Louis Feuillade, one of the true pioneers of cinema whose work has undeniably influenced Lang and Hitchcock, had been criticised for glorifying villainy in his hugely popular serials 'Fantomas' and 'Les Vampires'. He redressed the balance somewhat by creating Judex, a hero who is both judge and jury.
Director Georges Franju has managed here to reduce the original 5 hour, 12 episode original to just 97 minutes which is no mean feat although unavoidably, compromises have had to be made.
Some have confessed to being baffled by the twists and turns of the admittedly condensed plot but their bafflement quite frankly baffles me as the film is sufficiently well-constructed and the pace certainly slow enough not to cause confusion.
Feuillade's work is known for its anarchy and surrealism. This adaptation has little anarchy and its surrealism is mixed with realism. This is Lunacy restrained. Essentially a film of moments, or 'set pieces' if you like, Franju's unique visual style and sense of atmosphere make it mesmerising to watch.
Behind every great fortune there is usually a great crime and banker Favraux, played superbly by Michel Vitold, has enriched himself by the Panama Scandal. He is called to account for his crime in an anonymous letter which threatens death at midnight if he does not atone and return to his victims his ill-gotten gains. He chooses to ignore this warning and at the stroke of midnight at a masked ball he appears to drop dead, only to awaken in an old castle to find himself the prisoner of a mysterious figure in a cloak and a slouch hat.............
Judex is here played by Channing Pollock, a handsome hunk who made a few European costume films at this time. He began as a magician and in this is able to perform his famous 'dove act'. As an actor alas, he is a plank.
Franju regular Edith Scob as the banker's daughter is required to do little more than play a Miss Goody Two Shoes but the camera loves her will o' the wisp persona.
Saints are not nearly as interesting as sinners of course and by far the most fascinating character is that of Diana di Monti. As a ruthless, sensual and utterly deranged villainess she is a gift to any actress and is here played with relish and aplomb by Francine Berge, complete with catsuit and nun's habit, wielding a dagger and a hypodermic needle. Her choreographed fight on the rooftop with luscious Sylva Koscina as Daisy the circus performer is guaranteed to quicken the pulse. Franju is reported to have said of Daisy's character: "I could have done without her" but happily for us he couldn't!
Jacques Jouanneau does a good turn as the incompetent detective Cocantin and there is a captivating performance by Benjamin Boda as Reglisse the boy. Also of interest is a brief appearance as a doctor by Andre Melies, son of that other pioneer director, Georges.
Mention must be made of Robert Giordani's superlative art direction, Marcel Fradetal's magnificent cinematography and Maurice Jarre's atmospheric score.
Whatever its weaknesses this bizarre opus is immensely entertaining and can be revisited with pleasure. Ideally one could have done with a little more flamboyance but that after all, is simply not Franju's way.