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  • Ravi Swami

"Judex", Dir: Georges Franju, 1963

The title of George Franju's 1963 film "Judex' rang a bell in my mind since it was one of those films that seemed to be a staple of school or art college film society screenings and I would have missed it, so I'm late to the table by a few decades in that regard.

Apart from "Eyes Without a Face" (French: "Les Yeux Sans Visage") reviewed previously, it appears to be one of very few films available to view on streaming services directed by Franju and the two films represent his most well-known and influential works.

The plot concerns a former clerk turned crooked banker, Favreaux, who has amassed his wealth via a combination of blackmailing prominent investors and defrauding lenders, and "Judex" (latin for "Justice"), a mysterious masked avenger who threatens to expose his crimes and bring him to justice.

The film is a remake of an earlier film directed by Louis Feuillade, an early 20th Century filmmaker whose work reflects both the "trick" films of George Melies and a fascination for French pulp-fiction heroes that were popular in his day and enjoyed a wide readership in their printed form before the arrival of cinema, such as "Fantomas" and "Arsene Lupin", and in fact the script for Franju's film was written by Feuillade's great grandson, who was keen to exploit the cinematic possibilities of the genre, and similarly to Feuillade's original the remake is set in the same "Fin de Siecle" era and visually references silent-film conventions such as episodic title cards intercut into the narrative.

Without spilling too many of the details it's very much in the tradition of "Grand Guignol" that Franju explored further in "Les Yeux Sans Visage" and features the same lead actress, Edith Scob, here playing Favreaux's innocent daughter who at the start of the film is about to be married off to a wealthy titled suitor chosen for her by her father for financially advantageous reasons.

Judging by an accompanying mini-doc' interview with the scriptwriter, Louis Feuillade, Franju was less interested in simply remaking his grandfather's earlier film though he did express an interest in the genre of the type of "Penny Dreadful" crime mysteries that he remembered from his youth and in fact had wanted to adapt "Fantomas", using the story to instead build on the influences of Expressionism in his work.

This aspect is clearly on view in several scenes, for example when "Judex" is first revealed via a vertical panning shot from his feet upwards to his head, hidden in a very realistic bird mask, inspired by the satirical and often surreal graphic works of the French illustrator Grandville, or in a climactic scene involving a rooftop fight between the psychopathic criminal mastermind Diana Monti (Francine Bergé) wearing a skintight black "cat-suit" and "Daisy" (Sylva Koscina), a circus acrobat dressed all in white, underlining good and bad in a very obvious way.

Judex's lair where he has kept Favreaux imprisoned after faking his death, is full of high-tech gadgetry, and in this regard Franju never underestimates his audiences' intelligence with too much exposition - for example, we see Judex operating a very baroque-looking "televisor" to watch Favreaux in his prison remotely but it's never explained or given a name, similarly Judex uses some kind of touchscreen to write a message addressed to Favreaux, without revealing his identity - the point being that technological "magic" is an extension of Judex's repertoire of producing white doves from handkerchiefs.

Somewhat surprisingly these are all elements that were retained from Feuillades' original film and that reflect a fascination for the wonders that lay ahead in the future inspired perhaps by the prophetic writings of Verne and Wells, something that had already begun to wear thin and become a source of satire by the mid-60's in shows like "Batman" - possibly influenced by "Judex", amongst a raft of other influences - where every gadget in Batman's arsenal is given a name and announced for the viewer when in use, adding to the enduring charm of the show :)

Louis Feuillade makes the point that the source material often featured characters in a "bourgeois" milieu ie the wealthy middle-classes and would similarly appeal to that type of audience, as opposed to the work of writers like Victor Hugo or Charles Dickens, who focussed more on the downtrodden members of a society divided along economic lines.

Like "Batman" later on, "Judex" is wealthy enough to employ a private army of black-clad assistants and various technological gadgets to aid in his fight against crime.

On the subject of influences, both on and of "Judex" on films and characters that followed , it's clear that the masked avenger concept inspired pretty much every similar "superhero" onwards, with the ideas of dual identities and technology, and itself was building on potent urban myths such as that of "Springheel Jack" whose origin can be traced as far back as the late Georgian era and was carried to the New World as well as many other countries via "Penny Dreadful" pamphlets and novels.

The lithe and deadly beauty "Diana Monti", in her black cat-suit and cat burglar mask could easily be "Cat Woman" from "Batman", Bob Kane's creation that was as clearly inspired by European Expressionist cinema as it was by urban myths of the masked avenger, like "Springheel Jack", both benign and threatening and we are never sure what side of the law he operates on.

Without stretching the point too much, it's possible to detect influences not only of the genre but also of the film itself on Japanese Anime and Manga, especially in the work of Tezuka Osamu, reflected in the design of some female characters that look remarkably similar to Francine Bergé's "Diana Monti" in the same way that Disney's animated "Aladdin" was consciously modelled on Tom Cruise, and prior to animated film the popular Japanese entertainment of "Kamishibai" often featured lurid crime thrillers and colourful masked heroes, suggesting that this strand of fiction had some impact on popular culture there.

Judex was played by American stage magician turned actor, Channing Pollock, who already had a thriving career before the move to films and being groomed as the next Errol Flynn due to his chiseled good looks and Franju makes good use of his stage skills to accentuate the magical / fantasy aspect of the character and the film, which is an interesting combination of crime thriller and science fiction, its' success spawning numerous films in the West as well as other countries featuring criminals or heroes in high-tech lairs protected by hidden sliding panels and other visual trickery, and what makes it a little different is the period setting and deliberate visual references to silent cinema that gives the impression that the film was made long before the early 1960's.


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