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  • Writer's pictureGeorge Seminara

Crime! Crime! Crime! Commes les Français!

Updated: Sep 9, 2023

Crime! Crime! Crime! Commes les Français!

Guess who? It’s George

Hello, ladies and gents, cats and kitties, and all the ships at sea!

I'm back! This time, I present Louis Feuillade; don't even ask me to pronounce that mouthful. "Feaú you'd?" Maybe? "Few-Lahd?" I don't know, but your guess is as good as mine. He was born in a small town near the Mediterranean on February 19 in 1873. A year filled with deaths, Napoleon 111 kicked the bucket and gave birth to Alice Guy-Blaché (a great little-known filmmaker who recently had her biography told in an excellent and informative graphic novel reviewed on this blog by Rob Freese.) Feuillade died on February 25 1925, the year that marked the beginning of the Tour de France and the birth of the French John Cassavetes Maurice Pialat (I can give a stab at that pronunciation. But as I'm not a ten-year-old, I'll let you try pronouncing  his  name. We're a serious operation here.) The director who gave us  Loulou  and Isabelle Huppert and Gérard Depardieu! 

Louis Feuillade was a French filmmaker.Who worked during the silent era. Between 1906 and 1924, he directed somewhere in the neighborhood of 630 films. Yeah, you read that right, 630 films! Today, he is remembered for the serials, Fantômas, Les Vampires, and Judex, made between 1913 and 1916. It's hours and hours of story, like a pulp novel or a comic book. Once or twice a month, an episode that was wilder than the previous installment would drop. These were fevered crime films. CRIME! From the villain's point of view. (except for Judex, but he's a vigilante.) These serials blew away 15-year-old Alfred Hitchcock and shook up German master Fritz Lang and his wife, Thea Von Harbou, inspiring them to write M.(one of my fave-raves!) 

Note #1:  Thea von Harbou (December 27 1888 – July 1 1954) was a German screenwriter, novelist, film director, and actress! She is best remembered as the novelist and screenwriter of the classic Metropolis (1927) science fiction film. Thea von Harbou collaborated with her film director husband, Fritz Lang, during the period of transition from silent to sound films.

Though ten years older than Fritz, she ditched him for a much younger South Asian student and secretly married him. Please don't feel bad for Fritz. Technically, he was Jewish. His mother was Jewish, but she raised Fritz and his brother, Adolf, Catholic. His religious affiliation probably caused more tension than old Fritzie chasing starlets because Thea became a Nazi! It was difficult for her to remain married to the Indian student, husband #2, and she sent him back to India. Fritz made it to America and continued to make films. 

Speaking of WWII, after the war, Thea got incarcerated. She directed shows in prison performed by her fellow inmates. 

Thea claimed that her war work was entirely volunteer. She worked as a welder, made hearing aids, and provided emergency medical care. Not only that, she also received a medal of merit for saving people in two air raids. But I think that's a lot of bologna! She still hung out with Hitler, I'm just sayin'. The old girl continued to write after her release. Complications from a broken hip led to her demise in the summer of 1954; she left the planet when she was just 65. (Hey, I can see that age from my kitchen window as it gets closer and closer!) 

Louis Feuillade was originally a news reporter who dabbled in  cinema. Our old pal, Alice Guy-Blaché at Gaumont, encouraged his writings and recommended him to become Gaumont's Artistic Director when she popped off to America (Fort Lee, New Jersey, to be precise) to found her own production company, Solax. (Ya gotta find that post!) 

Why all this hubbub about a filmmaker you probably never heard of? Fantômas, Les Vampires, and Judex are why. I'm sure with both a film starring Maggie Cheung (she plays Jackie Chan's long-suffering girlfriend in the Police Story movies) and a TV series starring Academy Award winner Alicia Vikander both actresses playing the title character Irma Vep. You should know that Irma Vep is the leader of a criminal gang called Les Vampires! But for my money, the only Irma was played by the original one-named celebrity, Musadora. 

Jeanne Roques February 23 1889 – December 11 1957 was known professionally as the one named, Musidora! She was a French actress, film director, film producer, writer, and movie theater cashier. Best known for her acting in silent films. She became a star for roles in Louis Feuillade's hit serials Les Vampires and Judex. Not only was she the first "one name" star, Like Cher, Madonna, and Prince, but I believe Musadora was the first Goth. She had the look 60 years before Siouxsie Sioux. She was a Vamp before Theda Bara. Theda is a complete rip-off in comparison. Also, Musidora did her own stunts! Check my girl out. In one sequence, she tumbles down the side of a tall building wrapped in an unfurling length of rope — a deed mimicked 60+ years later by no less than Jackie Chan.

Note #2: Musidora's pal, Sidonie-GabrielleColette. Born on January 28 1873 – and kicked the bucket on August 3 1954, also known by "onename" or as more than one biographer calls it, "mononymously" as Colette. (That's all well and good, but Musidora was first in that one-name business. She took her name from the classic Greek meaning gift of the gods. Evidently, she was not what one might call modest.) Colette was a mime, actress, and writer. Best remembered, by English readers, for her 1944 novella Gigi, which inspired the 1958 film of the same name. Where the 67-year-old Maurice Chevalier creepily sings, "Thank Heaven For Little Girls." Quick, someone call Human Resources!

Feuillade's (Phuee-laddie?) first successful serial, and by first, I mean the first, in that this was the start of serialized storytelling in movies, was his adaptation of Fantômas. The novel introduces one of the most popular characters in the history of French fiction. Fantômas first appeared in 1911 and appeared in a total of 43 volumes. Fantômas inspired various film, television, comic book adaptations, and even a post-punk super-group. In the history of crime fiction, he represents a distinct change from the traditional novel villains of the 19th century (all bad) to the modern-day, 20th century, serial killers, supervillains, and the like.(complex) Inspired by the success of Sherlock Holmes, but rebelling against it, the French authors, Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain created a psychopathically creative villain in Fantômas.

Fantômas is a series of six roughly 90-minute films, each ending in a cliffhanger. Ol' Fantômas is special. He's an attractive combo of Hannibal Lecter and Severus Snape without the fava beans. His world is dark, moody, and almost surreal. It's hard to believe that the film is 107 years old. Inspector Juve pursues Fantômas and ultimately catches him. Juve oversees his trip to Madame Guillotine. Spoiler alert! After more than five hundred minutes of filmmaking goodness, Juve has a bloody head in his hands and exclaims, "Fantômas is Alive!"

The crowds went wild, and the film was a box-office Smash!

Note #3: The other popular character of the time was Netflix and Miyazaki star Lupin the Gentleman Thief. Created by, Maurice LeBlanc he took being the series into parody by introducing Lupin's nemesis, Herlock Shoames!

The five episodes of Fantômas, were released during the lead up to WWI 1913–14, recently the films were restored under the direction of Jacques Champreaux and released in this new form in 2006. It's available and well worth it. (Sez me!)

Feuillade's (phu-yahd?) follow-up to the smash hit Fantomas wasLes Vampires.Musidora takes center stage as muse to the Grand Vampire, Irma Vep. It is not as kinetic as Fantomas. It's a little staid in its filmmaking approach, but the story involves Irma Vep and her posse of criminal Vampires. There are crazy stunts and beheadings, and it was shot entirely on location in Paris during World War One! It's a series that gets under your skin, just like that rash you brought home from summer camp.

Upon its release, Les Vampires was universally despised and dismissed by film critics. They hated its shady morality and its lack of the élan of its predecessor. It was a surprise hit with its wartime audience, causing Feuillade to shout, "Suckas!" Musidora became a star of French cinema, and she used her celebrity to write and direct her own properties. Les Vampires has been re-evaluated recently and is considered Feuillade's masterpiece. You might ask, "But, why?" I'll tell you, Les Vampires is the sketch that led to the great works by filmmakers like Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, and John Carpenter. It established the techniques that are used to this day to convey the building of suspense and horror. 

Feuillade's (I'm sticking with phu-yahd.) last leg of his trilogy of greatness is Judex. It starred French matinee idol René Cresté as the masked vigilante Judex (Judge) and Musidora as Diana, the love interest, or is she really Marie Verdier, sidekick to the man of mystery Judex? Anyway, the film began production hot on the heels of Les Vampires. World War One was at its height, and still, he pressed on. Pretty ballsy. 

Judex predates the Batman by more than 20 years. (I know that the Phantom predates Batman. Judex has more in common with the Dark Knight.)

Judex is a hero of sorts. His Paris is dark, moody, and morally complex. He inhabits a similar world to Fantômas and Les Vampires but is a criminal for good, doing battle with some pretty flamboyant villains. Finding a story with a moral center, the critics were pleased. It is 375 minutes of great fun. It is the most accomplished of the three and the shortest. Each episode lasts 25 minutes, and Feuillade has grown as a filmmaker. I can appreciate it, and it is the best directed of the three but, strangely to me, the least interesting. I'm sorry!

By December 11, 1957, Musidora had worked as a stage actor, singer, film star, novelist, journalist, producer, and director. She was an early cineaste and helped fight to preserve France's classic cinema. Like that joke whose punchline is, "And what quit show business!?!" Musidora spent her last years working at the Cinématheque Française as a cashier! She was 68 years old when she left the plane. She was the original screen vamp, a muse to the surrealists and temptation personified to movie goers once upon a time. .

It was another smash hit. Gaumont decided a great marketing plan would be to have a fictionalized telling of each episode published in the newspaper the week before each film was released. Talk about spoilers! And yet, it was a hit. Two years later, WWI would be over, and movies would continue to find new ways to build upon these films' unique foundations. I recommend checking them out. All three are available on DVD in completely restored versions. (Until they find a new print somewhere) I know it's a big commitment. We're talking hours. But if you got through Yellowstone, you can get through this!  

My only caveat is that these movies are over a hundred years old. The filmmakers were creating a language of visual storytelling out of whole cloth. Remember that and be amazed! 

The second title in our Movie Novelization Series, Brett Kelly's Galaxy Warriors, is available now everywhere!

This is a new edition of Galaxy Warriors includes extra scenes and vintage lobby cards made in the style of 70s/80s genre flicks.

It is available, along with all our titles at Makeflix!

Signed copies are available from Lunchmeat, as well as in a special bundle with the Galaxy Warriors VHS!

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Greg Goodsell
Greg Goodsell
08. Sept. 2023

It's pronounced fee-YAHD.

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