Not only is Judex (1916) one of cinema’s earliest serials, but it’s also one of the earliest superhero films, if not the first. (1913’s Fantomas, to be reviewed next week, also featured the first celluloid supervillain.) It’s also considerably better than anything that came out of the superhero serial craze of the 1940s. The difference is Louis Feuillade, who directs with enthusiasm and creativity. He may have had something to prove; the director had come under intense criticism for glorifying crime in both Fantomas and 1915’s Les Vampires. With its cloaked avenger (René Cresté), Judex (translated as “justice”) is an enjoyable penance. Viewers unfamiliar with the character and film will immediately notice Judex is a precursor to the Shadow, and especially to Batman, as created by Bill Finger and Bob Kane in 1939. Judex is a caped vigilante with a secret identity and something like a Batcave for a lair. He is also unfathomably wealthy, which gifts him access to unlimited crime-fighting gadgetry. As enjoyable as it is, there is also an interesting Freudian undercurrent in the making of Judex, one of which Feuillade was most likely unconscious. In his act of contrition for making the sinful life glamorous, Feuillade’s instinct is to take Musidora, the exotic female lead of Les Vampires, and transform her into a secondary villainess. The 1915 mindset inherently equated the feminine with sin. More even than in the previous serials, Judex finds Feuillade in full myth-making mode and mythological deities are, to the bourgeoisie, masculine. We’ve sure a come long way in 103 years.
As entertaining as Judex is, it is the least of Feulliade’s serials. Like Les Vampires, at 5 hours, it is not intended to be watched in a single sitting. (In 1963, Georges Franjou made a superior 100-minute remake, which is available on a Criterion Collection Blu-ray). While the lightening of the violence and eroticism from Les Vampires is a loss, Judex has plenty going for it. It confirms that cinema’s first major serialist was its sole master.
One improvement is more natural, less silent-film-stylized acting. It is divided into 12 chapters, and, like its predecessors, it does not end on cliffhangers per se, but nonetheless will inevitably lure the viewer back. Another plus is cinematography that, while still stationary, is a notch above previous efforts.
The plot is simple, but concrete: a reworking of “The Count of Monte Cristo.” Advanced character development, rare for the period, transcends the plot. The influential and corrupt banker Favraux (Louis Leubas) robs the Judex family of much dyed green paper. In retaliation, Judex dons a disguise and threatens Favraux with destruction (just as in “Don Giovanni” or “Carmen”) at the stroke of midnight, unless he repents and give the money to charity. Being the superhero he is, Judex is weighed down by his conscience, but that doesn’t stop him from cruising the Paris suburbs with his pack of canines, who actually do most of the fighting for him.
Naturally, there are complications: a succubus villain Diana Monti (Musidora, who still gets a scene in black undies), a delightfully bumbling detective (Marcel Levesque, who seems a model for Inspector Clouseau), a sidekick named the Licorice Kid (Bout-de-Zan), and Favraux’s widowed daughter Jacqueline Aubry (Yvette Andreyor) who wants to right daddy’s wrongs, and manages to win our hero’s heart.
For all his villainy, Favraux has redeeming qualities. Jacqueline has complex feelings regarding Judex as vigilante, and she is no easy conquest. While Cresté is a squared jaw superhero prototype, he is less assured than Bruce Wayne in the ladies’ department and, unlike the mysterious protagonist of the Franjou remake, has a tragic backstory that grounds him in a moral dilemma (complicated even more by his falling in love with his enemy’s daughter, which inspires a belief in the redemption of villains). The doomed Musidora is pure evil (so adept at it that we hope against hope that she’ll slaughter her nemesis), but we do not see enough of her. As primitive as it is (with mawkish, melodramatic scenes and awkward pacing), Judex is also paradoxically contemporary in its pulp innovation. Although lacking the deadpan proto-Surrealism of Fantomas and Les Vampires, Judex is still an agile and charismatic serial, wrapped in an impressively glamorous WWI era package that is equal parts action, mystery, hypnosis, and comedy, with enough double-crosses, twists, and daring escapes for genre junkies.
Released on home video by Flicker Alley, Judex has been restored with a superb musical score by Robert Israel, and a valuable making-of documentary and informative booklet by historian Jan-Christopher Horak.