The many faces of Arsène Lupin

The gentleman thief Arsène Lupin has had a long and storied career, from his origin in French short stories to providing inspiration for Netflix's latest smash-hit series. But his notoriety has spread even further than you might think.

Omar Sy in Lupin (2021)

Lupin is streaming now on Netflix.

Netflix and Gaumont have scored a hit with a French series inspired by one of the 20th-century’s most enduringly popular criminals: Arsène Lupin, a charismatic gentleman burglar created by Maurice Leblanc in 1905.

Maurice Leblanc, creator of Arsène Lupin

Lupin made his bow in stories in the French magazine Je sais tout before Leblanc followed up with 17 novels, more than twice as many novellas, a spin-off novel and several plays. That’s before other writers got involved, whether spoofing or paying homage. In the 1970s the writing duo Boileau-Narcejac created five authorised sequels, but because of copyright restrictions most creators have presented their ‘Lupins’ as descendants or imitators of the original. The many literary iterations of the debonair thief could fill a handsome library in his luxurious Paris flat.

And if he were being truly diligent, Lupin would have to clear some shelf-space for video games as well as an impressive collection of comics. Graphic adaptations range from a daily strip published in France-Soir in the late 1940s to Monkey Punch’s late 1960s manga Lupin the Third, in which a character purporting to be Lupin’s grandson gets up to shenanigans that would make the old man proud.

Then we come to Lupin’s onscreen escapades, which have been many, various and often deathlessly entertaining, from contemporary silent adaptations to his latest appearance on Netflix.

Lupin has a lot in common with other much-filmed characters, a personage overflowing with personality. He displays the ingenuity and flair for disguise of Sherlock Holmes, the criminal artistry of Raffles, the amorousness of Casanova, the anarchism of Robin Hood, the sangfroid of James Bond, and a revenge motive worthy of the Count of Monte Cristo.

Leblanc was clearly inspired by Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective, introducing Holmes into the Lupin universe in 1906, though he was forced to amend the character’s name to Herlock Sholmés (Holmlock Shears in the English translation) after the author objected to the liberty.

Lupin is also a literary descendant of the fictional adventurer Rocambole, invented by Pierre Alexis Ponson du Terrail in the 1850s, and likely inspired such popular serial antiheroes and avengers as the ruthless Fantômas, Judex and, later, The Saint. Like all those who followed, he is tailor-made for episodic adventures.

Georges Tréville as Sherlock Holmes in The Speckled Band (1912)

Lupin smuggled himself on to cinema screens shortly after his literary debut, in the heyday of the film serial. The French actor Georges Tréville, for example, established a type by playing both Lupin and Holmes in various serials. Few of these early Lupins survive, but their spirit lives on in subsequent adaptations down the years, in film and TV.

In the silent era alone there were celluloid Lupins in the US, Britain, Germany, France and Japan. In the talkie era, Hollywood set the ball rolling with MGM’s delicious pre-code comedy Arsène Lupin (1932) with brothers Lionel and John Barrymore trading repartee as detective and suspect. MGM brought out Arsène Lupin Returns six years later, sadly without a Barrymore in sight. And in 1944 Universal offered a noir twist, with Charles Korvin starring opposite Ella Raines in Enter, Arsène Lupin.

There were three live-action Japanese Lupins in the 1950s, but the Lupin the Third manga franchise has almost outpaced Leblanc, with its own long-running animated TV series and several anime features, the most famous and most fondly thought of being Miyazaki Hayao’s charming caper The Castle of Cagliostro (1979).

The Castle of Cagliostro (1979)

In French cinema, Jules Berry played the thief for director Henri Diament-Berger in 1937’s Arsène Lupin, Detective, in which our hero opens his own sleuthing agency. The most acclaimed French Lupin film is surely Jacques Becker’s lavish Technicolor adaptation The Adventures of Arsène Lupin (1957), starring Robert Lamoureux; a sequel followed in 1959, directed by Yves Robert. Monthly Film Bulletin praised the first in suitably Lupinesque terms as “a film of genuine style and gaiety”.

Arsène Lupin (1937)

More recently there was the expensive romp Arsène Lupin in 2004, with Romain Duris in the title role and Kristin Scott Thomas and Eva Green in support. Sight & Sound’s critic David Jays was unimpressed, expressing dismay at director Jean-Paul Salomé’s choice of “hyperbole over irony”.

French television has been no slouch either, with adaptations in the 1970s, 80s and 90s harking back to those first serial screen adventures. Outside various reimaginings of Lupin in Japanese animated series (there is a whole team of Lupinrangers in Kaitou Sentai Lupinranger vs Keisatsu Sentai Patranger, 2018-19) and one live-action adventure from the Philippines, however, Lupin has been absent from the small screen for a couple of decades.

Now he has reappeared on Netflix, albeit in disguise. Although the setting and characters are fresh, the new series foregrounds the original texts. Omar Sy plays Assane Diop, a self-made man with a grudge against a wealthy family who uses Leblanc’s stories almost as a manual for plotting his revenge. The Lupin stories are dear to his heart: they provide an emotional connection to his deceased father, who shared them with him, and as a child he disguised them inside his school bible. As the ratings have soared, sales of Leblanc’s originals have reportedly been boosted, with Hachette reissuing the first book to cash in on the new enthusiasm. Plus ça change…