents and then I get let down because I can’t see them for myself. Shame on you!

On an unrelated topic, what do you think of the cover art for the new Criterion Godzilla disc?

Posted By Suzi : January 28, 2012 8:05 pm

This is another terrific piece. I am loving this series–just ground-breaking and so helpful for my film class.

Posted By Suzi : January 28, 2012 8:05 pm

This is another terrific piece. I am loving this series–just ground-breaking and so helpful for my film class.

Posted By davidkalat : January 28, 2012 8:24 pm

Duke–

Dunno what’s up with Netflix. The Kino box set is still in print, so far as I know (and I did commentaries on the first disc in the set, ahem).

Criterion’s Godzilla is fabulous in every way. I know some people got a bug up their butt about the Godzilla in question being a later costume than the ’54 version. To them I say phooey.

Posted By davidkalat : January 28, 2012 8:24 pm

Duke–

Dunno what’s up with Netflix. The Kino box set is still in print, so far as I know (and I did commentaries on the first disc in the set, ahem).

Criterion’s Godzilla is fabulous in every way. I know some people got a bug up their butt about the Godzilla in question being a later costume than the ’54 version. To them I say phooey.

Posted By Tom S : January 29, 2012 12:02 am

That Fantomas set is great, it’s only like $20 for five movies with three commentaries. But the Godzilla disc (I’m listening to the commentary as we speak) is hands down amazing, even though I’ve read David’s Godzilla book and listened to his Gidorah commentary already- it looks gorgeous, it’s stuffed with interesting stuff, and it has a little pop-up Godzilla in the packaging.

Posted By Tom S : January 29, 2012 12:02 am

That Fantomas set is great, it’s only like $20 for five movies with three commentaries. But the Godzilla disc (I’m listening to the commentary as we speak) is hands down amazing, even though I’ve read David’s Godzilla book and listened to his Gidorah commentary already- it looks gorgeous, it’s stuffed with interesting stuff, and it has a little pop-up Godzilla in the packaging.

Posted By dukeroberts : January 29, 2012 3:17 am

Rats! I may have to upgrade my Gojira at some point.

Posted By dukeroberts : January 29, 2012 3:17 am

Rats! I may have to upgrade my Gojira at some point.

Posted By D : January 29, 2012 6:23 am

Great article! After reading English translations of the first five Fantomas novels, I had more or less of a marathon of the Fantomas serials before watching all of Les vampires. Your article helped me notice so many factors I wasn’t able to articulate before. I did remember that my favorite of the Fantomas movies, the second, had slightly more active camerawork and set changes than the others, giving the film an energy unmatched until the bell scene in the 5th serial.

Posted By D : January 29, 2012 6:23 am

Great article! After reading English translations of the first five Fantomas novels, I had more or less of a marathon of the Fantomas serials before watching all of Les vampires. Your article helped me notice so many factors I wasn’t able to articulate before. I did remember that my favorite of the Fantomas movies, the second, had slightly more active camerawork and set changes than the others, giving the film an energy unmatched until the bell scene in the 5th serial.

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