by Allan Fish
(France 1915 399m) DVD1/2
Irma Vep, Irma Vep!
p/d/w/ed Louis Feuillade ph Manichaux m Robert Israel art Garnier
Musidora (Irma Vep), Eduard Mathé (Philippe Guerandé), Marcel Levesque (Oscar Mazamette), Louis Leubas (Satanas), Jean Aymé (1st Grand Vampire), Fernard Hermann (Moreno), Stacia Napierkowska (Marfa Koutiloff), Edmund Bréon (Secretaire de Satanas), Moriss (Venemous), Germaine Rouer (Augustine), René Carl (L’Andalouse), Bout-de-Zan (Eustace Mazamette), Delphine Renot (Mère de Guerandé), Thalès,
Louis Feuillade’s serials have long been regarded like unicorns and the Loch Ness monster; creatures of myth and legend, rarely if ever glimpsed and talked of in hushed tones. His masterpiece, or at least his most revered and best surviving work, is Les Vampires, a delirious nearly seven hour long melange of virtually every crime cliché in the book. (Indeed, this film was responsible for bringing many of the clichés to life.) Vampires has it all; double switches, mistaken identity murders, rooftop and road chases, ingenious escapes, secret passageways, code books, rival gangs, crooked cops, undercover operators, crusading reporters – you name it, this has it.
The basic plot shows how Philippe Guerandé leads a crusade against a criminal underworld organisation known as the Vampires, who include many important figures in society (aping the Masons?) in their number and have rules and regulations like the best crime syndicates. It takes him a while, and there is much double and triple dealing, but eventually the group are wiped out in a climactic raid.
The serial consists of ten parts (The Severed Head, The Ring That Kills, The Red Code Book, The Spectre, Dead Man’s Escape, Hypnotic Eyes, Satanas, The Thunder Master, The Poisoner and The Terrible Wedding), the very titles of which fill one with a sense of the penny-dreadful. Their haunts are the stuff of hushed whispers; The Howling Cat nightclub and the Happy Shack Cabaret. What’s more, the characters are well enough outlined to allow us to empathise, and two of them, Levesque’s rascally Mazamette (recalling the later Raimu) and Musidora’s hypnotic Irma Vep are the stuff of cinematic dreams. Though Musidora could not really be described as beautiful, far from it (imagine, say Simone Simon in the role in the thirties), she had an undoubted presence and her dressing in boys suits predated Louise Brooks by over a decade.
However, for all this, and for Feuillade’s control over his narrative, what really makes this a vitally important film in cinema’s highest firmament is down to its influences. As there is little actual movement in films of this era, many may find them difficult to sit through, and certainly Les Vampires can be a bum-number if watched back to back in one sitting. Yet it’s too important to leave out. One could not have seen The Cabinet of Dr Caligari being made had it not been for Feuillade’s film; its expressionist rooftop chase owing much to it and the skin tight black suit sported by Conrad Veidt’s somnambulist is borrowed in everything but the hood. Likewise, its view of the underworld must have influenced Fritz Lang’s Dr Mabuse films and the scenes of the Vampire crimes being re-enacted on stage look forward to the vampires on stage in Interview with the Vampire, which was also, perhaps not coincidentally, set in Paris.
It’s sad that Feuillade is almost forgotten today, for in his day he was as important to French cinema as Busby Berkeley was to American cinema during the depression. One must bear in mind when it was filmed, and where. At the time this was filmed in Paris, but a few hours away Frenchmen were dying en masse at the front line at the trenches near Verdun. Gas attacks were being made, which was alluded to by a gas attack made by the vampires on a party. Though the French government banned the film, it didn’t glamorise crime as they said. (How could it with such a summary punishment for the criminals?) Yet the crime genre would have been without a seriously important set of rules that would last for decades. It also gave the cat burglar his signature costume for all time and gave Musidora a role she never shook off.