Judex, a mysterious caped vigilante, sets out to take revenge against corrupt banker Favraux. His settling of scores is complicated by the sly villainess Diana Monti and her associates. And the fact that Judex is in love with Favraux’s daughter, Jacqueline. A delightful serial in twelve episodes with a prologue.
Bonus: I will also be reviewing the 1963 homage directed by Georges Franju. Click here to skip to the talkie review.
The original caped crusader
Before I start this review, let me ask you a question: Do you have a spare 5 hours? No? Think again. I certainly did not believe that I had 5 hours but that didn’t stop me from watching Judex from beginning to end.
Twice. And then I set about ambushing random friends and family members to share my discovery.
Here’s the setup:
It is an open secret that the banker Favraux (Louis Lebaus) made his fortune through fraud and deception. It seems that the only person who does not realize that he is a crook is his innocent daughter, Jacqueline (Yvette Andréyor).Favraux is a wealthy and powerful man and it seems that nothing can be done to bring him to justice. Then threatening letters begin to arrive signed by a Judex, Latin for judge.
Fauvraux is mildly concerned and hires the bumbling private detective Cocantin (Marcel Lévesque) to get to the bottom of things. Judex has written that Favraux will die if he does not give up half his fortune and pay restitution to his victims.
Favraux is indifferent and continues his daily routine flirting with his grandson’s governess and running over the occasional tramp. Poor Cocantin is in over his head but no one seems to notice or care until Favraux falls down dead. There is no evidence of foul play except for the letters, which predicted Favraux’s death down to the second. Jacqueline soon learns of her father’s sharp business practices and immediately renounces his fortune. She is determined to make her own way in the world.
But suppose Favraux is not dead at all. You see, his death was an elaborate ruse so that Judex could spirit him away to an underground prison. His death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment for the sake of his daughter. The mysterious Judex has fallen in love with her.
Meanwhile, another set of plans are simmering. Favraux’s friend, the governess, is in fact Diana Monti (Musidora), criminal mastermind. Diana was determined to get her hands on Favraux’s fortune through marriage. Now she suspects that Favraux death was a hoax and she means to find him and claim his fortune.
Needless to say, there is intrigue, kidnapping, murder, and revenge. To say more would be telling.
Judex: Not your Garden Variety Serial
Serials have always been considered the intellectual lightweights of the cinema world. During their silent heyday, they were vehicles for stunts, thrills and melodrama, meant to entertain their audiences and little else. For director Louis Feuillade, they meant much more. His serials boasted good characterization, madcap plots, irresistible villains and an addictive quality that goes missing in American serials of the same period.
Feuillade’s most famous serial is his anarchic Les Vampires, a crime thriller that made crime sexy in the form of lead villainess Musidora. Constantly revived, Les Vampires has drawn critical praise for its blend of semi-surrealism, melodrama and adventure. Judex has fewer anti-establishment overtones. It may be a revenge fantasy on the surface but a family drama at its core. Much of the supporting cast for Les Vampires turn up in Judex, most notably the fabulous Musidora.
This time, though, instead of centering his story on a criminals as he did in Les Vampires and Fantômas, Feuillade keeps the viewer enthralled with the hero. Judex is motivated by revenge and justice. He is out to right wrongs and clear away corruption. And he looks splendid in a cape. What more could an audience, then or now, ask for?
Judex is not so much a film as an obsession. Even though it does not use the literal cliffhangers that American serials so often employed, it manages to keep the audience entranced and guessing down to the final chapter. Feuillade creates such intriguing characters that the audience doesn’t need artificial excitement. The characters create their own.
The episodes in Judex will seem unusual to fans of American serials. Serial episodes, much like television shows, usually take up a set amount of time. Judex follows Lewis Carroll’s formula: “Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end; then stop.” The episodes take as much or as little time as they need to tell their story. Most range from 25 to 30 minutes but certain episodes are under 20 minutes or close to 40 minutes.
Like many motion picture directors of the day, Feuillade relied on off-the-cuff writing to provide scenarios for serial episodes. This gives the plot a fun and eccentric flavor but it can make the narrative thread a little difficult to follow at times. Judex himself is the perfect pulp hero. A master of disguise and armed with gadgets that foreshadow the Batman school of daring adventure. That is, a rich man who uses his wealth to turn himself into a super-heroic crime fighter.
Still, Judex the serial remains a family affair and Judex the character reflects that. He is assisted by his brother and mother. He takes enormous risks to effect reconciliation between a father and a wayward son. His hatred toward Favraux is softened by his love for Jacqueline and her love for her father.
In fact, almost every character in Judex, with the exception of Diana Monti, either nurture their family bonds or create them if they do not have them already. This focus on family and relationships changes to focus in Judex from capers and chases (though there are many of those too) to relationships, love, hate and everything in between.
Even heroic characters in the serial have self-doubt and moral ambiguity. Judex begins to question his right to judge. Jacqueline questions whether she should have dealings with her father’s enemy, even though he has saved her life several times.
Don’t let this make you think, though, that Judex is all deadly serious drama. There is a light comedic touch and a bouncy sense of fun that keeps the serial safely in the realm of popular entertainment. The cute Licorice Kid, little Jean, Cocantin the bumbling detective and his unlikely girlfriend, English swimmer Daisy Torp, all add an zany touch without seeming out of place. The one bit of comedy that was surely unintentional: the ridiculously small pistols that everyone uses. Not terribly threatening. Sorry.
Judex is one of the greatest treats a silent movie fan can give themselves. Just don’t make any plans, this serial will keep you up all hours to see what happens next. I don’t know how period audiences could stand having to wait for the next episode.
Yes, it’s that good.
One side note:
A question that comes up often concerns Favraux’s young grandson, Jean. Is the child playing him a boy or a girl? Olinda Mano is the young actress featured. Many motion pictures of this period still followed the stage convention of boys being played by girls. It may seem odd to modern viewers but there were practical reasons.
Often smaller in stature, girls could play younger boys and thus handle more emotionally complicated roles. And, especially in the case of pre-adolescent roles, the acting troupe did not have to worry about their star’s voice changing in the middle of a tour. Most of all, though, a girl would more easily conform to the Little Lord Fauntleroy standard of child beauty so popular during this period.
The Licorice Kid (René Poyen) is one of the great treats of Judex. A sort of honest Artful Dodger, the Kid provides some much needed street smarts when little Jean is out on his own. Poyen, more commonly known as Bout-de-Zan, was a popular draw for French audiences during the war. He was a substitute for the internationally popular Max Linder, who was away from films serving in the French military.
A natural actor, Bout-de-Zan was also 100% boy, which made little Jean seem even more girlish. If only the filmmakers had used the obvious chemistry between the young actors and allowed Olinda Mano to play a girl! What an adorable baby romance it could have been.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★★★
Where can I see it?
Judex is widely available on DVD. The Flicker Alley release has an absolutely smashing score by Robert Israel based on music by French composers, including Charles Alkan.
The novelization of Judex, written at the same time as the original serial release, is now available in English. A great gift for the Judex fan who has everything.
The story of the heroic Judex proved to be a tale with staying power. Nearly five decades after the serial was released, a feature film attempted to recapture the old magic. Did it succeed?
The Talkies Challenger: Judex (1963)
Louis Feuillade enjoyed a return to prominence sooner than many of his silent era contemporaries. Mid-century critics went wild for Les Vampires and Judex. In 1963, French director Georges Franju created a homage to Feuillade. The 1963 version of Judex borrows and condenses the plot of the original and throws in a touch of Les Vampires and Fantômas for good measure. Magician Channing Pollock plays Judex and Francine Bergé ably fills Musidora’s body stocking in the role of Diana Monti.
Franju’s obvious affection for his source material (in spite of his protestations that he preferred Fantômas and despised the caped mastermind) ensures that Judex is an unusually faithful remake. The basic plot remains the same as the silent, though the 104 minute running time did require the story to be trimmed and streamlined.
Unfortunately, one of the plot elements to go is Judex’s crisis of conscience and his doubts about his moral authority to act outside the law. Also gone is any hesitation on Jacqueline’s part over accepting Judex’s love. One welcome change: Jacqueline’s child is played as the girl that she is.
The action scenes are well-done and evoke the WWI period well. The actors get into the spirit of the thing and the masquerade ball scene is enchanting. For all this, the film is still a homage and plays like a homage. Viewers who have not seen the original are unlikely to enjoy this version.
And the Winner is…
Franju’s tasteful remake are a pleasure for Feuillade fans but this is no substitute for the original. This version is enjoyable, though, and it is worth seeking out. Franju was unable to secure the rights to his beloved Fantomas and had to settle for his second choice. In subsequent interviews, the director stated that he viewed Judex as a villain who envelopes the other characters in his darkness. Franju later made Nuits rouges, a 1974 film that borrows heavily from the Fantômas tales. Another plus: The score by the great Maurice Jarre.
One final note. I recommend that you watch both versions in rapid succession. If you wait too long in between, you may find the pared-down remake difficult to follow.
Availability: Released on DVD and Blu-ray by the Criterion Collection.