This article addresses the issue of ‘European popular cinema’ by discussing a very specific phenomenon, i.e. the crime series produced in the years immediately preceding World War I (e.g. Victorin Jasset’s Nick Carter, Viggo Larsen’s Arsène Lupin contra Sherlock, Ubaldo Maria del Colle’s Raffles, il ladro misterioso, Louis Feuillade’s Fantômas, George Pearson’s Ultus). On the one hand, the transnational circulation of these films is seen as the result of the development of the European cultural industries since the late nineteenth century; on the other hand, the rapid decline of this genre testifies of the historical peculiarity of this production. In particular, the popular heroic figure of the ‘gentleman thief’ seems to express at the same time the liberating, anti-hierarchial ethos of modernization and the dream of a quiet conciliation of the new and the traditional values: as a consequence, it might be regarded as a telling example of the economical, social and ideological transformations of that crucial phase in European history, when the development of the second industrial revolution and the first phase of ‘globalization’ pointed at the birth of a supranational sphere before the outbreak of World War I, which would temporarily stop this process.