A dive into French pulp cinema

James Oliver 5 May 2021

As the hit series Lupin has gripped millions on Netflix, James Oliver takes a deep dive into history of unmissable French pulp cinema

There's been a lot of Must-See TV over this past year or so, and Lupin (on Netflix) has been among the least-missable of the lot: this is the French serial about a master thief, played with Omar Sy with charisma set to “maximum”.

It's a show that owes a modest debt to our own Sherlock; where that series, with “Bendy” Cumberbatch, updated the great consulting detective to the smartphone age, so Lupin does something similar with an icon of French crime fiction. Arsene Lupin was a contemporary of the original Sherlock Holmes, playing his trade in serialisations and magazine stories. 

 

And there's plenty more where that came from—Lupin was far from the only legend of French pulp as the following shows: here we present a selection of just some of his rivals and descendants that entertained French sensation seekers. To keep it at a manageable length, we've restricted it to those who crossed over into movies too.

So, don your cape and black mask and let us commence...

Arsène Lupin

The inspiration for the latest Lupin began life in the magazine Je sais tout, and quickly found a following amongst the literati and hoi polloi alike. He was a gentleman jewel thief, although not without his redeeming features—he only stole from those who (probably) deserved it and he was assiduous in helping the capture of real villains.

Those with a knowledge of such things might spot a resemblance to another gentleman jewel thief, the British Raffles. And they'd be right—creator Maurice Leblanc borrowed much and mightily from Raffles. And everywhere else: LeBlanc once pitted his creation against none other than Sherlock Holmes, until the lawyers stepped in. The character was renamed “Herlock Sholmes”, which is barely trying, isn't it?

Vidocq

Now, technically speaking, Vidocq wasn't “a character” since he was a real person, but he's featured in paperbacks, plays and—yes—in movies too (the best being the wonderful A Scandal in Paris), all on account of his rather colourful back-story.

Eugene Vidoq essentially founded the Sûreté nationale, the French detective bureau and he had excellent qualifications to do so: before that he was a rather successful criminal, pilfering his way across Paris until he saw the light. Something of his DNA found his way into French crime stories, where black sheep and anti-heroes are far more appreciated than the straight arrows found in their anglophone equivalents.

Nemo

Now, Nemo—Captain Nemo, if you want to be picky—might need less of an introduction that the other characters on this list. He's the character James Mason played in 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, the guy with the souped-up submarine and a distaste for those who rode the waves above.

Except this Nemo owed little to the book from which he was taken, by Jules Verne: there, he was an Indian prince, originally named “Dakkar”, he turned to science after the Indian uprisings of 1857. He made a few outings in Verne's books—in Mysterious Island, he helps some castaways who wash up on his island. More recently, was a founding member of The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill's glorious celebration of pulp storytelling.

Fantômas

Pulp literature has always been more popular with the high-brows than you might think, and Fantomas was a case in point. The first generation of Surrealists—the guys who invented the form—couldn't get enough of this supervillain and his criminal antics.

But then, everyone loved Fantômas: written by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre, the whole of France thrilled to his antics, and the efforts of the heroic inspector Juvet to foil his schemes, as they unfolded day by day in the newspapers (the sheer speeds at which the creators worked meant the stories had an apparently dreamlike quality that those surrealists liked).

So popular were the character's escapades that it made sense to bring them to the screen. The first serial—directed by the legendary Louis Feuillade—arrived in 1913; spread over five parts, it has a good claim to be the seed of modern action cinema—it influenced the people who influenced the people who influence to-day's blockbuster merchants.

Les Vampires

Feuillade's Fantômas was a great hit back in the day, so it made sense for him to get to work on a follow up. Les Vampires is about a criminal gang this time; called “the vampires” they're headed by the terrifying “Grand Vampire”. His chief subordinate is “Irma Vep” (an anagram of “vampire”), an accomplished thief but she's also sort-of in love with reporter Philippe Guérande, who is trying to stop the dastardly band. No wonder audiences kept flocking back for the next instalment.

This was escapism of the first order but what's so interesting is the way that current events keep creeping in: at one point the vampires destroy a restaurant (and its patrons) with a rocket filled with poison gas. In 1917, rival armies were doing much the same to each other barely a hundred miles from where Feuillade was rolling his cameras...

Judex

Bit of a cheat this, since Judex doesn't really derive from pulp literature; he was conceived for the screen as a follow up to Les Vampires and Fantomas. Although again directed by Louis Feuillade, Judex is a more righteous character than his previous crooks—his name is Latin for “judge” and that's exactly what he does, bringing justice to those who have managed to escape conventional law—the rich and powerful most of all.

There's another echo of the Great War here. In a country where the ordinary people had born the brunt of failings by politicians and generals, some of whom had even been rewarded for their inadequacies, you can understand the appeal of a vigilante intent on settling the score.

Lemmy Caution

If you know the name “Lemmy Caution” then chance are, you're thinking of Alphaville, Jean-Luc Godard's version of science fiction in which a gruff secret agent played by American Eddie Constantine goes to the futuristic city of Alphaville to destroy the super-computer that controls the population there.

Thing is, Lemmy Caution was not Godard's invention, nor was this the first time that Constantine had played the role. A supposedly American agent, Lemmy was created by a Brit (Peter Cheyney) and was nowhere more popular than in France, especially in the film adaptions starring Constantine which had been big hits in the 1950s and early 60s. Alphaville ended all that. It is a masterpiece but it's a masterpiece because, as usual, Godard did his own thing: audience members who went in expecting slam-bang entertainment were swiftly disabused of that notion, and the character has remained dormant ever since.

OSS 117

As with Lupin, OSS 117 is more familiar these days for a series of modern re-interpretations rather than the originals themselves. Although begun as a series of books first published just after The Second World War, the character—a French secret agent—really hit his stride in the 1960s, as a sort of Gallic response to James Bond, guarding the honour of his country just as jealously as 007, but on a much smaller budget.

More recently, though, he's been resurrected by director Michel Hazanavicius and star Jean Dujardin (both of them best known for The Artist). Set at roughly the same time as the originals, he's still an agent of French power but the films satirise the chauvinism, arrogance and gracelessness of the late-Colonial era—it is revealed that the Suez crisis was largely caused by his incompetence. Not really a tribute to the original but much, much funnier.

 

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