Via scrolling text we are informed that, on Friday, October 13, 1307, the Knights Templar were ordered burned at the stake by King Philip IV of France. Their crimes: Heresy, Sorcery, Sodomy, and Black Magic. But the question remains: whatever happened to their fabled treasure? Cut to Maxime de Borrego (Roberto Bruni) and his snooping butler Albert (Annet Yvon Sarray). Maxime is a modern day Templar and knows all the secrets about their booty (read that any way you like). Albert, being the faithful servant he is, sells this information to Mademoiselle Ermance (who is totally not a man in drag played by Jacques Champreux, who also happens to be the film’s writer). Next thing you know, the titular Shadowman (three guesses who he is played by) launches his quest for the treasure, and nothing is going to stand in his way.
Shadowman (aka Nuits Rouges) is Georges Franju’s final theatrical film (according to IMDb), and it is set firmly in the realm of the European Supercrook. Characters like Diabolik, Kriminal, Judex (about whom Franju also made a film along with Champreux), Fantomas, and so on all play on the audience’s dual interest in schemes and geniuses (even when they’re not so much). Like Hannibal Smith on The A-Team, we love it when a plan comes together. We even love it when a plan falls apart. But most of all, we love watching a plan unfold, good or bad. This is why we love Heist films, why Police Procedurals are perennial television favorites, why films like Escape From Alcatraz are so involving. So, what could be better than a Supercrook after a legendary pile of mystical riches?
The criminal mind behind the machinations is important, as well. We love masterminds, whether they be for good (Doctor Who, Sherlock Holmes) or evil (The Master, Professor James Moriarty). These people breathe rarefied air from us, because their minds work on a different level. But our acceptance of their superior intellects all boils down to the writing behind them and the actors’ portrayals. Anyone can claim that they’re a genius, but if they cannot make an audience buy it, they’re just blowhards. Geniuses can be stoic or manic or a combination of the two, but they usually favor one over the other (and even then there is typically a limit to how long their demeanor can be maintained under duress). Shadowman, rather surprisingly, goes way over the top into Cobra Commander levels of psychopathy (probably even higher). His penetrating eyes bug out at every opportunity, and he flings himself into situations with unhinged abandon. This is not the cool customer we’ve come to expect from the likes of Anthony Hopkins’ suave Dr. Hannibal Lecter. He will kill, and he has no compunction about doing so. His female right hand (Gayle Hunnicutt, billed solely as “La Femme”) mirrors Shadowman’s lunacy and even ups it a notch, if such a thing is possible. In the midst of a mission, she kills an elderly lady through whose window she enters. A few moments later, she watches the blood drip down, a soulless, dead glaze in her eyes. This sequence is backed by a leisurely, ethereal score (also by Franju) which is atypical for action scenes but gives this one an almost haunting quality. These characters don’t just kill because they are forced into a corner. For these people, murder is something of a perk.
The opposition in the film is laid out in terms of new versus old, of technology versus antiquity. The Templars depicted here are still an ancient sect. They carry their rituals out in old catacombs, surrounded by carved rock. Even in de Borrego’s house, there are hidden sliding panels (powered by Norelco electric shavers, by the sound of them), but they lead to dank, musty, old cellars and tunnels. The most modern they get is in their use of radioactive “Alchemist’s Gold” to track Shadowman (and even this is ancient in nature, requiring no moving parts or electricity). By contrast, Shadowman’s lair is slick and sterile, all white and steel. There are banks of computers from which he controls things like his mechanical taxi driver (I believe Paul Verhoeven probably saw this before making Total Recall; yes, that’s a joke). He has a doctor on call to turn humans into mindless killing machines in his service. He does partake in the world around him, but he is just as adept at watching it through a tube and acting directly on it through same (manipulating reality through televised media). The most low-fi Shadowman and his cohorts get is in La Femme’s use of a blowgun. Needless to say, the police in pursuit of Shadowman (lead by Goldfinger himself, Gert Fröbe) are almost entirely ineffectual, most likely because they sit between these two extremes. It doesn’t help any that they seem to not give much of a shit whenever they have an opportunity to spring a trap. I suppose this could be a bit of nigh-existential angst inserted by the filmmakers in regards to the common man and feelings of powerlessness. That said, the acting from all concerned does not go very far in selling this anyway (or go very far at all, if I’m being completely honest).
The core concept behind Shadowman lies in notions of identity, or more specifically, lack of identity. Shadowman is referred to repeatedly as the man without a face (recalling Franju’s own, superlative Les Yeux Sans Visage). We never get his real name, nor do we ever lay eyes on his true appearance (or if we do, this is never indicated to us as such). If anything, he is his pure self only when wearing his red hood, his head a featureless orb with wild eyes. When he wants to be seen, it is always in disguise. His true persona generally only comes out in the dead of night (making his name even more relevant). He surrounds himself with assistants who also wear blank masks (though theirs are black, differentiating him in the only way he can, all things considered). He has an army of zombie-esque killers, and they are strictly automatons. They are expendable both in the sense that they do Shadowman’s bidding but also in their planned exploitation for the corporations and militaries of the world who will be able to purchase them as disposable labor/fodder. We do see La Femme’s face, but she wears a mask of apathy at every turn, distinguished only by the occasional sneer or grimace. Shadowman and his ilk work towards a stripping away of individuality, the ultimate in horror and the ultimate thing we, as people, struggle against on a daily basis. What makes it worse is that his motives are nothing but selfish. He isn’t doing this to make everyone equal. He is doing it so that he has power over the faceless masses. Consequently, he cannot succeed, but he also cannot be defeated, because he is the stone that grinds us all down. And even at the top of the mountain, it still hangs overhead.
MVT: The mean streak running through this movie is intriguing. In one sense, it makes it a little harder to get involved in the film. In another sense, it separates this one from the majority of its kind. I regard that as a good thing.
Make Or Break: The Make is the scene when Shadowman shows up at an auction house. He appears from behind a full-size statue. But it isn’t just that he glides out from behind it, like he’s emerging on rollers from some surreal Trojan Horse. He is also in the same position as the statue, mimicking its form and creating a simulated animation of the inanimate.