A fitting anagram for Judge Daryl Loomis is mislead judo glory.
Qui? Quoi? Quand? Ou…?
Those of us who love crime stories, heist films, and actioners, have come to accept the tropes that give these genres their flavor. But where do they come from? Ordinarily, one would think they emerge over many years from many different films. But surprisingly, they come in large part from one piece of work made nearly a century ago. Les Vampires, a serial by one of France's great early filmmakers, Louis Feuillade (Herr Doktor), contains nearly everything we've come to think of as genre cliches, and does it all over a massive seven hour runtime.
Facts of the Case
Paris has been besieged with crime, and a criminal organization calling itself "Les Vampires" has claimed responsibility. Led by someone called The Grand Wizard and his muse, Irma Vep (Musidora, Le berceau de dieu), they scale the walls of the city committing murders, heists, extortions, and whatever else they can think of to get rich. Intrepid reporter Philippe Guérande (Édouard Mathé, Judex) has been searching for them for years, but now he's getting close. That's not sitting well with the crooks, so he's become their main target.
If you like big stunts, exciting heists, mistaken identities, crazy gadgets, and twists galore, you'll love Les Vampires. For many viewers, what occurs during this seven hour, ten episode serial might look like a series of cliches, but it wasn't cliched at the time. More importantly, there's a reason these things have been used consistently throughout a century of cinema: they work. Regardless of its age and the lack of dialogue, Les Vampires is damned exciting.
When attempting to consume it all in one sitting, they experience becomes repetitive and ridiculous. Taken as it was intended, Les Vampires shines, delivering a steady flow of action, stunts, and suspense, much of it done on the war-torn streets of WWI Paris. One of the more forward looking story elements is the idea that, once Philippe solves the case of The Grand Wizard, another emerges, each more diabolical than the last. When comic books began getting popular, whether they realized it or not, the writers were taking Feuillade's ideas and running with them.
A lot of the serial's thrill comes from its star, Musidora. An acrobat by trade, her stunts were done without a net and they're super smooth. Plus, she cuts a powerful cloth, one of the figures who—alongside Theda Bara—defined the term "vamp." There are plenty more experienced actors in the film, but no one is more memorable, and few have ever eclipsed her. Musidora is a force of nature, both in her stunts and her dealings with Irma's fellow crooks, all of whom she dominates. Regardless of the multitude of supervillains Philippe faces, his adversarial relationship with Irma is the film's main conflict, even though I'm not sure they ever share a scene together.
A lot of what works in Les Vampires, especially in the first few chapters, comes in spite of Feuillade, who didn't really have scripts to shoot from early on. It's loose and fly-by-night, but works on the strength of the performances and the series' general craziness. Later, as the story stabilizes, the film becomes an incredibly compelling experience. By the end, you think you know what might happen—and by today's standards, it might not be a huge surprise—but it isn't quite the redemption one might expect. Along with Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler, Les Vampires is the greatest serial in cinematic history, and well worth seeking out for fans of silent film and crime dramas.
Les Vampires (Blu-ray) comes from Kino International and, while the restoration is the same Cinemathéque Française from a decade ago, it looks fantastic in 1.35:1/1080p high definition. Given it's nearly a century old, there's no question it doesn't look as good as something produced today, but for a silent film it's as good as it gets. Sure, there are scratches, dirt, and the occasional sprocket holes, but no apparent degradation of the nitrate, no warping, and none of the things that normally mar the earlier silents. The contrast is excellent with brilliant clarity and detail throughout, though white levels are a little hot in some scenes. One other difference between the Blu-ray and the previous DVD release are the intertitles, which have been translated anew from the French. These are a lot clearer, though less literal, and tell the story better than before. The PCM 2.0 Stereo track is limited to a new musical score, compiled and performed by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, utilizing old French songs and new material. While they include the bells, knocks, and whistles I hate in silent soundtracks, I actually like this score. The themes run a little tired by the end, but overall it's quite good. Sadly, the only bonus feature is a trailer for Feuillade's Fantomas.
Kino's Les Vampires (Blu-ray) is a treasure and the film an absolute landmark of cinema. Just don't watch it in one sitting; take it one or two chapters at a time.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Kino Lorber
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