The False Magistrate (1914)

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*. This is the last of the Fantômas serials and it’s in the worst shape, with lots of gaps where the film has been unrecoverable. Even the opening photo montage of mug shots where we go through Fantômas’s transformations is missing.
*. It’s a shame, because I think this one had the potential to be the best of the lot. The usual elements are all there (like the ambushes from out of the bushes or behind a door, or the nice use of locations), but they’re especially well executed.
*. The jewellery robbery, for example. Of course there had to be a robbery, but the set up here is interesting and well presented, especially with the shot that takes us through the wall between the two rooms. Fantômas’s escape at the end was also very clever. I was expecting some variation on the trap door, but his last letter as magistrate freeing himself in advance took me by surprise.
*. The surveillance and pursuit sequence is also very well handled. It’s hard to present a chase effectively without a lot of editing (this is one of the main reasons D. W. Griffith was driven to pioneer so much in this regard), but Feuillade gives us a chase that is suspenseful and easy to follow. You know Fantomas is going to give those two guys the slip, but you’re not sure where.

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*. The bell tower double-cross is another stand-out set piece, though here too you can see Feuillade straining against the limits of what he can do. There’s a nice climbing pan as we follow the one gang member up the ladder into the bell, but he can’t really go beyond this.
*. What happens to the crook in the bell, by the way? Does he fall out along with the jewels when it is rung? Does no one notice him up there? I don’t recall any mention of how he got down, or if he fell, or if he died up there.
*. Why does the magistrate go into the luggage car? It seems an odd place for such a distinguished gentleman to hang out and have a smoke.
*. More time is given over to Fantômas himself here, and I think his limits as a villain are starting to show. His girlfriend Lady Beltham is gone but he still can’t let any mention of money or jewels pass by without it triggering a nervous response that forces him into criminal action, no matter what the costs. Aside from his sinister sense of humour (which isn’t indulged much in this film), there’s nothing else to him.
*. So as I say, it’s a shame we don’t have a full print of this one. Still, given the low survival rate of movies from this period we should probably just be grateful for what we have. And there seems something fitting in our not having Fantômas’s final escape. It’s like he’s vanished again.

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