Fantômas vs. Fantômas, the fourth movie in the Fantômas series by Louis Feuillade and the first to premiere in 1914, continues the little trend I have noticed in the series, whereby various facets of modern-day popcorn filmmaking are all seen in some embryonic form (and though we can add glossy escapist movies to the list with politicians, ugly buildings, and whores, as things that become respectable if they get old enough, a full century hasn't added enough of a patina of dignity to disguise the reality that the Fantômas series is frivolous and trashy, though in the most enjoyably giddy way). In this case, it is the broken promise of an ad campaign that heavily trumpets some really innovative or iconic or downright cool new twist in the movie, that proves to be pretty fully a bust when the actual movie revs up. In this case, both the title and the poster based on the book cover promise a duel between René Navarro's master criminal and an equally crafty Fantômas doppelgänger. While the scene of two men in black hoods meeting at a party does in fact come to pass, it's just a tiny fraction even of the film's scant 60 minutes, and while one of the two men is Fantômas, a bit of sleight-of-hand in the editing room is enough to make even that a bit unclear until after the fact.

Still, for all that Fantômas vs. Fantômas only briefly offers the sight of, y'know, Fantômas vs. Fantômas, it's a rock-solid continuation of the series doing what it does so well: offering freaky imagery and concepts in the middle of its wild, over-the-top crime narrative. True, I'll confess that if I had a mind to ranking them, it would barely scrape in as my least-favorite of the first four, but the level of quality amongst them is remarkably consistent, and in this happy respect, Fantômas is nothing at all like our modern blockbusters, where quality barely even remains consistent within a single film, let alone between different entries in a franchise.

The movie opens brilliantly: Inspector Juve (Edmond Bréon) has been doing such a lousy job of leading the police investigation of the gangleader that the newspapers have come to the idea that he's got to be Fantômas himself - no halfway competent cop could possibly be this bad at fighting crime. Given what we've seen of Juve's crimefighting skills, particularly the ridiculously easy way that his quarry escaped at the end of the last film, The Murderous Corpse, it's pretty damn easy to agree with the papers on at least the first part, and for managing to proactively make fun of all those generations of hypnotically inept movie policemen, I have to tip my hat. Juve's good friend and far more effective sidekick, reporter Jérôme Fandor (Georges Melchior), knows better and is tremendously huffy on his partner's behalf, but it's too late: Juve has already been taken into police custody under no real charges. It doesn't help that the police are being dazzled right now by a great American detective awesomely named Tom Bob, who was the first to discover a dead body hidden behind a newly installed plaster wall, and thus given whatever he needs to help crack the case. We, of course, know that Bob is really Fantômas in yet another one of his marvelous disguises (he's also the criminal financier Pére Moche, and the old-age makeup Navarre wears to play that part is quite tremendous), though what, exactly, he's up to by immediately turning over to the police the evidence of his latest murder is a bit unclear to us; nor does it immediately make sense that Fantômas would seek out his old flame Lady Beltham (Renée Carl, given an extra layer of dark eyeshadow to make her look good and worn-out), now the married Duchess Alexandra, to encourage her to arrange a "let's raise money to catch Fantômas!" costume ball. Fandor sneaks in dressed as Fantômas, to draw the killer out; a policeman does the same, and the fallout from the confrontation between these various people ends up finally setting any of the heroes on the right track to uncovering the details of this latest master crime.

Where The Muderous Corpse was a straight-up mystery, as the first two films were not, Fantômas vs. Fantômas ends up being something very much like a caper film: it turns out that just about everything the criminal does in this particular story is part of a long con, though the final reveal ends up being awfully small-scale, and that is part of the reason that I don't quite love it as much. Another reason is the somewhat slipshod script, with a couple of meandering scenes like the one where Juve is found to have the exact same wound on his arm that Fantômas does, and after making a big deal out of what would happen if that wound was found, it's essentially used as evidence why he isn't the criminal.

But it's a hell of a lot of fun watching everything play out, and there's plenty of the interesting staging that was Feuillade's great strength as a director: there's a particularly ingenious early scene that uses the view into an apartment from the hallway outside to create boxes and frames within frames. And the scene where "Tom Bob" finds the body in the wall is outright horror movie stuff, and great at it: he pounds a nail into the plaster and releases a stream of blood, the whole tableaux like a Grand Guignol take on Edgar Allan Poe, and it's every bit the match to any of the weird imagery displayed in any of the films. There's not necessarily a lot that hits that level - the staging of the party, with the two Fantômases squaring off, as the people around them dance playfully and absolutely do not pretend to care about these men dressed as a notorious killer is surreal in its own very distinct way - and the technique isn't particularly innovative, after the relatively complex Murderous Corpse, but the story being told is so ballsy, and Feuillade's visual treatment of that story so assured and exciting (it's probably the least-laggy of the movies to this point), that even if it's maybe not quite all that a Fantômas movie can be, it's a hell of a lot better than most franchises this silly can claim to be by their fourth entry. A lot of that is because it only took about 10 months to get to that fourth entry, but still.

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