Georges Franju, “Judex” (1963)
A remake of the Louis Feuillade 1916 mini-series about the mystery masked crusader Judex (Latin for “judge”), Georges Franju’s film is said to partake of some of that earlier film’s visual style. Certainly there is an emphasis on careful staging of action and great attention given to details of background scenery and landscapes. Several scenes almost have a Post-Impressionist look in the manner of Georges Seurat’s misty pointillist paintings. The music soundtrack, composed by Maurice Jarre who collaborated with Franju on several films, may be repetitive but is also emotionally expressive when required. The film deliberately blurs distinctions between heroes and villains: main characters are people of questionable character or are sinister somehow, no matter how noble their motivations and principles might once have been.
Set at the turn of the 20th century, the film initially revolves around the unscrupulous banker Favraux who plans to marry off his widowed daughter Jacqueline (Edith Scob) to an impoverished aristocrat. A couple of early scenes involving a vagabond reveal Favraux’s moral emptiness and concern only for his own interests. He receives letters from a mysterious correspondent who calls himself Judex (Channing Pollock) which threaten him with harm if he doesn’t return the money he swindled from past investors. Naturally Favraux ignores the letters and later at a celebratory party, he keels over, apparently dead. Jacqueline buries him, dismisses the staff who include one Diana Monti (Francine Berge) and resolves to give up her inheritance. Later Jacqueline is menaced by Monti, her lover and their minions who are after documents detailing Favraux’s investments and other wealth. Judex comes to Jacqueline’s rescue and foils Monti’s plans to rob the Favraux family but not before tragedy occurs.
The plot is pulp-comic ordinary and parts of it appear amateurish and badly staged to 21st century eyes. There are cliff-hangers, scenes of laugh-out-loud soap-opera melodrama – in one scene, two strangers fighting discover they are a long-lost father-son pair! – and characters are stereotyped: Jacqueline as a helpless damsel in distress, Judex as an imposing Batman hero figure, Diana Monti as all-out Catwoman villain and her boyfriend as a somewhat dim-witted sidekick. A detective Cocantin and a small boy add comic flavour and an unexpected diversion to the plot. The action is slow and the pacing awkward.
The acting is so-so but the character of Judex isn’t required to be anything other than strong, silent, always in control and lady-killing in his Zorro cape and broad hat. At least Pollock (in real life, he was a magician and some-time amateur actor) is good-looking and has quite a commanding presence even in scenes where he falls into trouble. Scob spends much of her screen time in one dead faint or another. Perhaps the only decent and intriguing character is Monti who, in spite of failing many times, comes up with one dastardly scheme after another to get her paws on the Favraux fortune and wears figure-hugging black catsuits, in the days before British audiences clapped their gazes onto Honor Blackman and Diana Rigg in “The Avengers” TV series. For sheer determination and resourcefulness in escaping Judex and justice, this Monti dame sure can’t be beat!
The film’s highlight is the fight scene between Monti and a passing circus acrobat Daisy, a friend of Cocantin’s, on a roof-top which must have been a hit for audiences not used to seeing brave and self-reliant women defend themselves without the help of men. True, no flashy martial arts moves are used here but the women fight desperately to avoid falling off. The music used here is partly electronic in sound and sinister in mood.
“Judex” is an affectionate and not at all serious homage to Louis Feuillade and his films – watch out for a pulpy comic book “Fantomas” featuring a picture of nuns with guns in one scene, a reference to Feuillade’s “Fantomas” series; and Berge in the cat-suit is a reference to Irma Vep of Feuillade’s later “Les Vampires” series – and a good introduction to Georges Franju’s oeuvre and style of cinema.