Movie still from 1963's "Judex."

Judex January 31, 2016

The older a superhero movie is, the better.  Granted, Judex’s titular do-gooder is not necessarily a super, more a Batman minus the wealth, stealth, and an imperative obsession with keeping a secret identity intact.  But a vigilante he is, and, considering his jet black cape and way of walking around with otherworldly superiority, we may as well regard him as an irreverent hero for the ages.  Played by Channing Pollock with reticence, we could watch Judex make right in this wrong world for an eternity.


Which is exactly what audiences, decades prior, did.  The film itself is an adaptation of Louis Feuillade’s 1916 silent serial of the same name, which consisted of thirteen episodes and ran for five hours in total.  Marred by WWI, release was tricky but ultimately successful — time, though, was cruel to it, remembered by few.  But when Georges Franju (Eyes Without a Face), the filmmaker behind the 1963 reimagining, was offered the project, a desire to recreate the stylistic aspects of the movies he grew up on as a kid overwhelmed him, thus resulting in a wistful but modern film that only a director of his artistic girth could manage.


And so Judex, sophisticated and slick, is the best kind of aforementioned vintage superhero movie, having one eye on faint camp and the other on facile cool, as aesthetically awe-inspiring as Dick Tracy and as confident as Danger: Diabolik. Contrarily to today’s additions in the genre, bigger isn’t necessarily better — it rides high on the fumes of a downplayed thrill, its art design as exciting as its suspense.  


In the film, we assume Judex has been making cockeyed justice for years, mostly against an upper-class who walks over the less fortunate without any remorse.  His latest victim is Favraux (Michel Vitold), a greedy banker who has been a magnet of corruption and deceit for his entire career.  He, too disgustingly self-assured, disregards a threatening note sent by the eponymous hero, who warns that a sorry fate awaits him if his sins continue.  Bad idea, considering his eventual kidnapping and imprisonment by the man.  Judex has only kept him alive for the sake of his kindly daughter (Édith Scob), a glass-half-full kind of young woman who takes the many unfortunate circumstances of her life and turns them gold.


But as Favraux is being kept isolated away from the world that he has so thoroughly stolen from, the family governess (a minxy Francine Bergé), meanwhile, is undergoing a sordid plot herself: she plans to anonymously kidnap Favraux’s daughter with her lover, ask for ransom money, and seduce the banker into marrying her to ensure quick wealth.  All is sinister and dark — but Judex, being the nonchalant hero that he is, is first to stop the madness zinging around the premises at every given moment.


Since I'm unfamiliar with the 1916 version of Judex, I can hardly say if this material is meant to be cheeky or dead serious.  But Franju, conjuring gleams of both, finds a savory balance between the somber, the humorous, and the fantastical, determined to prove that superheroism can exist on an earthly level minus the melancholic grit that peppers films of the genre today.  With modern eyes, it is fresher than ever, an alternative to all the pomp and circumstance that we’ve grown accustomed to.  Its luscious black-and-white, three-dimensional characterizations, and evocative imagery are magnificent — it won’t be exiting the passageways of your mind any time soon.  A-