Feuillade's first masterpiece is a fast-paced sequence of heist stories, murders, kidnappings, poisoning and impersonation, building on the exploits of the memorable antagonist created by Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain, and immortalised in a sprawling novel series written and released at breakneck pace.
Fantômas is a character who murders without compunction, and tends to get away with it as his nemesis, the smart but unlucky Inspector Juve and his journalist friend Jerôme Fandor try to track him down but fail at crucial moments. These stories show little resemblance to the 1960s action comedies with Louis de Funes. The tone is significantly darker, although the series does not lack small flashes of dark humour. There is a lurid fascination with macabre death and grisly violence (chapters within individual films: The Bleeding Wall, The Murderous Corpse etc.).
The interesting thing about Fantômas is that he is not just effectively faceless behind his hundred disguises, but he is without a backstory, or much of a psychological profile. We don't get to know much about him, and we don't need to, since he expresses himself through his improbable and horrible deeds. He is almost like an embodiment of crime, and he could be anyone, anywhere - a banker, a priest, a socialite, a street lowlife or a policeman (he is all of these and more in these episodes). The movies are full of anxiety; crime is triumphant, it pays, and Fantômas gets to delight in it. The surrealists loved it as the kind of accidental art that would emerge out of modern mass culture, and there is definitely something off about the atmosphere; the Paris of the early 1910s feels dreamlike, on the boundaries between the probable and improbable.
As an interesting reversal from the novels, where disguises were only stripped away as a way of concluding a story arc, Feuillade shows them right at the beginning. Both Fantômas and Juve are shown in a series of dissolves, first as the actors, then the characters they impersonate. In a way, they are even mirror images of each other: to catch Fantômas, Juve and Fandor have to don fake personas, commit burglary, and withhold information from the authorities. At the beginning of one episode, Juve orchestrates a prison break for his nemesis, safely locked away in Belgium, anticipating that he will return to France where - the death penalty still in place - he can be guillotined. No wonder, then, that his improbable stories arouse official suspicion, and he is even suspected of being the master criminal himself.
The cinematography is largely based on static shots, less advanced than it would be in Les Vampires two years later, but it is solid, and doesn't have the jangly quality of many silents. Actually, the acting feels real in the sense it is not over-coreagraphed; physical violence, when it occurs, feels creepily authentic. Unfortunately, parts of the last two episodes have been lost beyond recovery (the films themselves have only survived due to some kind of lucky accident before the stock was to be discarded as useless junk), and these parts are replaced by intertitles, and in one case, rerunning old footage. Sometimes, there is heavy damage on the stock. That said, the restored film looks as good as it can, and is well served by the score, ranging between hollow suspense and a dark dynamism.
Almost a hundred years old, Fantômas remains compulsively watchable. As a critic has remarked, it is not really a puzzle but an intoxicant: full of uncertainty and menace, it has a strange, subversive beauty to it that still manages to delight and enthral viewers.