Criterion Prediction #160: Shadowman, by Alexander Miller
Title: Nuits Rouges aka Shadowman
Director: Georges Franju
Cast: Josephine Chaplin, Jacques Champreux, Patrick Prejean, Gert Frobe
Synopsis: The “Man Without a Face” is a masked super criminal whose mission is to find the mythical treasure of the Knights Templar. With the help of his both living and dead henchman, his ambitious league of ruffians will stop at nothing to achieve their goal.
Critique: Franju’s cinema consists of mad doctors, medical experiments, secret doorways, scheming, heists, murder, kidnapping, double lives, and secrets. While this all sounds like the kind of material one would cull from the world or pulpy serials that’s because it is; however Franju was a particular case in that he eschewed the aesthetic distinction of “low art” and “high art” as his albeit short filmography was a collection of darkly urbane fables that were both dreamy and tenacious.
Franju was a documentarian who was drawn to the fantastical. His love for the serials of Fuelliade (Judex, Fantomas) inspired his grounded sense of whimsical realism. His most famous picture, Eyes Without a Face, a moody and atmospheric horror tale, is one-half of the director’s stylistic barometer; the other half is his inspired interpretation/remake Judex. While exercising a fanciful proclivity for the surreal and natural, Franju once again tangentializes the otherwise impossible world of mask-wearing crime fighters who exact retribution via complicated networking and trickery. What would follow, Nuits Rouges would be a perfect marriage of Franju’s uniquely conceived aesthetic, at certain points the film careens inter seemingly silly territories, traversing well into the ridiculous. Our antihero’s limitless resources include hidden cameras, microphones, self-driving cars and, most memorably, a small army of zombie henchman at his disposal. However, there’s a sincerity to the execution of Nuits Rouges that lures us into this elevated world of heightened pulp and horror. Franju’s winding narrative is an assemblage of historical intrigue with its incorporation of Knights Templar mythology, high stakes crime, kitschy melodrama, and the macabre with a utilization of (occasional) machine gun toting undead.
Franju’s fascination with these themes has deeper roots than a mere desire to slum it with maligned genre fare. The historical ties of the Knights Templar have roots in France’s varied past. The mad doctor (who feels akin to Professor Genessier from Eyes Without a Face) and his zombie creations have Nazi overtones. Franju was warned that incorporating sinister professors would be risky as it could potentially alienate German audiences going back to his production of Eyes Without a Face, but it feels like with Nuits Rouges is Franju is cutting loose with inhibitions and embracing the material he loved without the constraint of appeasement or self-consciousness. This film feels like the most natural evolution for a unique filmmaker who followed his vision. Even if it’s occasionally ridiculous, Nuits Rouges is unapologetically fun with a surprising amount of depth, executed with sincerity to boot.
Why It Belongs in the Collection: For the longest time, Franju was recognized mostly as being the director of Eyes Without a Face and Judex. While Eyes Without a Face had garnered an audience over time, Judex had gone on for ages as an “unseen” film; that is, until Criterion and Masters of Cinema put the movie out on DVD/Blu-ray a few years back. While the Masters of Cinema release was a double release with Nuits Rouges, Criterion is yet to put this film out. For years in North America, Franju’s lesser seen Nuits Rouges was more accessible in its truncated US version Shadowman with lackluster English Dubbing and voice-over narration. Luckily there’s a restored print of the film in its original form thanks to the Masters of Cinema release. A movie with such a high volume of proto superhero furnishings and an indecipherable narrative is begging to be rediscovered here in the states. Nuits Rouges would be a surefire hit for Criterion and it follows the work of a proven director in the collection too.