First published by Film International
At first glance Judex (1963) and Nuits rouges (1974) might seem like chalk and cheese. One is in black and white with a marked interest in orthochromatic effects, the other is in vivid seventies colour. One is a period film whose use of intertitles and irising mimics the silent-era effects of its 1914 setting, the other is entirely modern in both its locations and sensibilities. One focuses on a hero (or at least a self-appointed champion of justice), the other on a criminal villain. One ends in the triumph of good, the other in the persistence of evil. Yet these two films from director Georges Franju (the 1936 co-founder of the Cinémathèque Française film archive) are both concerned with masks and illusion, and both haunted by the spirit not only of Franju’s own Eyes Without a Face (Les Yeux sans visage, 1960) but also of the silent serials made by Louis Feuillade in the 1910s.
Judex evokes Franju’s best-known film through the casting of Edith Scob once again as a sinful father’s innocent daughter, as well as through its imagery of dogs, doves and crypts. Nuits rouges (aka Shadowman), on the other hand, features a doctor claiming that his unorthodox surgical procedures on captive patients are a “solution for the future” (an obvious reflex on Dr Génessier from Eyes Without a Face), an army of zombies who sport blank-faced white masks strongly reminiscent of the one worn by Scob in Eyes Without a Face, and an anti-hero known as “The Man Without a Face” (which was also the title of the eight-part television serial shot alongside Nuits rouges by Franju, using the same sets, cast, and crew). Such intertextuality creates an impression of associative consistency, as though to suggest that these films, for all their differences, belong to the same universe of ideas. It is Franju stamping his own fantasy brand on these otherwise disparate works.
The films’ relationship with Feuillade is more complicated. Judex bears a dedication to Feuillade in its closing credits, and is nominally a remake of Feuillade’s 1916-17 serial film of the same name (also remade as Judex 34 in 1934 by Feuillade’s son-in-law, Maurice Champreux), but in interviews (collected in the booklet that accompanies this double-disc edition from Eureka! The Masters of Cinema Series), Franju made no secret of the fact that he was much more interested in the character of arch-villain Fantômas (whose criminal enterprises were serialised by Feuillade in 1913-14) than of the rather bland avenger Judex. Unfortunately Franju and his screenwriter Jacques Champreux (Feuillade’s grandson) were unable to afford the rights to Fantômas (which was in fact made into a black comedy by André Hunebelle in 1964), but Champreux includes in Judex a scene in which the bumblingly bookish Detective Cocantin (Jacques Jouanneau) is shown engrossed in a Fantômas pulp novel whose details (an empty coffin, nuns with guns) reflect elements of the plot that Cocantin is himself supposedly investigating. Meanwhile, Diana Monti (Francine Bergé), the catsuit-wearing, rooftop-climbing femme fatale in Champreux’s reimagined Judex has been modeled on another Feuillade villain, Irma Vep from Les Vampires (1915-16).
Irma Vep would resurface in Nuits rouges (again written by Champreux) as The Woman (Gayle Hunnicutt), while her mysterious partner-in-crime, The Man Without a Face (played by Champreux himself), is a ruthless master of disguise inspired by Mabuse, Fu Manchu, and, of course, Fantômas himself. No surprises, then, that his groovy underground base lies hidden beneath a haberdasher’s at “13, Rue Fantôme.” Franju and Champreux may never have been able to fulfil their long-held dream of bringing Fantômas back to the big screen, but this madcap pastiche, with its formidable and disarmingly hands-on antagonist, comes very close.
If Judex and Nuits rouges are both products of compromise (with much of the latter’s 35mm footage stolen en route from the Belgrade shoot to Paris so that it had to be supplemented with 16mm sequences from the TV serial), this in no way diminishes their singular impact on the viewer. In Feuillade’s original serial, Judex is sworn as a boy by his Corsican mother to seek vengeance for his father’s suicide as a result of the wicked banker Favraux, but so thoroughly does Franju efface this original story that what remains is merely an avenger without a cause – who is also, adding to his aura of mystery, an accomplished magician. The art of the illusionist is key here, for Franju himself is less interested in the banal mechanics of his plot than in the uncanny spectacle of its execution, as he repeatedly wrongfoots the viewer with a series of false deaths, trick substitutions, and similar cinematic sleights of hand.
Courtesy of a cunning disguise, Judex has, in fact, already been onscreen, unbeknownst to either Favraux (Michel Vitold) or the viewer, since the film’s opening scene, but when he makes his “first” recognisable appearance at a ball, wearing the mask of a bird of prey and conjuring an apparently dead dove back to life, his intention is to poison the host Favraux – but crucially, after Judex has handed him a glass, without even taking a single sip the banker drops down dead (albeit not really any more dead than the dove, as the sequel will show). The eeriness of the masque imagery and the irrationality of the sequence mark Franju himself as the master prestidigitator here, with Favraux, Diana, and even Judex himself just inferior pretenders to the throne of dissembling, manipulation, and bluff. The criss-crossing, episodic story that follows is full of sadistic incarcerations, ruthless crimes, improbable coincidences and miraculous resurrections, but really it is Franju’s dream-like visuals that remain most memorable: a knife-wielding nun, a woman floating down the river, three men in black climbing a wall like spiders. As a hero, Judex may cut a somewhat dull figure once his true face has been revealed, but Franju has set him within a haunting shadow-world where vengeance is too strange to be sweet.
Though it is a very different film, Nuits rouges is no less oneiric. When its opening sequence includes the line, “Terrible business, sir, that man who steals brains,” you just know that you are at the more lurid end of pulp, and Champreux’s script certainly delivers on this promise with a potboiler parody that involves a merciless criminal syndicate, lost treasure, a mad scientist, a “poet detective,” undead killers, and vengeful Templar Knights. All these over-the-top elements are masterfully interwoven by Franju to bamboozle and hoodwink the viewer as much as the characters. Here everyone, no matter what side s/he is on, spins deceits, dons disguises and sets traps, but none better than The Man Without A Face, who is always one step ahead of his enemies, pursuers, and victims, and able, through a combination of unswerving resolve and undefinable slipperiness, to survive seemingly anything. He is, it goes without saying, a cypher for the artist Franju himself, whose winningly elusive works live on, even if their mastermind died in 1987.
Nuits rouges was to be Franju’s last feature. It is knowing trash of the most impressively confounding kind, recalling not just the serial sensationalism of Feuillade but also the early, paranoia-inducing gialli of Dario Argento. With Judex it forms a diptych about two masked protagonists, one ostensibly good, the other unequivocally evil, who in the end, as shadowy underground figures calling on vast resources and blithely unconcerned with the law, have far more in common than in contrast.