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Seriously, caped villains and obsessive policemen? Does this have a place in the MHz Choice library? Absolutely!

Do you remember when TV was trippy and intentionally wacky, like in the 1966 series Batman with Adam West and Burt Ward? It was playful, over the top and experimented with visual conventions and early special effects. If you can get in that frame of mind, you’ll have a blast watching Fantômas, the four-part French series that aired in 1980. HD wasn’t around, so approach it as you would any vintage series. Still, you’re in for a treat.

Fantômas is based on a pop culture phenom that began in France in 1911 – Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre co-wrote a series of novels about a brilliant, masked, very, very bad guy named Fantômas. Together they wrote 32 books and Allain wrote eleven more after Souvestre’s death. The saga captured the country’s imagination and was especially embraced by the French avant-garde and the surrealists. It spawned countless films, comic books and TV series around the world throughout the 20th century.

There’s plenty of online analysis of the 1980 version of Fantômas, and it’s fun to dive into. But here’s what you need to know if you’re hitting this version cold:

  • The setting is Paris in the 1920s.
  • Fantômas (Helmut Berger) is a brilliant masked serial killer, who can assume any disguise and will kill at any moment if it suits his purpose. He is a criminal genius.
  • Inspector Juve (Jacques Dufilho) has been on his trail for decades and has dedicated his life to capturing Fantômas.
  • Fantômas has a long-standing love affair with the beautiful society matron, Lady Beltham (Gayle Hunnicutt).
Inspector Juve (Jacques Dufilho)

From there it takes off. It’s a feast of camp, and my favorite element is Jacques Dufilho’s performance as Inspector Juve. He’s always just two steps behind Fantômas and looks like he’ll explode from the intensity of the chase. Dufilho strikes the perfect tone with his penetrating stare, expressing the tightly wound character found in the books.

In this First Look, Fantômas breaks into a convent where Lady Beltham is hiding and plots their escape together. Inspector Juve and his cohort, the young journalist Fandor (Pierre Malet) listen outside the walls.

Also noteworthy is that the four episodes were directed by two filmmaking heavy hitters – Claude Chabrol, of the French New Wave and Juan Luis Buñuel, son of the famous avant-garde filmmaker Luis Buñuel. Chabrol directed Episodes 1 and 4 and Buñuel directed Episodes 2 and 3. Brandon’s Movie Memory has some interesting analysis of the two directors and their differing styles on his blog here.

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