The Arsenio Lupin Show

As we approach the anniversary of 9/11, I do at least have some good news to report. No, international terrorism is still a thing. Violence still reigns across Iraq, Afghanistan, the Gaza strip, and Ukraine. Injustice and racism still festers here at home, and the income gap widens. But… on this September 11, TCM is gonna run the 1938 Arense Lupin Returns, and if you’re too impatient to wait until then, you can go to Warner Archive and get a DVD double feature of that delightful treat and its even more fabulous predecessor, the Pre-Code gem Arsene Lupin. So, there are silver linings, if you know where to look.

Fans of pulp antiheroes have thrilled to Arsène Lupin, the Gentleman Thief, since his creation by French author Maurice Leblanc in 1905. Leblanc posed as Lupin’s biographer for a staggering run of 20 serialized adventures that continued until 1939. In the 1970s, the writing team of Boileau-Narcejac (of Diabolique and Vertigo fame) revived the character for five sequels authorized by Leblanc’s estate. Along the way there were countless unauthorized forays into Lupinalia by other writers—but Leblanc and his heirs had little room to complain, given that Leblanc had once seen fit to throw Sherlock Holmes into his tales. When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle complained, Leblanc responded by renaming him “Herlock Sholmes” as if that settled things.


If you wanted to live as a hermit and couldn’t think of anything else with which to occupy your time, a life’s work could be spent cataloging the many appearances of Arsène Lupin in popular culture in various media—if you wanted to be completist and cover the Japanese versions of Lupin you might need more than a lifetime.

Where Fantômas and Dr. Mabuse remained rooted in their particular countries of origin, appreciated abroad only by specialists, Lupin went Hollywood early. The very earliest Lupin film was made in America by silent film pioneer Edwin S. Porter back in 1908, while the ink was still wet on the earliest of Leblanc’s stories. Although French filmmakers mounted a silent serial around the time of Feuillade’s Fantômas craze, it was up to American filmmakers to show how it ought to be done.


Director Jack Conway’s 1932 version for MGM starred John Barrymore as the arch-burglar and Lionel Barrymore as his frustrated nemesis Detective Guerchard, with a script adapted from the 1915 Lupin stage play by Edgar Jepson. I’ve raved before about this underrated marvel of witty writing and carefully modulated scenery-chewing by the Barrymore brothers–a Golden Age classic that tends to be unjustly overlooked by genre buffs eagerly sniffing out the least of Karloff and Lugosi’s work simply because it lacks any overt supernatural monsters.

Poster - Arsene Lupin Returns_04

Two more American Lupins followed in 1938 and 1944.  The ’38 one is coming up this week, and it’s time to set your DVRs. I haven’t seen the ’44 one, Enter Arsene Lupin.

Not until 1957 did French cinema come to its senses and embrace one of the key figures of French pulp fiction. The great Jacques Becker (The Hole) retooled Arsène Lupin for a colorful petit four of a movie—but the results were controversial.


Seen today, The Adventures Of Arsène Lupin is a ripping good piece of fun. Back in the day, those very virtues were the cause of its notoriety. The writers of the Cahiers du Cinema laid into Becker’s picture in the scathing article “Six Characters in Search of Auteurs.” At issue was style, not content—the French New Wavers would themselves pay homage to Fantomas, Judex, and Mabuse; Edouard Molinaro would tackle Lupin in his own idiom in the 1962 Arsène Lupin contra Arsène Lupin. And the New Wavers certainly held great respect for Becker—Truffaut called him one of cinema’s greatest artists, Rivette apprenticed under him. But when Becker and Lupin met the result was too slickly commercial, they felt, and a sure sign that French cinema needed to be purged of such pseudo-Hollywood aesthetics, forcibly returned if need be to grittier, more personal, more political roots. Thus the New Wave.

film les adv arsene lupin

Lupin remained a pop culture presence on French TV, in a Canadian cartoon series, and more Japanese variants than you can shake a stick at.

The most recent adaptation of Leblanc’s superthief is Jean-Paul Salomé’s 2004 French blockbuster starring Romain Duris and Kristen Scott Thomas. With a budget of roughly $25 million, it followed in the footsteps of Brotherhood Of The Wolf: revamping elements of French pulp culture for 21st century sensibilities by invoking as much noise, havoc, and martial arts as can possibly be crammed into a moving picture. If Romain Duris’ Arsène Lupin so much as needs to scratch his nose, expect it to be rendered in no fewer than 57 different camera angles, some of them in slow-motion, all punctuated by thunderous sound effects and ominous music. The result is as punchy and mindless a summer action movie as anything cooked up in Hollywood (and I mean that as a compliment).


Jean-Paul Salomé’s ambitious adaptation marks the first time since 1957 that French cinema has unhesitatingly indulged in making a legitimate Arsène Lupin, true at once to his literary roots and ready to beat Hollywood at its own game. If you think French film = pointy-headed arthouse pretension (come on, admit it, you do) prepare to eat your words.

Consistent with contemporary comic book movies’ unhealthy obsession with origin stories, the new flick sets out to explain Why He Came To Be. And, consistent with contemporary comic book movies, the answer turns out to be all about father issues. Lupin is a thief because papa was, too. This is a trifle unsatisfying because all it does is shove the question back a generation. Was Theophraste Lupin a thief because his daddy was? Does it go all the way back to Caveman Lupin? However, this is as Leblanc wrote it, in tales as “Le Collier de la Reine,” “La Comtesse de Cagliostro,” and “L’Aiguille Creuse,” which screenwriters Salomé and Laurent Vauchaud have strip-mined for material.


Romain Duris plays the role as a young, inexperienced Lupin, not yet the fearless anti-super-hero he appears to be in other films. He alternates between cock-sure aplomb when he is in full thief-mode, but reverts to a scared and sensitive young man as he finds the situation spiraling out of his control. Opposite him is the regal Kristen Scott Thomas as the mysterious Josephine Balsamo—possibly the deathless and ageless daughter of the legendary Cagliostro, or maybe just his granddaughter putting on an act (the original novels were equally circumspect as to her true identity). She has designs on a trio of ornate crucifixes that can reveal a hidden treasure—and since Lupin has designs on her, he has to steal the crosses (and the treasure they describe) first.


Along the way we will enjoy surgically altered identities, mutilated war victims, half-remembered fragments of a secret crime, messages concealed in fake eyeballs, and the truth behind the start of World War I. And did I mention kickboxing, lots and lots of kickboxing?

The finale sets up a sequel, of which there are still no signs, ten years later. The filmmakers had their sights clearly on a franchise, but overwhelming box office success in France alone isn’t enough to warrant a massive production of this scale, and Arsène Lupin never received a US release.



5 Responses The Arsenio Lupin Show
Posted By george : September 6, 2014 7:50 pm

” … Arsène Lupin never received a US release.”

American studio executives probably said, “Arsene WHO?”

Posted By Carolyn : September 7, 2014 1:33 pm

Americans have a hard time accepting anything they can’t pronounce.

Posted By george : September 7, 2014 7:54 pm

“Americans have a hard time accepting anything they can’t pronounce.”

So that’s why GIGLI flopped! ;)

Posted By The Week in Review: September 14th, 2014 | The Literary Omnivore : September 14, 2014 11:02 am

[…] Films Purchased: None Added: Unzipped (via Champagne Supernovas), High School Confidential (via The Dissolve), Arsène Lupin (via Movie Morlocks) […]

Posted By swac44 : September 16, 2014 12:14 pm

I’m guessing it probably surfaced in theatres in Quebec upon its release, and true to form there’s probably a Quebec-only DVD (maybe even blu-ray) with no English subtitles. Such is the way with international licensing deals.


And I would be correct.

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