These days, “television” series—meaning media created for home viewing–are often held up as offering us something cinema—i.e., media made for public exhibition—cannot: compelling narratives that hold attention for long periods of time. This notion implies that cinema lacks this same storytelling potential as what we used to call “TV” is an example of cultural amnesia. Cinematic narratives that unfold over extended periods of time have a long history and, in many cases, are thriving—in spite of distributors’ and exhibitors sometimes misguided attempts at cutting or reconfiguring them. And film history reveals treasures in the serialized format during the silent era from the likes of Pathé Frères, Victorin-Hippolyte Jasset, Louis Feuillade, Otto Rippert and Fritz Lang. Read on for three (only three? I could list one—you’d have viewing material for weeks) highly recommended examples of crime serials.
Les Vampires (Louis Feuillade, 1915-16)
Feuillade, the grandmaster of long-form fiction and a master storyteller, made this now-classic on the cheap, with very little of the script pre-written, so that he could release it in time to compete with Pathé Frères’ work. Les Vampires is about a journalist, Philipe Guerande, in the process of exposing an underground criminal organization with the help of his friend Cloud Mazamette, a comical family man who unexpectedly shows up just as the right time to help our hero. And then there’s Irma Vep, the veritable star of the film, and a wonderful creation by Feuillade. Her story is by far the most fascinating aspect of the narrative and it is no surprise that future French filmmakers would elaborate on her image (as in Olivier Assayas‘ 1996 Irma Vep).
Les Vampires has proven to be highly influential; Lang and Hitchcock are certainly the most successful grandchildren of Feuillade, but there’s also Jacques Rivette. Beginning with Paris Belongs to Us (1961), Rivette was searching for a way to rearticulate the conspiracy world of Les Vampires into film narratives, a preoccupation he explored even further in his monumental serial film, Out 1 (1971).
Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (Fritz Lang, 1922)
Lang’s work is technically not a serial film, but it was inspired by the crime serial genre (particularly Les Vampires) and has a long running time, so it fits within the parameters of this list. Based on the Norbert Jacques character, Dr. Mabuse is about a criminal mastermind, adept in hypnosis and disguise, who uses his skills to win card games in order to fund his criminal projects. Like the first entry to this list, Dr. Mabuse significantly influenced future conspiracy and crime films. Lang’s sordid tale of deception, violence and corruption offers a bleak depiction of Germany society and the horrors of the unconscious.
Judex (Louis Feuillade, 1916)
In response to critics complaining that Feuillade was glorifying outlaws in Fantômas (1913-14) and Les Vampires, he created the pulp hero Judex and produced a 300-minute serial featuring his adventures. Judex is adept in martial arts, a master of disguise and has a secret lair beneath a ruined castle stocked with state-of-the-art crime-fighting gadgets. (His name is taken from the Latin word for “judge.”)
In Judex, the character fights a corrupt banker after falling in love with the banker’s daughter, and then has to deal with another criminal gang led by the actress that played Irma Vep, Musidora. The serial was immensely popular when it came out and brought in more money than Feuillade’s previous works. Judex was resurrected in Georges Franju’s Judex (1964); things get a little weird, but the spirit of Feuillade’s original survives.
With Les Vampires and Judex, Feuillade anticipated the majority of the elements in crime, superhero and pulp stories that have appeared in cinema since. Discovering his films is a wonderful experience that will enrich anyone’s grasp on cinema, not to mention being wildly entertaining. We have yet to see a true successor to his work.