Have you ever wanted to watch a film about a masked female criminal mastermind who flies around in a zeppelin, perpetrating audacious schemes for the thrill of it as much as for the spoils of victory? Well, not only does this film exist, it was made a century ago. Ladies and gentlemen, in this last installment of ‘Adventure 1915’, meet Filibus: Baroness by day, sky pirate by night, and all-around schemer.
Cristina Ruspoli in her three roles: as the Baroness de Croixmonde; arch-criminal Filibus; Count de la Brive.
The story begins thus: in the newspaper one morning, the Baroness de Croixmonde reads something of great interest to her – a reward is offered for information leading to the capture of the mysterious, notorious sky pirate Filibus, recent perpetrator of a bank robbery. She visits Detective Hardy, the policeman in charge of the case; witness her sass and self-possession as she presents him with an impossible claim: “Mister Hardy, you are Filibus! And I will try to prove it to you …” Cue him spluttering in disbelief.
The detective has a sister, Leonora, with whom his friend Leo Sandy is in love. Leo is not having a lot of luck with Leonora, nor is he exactly a smooth operator:
Filibus has other plans for the “useful” Leonora. Descending in her can-like elevator from her aircraft, Filibus drugs Detective Hardy using some kind of ether, and takes an imprint of his hand, which she uses to make a glove bearing his fingerprints. A few days later, Filibus stages a kidnapping of Leonora, only to reemerge as her hero and rescuer in a new guise: that of the dandyish Count de la Brive. And Leonora’s glove bears a handprint that the detective is sure that he will be able to identify …
Grateful, Hardy and Leonora invite the Count to stay for several days. So it is that the disguised Filibus comes to meet Leo Sandy, who not coincidentally is a collector of antiquities. Sandy shows them all a valuable statue in his possession: an Egyptian cat with huge diamonds for eyes.
With this statue, the final chesspiece is on the board. But how will Filibus steal the jewel-eyes? In fact, her aim is not just to lift the diamonds, but to play a long game of deception and confusion with the two men. This part of the story is worth explaining in detail, as it exemplifies the cleverness and appeal of Filibus. At the soirée where a group of society folks are viewing the cat statue, Sandy turns out the lights to show the special lustre of the diamond eyes, which sparkle like lights in the darkness. When the lights go up again, a circle of glass in front of the diamonds has been cut, and a note left in the case: “This very night the two diamonds will be in the hands of Filibus.” The detective orders a search for the missing glass, and finds it on … himself! Again, featuring a prominent handprint. Investigating later on, Hardy realizes with dawning horror that the fingerprints are terribly familiar … “My hand?!” he cries in horror. Is he going crazy? Clearly a trap is in order, both for the sake of the criminal investigation and his sanity. Knowing that Filibus will be back that evening to perpetrate the theft, Detective Hardy and Leo Sandy fit a tiny camera inside the right eye of the statue, and replace the diamond eyes with fake stones.
But Filibus is one step ahead. She realizes the bait-and-switch instantly, and confirms the difference in stones by their lack of luminosity in the darkness; looking closely, she perceives the camera within the eye socket of the statue. “I will fight him with his own weapon!” she announces. She and her accomplice bring in Hardy – who she has, again, drugged – put her cap on him, and haul him in front of the statue (this moment is pictured in the poster above). And as she removes the diamond, the camera goes off, capturing Hardy. Filibus finds the actual jewels, calls the cops, and flees – they arrive to find Detective Hardy disoriented and in possession of the ‘diamonds’. Hardy, remembers the camera and thinks, of course, that it will exonerate him – but in fact it does just the opposite. Now he really thinks he’s going mad!
Filibus has made one misstep, though – kidnapping Sandy in an attempt to extort him, then allowing him to escape via parachute. While Filibus’ identity is not exposed, it does provide Sandy with incontrovertible evidence that Hardy, whose guilt has been reported in the newspapers, is really not the dastardly Filibus; Sandy’s testimony to that effect gets Hardy released on parole. Once again, Filibus readjusts to the situation and presses on with her schemes. The Count de la Brive courts Leonora while Filibus sets up another ambitious plan: to drug Hardy in his villa, carry out a major lottery, and frame him for it.
The strong and snappy plot is one of Filibus’ main strengths, and it’s a pleasure to watch the antics of the characters unfolding. A larger-than-life story is easy to accept when its logic is internally consistent, as it mostly is here. The film is clearly inspired by Fantômas and the like, but it’s more exuberant than I remember Feuillade’s serials being: Filibus moves fast and is quite simply a lot of fun. The special effects aren’t particularly fancy, but here is a good example of tinting and toning enhancing the content of the film: the fantastical feeling created by the use of colour turns the imagery into something quite spectacular.
There are three main aspects to the main character that particularly struck me. Firstly, there’s something essentially anarchic about Filibus, who delights in tricking her enemies and playing a game of cat-and-mouse with them; she sets the game above the prize and pushes her war of nerves with Detective Hardy as far as it can possibly go. The classic charming criminal, enlivened by a sense of freewheeling fun.
Another significant aspect of the character of Filibus is the extent to which she exists in a technological world, and her ease with different technological devices. Filibus peers through binoculars and calls her airship down using a heliograph (“a device to telegraph by sunlight”, an intertitle helpfully informs us); she is as at ease driving a car as her aircraft; she ascends and descends from her airship in its can-like shuttle; she uses forensic techniques (faked fingerprints, a staged photograph) to beat the detective at his own game. Part of her subversiveness is how Filibus is able to traverse the new, stereotypically masculine world of technology in order to outwit the male characters.
Which leads into my last point: the fluidity with which Filibus slips between her different identities. As the Baroness Croixmonde, Filibus is self-assured and elegant in her fashionable dress and feathered hat; she is equally well-dressed in her male guise, the dapper Baron de la Brive. As the masked and trousered Filibus – what I tend to perceive as the character’s ‘real’ identity – she is competent and clever, directing her crew of faceless henchmen in black tights. Filibus exists across different worlds, crossing social borders with ease. The character(s) are played by Cristina Ruspoli, a little-known actress who clearly relishes the different roles – I found her to have a charming screen presence. Ruspoli is a good fit for such a part: undeniably an attractive woman, but also able to appear convincingly boyish. It almost seems like she’s channelling James Dean in a shot like this:
The film ends such that the door was open for a sequel, but it seems one never eventuated, which I consider a great pity. Still, this is a really fun film and one that I hope gets a wider audience in future.
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Filibus. Dir. Mario Roncoroni. Turin: Corona-Film, 1915. The film survives at EYE Filmmuseum (NL) under its Dutch title Filibus, de geheimzinnige luchtpirate | Filibus, the Mysterious Sky Pirate.