Film Review
By Ray Young





Directed by Louis Feuillade. Screenplay by Arthur Bernède and Mr. Feuillade. Cinematography by André Glatti and Léon Klausse. Production Design by Robert-Jules Garnier. 5 hr., 15 min. B&W tinted, 1917 (originally released through Gaumont Co., Ltd.). Produced for DVD by Jeffery Masino. Music score composed, arranged and performed by Robert Israel. French title translation by Eileen Sullivan. Additional production design by Brian Peterson, Roam Creative. DVD compression and authoring by Douglas Mountain. Cast: René Cresté, Musidora, René Poyen, Edouard Mathé, Marcel Lévesque, Gaston Michel, Yvonne Dario, Yvette Andréyor, Juliette Clarens, Jean Devalde, Georges Flateau, Louis Leubas.

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    Before he died in 1925 at the young age of fifty-two, Louis Feuillade (photo below) had amassed a body of work astonishing in both size and scope. A pioneer of adventure serials, a single title could run nearly six hours in its chapters; multiply this by the number of serials, features and one-reelers he is said to have made (600? 700? — no filmography seems complete) and Feuillade becomes history’s most prolific narrative filmmaker. Yet even such volume is dwarfed by content. feuillade_3.jpgHe was the cinema’s first true taste of anarchy, and by 1913 and Fantômas explored realms of deviousness and the human response to peril with expert comprehension. The simplicity in framing and editing is canny: the eye is seldom distracted by technique, while large casts and intertwining subplots rarely blur. All this two years before Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation.
    If they lack Griffith’s humanity and Billy Bitzer’s mechanical exuberance, Feuillade’s films gleefully probe misfortune with a clear head and heart. Based on a series of popular novels by Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain, Fantômas is a mystery figure lording over an army of terrorists targeting the Parisian elite. The book series motivated Feuillade to make four sequels between 1913-14, and he echoed similar themes and situations in Les Vampires (1915), which introduced the criminal mastermind ‘Irma Vep.’ As the films ceaselessly dig away at bourgeois foibles with a healthy dose of cynicism, Feuillade elevated to a level beyond Griffith’s reach (and humor), toward a plateau later occupied by Lang and Buñuel: both Fantômas and Irma Vep are blueprints for Lang’s Mabuse, while Feuillade’s chock-a-block digressions predict the revolving-door decadence in Buñuel’s El (1952) and Le Journal d’une femme de chambre (1964).
    As World War I took its toll in Europe, Feuillade was criticized in some quarters for glorifying terrorism. Filmed during (but released just after) the war, Judex was a clever means to appease his detractors. He promoted it as a film “which we have wished to be popular in the largest, best sense of the word, a family show, exalting the finest sentiments and in which we have endeavored to please great and small, thanks to the most diverse and unusual incidentals to the action.” That quote of Feuillade is taken from Jan-Christopher Horak’s introduction to the new DVD edition of Judex from Flicker Alley. It’s a fair indication of Feuillade’s showmanship — give the people what they want — and a reflection of the era’s tact over controversy. One could even draw parallels with our post-9/11 climate and the desire for Disneyfied comfort and security amid uncertainty.
    Part of the director’s genius is the ability to camouflage anarchy, for his ‘family show’ includes: suicide, a failed attempt at drowning (and the victim’s subsequent coma), a ‘successful’ drowning, several kidnappings, a child taking a leap off of a five-story balcony, and a man’s abduction, extended (unlawful) imprisonment and deterioration to insanity.
    Judex himself ostensibly fits the general requirements for the movies’ all-around good guy and doer of good deeds. Cultivated in the classic western European sense, actor René Cresté lends his tall, imposing figure (in cape and fedora) to imbue the role with dour conviction — excellent casting. The film does a remarkable job of drawing viewer empathy as Judex protects an innocent woman (Yvette Andréyor) and an elderly man (Gaston Michel) from an unscrupulous banker (Louis Leubas) and an inventive thief (Irma Vep herself, Musidora). Feuillade used many of these performers over the course of his career, and Judex reunites the brilliant physical comedian Marcel Lévesque (as private detective Cocantin) with the young Bout-de-Zan (whose ‘Licorice Kid’ character seems tailor-made for a spin-off series). A memorable pair in Les Vampires as ‘Mazamette’ senior and junior, they liberally break the ‘fourth wall,’ addressing the camera to excellent effect.
    As the story in the film unravels, so does Judex’s credibility — presenting a dichotomy glossed over by persuasive filmmaking. A fraud housing no less than three identities, Judex’s motives are entirely biased. The name ‘Judex’ Latin for ‘justice,’ he assumes control over situations without regard to law or civil liberty, conspiring with his brother (Edouard Mathé) to torment suspected tormentors. To draw on an easy reference, Judex uses the persuasive (and ultimately dishonest) tactic employed by Don Siegel in Dirty Harry (1971): the observation of criminals at work to absolve the hero’s fascism. If trained squarely on their protagonists, these would be horror films. Unlike Clint Eastwood’s character, Judex extends his lapsed morality to peripheral areas. He dupes an innocent woman — whom he claims to love! — into believing her father is dead (when, in fact, he’s being held captive), and callously initiates the frivolous drowning death of a close friend’s son.
    These things considered, taking Judex as a conventional cliffhanger, or believe it less anarchistic than Fantômas or Les Vampires is to deny Feuillade’s sharp wit and subtle nuance. True, unlike the earlier films it is more in keeping with the style of a standard linear narrative, and has the multi-tiered subplots of an epic. But Judex delicately prods the politics of authority and pedigree underlined in the director’s earlier films. “French serials were popular precisely because they allowed audiences to revel in their anti-authoritarianism,” writes Horak, “even anarchy, even if not intended by the author.”
    Following last year’s DVD revival of Lewis Milestone’s The Garden of Eden (1928), Judex marks the second release from the new independent company, Flicker Alley. Both presentations are labors of love. Handsomely packaged and accompanied by Jan-Christopher Horak’s essay, Judex looks marvelous, a good print with new color tints and title cards. Owning the DVD allows one to revisit key scenes, such as Feuillade’s occasional experiments with natural light in the last few chapters.
    For the music, Robert Israel has arranged an infectious blend of themes by Charles V. Alkan, Herman Finck, Frederick Rosse, Edward Grieg, and Felix Fourdrain. For the DVD, Israel discusses the challenge of creating a five-hour score that evades repetition, and his grasp of the “emotional sphere” of the characters and the “ethical tone” required by their environment. It’s a flavorful, superbly orchestrated composition which captures the range and dimension of a master filmmaker’s unique vision.