If I rack my brain, I can come up with an English language corollary by which to describe Fantomas. But that doesn’t change my perception that there is something irreducibly French about the character. Certainly, Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu is similar, in that he is one of those rare examples of a villain serving as the central figure and driving force behind a popular series. But, while Fu Manchu’s representation was that of a monstrous “other”, playing on the racial anxieties of the age in which he was created, Fantomas seems more like a personification of the id unleashed. As such, he engages his audience in fantasies of a life lived without borders or moral constraints, with the traditional heroes and cops-and-robbers aspects of the stories serving to house those fantasies within a socially acceptable context. It’s as if Bataille or De Sade had chosen to couch their transgressive works within the format of a dime detective novel.

Introduced by French writers Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre in 1911, Fantomas went on, over the next several decades, to appear in a long series of novels, a number of highly regarded silent film serials, several feature films, and a Spanish language comic book. Since seemingly any aspect of pop culture that endured until the 60s had to be recreated in its image, venerable French genre director (and, previous to that, apparently, renowned glass artist) Andre Hunebelle chose 1964 to lens the first of a trio of Fantomas films that pointedly channeled the camp sensibility, pop art style and Bondian high gloss of their era.

Despite their pulp origins, it’s not hard to immediately identify Hunebelle’s Fantomas films as solid “A” list efforts. The production values are handsome, the behind the camera talent top notch, and the cast stellar. Leading the latter is Jean Marais, who, in a dual role, plays both the villain Fantomas and Fantomas’ journalist adversary Fandor in each of the movies. Marais’ fame outside of France is probably most due to his collaborations with the director and artist Jean Cocteau, which included Marais playing the lead in both the 1946 classic Beauty and the Beast and 1949’s Orphée. (For what it’s worth, Marais was also Cocteau’s lover for a time.) In the late 50s and early 60s, Marais reinvented himself as a hero of swashbuckling action films, a number of which were directed by Hunebelle. Carried over from these into the Fantomas films is Marais’ practice of performing his own stunts. As a result, great care is taken in the films to compose the action shots so that we can clearly see that it is, in fact, Marais who is dangling from a helicopter, scrambling across Paris rooftops, or scaling a moving crane high above those rooftops.

Joining Marais, in the role of Juve, the chief of police who is obsessed with catching Fantomas, is the enormously popular French comic actor Louis de Funes. Given De Funes’ acting style –- and in keeping with the lighter tone of Hunebelle’s Fantomas efforts in general — the character of Juve had to be retooled somewhat from his more serious depiction in the books to one that capitalized instead upon De Fune’s gift for portraying a kind of perpetually flustered and clownish imperiousness. To the actor’s credit, it is a portrayal that’s surprisingly effective, even to someone like myself who is no fan of the typical “bumbling cop” type comic relief characters that populate films of this era. I think part of that is because portraying Juve –- and, by extension, authority in general — in this manner allows the audience to view him from the same vantage of superiority as Fantomas does. After the initial film, De Funes would have an increasingly front-and-center role in the series, with the second film, Fantomas Strikes Back, even featuring a Pink Panther style animated credit sequence depicting Juve’s hapless pursuit of the criminal.

Finally, rounding out the above-the-title cast, is French sex symbol Mylene Demongeot as Fandor’s photographer fiancé Helene. As with Juve, the more comedic tone of Hunebelle’s films necessitated that the darker aspects of some of the books’ characters be either removed or left unmentioned. And so no reference is made to Helene being, in actuality, Fantomas’ daughter. Likewise, the fact that Fandor, in the novels, is either the son of one of Fantomas’ victims, or, in fact, of Fantomas himself is stripped away, leaving the screen character with no prior knowledge of the villain’s history or actions. (In keeping with what I mentioned earlier, it seems that, in Fantomas’ printed adventures, even the good guys, quite literally, had a little bit of Fantomas in them.) As for the character of Fantomas’ female accomplice and partner, Lady Beltham: as portrayed by former model Marie-Hélène Arnaud, she is a mute and rarely seen specter, whereas, in print, she served as a sort of audience surrogate, at once repelled by the villain’s horrific deeds, yet at the same time helplessly drawn to him.

So removed from Fantomas is Fandor, it turns out, that at the beginning of the series’ first film, Fantomas, he is shown to be doubtful of the criminal’s existence altogether. In his role as a newspaper reporter, he composes a blustery editorial, mocking Juve and the police for inventing the master criminal as a straw man on whom to place blame for all of the societal ills they’ve been ineffective in controlling. Ever hungry for a scoop, he then goes one step further by inventing a fictionalized interview in which Fantomas is made to sound like a megalomaniacal buffoon. These antics understandably stoke the enmity of the martinet-like Juve, but, when the Chief and his Lieutenant show up at the newspaper offices to register their displeasure, a bomb goes off, with the result that Juve and Fandor end up recuperating in adjacent hospital beds. In a choice example of Juve’s unique thought processes, this bombing leads him to suspect that Fandor is somehow connected to, and might even be, Fantomas.

As that bombing proves, the worse for Fandor is the fact that his flights of fancy have caught the attention of a none-too-pleased Fantomas, and, as such, it is not long before the reporter finds himself forcibly whisked away to the criminal’s gothic subterranean lair. It is at this point that Marais makes his first appearance as the titular villain. By this point in Fantomas’ history, what had originally been depicted as a black hood has evolved, in this screen incarnation, into a membranous blue mask that clings to the entire head like a second skin, obscuring all of the wearer’s identifiable features but for a pair of piercing eyes. It’s a striking, iconic look –- one that made enough of an impression on audiences far and wide to be paid “homage” to in such far flung efforts as the Bollywood adventure Saazish and the Turkish Iron Claw the Pirate.

But as important as Fantomas’ appearance is what Marais brings to his characterization. Both Marais’ performances as Fandor and Fantomas benefit from the fact that the actor, even in his 50s, cut an extremely elegant and dashing figure. But in his portrayal of Fantomas, he brings a little something extra. Whereas Fandor is brash and cocky, Fantomas exudes a feline air of cool mastery and decadent self satisfaction, his voice a relaxed, baritone purr that contrasts tellingly with the reporter’s more high strung delivery. At one point in their conversation, Fantomas complains about Fandor’s portrayal of him as a gloomy lunatic, saying, “I kill, of course, but always with a smile”. And in the delivery of that line, there is a sense of deep pleasures being revisited, as if Fantomas were reliving and relishing every drop of blood spilled. Despite the amorality of the path he has taken, we get the sense that this is a man who –- like the platonic template for all of 1960s jet-set cinema’s great, larger than life heroes — has truly mastered the art of living.

And, of course, like so many 1960s spoofs of its type, Fantomas throws those fantasies of mastery back in its audience’s collective face by way of absurd exaggeration. Fantomas’ utter invincibility is so de facto here that a joke is made even of any attempt to generate suspense around whether the protagonists will be able to stop him. Thus what is left for us to do is simply sit back and vicariously enjoy as Fantomas employs his limitless means (which here include his spectacular hidden lair, a seemingly endless supply of goons, and a personal submarine, but which in the subsequent films will grow to include a flying Citroen) to thwart those do-gooders at every turn.

Chief among the canonical tools of Fantomas’ trade is his mastery of disguises, and I was especially impressed by how Hunebelle, in selling this device, went so far above and beyond what other filmmakers were doing at the time. To get an idea of how this standard espionage movie trope was typically handled, one need look no further than the Shaw Brothers’ gender-flipped remake of Fantomas, Temptress of a Thousand Faces (which, don’t get me wrong, is absolutely wonderful): A character reveals a wardrobe full of chunky-looking rubber masks of the type that could have been ordered from one of those Don Post ads in the back of an old issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland. Somewhat improbably, upon donning one of those masks and daintily patting it down upon her face, that character, despite the particulars of bone structure and body type, assumes the exact appearance of another member of the cast –- which is, of course, accomplished by substituting that other member of the cast for the actor in question.

By contrast, Fantomas makes this gimmick that much more credible, in the first place, by, whenever possible, having Fantomas in disguise mode simply be portrayed by a disguised Jean Marais with different appliances on his face. However, when Fantomas is impersonating another character, and another one of the actors is called upon to step in, care is taken to make that actor’s features appear just a little bit “off”, with his skin given a telltale blue pallor. Lastly, the masks themselves, when handled, are shown to have a convincingly translucent, skin-like quality. I admit that all of these are fairly nerdy, minor details, but they’re nonetheless important as evidence of the care and craftsmanship that was brought to the task of bringing this version of Fantomas to the screen. Time may blur the distinction between this and other masked anti-hero capers that were coming out of Europe at the time, but one need only hold Fantomas up against a haphazard entry like the Italian made Avenger X, or Ruggero Deodato’s lamentable Phenomenal and the Treasure of Tutankhamen, in order to appreciate its accomplished execution to a perhaps previously unimaginable degree.

When Fandor is unable to meet Fantomas’ demands for a retraction of his unflattering article, he gets an unpleasant, first hand demonstration of the criminal’s disguise artistry. In the guise of Fandor, Fantomas commits a daring robbery of a Jewelry exhibition guarded over by Juve and his men. This would seem to give Juve all the confirmation he needs of his suspicions regarding Fandor, until Fantomas sets his sites on him, staging an armed assault on a theater showing a documentary of his exploits while disguised as Juve. This leads to one of the film’s most successful comedic sequences, in which Juve observes a room full of witnesses guiding a composite artist’s rendering of the suspect. Gradually, an exact portrait of Juve emerges based on the witnesses increasingly unflattering descriptions: “That’s it, a cruel mouth”, says one, while another calls Juve’s eyes “sadistic, like a feral beast”, and another praises the artist for capturing the suspect’s “depraved look”. Throughout this, De Funes nails a series of slowly escalating, wordless reaction shots that are absolutely priceless.

Taken as a trilogy, Hunebelle’s Fantomas films seem to hew closely to the spirit of those early serials that first brought Fantomas to the screen. You could even regard them as three unusually elongated chapters in such a serial. In keeping with that, Hunebelle doesn’t forget to spice Fantomas up with a generous helping of nostalgic, Saturday matinee style thrills. In addition to a death-defying –- though scenic — rooftop chase involving Juve and Fantomas, there is a scene in which Fandor and Helene find themselves careening backwards down a twisty mountain road in a car without brakes. Finally, the film concludes with an extended chase sequence between Juve, Fandor and Fantomas that ends up involving, in rapid succession, motorcycles, cars, a locomotive, a helicopter, speed boats, and, finally, a submarine. All of this leads to an abrupt anticlimax that effectively points our way toward the next installment, Fantomas Strikes Back, which would see release the following year.

As I alluded to earlier, the Fantomas series’ second and third entries would see an increasing focus on the hapless escapades of De Funes’ Juve character, along with a corresponding increase in the emphasis on comedy, with the final film, 1967’s Fantomas vs. Scotland Yard being by far the most farcical of the lot. While it’s a fairly obvious choice, I have to say that, for me, the first is the best, mainly because, in setting the stage for the others, it is forced to focus more or less equally on all of the Fantomas mythos’ most iconic elements. Of course, it does so in a somewhat merry fashion that serves to undermine some of those elements’ originally more sinister aspects. But the wonderful thing about a character as enduring as Fantomas is that he is more than capable of withstanding the punishment. Like the ever morphing, master of disguise that he is, you can twist his face one way, but there will always be other writers, filmmakers, or artists ready to come along and twist it right back — or into another shape entirely.

So, in this form, the one that Andre Hunebelle gives him, I think that it’s perfectly alright to laugh at Fantomas. Especially since — given the fact that he embodies some of our most child-like fantasies of license, dominance and control – it’s really ourselves that are the butt of the joke.

Release Year: 1964 | Country: France | Starring: Jean Marais, Louis de Funes, Mylene Demongeot, Jacques Dynam, Robert Dalban, Marie-Helene Arnaud | Screenplay: Jean Halain, Pierre Foucaud | Director: Andre Hunebelle | Cinematography: Marcel Grignon | Music: Michel Magne | Producers: Paul Cadeac, Cyril Grize, Alain Poire