Start with a classic tale of revenge, spin in some mysticism and a pinch of science fiction, mix well with some classic early 60’s expressionistic filmmaking and you end up with Judex, a wonderful film that nicely illustrates how everything old is new again.
Shot in 1963, it stars Channing Pollock as Judex, a shadowy avenger who sends powerful banker Favraux a note threatening to kill him if he doesn’t repay all the money he swindled from his victims over the years. When Favraux drops dead at a dinner party at exactly the time foretold by Judex, the tale begins to branch out into some interesting and complicated subplots of conspiracy and straight-up payback.
Based on Louis Feuillade’s twelve part silent film series from 1916 (which was incredibly popular in France), director Georges Franju’s 1963 film distills the key elements of the story and weaves through them enough expressionist imagery to keep the film just one or two degrees away from reality; it’s akin to that hypnopompic state where we stumble partway out of sleep and out of dreams and are not quite certain which world we still occupy. Should we take the film seriously or are we to treat it as a high camp tribute? Franju maintains such a tight control over how the elements connect that he never tips his hand, never hints at a bluff and ultimately leaves us to decide the right emotional tone for viewing.
And it plays out perfectly. Since the original serial ran over 5 hours, Franju takes a few shortcuts and doesn’t delve too deeply into the details and that’s the only area where the remake could use some shoring up. What comes across as convenience or coincidence in the 1963 version is better explained as having purpose in the 1916 episodes. At the same time, Franju occasionally does the opposite; one major character who is a victim of banker Favraux is dealt with in a “why the hell did they do THAT?” headscratcher in the 1916 serial but in the remake the character presents a specific threat to Favraux, making his actions (which are identical to what the character did in the original) understandable. Still, that’s Franju’s style; he didn’t feel the need to ground his version too closely to our reality. In fact, it’s obvious that Judex isn’t really the character he’s most interested in; rather he spends more screen time exploring the actions of character Diana Monti (played by Francine Bergé) than Judex himself (in an interview with Francine Bergé included in the extras, she laughs at how the extent of her direction from Franju was “be evil”). Franju is more interested in manifestation than intent, in effect than cause but ironically uses the excuse of cause (revenge on Favraux for the evil he did) to explore effect only. Well played, Mr. Franju. Well played.
All that having been said, if you can spare the time, watch the 1916 serial first and then watch the 1963 remake. That way the gaps in Franju’s version won’t really distract and it makes it easier to settle in and let the visuals wash over you.
What’s also fascinating about the story is how similar so many of our twentieth century archetypes are to Judex…while watching Judex (the character’s portrayal in both the 1916 serial and the 1963 remake is the same with the exception that Franju gives Judex the gift of sleight of hand) we can see the seminal beginnings of such characters as the Shadow, Batman, the Green Hornet, etc. and I wonder how many of those character were inspired by Feuillade’s original serial. We have a mysterious, cloak-shrouded hero who lives underground in a distant ruin along with his sidekick (Judex’s brother) using technology and science to avenge a wrong that ruined his parents and for the suffering of which he vowed revenge. He uses his secret identity to move in and out of society while trying to also protect the woman he’s fallen in love with. Where have we heard THAT story before?
If the characters mentioned above did have any inspiration in Judex, they also embraced the fantastic elements more wholeheartedly, placing them firmly in the pulp genre. Both Feuillade and Franju, on the other hand, merely use those facets to assist Judex whereas the others couldn’t exist without those props. Judex could easily complete his mission without his tools; they assist him, they don’t define him.
While Criterion has released the film on both DVD and Blu-Ray, the DVD was the version sent for evaluation. The 1.66:1 transfer is clean and sharp with deep blacks and clear highlights that nicely display cinematographer Marcel Fradetal’s outstanding imagery consistently throughout the entire film. Film grain is clear without distracting. According to the booklet that accompanies the release:
“This new digital transfer was created in 2K resolution on an ARRISCAN film scanner from the 35mm original camera negative at Eclair Laboratories in Epinay-sur-Seine, France. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, and warps were manually removed using MTI’s DRS, while Digital Vision’s Phoenix was used for flicker, jitter, grain management, and small dirt. The original monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from a 35mm soundtrack negative. Clicks, thumps, hiss, and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube’s integrated workstation.”
And the clean-up is outstanding with no digital artifacting to mar or distract from the visuals (duh, it’s Criterion after all). The audio track is clean, well-defined, and nicely balanced.
The extras include:
•Interview from 2007 with the film’s cowriter Jacques Champreux, the grandson of Louis Feuillade, cocreator of the silent serial Judex
• Interview from 2012 with actor Francine Bergé
• Franju le visionnaire, a fifty-minute program from 1998 on the director’s career and imagination
• New English subtitle translation
•Two short films by Franju: Hôtel des Invalides (1951), about the Paris military complex, and Le grand Méliès (1952), about director Georges Méliès
Two additional extras, The Secret Heart of Judex, an essay by Geoffrey O’Brien and Meet Channing Pollock, a video by Glenn Kenny, are also available free of charge on the Criterion website.