Judex – Prologue (1916)
Another crime serial from Louis Feuillade, this one has the remarkable twist of making the masked mastermind into a force of good! This first episode only really sets up the premise, but it is effective at drawing the viewer in to what promises to be a good ride.
Before I talk about the movie itself, let’s talk about the date. I generally date the movies I review by the year of release, which is usually the same year they are shot, or in the case of movies shot at the end of the year, sometimes the year after. In this case, Feuillade made this movie and “Les Vampires” more or less simultaneously in 1914, then went off to serve in World War One. Gaumont Studios released “Les Vampires” beginning at the end of 1915 and running through early 1916, then finally released the first episode of “Judex” in December, 1916, but most of the episodes weren’t seen until 1917. As a result, you may find it listed in different places as a 1916 movie, a 1917 movie, or even a 1914 movie! I’m going to stick to my tradition of reviewing the episodes separately, and dating them according to which year they were actually released. Note, that this means that only this episode and the next one qualify as nominees for the 1916 Century Awards.
OK, let’s get on with the movie. The home video version begins with a lengthy credit sequence that I suspect did not exist at the time of original release. More common would have been an introduction to the cast of characters through short clips showing them in action (as with “Fantômas” and “Child of the Paris”), and that would have made it a lot easier to keep track of all of these character names. I kept recognizing actors from other Gaumont productions, but then not being able to remember who they are supposed to be. Imdb will be my friend in reviewing this series! We are quickly introduced to several characters once the movie does begin: There is Favraux, the banker (Louis Leubas), Robert Moralés (Jean Devalde) and Diana Monti (Musidora), who hope to blackmail the banker, and Jacqueline (Yvette Andréyor), the banker’s innocent daughter who is engaged to the impoverished Vicomte de la Rochefontaine (Georges Flateau). Musidora manages to infiltrate the premises by getting a job as the governess to Jean (Olinda Mano), Jacqueline’s son presumably by an earlier marriage.
One day, a tramp (Gaston Michel) shows up at the gate demanding to speak with Favraux. He is an old man who was swindled by Favraux, then sent to prison for 20 years when he embezzled to try to get out of financial difficulties. His wife has died, and now he hears rumors that his son is involved with crime as well, and he blames Favraux for all of it. Favraux, predictably, tells him to go away, and then less predictably runs him over in a car on the road a few minutes later (actually, his chauffeur runs him over, but Favraux is in the car). Soon, he receives a threatening letter signed only “Judex” (Latin for “judge”), which informs him he must turn over half his fortune to charity or die. Since the letter appeared mysteriously on his desk without anyone seeing who delivered it, Favraux is understandably concerned.
So, he hires a private investigator named Cocantin (Marcel Lévesque, who “Les Vampires” fans will remember as the wonderful Mazamette). Cocantin has only just inherited the detective business from his father, and there’s some amusing business between him and his employee, who clearly feels that Daddy was better-suited for the job. Cocantin doesn’t do much to prove himself, skulking around in bushes, but avoiding eavesdropping while his employer makes time with the governess, and failing to figure out how a second threatening note manages to mysteriously appear on the premises. At the dinner to celebrate Jacqueline’s engagement, Favraux makes a toast, sips his wine, and promptly drops dead. Cocantin is now uncertain whether or not he should reveal the existence of the letters (!).
It’s a little too early for me to say how I feel about this series so far. I found “Les Vampires,” on the whole, a bit uneven compared to “Fantômas,” although it had its good aspects, including Mazamette, Musidora, and some very memorable visuals and outrageous crimes. It seems like silent fans always end up picking a “favorite” Feuillade serial, and I wouldn’t be surprised if “Fantômas” remains unbowed in that position for me. But, I am excited to see a new one from him, to see how this plays out, and to see how Bout-de-Zan makes an appearance. Some people credit “Judex” with inventing the whole “caped crusader” concept that led to Batman, the Shadow, and other superhero vigilantes, so this could be an important piece of nerd history.
Director: Louis Feuillade
Starring: Louis Leubas, Jean Devalde, Musidora, Yvette Andréyor, Georges Flateau, Olinda Mano, Gaston Michel, Marcel Lévesque, Édouard Mathé
Run Time: 36 Min
You can watch it for free: here.