Les Vampires (1915)

Louis Feuillade | 10 chapters (15 – 59min)

The mysterious and deadly misdeeds committed by criminal gang The Vampires often defy real-world logic. This isn’t to say that Les Vampires is a supernatural film as its name might suggest, but Louis Feuillade plays up the pulpy sensationalism of their plots, weapons, and characterisations to magnificent lengths, stretching our suspension of disbelief with the kind of tensely staged sequences that Alfred Hitchcock would innovate years later through avant-garde camerawork and editing. Les Vampires is far from being cinematically bland, but in praising Feuillade’s work, it is his accomplishment of narrative construction which must take precedence above its technical aspects. Though there are frequent diversions to side characters who build out this shady world of Parisian journalists, thieves, and aristocrats, not a single one of them is wasted, as each one inhabits their own compelling archetype within this grand tale of good and evil.

Of course, it is the immortal character of Irma Vep who stands tall above the rest of this fascinating ensemble. Silent film actress Musidora puts in what might very well be the first great performance committed to a feature film as the main muse of The Vampires, remaining a consistent member while their leaders keep being killed and replaced. She adopts disguises easily, stalking those she has been sent to spy on with a sullen expression and dark shadows under her eyes, or otherwise prowling across rooftops in black head-to-toe body suits. When our leading man, Phillipe, comes across her name on a cabaret poster, Feuillade animates the letters to rearrange into an appropriate anagram – “Vampire”. She may not be the head of this crime organisation, but she is undoubtedly the greatest embodiment of its frightening malevolence.

Musidora masterfully plays the full range of Irma Vep’s wickedness, her facial expressions and physical presence leaping off the screen.
The Vampires scale buildings and prowl across rooftops in black body suits, like walking masses of negative space.

Along with Irma Vep, Feuillade maintains a steady, core ensemble of characters responsible for driving much of this story over its ten chapters. Newspaper journalist Phillipe starts as a relative unknown in the Parisian crime underworld, but as he gains fame for exposing a number of Vampires and foiling their plots, he and his loved ones become targets. His right-hand man, Mazamette, largely serves as playful comic relief, though he too carries his own plot function as a double agent, using his inside knowledge of The Vampires to assist Phillipe, and eventually becoming a wealthy philanthropist upon winning a bounty. When Moreno enters in Chapter 4, ‘The Specter’, his presence is a complication in the midst of this clear-cut fight between law and crime, effectively making enemies of both The Vampires and Phillipe as a thief, con artist, and hypnotist.

Mazamette works well as comic relief, not over-used and serving his own function within the plot.

Collectively, these characters exist in an exaggerated world of crime not unlike those found in serial novels from around the same era. With chapter titles like ‘The Severed Head’ and ‘Dead Man’s Escape’, Feuillade places The Vampires’ exploits at the centre of each episode, playing right into the delightfully macabre mysteries that just keep on provoking our intrigue. Secret passageways, cunning disguises, hypnotised servants, and cryptic ciphers make up Les Vampires’ winding plot, though the gang’s most titillating plans frequently involve some elaborate use of poison, whether it is infused into an ink that brings death within seconds, or a sleeping gas being fed into a ballroom of aristocrats.

One of Feuillade’s greatest scenes, and by far The Vampires’ greatest exploit, putting an entire room of wealthy men and women to sleep so they may rob them of their valuables.

The final man to take the title of the Grand Vampire is the mastermind behind many of these clandestine schemes, and is known simply as “Venomous” for his skill with deadly poisons. As a chemist, he evidently comes from a background of privilege and education much like the other Grand Vampires before him. Given that the organisation’s members seem to infiltrate all sections of society, its reach often seems impossible to overcome, as with the fall of one leader there is always a new one rising up to take their place.

In many ways, Feuillade sets a standard of storytelling here that later crime movie directors like Fritz Lang and David Fincher would take inspiration from in even greater movies than this. On a technical level, the silent filmmaker lags a little behind his contemporary D. W. Griffith, whose development of cinematic language exceeds Feuillade’s dominant decision to set the camera back in wides and let scenes play out naturally. Still, the epic length of Les Vampires does allow for some flourishes of style that don’t go amiss, most notably in the design of The Vampires themselves who appear as walking masses of negative space in their tight, black costumes. In a balletic dramatisation of their illegal activities, Phillipe’s fiancée, Marfa, dons a similar outfit, though with a theatrical pair of bat wings sewn in she casts a far more elegant figure than those skulking criminals she is depicting.

Sharp compositions outlining The Vampires as intimidating silhouettes.

Elsewhere, Feuillade creatively uses a blue tint to simulate a day-for-night wash across his settings, even flicking it on and off as Phillipe does the same with a bedside lamp. A three-way split screen is later used to portray a phone call, the middle column of which is taken up by a river dividing both sides of the frame, and in one scene that sees Irma Vep infiltrate Phillipe’s household as a maid, Feuillade skilfully cuts away to a small desk mirror to catch her discreetly poisoning his drink.

Inspired used of a three-way split screen during a phone call, dividing both parties down the middle with a river.
A deft cutaway to Phillipe’s point of view, catching Irma Vep poisoning his drink via a mirror on his desk.

There is little though that tops the direction of one particular sequence in Chapter 9, ‘The Poisoner’, which sees Feuillade lead an exhilarating car chase into a fight set atop a moving train, briefly turning Phillipe into an unlikely action hero with Venomous as his evil adversary. As Les Vampires progresses towards its epic conclusion, its scale increases as well, using real Parisian streets and buildings as the grounds for the final confrontation. While Phillipe takes a page out of The Vampires’ playbook and climbs the exterior of their hideout to set a trap, the police prepare a raid that sends large numbers of extras climbing over walls in a spectacular, climactic pay-off.

A brilliant, action-packed sequence, tracking the camera along with Irma Vep’s car as it makes a getaway, and then planting it on top of this moving train as Phillipe chases Venomous.

Much like their supernatural namesakes, it often seems that this crime organisation will keep rejuvenating itself for as long as its evil essence, Irma Vep, stays alive. It is somewhat fitting that she is not killed by either of our leads, but rather by Jane, Phillipe’s wife, in a rare moment that she lets her guard down, thereby bringing about the unsalvageable downfall of her gang. Such is the strength of Les Vampires’ classical archetypes that we can intuit much larger stakes and ideas from their narrative treatment, economically using just a few symbolic characters to construct an entire Parisian landscape of lawbreakers and justice seekers. With over one hundred years distance from Les Vampires, it is clear that its narrative strength has not faded, much of this being thanks to Feuillade’s thrilling direction keeping it alive as one of the most finely-crafted crime films of cinema history.

The streets and rooftops of Paris making for impressive cityscapes – absolutely revolutionary location shooting in 1915.

Les Vampires is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.

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