Tuesday, 29 November 2011

The first box set in film? Les Vampires (1915)

We’re all accustomed to watching “series”: stories with ongoing narratives split over a period of time in separate "episodes". Extensively used in literature, adopted quickly by cinema and finding a natural home on television (can there be any better example than The Wire?), the serial has been the major form of story telling. It ensures long-term reader/watcher/user engagement and allows the flexibility of developing an endless variety of stories around a finite number of familiar characters.

In film, connected episodic stories began emerging early on but it was the French director, Louis Feuillade, who produced the most coherent multi-episodic sequences. He played a major part in defining and developing the form through La vie telle qu'elle est: la Tare (1911) and Fantômas (1913-14) then Les Vampires from 1915 to 1916.

Les Vampires ended up as a series of ten episodes each of differing lengths. It is common to review them as a whole but I’ve taken a break half way through to see how the “real-time” viewer may have interpreted them. I’ve seen episodes 1 to 5 but am I compelled to find out what happens to the characters?

Les Vampires tells of a group of vicious criminals who terrorise Paris, stopping at nothing to gain money and to disrupt the powers that be. They are led by the Grand Vampire (Jean Aymé) who adopts different guises and disguises in most episodes. His key operative is the anagrammatical Irma Vep (played with cute menace by Musidora AKA Jeanne Roques) who helps to infiltrate banks, elegant society and even the hero’s household for the Vampire cause.

Throughout they are pursued by an intrepid reporter – one of the first of his kind - Philippe Guérande (Édouard Mathé) who is mostly helped (occasionally hindered) by the comic Mazamette (knowingly played by Marcel Lévesque).

The one word that best describes the series is “fun”, the stories whiz by and are very well structured by Feuillade. The production is disciplined and varied as it moves on apace with the narrative linked by a variety of expositionary telegrams, newspaper articles and other devices which cleverly remove the need for too many clunky intertitles.

The action switches quickly from interior groups to external shots. Close-shots of individuals and groups help to animate events and the actors seem closer to the viewer than with much contemporary cinema. There are also some thrilling shots of the rooftops of Paris as the Vampires make their escape, the camera pans gently as the grand vista of Paris opens up behind them and it follows their descent to their perfectly planned getaway.

Cameras accompany their travels either from the car behind or even in the car itself. I’m not sure how ground-breaking Feuillade was, but he certainly puts a lot of fresh, developing techniques and conventions into one place!

Here we can see the ground being broken for the police procedural, the thriller, 60’s spy films and genre TV (The Avengers and The Prisoner?) and even film noir. Les Vampires are usually one step ahead and the good guys are never guaranteed their victory. Far from it as the opening episode begins with the discovery of the headless body of the chief of police in charge of investigating the gang.

In the short second episode the ballet dancer engaged to our hero can not be saved from the villains' plotting and here, as elsewhere, their motivations are less than clear... perhaps adding to their menace.

In the third episode, we meet Irma Vep the femme fatale leading many of the Vampire’s most daring undertakings. She is first seen performing in a nightclub – The Hissing Cat Club – which doubles as a meeting place for the gang. Using the note book he gained in episode two, Guérande is able to work out where the Vampires meet and what their plans are.

Quickly though, the gang turns the tables and places Irma Vep undercover (poachers using gamekeeper tricks already!) in his household. He survives but his mother has already been taken prisoner… the action is thick and fast with the story devices efficiently woven into the events. Guérande has already given his mother a Vampire poison pen… ”just in case”…it may well help her!

A new twist is introduced in the fourth episode with the introduction of a rival gang of equal guile to the Vampires. They are led by Juan Jose Moreno who is also adept at disguise and duplicity. Now Guérande has two foes to defeat…unless they beat each other first.

This story features a tip of the hat to the huge popularity of movies, a bank manager who goes to the flickers every week: “je suis un fanatique du cinema!”. A clear indication that this wasn’t at the start of movies but smack right in the middle of their red hot period (even in Paris during war time…so close to the front).

The fifth episode pitches the two gangs head to head as the Vampires gas a society party in order to steal the guests’ jewels. At first you fear that everyone has been killed… an horrific fate, even the suggestion of which shows how ruthless Feuillade wants his villains to be. Moreno intercepts their getaway vehicle though – there’s a great shot of the vehicle from a car behind – and makes off with the hoard.

Honours roughly even between the three sides, I sincerely look forward to the remaining episodes. Feuillade succeeds in setting out dramatic events but also underlays everything with characterisation, backstory and motive. Guérande lives with his mother but has now lost his girlfriend to the group, Mazamette is forever being blackmailed to save his children whilst the bad guys are classy and stylish - professional criminals who want to gain from violence, destruction and fear.

Maybe this last point places the series in the context of World War One more than might be suspected. This is an adventure series but there are some bad things happening and no one is safely guaranteed to make it through to the end.

Les Vampires is available in a crisp, clear print in a three DVD set from Artificial Eye. It’s here.

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