Louis Feuillade’s “Fantomas”

It’s taken a while, but Kino has finally imported Gaumont’s fine 1999 release of Louis Feuillade’s first serial, “Fantomas.” Unlike the Gaumont and the British Artificial Eye releases, the Kino version has replaced the French intertitles with English translations (rather than just supplying subtitles) — a drawback for Francophones and strict constructionists but probably a necessary step toward getting that crucial TCM sale. The image quality beats anything on the public domain market by several kilometers, though, and while the music is what’s called a “needle-drop” job — assembling bits and pieces of library scores — it’s surprisingly effective at times. David Kalat contributes an enthusiastic commentary to the first two of the five features, tracing the figure of the super-criminal from Dr. Moriarty to Dr. Mabuse (I wonder if another source might be Gaston Leroux’s 1908 “Le Roi mystere,” in which a faceless master villain also operates in a meticulously described Belle Epoque Paris).

My New York Times review is here.

Now that “Judex” is out through Flicker Alley and “Les Vampires” can still be found through Image, here’s hoping for a home video release of Feuillade’s 1918 “Tih Minh,” which has also been restored by Gaumont but remains tantalizingly unavailable.

75 comments to Louis Feuillade’s “Fantomas”

  • Alex Hicks

    Ah, and many a scene at court — in “Sea Hawk” or “Ivan the Terrible” or “Falstaff” — has included a great tableau.

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    Leaving “favorites” out, some of the most “tableau-like” tableaux are to be found in Ruiz’s L’HYPOTHESE DU TABLEAU VOLE — which of course is all about tableaux in at least two of the term’s meaning.

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    Mike, I remember reading a French crime novel in which part or a lot (I can’t remember)of the action was supposed to take place in the USA — New York City. There was one scene in which a character picks up the phone and his girlfriend picks up the other receiver (the “ecouteur”). In another chapter they were in the subway and the guy opened the door, the way you do in the Paris metro. Obviously the writer had never been in the US but who cares?

    I think one reason why so many fine French crime novels are not translated is that their slangish inventiveness is largely untranslatable. The famous San Antonio series would be a perfect example. But I don’t want to slide again into off topic teritory.

  • Junko Yasutani

    ‘is an apparent tableau indeed a tableau if the cinematographer tracks or pan through before it’

    Is there answer to question of Alex? I am reading according to dictionary, but definition is not applying so much to movies.

    Probably everyone knows of many tableau in Japanese movie, especially Mizoguchi movie.

  • Barry Putterman

    Well so far we have mentioned early narrative filmmakers who were working while the grammar of film editing was still coming into focus, deep focus long-take filmmakers of the studio system who were to some degree were reacting against the conventions of the mature “invisible” editing style, and some of the more adventurous filmmakers of the past thirty years who to some degree were reacting against the conventions of studio narrative style.

    You can call them all tableau in the same way that you can call both Elvis Presley and Green Day rock and roll. But as with all of the manufactured terminology (film noir, Neorealism, etc.) at some point you have to consider where it leaves off helping you to organize a vast amount of material and begins hindering you from seeing each work in its individuality.

  • Mike Grost

    I agree with Barry: we’re calling many different things “tableaux”.
    Early films tend to have a “fixed camera, long shot, long take in front of a set” style. (Not always.)
    The long take camera movements of later films seem quite different.
    *
    “Le Nain” (The Dwarf), an extra short on the new Fantomas set, is a really inventive film, in terms of content. It is very emotionally involving. The title hero shows Feuillade’s commitment to social outsiders. So does the heroine of “The Defect”, on the Gaumont shorts DVD.

  • Tom Brueggemann

    For me, one of the wonders of Fantomas and the talent of Feuillade is that it, as far as I can tell, an early, if not the first, example of fusing together the three early strands of film – Lumieres (actuality), Melies (genre/trick film) and Edison (narrative). (Showing my mid 70s film school education; is that still taught?). Anyway, among the wonders of the film is how he intermingled these, and in a film of great length by any standards, let alone of the time.

    Another beauty of it is the ease in which location filming, including non-extras just going about their lives, is captured – all the more so, as of course we are all now seeing more and more, a time and place there are no longer who actually inhabit those places are still alive.

  • david hare

    If this is any assistance, Ive been trying to write an oline only commentary text/track for Devil is a Woman in which I found myself stumbling over setups and sequences I had personally mis-remembered during which Sterngberg alternates between his “accustomed” lap dissolves, often on pans and travellings, to hard cutting for temporal exposition.

    Anyway the whole point of this is that Joe actually waits until Atwill ends the first “recollection” of the narrative to a concluding “narrative” shot of Atwill with Romero, inhaling a cigarette, then exhaling it as Sternberg cuts from the exhaled smoke in a hard edit to the Cigarette factory, and Dietrich of course.

    Thus the first (of several) tableaux in Devil begins with the lap/optical to Dietrich in the railway carriage, in which she is surrounded by the Travis Banton B&W outfit, the erased and re highlighted eybrows in pencil and two birds, a live goose in a bag and the sparrow (or whatever ) in a cage.

    That’s a tableau! All based on Sternberg’s alternation of dissolves with montage!!

  • Johan Andreasson

    I agree with Barry that the deep focus long-take filmmakers of the studio system are beside the point here, but I do think it’s interesting when the tableau style of the of the early silents returns with modern filmmakers. In the case of Dreyer you even see this in the career of one director. As David Bordwell writes on his website: “Like many other young directors who began their career in the mid- and late teens (Ford, DeMille, Walsh, Gance, Lang, Lubitsch, Murnau, Kuleshov), Dreyer was quick to pick up on the new style. Only at the end of his career did he seem to reconsider 1910s tableau strategies; Gertrud (1964) in particular might be considered a self-consciously anachronistic reworking of a tradition that the young director had once repudiated.”

    I have one friend who often finds movies from the 30s, which I recommend, inaccessible and “dated”, but recently watched Fantomas with great enjoyment. Maybe this has something to do with the use of this ancient style in modern films.

  • Barry Putterman

    Johan, to continue with my music analogy, you might want to call this “roots” filmmaking.

  • Shawn Stone

    “you might want to call this “roots” filmmaking.”

    That hurts, Barry. A lot.

  • Barry Putterman

    Dear me, Shawn! Where does it hurt?

  • Johan Andreasson

    The roots music analogy works fine for me, just like the march music and traditional jazz in YOU, THE LIVING corresponds nicely with the tableau visual style based on films from the late teens and early twenties.

  • Am I the only person here thinking, “What?”

    The use of tableaux (ending the word with an ‘s’ is also acceptable, if I’m not mistaken) in cinema is, like many things about the medium, completely real and completely fake. You could argue – at least, prior to the interlace of video – a film has 24 tableaux per second. You could also call BRINGING UP BABY film noir and, per Kevin Costner as Jim Garrison in JFK, you could prove that an elephant can hang from a cliff with its tail tied to a daisy.

    Nevertheless, I think I understand what some people are attracted to. A certain frontality in framing, and centrality as well, often motionless, or nearly so – with perhaps an inclination towards the trompe-l’oel – that is difficult to prove scientifically but, like the old saying goes about obscenity, you know it when you see it. A very unique and entertaining video work by Patrick Keillor at this year’s ongoing New York Film Festival, ROBINSON IN RUINS, uses the technique to the exclusion of any other. A work of dry, cultured humor not unlike docu-essay work by Chris Marker, Ross McElwee, Harun Farocki, or Peter Greenaway. In any case, you have to tip your hat to any film or video that gives loving closeups to the lichen growing on a highway sign, while the only humans are relegated to the status of background artists.

  • One certainly has to agree that YOU, THE LIVING corresponds rather well to the pre-1915 tableau style. (And I wouldn’t have known about this film were it not for Dave Kehr.)
    While the correspondences are not exact, the posts this week have opened my eyes to potential survivals of the tableau style elsewhere. Something to look for.
    Thank you!

  • Oliver_C

    R.I.P. Gloria Stuart at age 100, born around the same time the tableau style began giving way to classical continuity. Born the same year that D. W. Griffith — possibly inspired by the undeservedly-forgotten Francis Boggs setting up a Los Angeles studio the previous year — went on the first filming expedition to a sleepy suburb of the city, called… Hollywood.

  • Blake Lucas

    Gloria Stuart obituaries will focus on TITANIC with some mention of her earlier career and likely James Whale classics of which she herself was very fond.

    In case they are left out as so often happens (in L.A. Times especially), I will mention the two John Ford movies, both outstanding ones, in which she co-starred, AIR MAIL (1932) and THE PRISONER OF SHARK ISLAND (1936).

    More than a trace of tableau style in both of these and many other Ford films–how could there not be with his painterly gift for composition? But not for a moment would I say that “tableau style” defines him as an artist–just one stylistic element in his arsenal, one mastered early on and second nature if desired at a given moment, lingering with subtlety much of the time, though at times one looks at a Ford image with tableau qualities and wants to stop and meditate on it at length.

  • Blake Lucas

    By the way, I assure I am not kidding about L.A. Times obituaries. Last week, screenwriter Irving Ravetch died and a fair number of Ravetch-Frank credits were cited, but not the single film for which they wrote the screenplay that is truly a masterpiece, HOME FROM THE HILL.

    That this movie is light years beyond the Martin Ritt and Mark Rydell movies on which they labored is probably widely accepted by discerning moviegoers now, regardless of which films won awards back then. Of course, it is the defining presence of Vincente Minnelli directing that makes it so, but it’s fair to add that Minnelli himself loved the script by the Ravetches, which he considered a beautiful one and a vast improvement on the William Humphrey novel on which it is based, and said it was the only one he ever had on which he didn’t change a word. It’s interesting that even so the Ravetches themselves seemed not eager to identify with the film, seeming to prefer Martin Ritt as a collaborator, so it’s pretty apparent that without changing anything in the script, Minnelli transformed it in the mise-en-scene and made it his own.

  • Blake Lucas

    Thinking about it, I want to add (as well-known) that Minnelli said he always came into projects at an early stage and so had input as the script was written. Maybe in this case it was more than he even realized himself, as the personal interpetation he gives is evident on all levels even if one feels it most vividly in specific elements of mise en scene, the rooms of the house to take only the most obvious example of this. Still, it is a beautifully written screenplay and shows me that Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank could be great screenwriters for melodrama, which had reached a peak in Hollywood filmmaking at the time.

    Maybe that just wasn’t their deepest interest. But just to clarify, I didn’t mean to imply that they actually scorned HOME FROM THE HILL. Maybe they liked it well enough, but definitely not as much as many of us do. My comments above were based on the fact that in a UCLA retrospective of their work in which they chose the films, they left it out.

  • Johan Andreasson

    Well, if the L.A. Times leave out THE PRISONER OF SHARK ISLAND from their Gloria Stuart obituary, their name is mud.

  • Barry Putterman

    Blake, I don’t care too much about obits, but maybe it is more respectful of the deceased to cite the credits of which they were most proud and confine our own tastes to our own writings. I’m actually thinking about all of the issues which you raise in these posts because I’m currently reading Philip Dunne’s memoirs. Now he goes on at length about how Ford didn’t change a word in the screenplay for HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY and, for Dunne, no amount of transformation in the mise-en-scene makes the film Ford’s own. And Dunne loves both Ford as a director and the film he made of HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY.

  • Blake Lucas

    “Blake, I don’t care too much about obits, but maybe it is more respectful of the deceased to cite the credits of which they were most proud and confine our own tastes to our own writings.”

    Barry, the greater issue with the L.A. Times is that they are always careless with credits, generally meandering on about marginal things but leaving out so much of the work someone did, whether outstanding (so many of the missing credits), simply wormanlike, or a movie I don’t personally care anything about it. The Ravetches have a smaller filmography than many and they actually did include more of it than usual. This was just a typical careless omission and nothing to do with my taste. More often though I feel that the subject would be pained to have so much left out, and so many times would be reading something in which no real appreciation was shown of them.

    I haven’t read Philip Dunne’s memoirs but know he has said different things about HOW GREEN at different times. At a lecture once, he showed a scene between Walter Pidgeon and Maureen O’Hara and speculated on how originally slated director William Wyler would have directed it differently, and that Ford had the characters physically closer to each other than Wyler would have. Certainly that effects the scene and I thought it was a good observation. He has also said more than once that Ford contributed the line “It’s a coward I am but I’ll hold your coat.” He said some other things that Ford did too. At a screening of the film with Ford and most of the surviving leading actors present, he said the film was 100% better as realized and “that I owe to Jack.” As this was a DGA tribute to Ford, perhaps he was exaggerating his feeling a little for Ford’s sake, though seemed to mean it (the film had just ended–and this was a beautiful nitrate print).

    But on the other hand, in all his comments I ever heard, he never acknowledged what seems so obvious, that this film would not only have been different in the hands of Wyler but surely would not have been as great, certainly not great in the highly personal and expressive way that it is in Ford’s hands. It always seems like one great director is in some way as good as another for him, at least in this case.

  • Barry Putterman

    Blake, I can highly recommend Dunne’s “Take Two” even though his view of film is not mine or yours. He is writing at a time when auteurism was riding high and he is very much against it (even though he eventually became a director himself). He isn’t one who thinks that the writer is the auteur, but rather that many contribute and if one person absolutely has to be singled out, it would be Zanuck.

    He devotes a whole chapter to HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY and has nothing but praise for Ford’s work. Indeed, he does cite the “I’m a coward” line as “pure Ford” and says it comes out of the one major change he asked for, reshaping that character so that he could cast Barry Fitzgerald in the part.

    As for the core of his view, it is not so very far from the last line of your post:

    “I often have wondered what HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY would have been like had Wyler directed it instead of Ford. There would have been differences, of course,: completely different camera angles, different emphases, different shadings in the performances. But these differences wouldn’t have been much greater than the differences you might detect if you listened to Jascha Heifetz play Beethoven”s Violin Concerto and then to David Oistrakh or Yehudi Menuhim play the same work. In all the performing arts, individual interpretation is important, but never as important as the basic material.”

    Possibly the difference between Dunne and you or me is that his example is classical musicians and ours would probably be jazz.

  • Blake Lucas

    Yes, what he says about those three great classical violinists is perhaps apt in that first there would be the original work. But as your last sentence intimates, jazz is also a performing art and one would hesitate over his description for most jazz players most of the time–maybe less with a strong leader like, say, Ellington, whose sensibility will hold sway over even the strongest individual players, while not inhibiting them. But are we talking about someone like a writer in that case–or a director? Arguably both.

    The flaw in the quote is exactly that cinema is described as a “performing art” when surely that is only one aspect of it. And the fact that Dunne so resolutely does not want to see beyond what is indicated in the screenplay as more important (even if he can readily acknowledge specifics of individual direction) might explain, not so much anything about his own talent as a director, but the fact that he appears not to have had the imagination to try to bring more to HILDA CRANE, IN LOVE AND WAR or THE VIEW FROM POMPEY’S HEAD than he did–and I say this as one who does not despise these movies even as I find them limited.

    As my post showed, I’m familiar with Dunne’s anti-auteurist views, never stopped me from being interested in what he had to say, and I don’t even have that great a problem with anything he’s ever said about HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY, a movie he treasured and took justiable pride in for his contribution. He was a first-rate screenwriter, but I’m still grateful that Ford directed HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY, Mankiewicz THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR and Tourneur WAY OF A GAUCHO.

  • Been thinking about tableau shots myself lately, not least since I saw INGEBORG HOLM again over the summer. Some shots are breathtakingly grand. But would the gin rummy game in BORN YESTERDAY count as tableau?

    I’m still kicking myself for not watching HOME FROM THE HILL the one time I had it within reach. It’s available in Spain I believe, I should probably order it.

    Barry, I very much agree with what you said about “neorealism”, “film noir” and originality.

    Speaking of the elephant and the daisy, a neat trick is to take two forks, entangle them with each other and let them hang over the edge on a table, hold up by a match. Try it, it works.