DVD Review: Judex (1963) - The Criterion Collection

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One great thing about The Criterion Collection is that they consistently present film history lessons in the form of their DVD and Blu-ray releases. Full disclosure, I’d never so much as heard of director Louis Feuillade’s 1916 silent film serial Judex prior to delving into the new Criterion edition of Georges Franju 1963 remake. The masked character, kind of an early precursor to the modern superhero, was originally the subject of a 12-part series that totaled some five hours in Feuillade’s version. Though Franju’s remake wasn’t the first (Maurice Champreux helmed one in ’34), it is the best remembered. His version boils the sprawl of the serial down to 97 minutes. As noted in Geoffrey O’Brien’s terrific booklet essay, Franju is less interested in plot mechanics than what is in the margins. Visually striking, this has the aura of a surrealist comic book movie.

Judex (Channing Pollock) is a mysterious avenger, not unlike Batman, seeking vigilante justice against corrupt banker Favraux (Michel Vitold). Without becoming too concerned with specifics, we’re told that Favraux has swindled clients out of money. Soon it becomes clear he’s capable of worse. Judex (the Latin word for “judge”) aims to return Favraux’s fortune to those who’ve been bamboozled. Initially it appears the banker is fatally poisoned, but in actuality Judex has merely rendered him unconscious in order to hold him captive. If this sounds like fairly familiar comic book thriller territory, bear in mind that only holds true for the setup. Franju takes the story in utterly unpredictable directions, almost perversely leaving his anti-hero decidedly in the background.

Judex 2 (380x269).jpgÉdith Scob plays Favraux’s daughter Jacqueline, essentially a virtuous “babe in the woods” who is unfairly caught up in her father’s criminal activity, unbeknownst to her. Scob was the lead in Franju’s best-known work, the 1960 Eyes Without a Face (also available from Criterion). Here she mines similar territory, though Favraux isn’t nearly as demented as Pierre Brasseur’s Doctor Génessier. Jacqueline inadvertently saves her own life when she decides to forgo her inheritance, something that endears her to Judex (in disguise as the still-presumed dead Favraux’s secretary, Vallieres). Despite Judex’s vow to protect the innocent, pure-hearted lass, in swoops Diana (Francine Berge) to kidnap her —insisting she be given full access to the banker’s funds.

Again, having not seen the original multi-chapter Feuillade serial, I can’t make any direct comparisons. But it does seem at times like the dense plotting of Judex is overly jumbled. At its core is a relatively straightforward thriller and certainly the material could be treated as such. But Franju’s creation bears little resemblance to what today’s audiences would expect from a superhero adventure. That’s not a criticism, just fair warning for the uninitiated viewer. Interestingly, though Franju regularly peppers the film with throwback references to the silent era (intertitles, iris shots), Judex is also marked by a striking visual inventiveness that feels years ahead of its time.

Judex 1 (380x283).jpgThough I can reasonably assume Marcel Fradetal’s black-and-white cinematography looks best on the Blu-ray version, the DVD presentation is nothing to scoff at. Criterion’s new transfer was created using the original 35mm camera negative. The image has been framed at 1.66:1. The original French audio is presented with English subtitles and the fidelity is very strong.

Criterion has assembled an impressive supplements package for Judex, all of which are contained on the second DVD. Most substantial is the 52-minute documentary Franju le visionnaire. This 1998 French television program covers many films from Franju’s career, not only Judex. There are two Franju-directed short films, Le Grand Melies (1952; 32 minutes) and Hotel des Invalides (1952; 23 minutes). Two interviews are also included, one with actress Francine Berge (recorded in 2012) and the other with Franju’s co-screenwriter Jacques Champreux (recorded in 2007).

Criterion is justly celebrated for its booklets, which are generally packed with valuable information and interpretation of the films they’re covering. In the Judex DVD, we get a multi-panel fold-out insert that features an insightful essay, “The Secret Heart of Judex,” by Geoffrey O’Brien.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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