Louis Feuillade's Fantômas quintet of 1913-'14 predicted many of the aspects of future escapist entertainment, but I'm afraid that the last thing it managed to establish is one that we'd have all hoped would have been avoided. The False Magistrate, premiering 364 days after Fantômas - In the Shadow of the Guillotine (that is to say, on the same weekend, one year later), represents perhaps the first time in cinema history that the final chapter in a series would represent a decisive step down in quality from what had gone before it, and we can see its descendents, in more or less intense form, in everything from Return of the Jedi to X-Men: The Last Stand to The Dark Knight Rises.

Having said that, let me at least try to be fair to The False Magistrate. The version of the films available today come from a 1998 restoration conducted by Gaumont, the Cinémathèque Française, and Feuillade's grandson Jacques Champreaux, and considering the extreme age of the series, they're in pretty good quality; except for the fifth and final chapter. Frankly, The False Magistrate is in absolutely terrible condition: of the footage that remains, the opening scene is plagued by severe nitrate degradation, and most of the exteriors (of which there are more here than in any other Fantômas film save for perhaps the second, Juve vs. Fantômas) are so washed out as to border on illegible. That is, mind you, of the footage that remains. There is quite a bit of footage too far gone to even restore, containing at least four separate scenes, and these are recapped by intertitles. That's not nearly as exciting as actually watching a movie, of course, and it is to the film's immeasurable misfortune that two of the missing scenes are the big exposition drop in which Inspector Juve (Edmond Bréon) and Jérôme Fandor (Georges Melchior) catch us up and kick off the plot, and even worse, the final scene of the whole damn series, meaning that the ultimate fate of Fantômas (René Navarre) is told, not shown. A pretty dismally dull way to wrap up a series of such playful crime stories, and it's impossible to pretend that The False Magistrate doesn't end up seeming even worse because of a spot of awful luck years after the fact.

That being said, enough remains of the film - and let's not overstate things, with 70 extant minutes, it's unlikely that more than another 5 or 10 have gone missing - to argue with reasonable certainty that this one just isn't up to the same level of mad, proto-surrealist invention, outside of one truly impeccable scene that's as good as anything else in the Fantômas series. It's a rather low-stakes story to go out on: in brief, Fantômas's men have stolen some jewels and money while he's cooling his heels in a Belgian jail, and when he's escaped, he immediately concocts a plot to take their plunder for himself, leaving a decent handful of bodies in his wake. That escape, by the way, is entirely the responsibility of Juve: angry at the fact that his arch-enemy has been captured in a country with no death penalty, the policeman manages to trade places himself with Fantômas and permit the criminal to return to France, where he is certain that Fandor will be able to re-apprehend the criminal and the menace of Fantômas will be put to an end once and for all. I want to point out that this means that, thanks to Juve's bloody fixation on seeing Fantômas dead, the criminal is able at least three other people who would have been safe if he'd stayed rotting in Belgium. It's also worth pointing out that the early Surrealists love the Fantômas films because of what they perceived as a very subtle and perhaps inadvertent condemnation of the incredible incompetence of the authorities at doing good in the world, and there's no way to really read this otherwise. It's playfully daft, anyway.

Fantômas's plot involves impersonating the magistrate Predier (whose death on a train is a potent bit of brutality even for a series that has forced me to seriously re-evaluate how much violence could be depicted in a movie from the 1910s), seemingly the securest place for a criminal mastermind to hide in plain sight; things go wrong for him, of course, when the French police demand Fantômas's extradition pertaining to a strange, horribly baroque death of one of the criminal's associates, Ribonard (Martial), in a church, and Juve is thus shipped right to the same facility where Fantômas himself holds court. The end, distorted as it is, is a genuinely hilarious bit of table-turning that I would not dream of spoiling, though I am pleased the series ends the way it does; there's a sense of open possibility that suits the material much better than something pat would have.

I've left a lot out of that synopsis, involving Fantômas attempt to extort money from a Marquise de Tergall (Germaine Pelisse), for I find that The False Magistrate is not the better for its subplots. While the set for the de Tergall home is absolutely wonderful, fussy and overstuffed and filled with great possibilities for staging movement, the plot itself is stretched-out a little, and not nearly as weird and uncanny as the best of the series. It's still a compelling plot; but it's so normal, and that is not something the films had yet been.

The one exception is a fantastic sequence staged in the bell-tower where Fantômas traps Ribonard: presented in a wide-shot that emphasises the height of the tower by framing it with great slabs of black, and then employing a magnificent crane shot that slowly follows Ribonard up the ladder to the bell, where he has hidden the jewels, it's already pretty fantastic, ambitious filmmaking, and that's before Fantômas pulls the ladder away and leaves Ribonard hanging helplessly; when the bell is rung during a funeral service a few days later, there's a wide shot of Ribonard's body being flung against the side of the bell like a rag dummy (which...), cut with confused churchgoers below being sprinkled with what the titles horrifyingly describe as pearls, diamonds, rubies, and blood. It's absolutely phenomenal, unsettling filmmaking, top to bottom, and it's the one place where The False Magistrate reaches the level of its predecessors.

Otherwise, it's fine and somewhat unremarkable: solid enough entertainment, and a bit more modern-friendly than the sometimes presentational staging of the earliest films, but its pleasures are muted and less unique. Some well-staged exteriors of people in the country and city; nice sets without quite so much depth as Feuillade is capable of. It's impressive that a movie from 1914 is still this captivating, no doubt, but the Fantômas series was capable of more, and this definitely ends it with more of a fizzle than a bang.

Louis Feuillade's Fantômas
Fantômas - In the Shadow of the Guillotine
Juve vs. Fantômas
The Murderous Corpse
Fantômas vs. Fantômas
The False Magistrate