Judge Clark Douglas is getting measured for his dodo bird costume.
A delightful bit of pulp fiction and a testament to the art of illusion.
"You will be severely punished."
Facts of the Case
Our story begins with a corrupt banker named Favraux (Michael Vitold, The Confession), who has built a fortune by swindling people out of their money. One day, the banker receives a blackmail letter: unless Favraux gives half of his fortune back to the people he has robbed, something terrible will happen. The letter is signed by someone named "Judex," and Favraux hires a private detective (Jacques Jouanneau, Bed and Board) to find the blackmailer. Alas, Favraux's refusal to pay up has consequences, as the banker soon finds himself drugged and kidnapped by the enigmatic Judex (Channing Pollock). So begins a mysterious adventure filled with many twists and turns.
The most important thing you need to know about Georges Franju's Judex is that it's an adaptation of a 12-part silent serial made by the prolific French filmmaker Louis Feuillade. Franju had been eager to helm an adaptation of Feuillade's better-known Fantomas series, but the rights were unavailable, so he turned to Judex instead. The result is a ridiculously fast-paced film which stuffs several hours of twists and turns into a fleet 97 minutes. It's melodramatic and occasionally more than a little ludicrous, but the film works due to Franju's insistence on playing everything completely straight.
The opening stretch of the film feels like it could be the beginning of just about any old detective movie. A wealthy banker gets a blackmail letter, hires a private detective and an investigation gets under way. However, things quickly take a turn for the surreal, beginning with Judex's first appearance at a swanky dinner party being hosted by the banker. Conveniently, it's a costume party, and everyone has seemingly been asked to wear some sort of bird costume. Judex dons a mysterious eagle's head, and begins performing magic tricks for those in attendance (every trick ends with the sudden appearance of one or two real-life birds). Suddenly, the banker keels over—he's dead! At least, that's what everyone thinks. He's really just been drugged, and Judex whisks him away. As long as everyone thinks the banker is dead, Judex is free to torture him to his heart's content.
Ah, but things are about to get so much more complicated. Judex begins forming a relationship with the banker's daughter (Edith Scob, Holy Motors), which makes him think twice about doing something terrible to her father. The detective continues attempting to figure out what's going on, and inexplicably ends up teaming up with an eager-to-help little kid. The conniving Diana Monti (Francine Berge, The Crimson Rivers) is determined to find a way to steal the presumably-deceased banker's fortune, and eventually she becomes convinced that she needs to murder his daughter. Suddenly and without much warning, the tale begins whirling out of control and transforming into a series of events which are undeniably compelling but also somewhat light on clarity.
Even as the actual plot wanders past the point of believability and comprehension, the film's pleasures begin to increase. Franju relies increasingly on silent filmmaking techniques during the film's second half, delivering several memorable, dialogue-free set pieces which create an intimate bond between the film and its source material. Though Judex is supposedly the central character, the most compelling figure by far is Berge's Diana, a slippery villain who steals all of her scenes (frequently while donning a stylish catsuit). The film's slightly jarring postscript (which I won't spoil) is also immensely compelling, forcing the viewer to re-examine the entire film in a new light.
Judex (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection has received a strong 1080p/1.66:1 transfer which does a fine job of highlighting the film's crisp black-and-white cinematography. Franju's striking visuals are served exceptionally well by the transfer, which offers terrific detail, depth and shading. There are virtually no scratches or flecks present despite the film's age, and a layer of natural grain has been left intact. The LPCM 1.0 Mono track highlights the film's exceptional aural elements. Maurice Jarre's score does a fine job of capturing the film's slightly playful sense of mystery, but the sound effects impress to an even greater degree. The sound design is sophisticated and sleek, often making Judex feel considerably ahead of its time in this department.
As is often the case for Criterion releases, the supplements are rather generous and engaging. You get a 1998 French television documentary on Franju (52 minutes), two short films helmed by the director (The historically-themed "Hotel des Invalides" and the lovely George Melies tributes "Le Grand Melies"), interviews with actress Francine Berge (11 minutes) and scenarist Jacques Champreux (12 minutes), a booklet featuring an essay by Geoffrey O'Brien and a handful of older comments from Franju himself and a DVD copy.
A side note: Sadly, Criterion has announced that their combo packs featuring Blu-rays and DVDs will soon be discontinued due to customer complaints about not being able to choose format one or the other exclusively. I think that's a shame, but I suppose Criterion is only listening to its customer base.
Judex is a nifty little flick which doesn't feel quite like anything else I've seen. It finds a perfect balance between old-fashioned melodrama and modern cool, acknowledging the playfulness of its source material while still finding deeper resonance lurking within. You'll dig it.
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