Fantomas

The Fantômas Films: Le mort qui tue (1913)


AmbushSynopsis of Le mort qui tue from Richard Abel's The Ciné Goes To Town: French Cinema 1896-1914. Berkeley: University Of California Press, 1994.

The six episodes of the next sequel, Le mort qui tue (November 1913), make it one of the longest in the series, and in reprising characters and situations from the earlier films, it is even more grisly in its violence. After Juve and Fandor escape the destruction of Lady Beltham's villa (not without injury), it is the journalist who now pursues the archcriminal, but with no more success than Juve had. As before, Fantômas's exploits take him and his pursuer through several different levels of French society. In the first episode, Fantômas chloroforms a painter named Jacques Dollon in order to set him up for the murder of a wealthy baron he has killed. In the second, Nibet stabs Dollon in prison, and Fantômas takes away the body in order to remove the skin of its right hand—for a human glove. Here, Juve (disguised as a clochard) has to rescue Fandor who has followed Fantômas to a Seine sewer inlet (where Dollon's body is dumped). Princes Danidoff [from the first film] returns in the third episode, to give a party for her fiancé Thomery, a sugar-plantation owner, and promptly is robbed of her jewels again by Fantômas, disguised as a banker named Nanteuil—but on her neck (she has been rendered unconscious) is a fingerprint that turns out to be Dollon's. Lady Beltham then returns in the next episode, to deliver a ransom note for the jewels to Thomery, who is lured to an empty apartment and garroted by Fantômas's gang. In the fifth episode, Fantômas searches the Pension Bourrat, where Elizabeth Dollon is staying, trying to recover an enigmatic list she found earlier in her brother's cell, and Fandor arrives just in time to save her from being asphyxiated—and sends her to a convent for protection. Then, hidden in a packing basket of her belongings which Fantômas has requisitioned, he is transported to the gang's hideout and discovers Thomery's body. Finally, Fandor links up again with Juve, and they confront Nanteuil, thinking that they have Fantômas at last—but he vanishes before their eyes (and guns) through a secret wall panel door.

From this narrative summary, the six episodes of Le mort qui tue would seem to correspond closely to the film's six reels. According to the National Film Archive's print, however, which covers only the last three episodes and has Czech intertitles [Note: all of the Fantômas films were restored in 1995-96 by Gaumont Studios, with the assistance of the French Government], this film, too, either carried the action across at least some of the reel breaks or else used the reel break to heighten suspense near the end of an episode. One break in the NFA print, for instance, comes just after Fantômas exits from Elizabeth's room at the pension, after having drugged her coffee and turned on the gas; the next opens with Fandor breaking into the room to turn off the gas and open a window. Yet, if Le mort qui tue resembles its predecessors in this use of reel breaks, its mode of representation is slightly different. Most of the scenes, for instance, are shot in studio decors, and frequent intertitles either link or interrupt the AS ["American Shot" (from the knees up)] / LS [Long Shot] or FS [Full Shot] / LS tableaux. Some of the decors, especially the ones with less depth, are quite spare, but this is used to good effect for moments like the garroting—where Thomery steps from a background painted-flat hallway into an empty room, through a central doorway on either side of which two hooded figures stand poised. One of the film's more interesting features, however, is the greater number of cut-in CUs [Close-Ups] and ECUs [Extreme Close-Ups] of objects, which prove more deceptive than revealing.In episode three, for instance, the CU photograph of the fingerprint lifted from the princess's neck baffles her guests, and the ECU of the pearls that Lady Beltham shows Thomery deceives him into believing that the ransom exchange is genuine—in both cases, by contrast, the spectator can conclude that this is Fantômas's handiwork. Curiously, another cut-in close shot briefly positions the spectator as superior to Fantômas—when Elizabeth stuffs the list into the back of a blotter, which he later overlooks in his search of her room. Yet, a cut-in CU of his hand turning the gas lever then threatens to take revenge on her for the sleight of hand, as well as on any spectator tempted to identify with her. These CUs culminate in the last scene as Juve rips the glove of human skin from Fantômas's hand—only to have him disappear through the wall, secreted beneath one more fake exterior.

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