The first chapter of Judex doesn’t get a chapter title; it’s just the prologue. While the action in the prologue leads directly into the action of the first chapter, throwing young, wealthy widow Yvette Andréyor into despair (financial and emotional), the first titled chapter ends up having less to do with where Judex is going to go than almost any other chapter. It’s like the serial has two prologues. The first focuses on dispicable banker Louis Leubas, the second on how his being dispicable affects his daughter, Andréyor.
And in the background is the mysterious “Judex,” who threatens Leubas to give up half his fortune to atone for his previous sins. The serial introduces one of those sins in the prologue–poor Gaston Michel. Michel was a miller who lost it all because of Leubas’s bad financial practices; he turned to crime and went to prison. His wife died while he was inside and his son disappeared. Just out of prison, he visits Leubas, asking for help in finding his son. Leubas sends him off. Then has his driver run him over.
Michel’s not dead, which isn’t clear until the second episode (maybe third). But Leubas is a bad guy. Always has been. His additional wealth and respectability haven’t changed him. In fact, one of Judex’s many, glorious subplots involves Leubas’s history.
Because the most compelling thing about Judex isn’t René Cresté’s ostensibly dark avenger, it’s the things going on in the story around it. Judex doesn’t actually need Judex to be compelling. It needs Cresté, sure, but Cresté’s time in the black cape and hat are somewhat limited. Very limited as the story progresses and he discovers he has to be present for Andréyor not just as a protector, but as a man. He’s in love. Desperately.
Oh, yeah, there’s the complication. Cresté can’t carry out his family’s revenge on Leubas because he’s fallen for Andréyor. There are a lot of other complications, like Musidora, who’s first after Leubas’s money, then after Andréyor’s. Musidora has a couple partners in the film, main guy Jean Devalde (who has a secret, but important, past) and then Andréyor’s former fiance, Georges Flateau. Flateau dumps Andréyor after she loses her fortune. But then once there’s a chance to recover some of it, he gradutes from mercenary marriage to kidnapping and attempted murder.
Musidora doesn’t have much in the way of redeemable traits (none, really), but she still manages to be a lot more likable than Flateau. Or Devalde. Because Musidora’s pretty smart, especially compared to Cresté, who seemingly has come up with his one plan, executed it, said he can do more, but really isn’t prepared. He’s got an awesome pack of dogs who can track kidnapping victims and knock down bad guys, but they’re only good for so much. When it comes to kidnapping victims in high places, for example, Cresté’s got to find a kid he can put in danger to help get the job done.
The kid is often René Poyen. He’s one of Judex’s truer heroes. He befriends Andréyor’s son, Olinda Mano, who she’s had to give up while she lives in poverty as a piano teacher. Andréyor’s plans don’t make a lot of sense, but seeing as how she can’t make it two chapters without people wanting to kidnap her, it also makes sense she can’t get them figured out.
For much of the serial, Andréyor is a damsel in distress. At least three major times. Sometimes Cresté rescues her, sometimes someone else rescues her. After her turn as the main target of Musidora and company, their attention goes to Mano, presumably because a kid is easier to grab. Musidora is able to track Andréyor and Mano because Cresté is terrible at planning.
Just as many times as Andréyor’s in danger–maybe more–Cresté and company (usually Édouard Mathé as his brother, though eventually Michel joins the team) screw something up. They operate on a strict forgive and forget policy. So even though goofy and adorable private investigator Marcel Lévesque at one point works with Musidora, helping set up on an attempt on Andréyor’s life no less, team Judex is okay with him once he comes around.
It bits them in the ass with one of the other characters, who isn’t as goofy, adorable, or honorable as Lévesque turns out to be. Lévesque also has a great subplot with Poyen.
Is Cresté more effective as the lovestruck suitor who just happens to be holding his desired’s father in captivity under strick orders from his mother to execute the man? Well, sure. It’s hard to imagine how Cresté was even able to set his plan in motion in the first place (offscreen in the prologue and before). He must have gotten a lot of pep talks from Mathé, whose role on Team Judex is split between logistics, babysitting, and pep talks. Whenever it’s time for action, Cresté perks up from his romantic melancholia, but otherwise Mathé’s doing most of the work.
And Cresté’s efforts as a hero are never quite as dynamic as some of the other heroisms on display. Poyen really comes through, a street urchin with a heart of gold, a solid work ethic, and the right temperment to protect pal Mano. There’s also the tragically uncreditted Lily Deligny, who shows up sort of as a deux es machina in the end chapters. She’s a swimmer. It’s important because Cresté and his family are guarding Andréyor on their estate on the Mediterreanan. There Cresté hopes to make Andréyor fall in love with him, even though he’s running two big deceptions on her, not to mention having her mentally incapacitated father on a nearby estate. Team Judex can’t figure out what to do with him since they aren’t going to kill him. Judex mare, Yvonne Dario, eventually comes up with a solution, which works because it’s a serial, but the film major cops out on the dramatic ramifications (and possibilites) of that solution.
While there’s a lot of danger in Judex, there’s not a lot of death. Neither Musidora or Devalde want to actually kill anyone. They keep trying to get someone else to do it–their plans for Andréyor are always extremely long game, like get her sick and then deny her medical treatment so she dies from exposure–they can never do it themselves. The serial, thanks to the performances and Feuillade, never feels like it isn’t dangerous. At least, not when Musidora is involved. Some of the other characters you know aren’t going to be too dangerous.
The chapters vary in length. Thirty-five minutes down to nine. The prologue’s long, the epilogue’s very, very short. They mostly move well. After the halfway point–the seventh chapter, when mama Judex Dario gets introduced–there’s not a lot of time for anything but action. Until that point, there’s a lot more with the emotionality of the characters. Cresté just mopes, but everyone else has visualized internal emotions. Those sequences are some of Feuillade’s flashier filmmaking. He also really likes the ruins where Cresté has the Judex cave.
Because it turns out, although Cresté wants Leubas to atone for his financial crimes in general, Leubas didn’t financially ruin Cresté’s family. They’re rich as all hell. He’s a self-funded adventurer, after all. The serial starts being very anti-capitalist, it ends being blah on capitalism (imagine being so poor you have to work, even if you’re a wealthy banker) and big on blue blood. It actually explains a lot about Cresté’s actions. He and Mathé are just playing.
But it doesn’t matter because Musidora’s dangerous and Cresté’s comprised. Even if they’re foppish heroes, they’re the heroes just the same.
The best performances are Lévesque and Poyen. Musidora’s quite good. Andréyor’s good, but better when she’s the damsel in distress than Cresté’s ward (whether she knows he’s her guardian or not). Her character development pretty much stops once she gets Dano back (and gets to be rich again).
Devalde’s good. His character arc throughout is a little disappointing. Feuillade and co-writer Arthur Bernède go out of their way to be sympathetic to just about everyone except Devalde. Dario’s good. Especially considering she’s in a bunch of old age makeup.
And Cresté’s all right. Once he gets to just be a fool in love–around Andréyor, not from afar (or in disguise)–he gets a lot better.
Musidora’s threats and plots serve for good inciting actions, but the character development because of those experiences is what makes Judex work. It’s the drama surrounding the characters, not the action. Because while Musidora’s good at the action, Cresté’s not. He’s just not on the ball. Once he uses up the dog trick, he’s got nothing. Well, nothing but money, as it turns out.
Feuillade’s direction is good. He has some rather jarring jump cuts the first few chapters, but they go away. He seems more comfortable shooting the South of France scenes. They’re not as visually dynamic as the stuff around the Judex Cave (it’s underneath ancient ruins), but the characters have enough room in luxury. And together. So much of Judex is just about making sure a reuniting sticks.
It’s a good serial. Very rarely boring, usually quite the opposite. You get to miss the characters by the end–when there are just too many for everyone’s subplot to get attention each chapter. Though Judex does sort of leave Mathé behind once Dario shows up. It doesn’t seem fair since he’s been keeping Cresté on task for the first half of the serial.
Judex works out though. Because–not in spite of–Cresté being a big softie under all his dashing, dark avenger trappings. The same thing is true of the serial itself. Feuillade’s embracing of sentimentality and emotional sincerity is what makes the serial so special.
Directed by Louis Feuillade; written by Arthur Bernède and Feuillade; directors of photography, André Glatti and Léon Klausse; production designer, Robert-Jules Garnier; released by Gaumont.
Starring René Cresté (Judex), Yvette Andréyor (Jacqueline Aubry), Musidora (Diana Monti), Louis Leubas (Favraux), Marcel Lévesque (Cocantin), Jean Devalde (Robert Moralés), Édouard Mathé (Roger de Tremeuse), Olinda Mano (Jean), René Poyen (The Licorice Kid), Gaston Michel (Pierre Kerjean), Lily Deligny (Miss Daisy Torp), Juliette Clarens (Gisèle), Georges Flateau (Vicomte de la Rochefontaine), and Yvonne Dario (Comtesse de Tremeuse).