Fantomas is a Master of Crime--the granddaddy of such fictional villains as Diabolik, Kilink and Kriminal. Conceived in the fevered imaginations of French novelists Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain, Fantomas is a thief, a murderer, and a borderline anarchist who haunts the European underworld, always just out of reach of his nemesis Inspector Juve. His utterly amoral acts and devilishly clever plots set the Gold Standard for criminal master-mindery.
Masquerading in various bourgeoise roles from banker to judge to landlord, Fantomas runs a devestatingly efficient criminal empire whose goal appears to be bankrupting nearly everyone in France. Fantomas' motivations are sketchy--he doesn't appear to live a life of luxury; instead he seems to relish crime for crime's sake, planning ever more elaborate ways to separate wealthy personages from their wealth.
First published in 1911, the novel "Fantomas" by Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain captured the imagination of the reading public with its complicated interweaving storylines of corruption, disguised identities, murder, and scandal among the upper middle class. The novels were unusual in their construction, with the two authors taking turns writing different sections of the story. I had not known this prior to picking up the first novel, and there are moments of severe unevenness throughout, with sections ping-ponging back and forth drastically in terms of pacing and style. This method of novel structure is evocative of the later Surrealist "game" Exquisite Corpse, where participants take turns adding elements into a piece of prose or art that is only revealed in its entirety once it is complete. Several novels followed, capitalizing on the success of the first publication, and a few short years later in 1913, the first of the silent serials directed by Louis Feuillade put the arch-criminal on the silver screen. The reality-and-sense-bending character was a fast favorite among the intelligentsia, with a fan base that included such luminaries as James Joyce and Rene Magritte.
One of the key differences between the novels and their screen adaptations is the manner in which the films simplify the plot details and strip them down to their essence (weird crimes, elusive criminal, disguises, constantly-foiled inspector). The first "Fantomas" novel is almost too complex--there were moments in the plot where I felt I should have a spreadsheet detailing the list of characters and their associations with one another. By the time it was reworked and distilled into the film adaptation, the novel contained about a third of the characters, an almost inverted storyline (with events taking place during the opening that don't occur until about two-thirds of the way through the book), and the ghoulishness had been dialed back significantly. The bloated corpses and a shocking beheading that figure into the novel are nowhere to be seen in the film. Also missing is an interesting backstory to the character of Fandor, the journalist who works as Inspector Juve's right-hand man.
In the novels, it is never made clear whether Fantomas is an individual or a collection of evil-doers working in tandem, as he seems able to be in many places simultaneously. This air of mystery is kept up throughout the series. In the films, Fantomas is clearly a single man, operating with the help of a network of thugs (who he is not infrequently cheating out of their fare share of the spoils). There is a charming montage at the beginning of each of the serials where Fantomas is shown in all of the disguises he'll assume throughout the film to come. Granted, this does spoil the key mystery of the novels, where one is kept guessing as to these assorted identities until such time as they are dramatically revealed, but it adds a decided element of whimsy to the films. Seeing the person you know to be Fantomas fooling his prey is, admittedly, damned entertaining. It's clear that these are very early narrative films, because there are many conventions that are being worked out by the technicians. In fact, there are a couple of startlingly post-modern moments of breaking the Fourth Wall, including one where Fantomas looks directly at the camera and gestures over his shoulder, indicating that he can see the man who has been trailing him via train.
In addition to being a King of Crime, Fantomas is a ladies' man, employing his charms to victimize wealthy women. In the first novel, he catches a Princess unawares in her bath (in the film, the Princess is alone in her suite--not quite as sexually scandalous) and through sheer force of charisma (along with a dash of blackmail...), convinces her to relinquish her jewels and a tidy sum of cash. He also carries on a torrid affair with Lady Beltham, the widow of one of his murder victims!
In spite of his horrible crimes (and I assure you, dear reader--his crimes are truly appaling, including poisoining, animal attack, stabbing, and hanging), one cannot help but root for the master criminal. His victims are shown as bumbling through their lives, oblivious to the undercurrent of evil around them. When Fantomas makes his inevitable fantastic escape at the end of each story, one is left relieved that there will be more fabulously wicked tales to come.
For more on Fantomas, including a wonderful essay on the character's impact on the Surrealists, visit the spectacularly informative website Fantomas-Lives.com. All historical facts are cited to this website or Kim Newman's amazing documentary on the Artificial Eye DVD of Feuillade's serial.