The great French director Louis Feuillade (1873–1925) is the founding father of pulp cinema, as well as the original cult filmmaker. Feuillade’s wildly popular, epic serials Fantômas (1913–14) and Les Vampires (1915–16) were predicated on mad geniuses, criminal gangs, and vast conspiracies. Shot mainly on the streets of Paris, they were beloved by the surrealists for demonstrating that, as the poet Paul Eluard would write, “there is another world, but it is in this one.”
Released just before and during World War I, Fantômas and Les Vampires were also accused of anti-patriotism, demoralizing French audiences, or worse. Hence, so the story goes, Feuillade obligingly sought to produce a more positive, censor-friendly serial: Judex (1916), named for its detective hero, a legal vigilante and the movies’ original cloaked crime-fighter. While the first two Feuillade epics are largely urban, Judex is mainly bucolic. The earlier serials feasted on nightlife; much of this one verges on domestic melodrama. Children are prominent (and so is kidnapping). Almost every major character has a mother—not least the caped crusader himself, who has promised his mom that he will avenge his late father, who was ruined by an unscrupulous banker.
Feuillade called Judex “a family show, exalting the finest sentiments.” Yet, however lyrical, the movie remains unsettling. As envisioned by Feuillade, the French countryside can be nearly as sinister as an empty boulevard. Musidora, the actress who memorably played the star vamp of the Vampire gang, Irma Vep, is here slimmed down and somewhat less ferocious as the film’s major villainess. Still, she’s not without her erotic wiles or theatrics. Indeed, it’s arguable that Judex, which has a relatively low body count for Feuillade, is even more voyeuristic than its precursors.
The second of Feuillade’s serials to be released on DVD (Les Vampires is available from Waterbearer), Judex has 12 episodes and runs over five hours. The tinted print is excellent and the new score, composed by Robert Israel, is appropriately spare and moody.