The Sunday Intertitle: Spies in Leotards

The intertitles are the least interesting thing about PROTEA (1913), directed by Victorine-Hippolyte Jasset, who also gave the world ZIGOMAR. This one is another Feuilladesque spies-in-leotards romp, structured on the one-damn-thing-after-another plan.

Mistress of disguise Protea and her equally versatile accomplice the Eel are sent by one mythical kingdom to steal a secret peace treaty arranged by two others. One false identity follows another at a rapid and far from cost-effective pace. By inventing characterisation they could have saved a lot on sets and costumes.

I enjoyed this dumbshow tremendously! It’s not even clear if we’re meant to be on Protea’s side or else view her as villainess. With FANTOMAS or FILIBUS or ZIGOMAR, the baddies were usually more interesting and you rooted for them even though you knew it was naughty. Here, it’s just spy vs. spy, without even the labels of recognisable nationalities, which is about the only thing that makes James Bond a hero.

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You can decide if Protea and the Eel are the protagonists when the (sadly incomplete) film is over and you find out who won.

9 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Spies in Leotards”

  1. Recalling Judex, both silent and sound versions. There, you begin with a vengeance-obsessed supervillain who falls for his target’s daughter and tries to protect her from a garden-variety vamp seeking to snare the girl’s father. Then, this guy who has seemingly endless resources and gimmicks spends the rest of the serial / feature playing frantic defense against the vamp, who has nothing more than a flair for disguise, a few thugs, and moxie. Oh, and a black bodysuit. It’s a tribute to both that you don’t really get what an underdog the villainess is until after the fact.

  2. I guess if she’s winning she can’t be an underdog… it might make for an interesting twist even today, to give the good guy all the advantages and still have the vamp flummox him until the finale.

  3. bensondonald Says:

    The trick would be showing how the odds were stacked against the vamp without making the good guy stupid or even unsympathetic (although some comedies let the clown hero be fooled up until the last moments, sometimes letting another character actually expose the villain). Judex pulls it off by downplaying the disparity in resources. A few loyal henchmen is all the vamp ever NEEDS to carry out her various plans; there’s never a hint she couldn’t match him for secret hideout for secret hideout if she wanted to.

    Pretty common for a vamp or other villain to outflank Scotland Yard, the FBI, and/or the combined efforts of global intelligence agencies. But in fiction she/he has to be defeated by an individual. And that individual traditionally has to do it by being better at the game.

    In the 1940s RKO made some Dick Tracy movies. Instead of the comic strip’s grotesques and syndicate bosses the movies offered cheap, grubby thugs against Tracy and his scientific police force. They were clearly outmatched from square one, perhaps out of desire to not “glamorize” crime. The series ended after four films, although the last tried to up the ante with Boris Karloff and a sci-fi gimmick better suited to the 60s TV show.

    A villain who’s genuinely inferior to the good guy in resources and even intelligence — That’s frequently an angle of “realistic” mysteries, where the randomness and complexity of real life works against the most brilliant detective. The murderers are often improvising on the fly, which involves hasty choices that can either give them away or thoroughly muddy the waters.

    Recently caught an “Endeavor” where young Morse’s mentor reminds him that some cases are only solved by shoe leather — so a careful search of a country road leads to an ineptly concealed accident. Morse thought he’d found a connection to a cold case disappearance, and was wrong — although he did happen to solve the cold case anyway.

    Even Sherlock Holmes could be flummoxed, at least temporarily, by what he might view as inferior minds. Irene Adler wasn’t a super-vamp. She was simply brighter than Holmes assumed, seeing through his trap and reacting sensibly. More often he (and the reader) were confused by clues that didn’t point to something specific. The solution often included revealing what the crime was, not the just the who and how. Sometimes there wasn’t even a crime — just puzzle pieces that finally fit together to form an unexpected and sometimes innocent picture.

  4. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Francine Berge in Franju’s superb “Judex” (1963) is my favorite leotard-wearing villainess. She’s aided by Theo Sarapo — Edith Piaf’s last husband who’s as ineffectual as he is pretty.

    And don’t forget those Good Girls in leotards, Rivette’s “Celine et Julie”

  5. Dick Tracy Meets Cueball is a pretty good comic strip film.

    With all the tight-costumed characters duking it out on screen at present, I’m disappointed that so few have period charm. I guess the forties Captain America and what was it — eighties Captain Marvel? — represented the studio taking what they regarded as a big creative risk. Oh, and there was Wonder Woman, set just after the age of Feuillade, but with no inkling of Irma Vep.

  6. bensondonald Says:

    “Rocketeer” — by “Captain America’s” director — did a nifty job of period and should have been a bigger hit than it was. The first “Superman” has aged surprisingly well, its once state-of-the-art grandeur and shiny 70s feel now playing as quaint. Warren Beatty’s “Dick Tracy” is a 30s programmer made gorgeous, and has the added spark of Al Pacino as President Trump decades before the fact. The 60s “Batman” is less camp than outright silly comedy; you watch it keenly aware it was momentarily a Davy Crockett-level mania. Television’s “Wonder Woman” started out with a WWII setting, but looked like “Charley’s Angels” with longer skirts and some set dressing. “Batman: The Animated Series” was set in the present but very consciously attempted to evoke the Fleischer Superman cartoons as well as the Tim Burton movie. The weird past-present hybrid worked surprisingly well.

  7. Rocketeer is a “nearly-but-not-quite” for me. Apparently original artist envisaged an explosive. William Demarest type as his scientist: Alan Arkin’s playing flattens it. (I love Arkin but he’s a weapon that must be primed and aimed).

    The movie Wonder Woman missed a chance to nod towards Feuillade, being set in almost the right period.

    Agent Carter’s postwar scifi espionage world was rather appealing, but a touch underpowered.

    And we just finished Jessica Jones, a series which does its best to strip away the superhero business and work as a private eye show with fantasy elements. It’s really good.

  8. Jeff Gee Says:

    Harlan Ellison argued that virtually everybody has a ‘eh– not quite’ response to the Rocketeer movie and he puts the blame on the the diner scene, where Alan Arkin is threatened with torture by the gangsters. Even when he’s nano-seconds away from having his face burned off on the grill, the Rocketeer does nothing– he doesn’t reveal his identity OR rescue Arkin. (Arkin is saved by other means). Ellison says this inaction reads as cowardice and taints the character, even if you don’t quite articulate it to yourself, and the whole movie consequently feels a bit off. I don’t know that I agree with the analysis, but I think he’s got a point, and the whole movie does feel a bit off.

  9. I don’t even remember the diner but it feels right. I have a similar theory about The Great Waldo Pepper, different from Goldman’s analysis of where he lost the audience. I mean, he’s probably right because he was there in the cinema and he felt it happen, but to me it wasn’t Waldo failing to save the girl, it’s later when the audience for his barnstorming stunts watch a crashed flyer burn to death, slackjawed. To me, the film was insulting its own audience, portraying them as brainless rubberneckers….

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