Paris is terrorized by a mysterious super-criminal called Fantomas (Jean Marais). He robs, murders and makes a mockery of Police Commissioner Juve's (Louis de Funès) vow to bring him to justice. Meanwhile, suave journalist Fandor (Jean Marais again) and his photographer girlfriend Hélène (Myléne Demongeot) seize the chance to sell some newspapers by publishing a fake interview with Fantomas. Fandor even poses for a photograph as the villain dressed in a tacky costume. An enraged Fantomas abducts Fandor to his secret lair then, disguised as the journalist, frames him for jewel theft. With incompetent, accident-prone Juve on his trail, Fandor must find some way to save the now-captive Hélène and foil Fantomas' evil scheme.
Created by French pulp writers Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre the menacing masked anti-hero Fantomas first appeared on screen in a silent serial in 1913 from master filmmaker Louis Feuillade. That version was so seminal a work of French cinema that rather than retread old ground the team behind this Sixties remake chose a radically different route. Whereas Feuillade's atmospheric original had been deliciously dark and sinister, the 1964 Fantomas was comedic and colourful albeit no less enjoyable. Tonally this lies somewhere between a send-up of the James Bond series and a self-aware campy comic book caper that prefigures the Batman television show and movie of 1966. The fast-paced direction of André Hunebelle injects an irresistible cartoon-like energy even though the plot meanders from one crazy caper to the next and the stakes are low. Like Jack Nicholson's Joker in Batman (1989), this incarnation of Fantomas is oddly obsessed with his own celebrity and monopolizing media attention. He machineguns cinemas and blows up TV sets that dare to report anything derogatory about his crimes. Besides that and the odd jewel heist he is not really much of a menace.
Essaying both the title role as well as the dynamic hero was veteran swashbuckler Jean Marais, one of the most celebrated actors in French cinema. There is no denying Marais had a real chance to flex his acting muscles here, projecting a palpable sardonic sense of humour underneath an eerie but expressive green mask that makes Fantomas look like an alien (though his dialogue was spoken by another actor, Raymond Pellegrin), or performing his own stunts as suave action man Fandor. Note how in the scenes with Fantomas disguised as Fandor Marais clenches his jaw to suggest the plasticity of the mask. Even so for all his efforts Marais wound up eclipsed by the comic antics of Louis de Funès, who was actually a last minute replacement for another popular comedian: Bourvil, his future co-star in Don't Look Now... We're Being Shot At! (1966). Along with Le Gendarme de St. Tropez (1964), the first in a long-running film series, this film established Funès as a beloved comedy star. Whereas some French critics took issue with the comic caricature of Inspector Clouseau in The Pink Panther films it is worth noting Hunebelle and Funès lampoon French cops in much the same way, as lecherous, incompetent and egotistical.
As the film skips from gag to gag, Funès proves a whirlwind of comic energy so it is perhaps no surprise his relentless scene-stealing soured his off-screen relationship with Marais. Happily none of that tension is visible on screen. The entire cast inhabit their roles with great charm and joie de vivre including the beautiful Myléne Demongeot who elevates her token girlfriend role with a zesty performance. Insubstantial the film may be but with this cast firing on all eight cylinders the results are frothy in the best sense of the word. Like a glass of sparkling champagne. The quasi-futuristic set design is as impeccable as Marais' tailored suits with a playfully baroque sensibility that foreshadows The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) only the film is nowhere as compellingly dark. With the exception of the ever-exasperated Juve, the other heroes laugh off every narrow escape, remaining so suave and unflappable in the face of Fantomas' villainy the film lacks tension. On the other hand Hunebelle stages some superb stunts including a chase across the rooftops of Paris that ends with Juve dangling from a crane, a comic twist on Alfred Hitchcock's hero-at-the-wheel-of-an-out-of-control-car set-piece in North By Northwest (1959) and a marvelously sustained climax where Fandor and Juve pursue Fantomas on motorbike, by car, train, helicopter and finally speedboat! After such an energetic sequence the lack of an ending disappoints but the cast returned for, what else but, Fantomas Strikes Again (1965).