Georges Franju’s last film for the cinema was to be his second homage to the silent Louis Feuillade crime serials of the 1910s – the first being his inspired remake of Judex in 1963. Nuits rouges is a curious cinematic beast that owes as much to the adolescent American fantasy-thriller serials of the 1940s and 1960s as it does to Feuillade. It is certainly not what you would have expected from a man with a reputation as a serious filmmaker and co-founder of the Cinémathèque Française, France’s national film library.
The film was conceived by Jacques Champreux, the grandson of Louis Feuillade, who had previously collaborated with Franju on the screenplay for Judex. Champreux was eager to mount a remake of Feuillade’s Fantômas, but along very different lines to the family-friendly comedic treatment that André Hunebelle had given it in his mid-1960s remake. In an interview he gave in 2007, the actor-writer stated that he wanted to capture something of the sinister essence of Feuillade’s film series, making a film that would be as shocking to contemporary audience as the original Fantômas was in 1913. Although Champreux managed to find financial backing for the project, he was unable to afford to buy the rights to Fantômas, and so he came up with this alternative – which was Fantômas in everything but name. As well as writing the screenplay, Champreux also got to play the principal baddy in the film, although for most of the time his face is hidden by a red balaclava.
Two versions of the film were made – one for cinema, entitled Nuits rouges (released in English-speaking countries in a dubbed version, Shadowman), the other for television. The latter was broadcast in France in July-September 1975, in eight instalments of 55 minutes each. The two versions of the film were shot separately – on 32mm film for the cinema release, on 16mm for the TV version. When some of the 32mm film was lost (apparently stolen), the matching 16mm film was used in its placed, resulting in an obvious degradation of picture quality.
Nuits rouges was to prove a disappointing end to Franju’s filmmaking career. The director would make two further TV films for French television in the late 1970s but this was his last cinematic offering. Its French release in November 1974 coincided with a series of national strikes which resulted in very poor box office takings. Critical reaction to the film at the time was generally very negative. Today, along with much of Franju’s work, Nuits rouges is somewhat more highly regarded. Whilst clearly not his best film, it is an enjoyable romp that managing to be both a respectful homage and a glorious send-up of Feuillade’s work.
The film is certainly not without its faults, and it lacks the maturity and restraint of Franju’s previous fantasy films. Some of the acting is pretty cringe-worthy and the plot is so absurd that it makes Dan Brown’s The Vinci Code (which treads similar ground in somewhat lighter footwear) seem almost plausible. But the eye-pleasingly kitsch art and costume design and some stylishly realised action sequences – not to mention the tongue-in-cheek comedy that permeates nearly every scene – more than make up for this. It is worth watching the film just for the haunting rooftop sequence in which a sleek Gayle Hunnicutt, garbed in the slinkiest black catsuit as an Irma Vep look-alike, fends off her police pursuers with a blow pipe, fulfilling just about every male fantasy as she does so. Nuits rouges is not a great film and in parts it is downright silly, but it is fun, providing you don’t take any of it too seriously.
© James Travers 2008
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