The Hulu Channel offers, for around eight dollars a month, enough rotating Criterion films (with accompanying essays and notes as to why the films are “important”) that, by my estimation, you’d have to subscribe for over 500 years to equal what it costs to get a film school degree. I just wanted to throw that out there as I recently watched one of Criterions latest offerings, “Judex,” and it was a film I literally knew nothing about.
But with almost any film released on the Criterion label, there’s typically enough respect for the film floating around in the critical and cine-fan ether to have it earn that badge of honor. The challenge (or excitement) then takes place as you watch the film, read the essay and take in all the bonus material on the film. As I sit here trying to digest “Judex” (which is available in a gorgeous and well-stocked Blu-Ray edition), I am left with some truly great images but the film still feels like a bit of a goofy misfire than a “Criterion” level masterpiece. Does that make it a “bad” film or even something unworthy of the Criterion label? I guess not. But that attitude too piqued my interest. I found it fun to watch the film not knowing anything about it, then go back through the supplementary material to discover why folks went to all the trouble to make “Judex” a Criterion release. And I’m glad I did.
“Judex” is a 1963 film by Georges Franju, a filmmaker known for blending almost documentary like realism with elements of fantasy and surrealism. “Judex” is his 90-ish minute take on a 5-hour plus serial film (of the same name) that was made in 1916 by fellow Frenchman Louis Feuillade, who was also known for an almost effortless blend of fantasy and realism in his films. “Judex” refers to the titular character, a mystery man and sort of precursor to radio great “The Shadow,” who has spent a great deal of time trying to bring down a shady business man. There’s all sorts of truly cloak and dagger shenanigans going on behind the scenes and Judex himself is a pretty cool character, if not a little wimpy.
Played by American magician Channing Pollack, Judex does some very fun sleight of hand throughout the film, but when it comes time to kick some butt, he finds himself clobbered over the head frequently. In fact, I haven’t seen this much head clobbering since the “Three Stooges.” **Note: if you don’t want a pretty clever twist/reveal ruined for you in the film, don’t read the IMDb cast and characters page. You’ve been warned!
See, look at me! After watching “Judex,” reading the breathless (and informative) essay by film scholar Geoffrey O’Brien and watching the films supplemental features (New 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray, interview from 2007 with cowriter Jacques Champreux, interview from 2012 with actor Francine Bergé , “Franju le visionnaire,” a fifty-minute program from 1998 on director Georges Franju’s career and two short films by Franju (“Hôtel des Invalides” about the Paris military complex and “Le grand Méliès” about director Georges Méliès) I now sound like I almost know what I’m talking about when it comes to a film I previously knew nothing about!
All snide and insecure joking aside, I have to admit I wasn’t all that crazy about “Judex.” When I first watched it while coming at it blind, it felt like a pushy, episodic soap opera with some cool shots throughout. Now knowing it was indeed culled from a 5-hour serial, that makes my feelings towards it make sense, but it still didn’t make me like the film all that much more. The supplemental films definitely help to give insight and I particularly liked the charming “Hôtel des Invalides,” which was clearly a big inspiration for Martin Scorsese’s own Méliès homage, “Hugo.” But overall I had a tough time sticking with “Judex.”