Fantomas Against Fantomas (1914) Fantomas Against Fantomas / Fantomas IV: Fantomas vs. Fantomas / Fantomas Contre Fantomas / Fantomas: Le Policier Apache (1914) ***

     After three films in a single year, itís no surprise that Louis Feuilladeís next Fantomas picture would be a bit of a comedown. Indeed, the unexpected thing is rather that The Murderous Corpse was itself so good. Yet despite some understandable slippage, Fantomas Against Fantomas shows the series still going shockingly strong, embracing the loopiness of pulp detective fiction as warmly as ever, and building in contrastingly sensible ways upon the action of its predecessors.

     You might have noticed over the preceding three films that Fantomas (Rene Navarre) has racked up an extremely impressive body count during his reign of terror, to say nothing of the aggregate monetary value of his heists. Well, the French public is sick of it, you hear? In fact, so great is their ire that itís beginning to spill over at last onto Inspector Juve (Edmond Breon), the Security Service detective who has three times had the miscreant cornered, and who three times allowed him to slip away to continue his mischief. One Parisian newspaper even prints an article purporting to prove that Juve and Fantomas are really the same person. Worse yet, the prosecutor general reads said article, and finds it persuasive enough to order Juveís arrest! At La Capitale, Juveís reporter friend and constant ally in the fight against Fantomas, Jerome Fandor (Georges Melchior), reacts dramatically when he hears that. Not unreasonably fearing that suspicion will soon fall upon him as well, he takes a leave of absence from the paper and goes into hiding, vowing to exonerate Juve and to bring Fantomas to justice.

     Meanwhile, the criminal mastermind is operating under yet another assumed identity, this time acting as a slumlord moneylender and calling himself Father Moche. One day, a bill collector comes to see Moche at one of his buildings, looking to recoup not just from him, but from his tenant Paulet (Laurent Morleas, who played Mr. Martiale in Juve Against Fantomas) as well. Paulet and his wife (Louise Lagrange, from Cinderella, or The Glass Slipper and Judex 34) have no money to give him, so they lie in wait for his knock and brain him with a claw hammer as soon as he crosses the threshold of their flat. Then they help themselves to the contents of his collection satchel. Fantomas, never one to let opportunity pass him by, blackmails the pettier criminals into cutting him in for a third of the haul, in exchange for which he promises to make their little cadaver problem go away. He walls the bill collector up inside a building under construction on the Rue díEvangeline, and all concerned assume thatís the end of tható especially with Juve in jail and Fandor in hiding.

     But the conspirators have not figured on Tom Bob, a celebrated private detective from the United States. Posing as a construction worker, Bob gains access to the unfinished building, and finds the concealed body with unerring ease. The Parisian cops are all mortified. To be shown up so thoroughly on their home turf, and by an American at that!

     Thereís just one thing we should all keep in mind, thoughó there is no Tom Bob. The detective is really Fantomas himself, undertaking his most daring scheme yet. This time, Fantomas means to defraud an entire nation by pretending to catch himself, taking the heat off of him permanently and eliminating his greatest enemy while heís at it. Running with the speculations published in the aforementioned newspaper, Fantomas will frame Inspector Juve, and bask in universal adulation as the man who finally put an end to the greatest reign of terror France has known since the one with the capital letters. Of course, you canít eat universal adulation, so before the arch-fiend gets too far into his plot, he drops in on his old gal-pal and frequent accomplice, Alexandra Beltham (Renee Carl, one last time), whom Feuillade has finally given a first name. Once again, Alexandra is trying to go straight when Fantomas reenters her life, even to the extent of remarrying to some grand duke or other. But blackmail is blackmail, and Fantomas has accumulated an awful lot of dirt on the former Lady Beltham over the course of their acquaintance. In the end, she acquiesces to the criminalís demand to organize a subscription drive to raise an unheard-of pot of reward money for the capture of Fantomas.

     Grand Duchess Alexandra throws a masked ball to kick off her pledge drive, giving both Fandor and the chief of police (an actor identified only as Maury) an idea. What if someone were to attend the masquerade dressed in one of Fantomasís more famous disguises? If the real Fantomas is still at large (which is to say, if he isnít Juve), then donít you think heíd be tempted to turn up at such an event himself? And isnít his ego surely big enough that heíd be goaded into action by encountering an imposter once he got there? Of course he would, but the presence of three Fantomases at the party (the real one, Fandor, and a police inspector) introduces a level of complexity for which neither Fandor nor the chief of police is ready. When Fantomas makes his move, provoking a dance floor altercation with the disguised cop that escalates into a lethal knife-fight in the garden, Fandor can do nothing but to slink quietly away for fear of bringing down suspicion upon himself. After all, everyone saw two identically costumed men head out into the garden, and for all they know, Fandor could be the murderer just as well as the other fellow. Then again, one of the servants reports being asked to help bandage a cut on a guestís forearmó one of the three guests posing as Fantomas.

     That testimony gives the chief a new idea. Hurrying to the jail where Juve remains locked up, he demands to inspect the inspectorís right arm for an injury matching that of the man at Grand Duchess Alexandraís ball. Nevermind how absurd it would be for Juve to sneak out of the prison, get stabbed, and then sneak back into it again. This is Fantomas weíre dealing withó no scheme is too outlandish to put past him. Incredibly enough, Juve does indeed have a fresh knife wound in his forearm, but heís also in a laudanum stupor when the chief comes to see him, and his water carafe stinks of the drug. After Juve is roused with smelling salts, he himself solves the mystery. Fantomas has placed one of his agents among the guards, and it was he who drugged Juve to facilitate the frame-up. The warden assembles all the guards for inspection, and the chief orders his men to search the one Juve identifies as the last he remembers entering his cell. That would be Nibet (Naudier), who we already know has been working for Fantomas, directly or indirectly, since In the Shadow of the Guillotine. His pockets are found to contain both a bloody knife and a packet of laudanum, so heíll be seeing the bars from the other side from now on. Juve, meanwhile, is set free and reinstated in his accustomed position.

     Remarkably, even that reverse isnít enough to make Fantomas abandon his schemeó although it does worry him sufficiently that he contrives to steal all the money Alexandra raised for the bogus reward to Tom Bob. In his guise as Father Moche, Fantomas stashes the reward money in a strongbox, hidden beneath the basement floor of a ruined house in the middle of nowhere. Thatís the same house the Fantomas gang has been using of late for its field headquarters, and the arch-criminal finds himself trapped there under near-mutiny conditions when he stops by to check on the loot a day or two later. You see, with all the identity-switching and running about, Fantomas has perhaps understandably allowed his gangís wages to fall into arrears, and theyíve been waiting for Moche (apparently the persona Fantomas uses when dealing with the gang face to face) to give him a piece of their collective mind. Moche has to produce a letter assuring swiftly forthcoming payment to keep them from taking out their frustrations with the boss on him (which, of course, would be the same thing as taking them out on the boss himself, although the rank-and-file thieves donít realize that). The uprising convinces Fantomas that itís time to ditch all his followers, and thus begins a convoluted game of traps and counter-traps, which Juve and Fandor hope to exploit to overthrow the criminal empire of Fantomas once and for all.

     Itís hard to find much to say about Fantomas Against Fantomas, coming to it as I am hard on the heels of all three of its predecessors. Its virtues are about equal in magnitude to those of Fantomas: In the Shadow of the Guillotine, although theyíre nearer in kind to those of the previous sequels. Fantomas Against Fantomas does, however, regain a bit of the first chapterís not-quite-surreality by using the startlingly believable device of public dissatisfaction with Juve to set up probably the screwiest plot in the whole series. Iím also impressed with the way this entry belatedly drums up a little sympathy for Lady Beltham. She might have entered the story as an unscrupulous schemer, but here in her final appearance, itís clear that she deeply regrets ever getting involved with Fantomas. Finally, although itís pretty subtle, there is one thing that sharply differentiates Fantomas Against Fantomas from its predecessors once you notice its presence. Unlike the preceding films, this one has a sense of humor. Most obviously, thereís the bid for cheap laughs represented by the arrogantly swaggering Tom Bob and the French copsí reaction to him. Then, going several shades darker, thereís the absurd yet completely understandable irony of what almost befalls Inspector Juve. The biggest joke is the easiest to miss, however: this time around, Fantomas almost seems to understand that heís the villain in a pulp detective story, and to have consciously predicated his strategy on the genreís conventions. The plan to frame Juve for being Fantomas by posing as a rival super-detective reminds me of something Mel Brooks could have written into a parody of arch-criminal movies, perhaps as his follow-up to Young Frankenstein. (Mind you, the Brooks version would have been much broader than this.) I find myself picturing Gene Wilder as Fandor, Kenneth Mars as Juve, and Slim Pickens as Tom Bob, although I confess to have no idea who would play Fantomas in his true identity. And now that Iíve said that, I defy you to watch Fantomas Against Fantomas without picturing it, too.

 

 

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