The Fantômas Films: Le faux magistrat (1914)

Man in BlackSynopsis of Le faux magistrat:

The film opens with a montage of Fantômas's many identities, including the Man in Black.

The Marquis de Tergall decides to sell his wife's jewels to pay his debts. His eavesdropping maid overhears the Marquis setting up a meeting with a jeweler the next day in Room 30 of the Saint-Calais Hotel.

As the Marquis arrives with the jewels at Room 30 at the appointed hour, he sees a number of priests leaving Room 29 next door. The jeweler arrives and produces a check for 250,000 francs. The Marquis is displeased—he wants cash. The jeweler invites him to cash the check at his bank, just five minutes away. In the meantime, the jeweler places the box containing the gems in a drawer in a bureau. When the Marquis returns, cash in hand, meeting seems to have concluded—until the jeweler reaches into the drawer, opens the jewel box, and finds it empty. He accuses the Marquis and calls the police.

When Room 29 is searched a hole in the wall connecting to Room 30 is discovered, and the bureau also has a hole in the back. While these discoveries are being made, the true priest who lives in Room 29 comes in and immediately falls under suspicion. He is cleared when two women show up carrying a bundle of priests' vestments that had been thrown from a train leaving Saint-Calais.

Since it is now clear that neither the priest nor the Marquis was involved, the Marquis mounts his bicycle [!] and decides to take a shortcut home through the woods. But he doesn't notice the rope stretched across the trail and is knocked to the ground. Two apaches, Ribonard and Bébé, rush out of the bushes and rob him of the 250,000 francs.

Cut to Juve telling Fandor that Fantômas is in jail in Belgium. (You may remember that at the end of the previous film, Fantômas contre Fantômas, Fantômas had escaped. But Feuillade did not adapt books seven through eleven, and in the eleventh novel, L'arrestation de Fantômas (The arrest of Fantômas), Fantômas had finally been captured by Juve and Fandor—but in Belgium, where there is no death penalty.) Juve tells Fandor of his plan to spring Fantômas from jail in Belgium, so that he can be rearrested in France and finally executed for his crimes. Juve's plan involves substituting himself for Fantômas (not the first time in the series that they've switched roles). The exchange takes place, and Fantômas, dressed in a smuggled guard's uniform, walks out of the prison unchallenged and is immediately tailed by two French policemen.

After a change of clothes, Fantômas takes a train for Paris, but while stretching his legs at a way-station, spots the detectives. He shakes them by re-entering his compartment, but passing through the train and out the other side into the baggage car of a train on the next track. A passenger on the second train, a judge named Pradier who is travelling to his new posting at Saint-Calais, is stretching his legs on the platform. The train begins to move before he can return to his compartment, and he jumps into the baggage car as it pulls out. Fantômas spots an opportunity and murders Pradier, flinging his body out of the moving train as it passes over a river; there's a gruesome shot of Pradier's hand, as if grasping for life, slowly slipping under the water.

Fantômas presents himself in Saint-Calais as the new judge Pradier. One of his first cases is the theft of the jewels and the robbery of the Marquis. Realizing that his men are holding out on him, Fantômas appears to Bébé and Ribonard and demands that they turn over the jewels, or else.

Meanwhile, Pradier has been invited to a hunting party at the Marquis's chateau. While there, he intercepts a compromising letter from the Marquise intended for another of the guests. The letter hints that the obstacles betwen the lovers will soon disappear. Feeling ill, the Marquis retires to his room to take a nap; the Marquise lights his gas fire and returns to the guests. But Pradier/Fantômas closes the gas cock, extinguishing the fire, then reopens it, filling the room with gas and suffocating the Marquis as he sleeps. Pradier/Fantômas blackmails the Marquise with the compromising letter for 500,000 francs; if she doesn't pay, she'll be accused of murdering the Marquis herself.

Fantômas meets Ribonard at the church, where the jewel box has been hidden in the bell. Fantômas holds the ladder while Ribonard climbs up into the bell and throws down the jewel box—then he kicks the ladder over, stranding Ribonard on the large clapper. (In an unseen shot, Ribonard must then strap himself to the clapper with his suspenders for safety.)

Fantômas later discovers that the box is empty—he's been double-crossed. But he can't confront Ribonard, because he has to attend the funeral of the Marquis. When the bell is tolled at the funeral, Ribonard, still clinging to the clapper, is smashed against its sides and killed. As his lifeless body swings back and forth, "a rain of pearls, diamonds, rubies, and blood fell on the assembly" (as the intertitles put it). Pradier/Fantômas alertly gathers up the scattered jewels, "as evidence."

Fandor, eating at the same hotel as Pradier/Fantômas, accidentally knocks his hat off the hatrack one day and notices that the brim is stuffed with paper. His suspcions are raised further when the dying Ribonard is cut down from the bell and whispers "Fantômas!" before expiring. On this basis, Juve (still believed by his Belgian jailers to be Fantômas) is extradited to France for the invesigation. Pradier/Fantômas, realizing that the net is closing in, frees two of his apaches from jail and sends them to kill Juve when he arrives by train. But when they ambush the prisoner, he turns out instead to be Fandor. Expecting an attack, he and his "guards" quickly subdue the apaches, and Pradier/Fantômas is forced to sign an order returning his henchmen to jail. Since he'd just signed for their release, the suspicions of Fandor are confirmed.

When the true prisoner is brought in, Fandor recognizes Juve, who is immediately freed. Juve and Fandor convince another judge to seal the building, and when Pradier/Fantômas tries to leave his office he is stopped by a policeman. Realizing he's moments away from capture, Pradier/Fantômas writes an order and gives it to the policeman, telling him to keep it secret and follow it precisely. The policeman agrees and leaves as Juve and Fandor burst in. But Fantômas seems remarkably unfazed, even as he's taken away in chains. And when Juve and Fandor go to the jail the next day, they discover why: Fantômas was released at midnight—on orders from Judge Pradier! "The prisoner is really Juve, not Fantômas, and has been arrested as a ruse." Once again, Fantômas has escaped, and the citizens of France must rest uneasily in their beds.

—Et Al.

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