Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler Review
Under the banner of their Masters of Cinema label, Eureka have produced this lavish 4-disc set in a handsome box boasting wonderfully eerie cover-art. All three films - the original film is spread over a 2-disc platter - are housed in their own cases within, along with individual essay booklets, and all under their original German titles.
The father of SF movie-monolith Metropolis and the architect of the classic psychological profiler M, Fritz Lang was also the craftsman behind the highly influential, though little seen, crime/supernatural/paranoiac, decade-spanning thriller trilogy of Dr. Mabuse, The Testament Of Dr. Mabuse and The 1000 Eyes Of Dr. Mabuse. Together, they form a bizarre and compelling saga of the effects that a criminal mastermind, the titular Dr. Mabuse, has upon the socially fractured environment of decadent Berlin after the First World War, throughout the rise of the Nazis and then as it faced the surrounding frost of the Cold War. Mabuse, himself, is an enigma. A shaman, a hypnotist, a murderer, a gambler of souls, and a veritable whirlwind of perpetual scheming whose very name strikes fear into the heart of Weimar Germany. Much more than just a cunning underworld kingpin, he is an entity that is ruthless by nature, demented with ambition and demonic in influence. Indeed, he even seems able to transcend death, his mysterious powers bleeding through the generations that follow his initial reign of terror, selecting, initiating and honing disciples to further his endless campaign of selective anarchy, his ultimate goal to create an Empire of Crime.
The concept may have been straightforward, but the execution was unbelievably convoluted. The saga is chronicled via mystery, superstition, modern folklore and dogged detection. It mimics the legacy of Al Capone, John Dillinger and even the likes of Dick Turpin, Jesse James and Matthew Hopkins - all personas that grew exponentially with the telling of their deeds until they attained mythic status. In a Germany torn apart by crippling war reparations, yet festering with unholy and unwarranted wealth and driven by a surging undercurrent of dangerous idealism - a land in which prejudice and a burgeoning New Order were seething into the open wounds of a failed conflict - Mabuse loiters in the shadows, his own army lying in wait, literally carving out his own legend with evil confidence, whittling away a state that he considers ripe for the taking. What could have been just an ungainly socio-political observation and detached musing on class corruption was, in the hands of the great Fritz Lang, a mind-bending assault on the establishment and a perfect valediction of organised Chaos. And, just as importantly, an exercise in the most profound of cinematic styles and narrative indulgences via thriller, horror and Sci-Fi schematics.
Spin-off productions were made, a whole slew of them in the sixties, that just used the character and the name to weave some very James Bondian-type yarns, but Lang's three films remain the genuine troika of murder, madness and megalomania. With Eureka securing what looks to be a definitive boxset of Lang's labyrinthine opus, and the third entry appearing for the first time on home video in the UK, we can now examine and revel in one of the greatest, most fiendishly complex and outrageously epic crime dramas that Cinema has ever produced.
The groundbreaking and audacious “Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler” (1922) is one of Silent Cinema's shining glories. For a very long time, this film, for me, was consigned to intriguing stills in horror movie tomes alone, the images bold, frightening and demoniacally intense. Set in two parts and with a mammoth combined running time of almost five hours, this legendary drama stars Rudolf Klein-Rogge (the obsessive inventor, Rottwang, from Lang's earlier Metropolis) as the titular criminal mastermind. Based upon the popular detective story from Norbert Jacques and then screen-written by Thea von Harbou, who would go on to form an association with the director that would go far beyond the artistic, the crafty and often visceral adaptation would deviate considerably in some ways, yet also remain quite faithful to the source in others. Clearly influenced by earlier serial capers like The Vampires and other vintage Feuillade escapades, the vast film is entertainingly episodic and, at the same time, driven by a painstakingly concocted arc that builds steadily in momentum and sweeps along an occasionally deranged path that many an American gangster epic would essentially come to endorse as their own.
Commencing with an audacious robbery on a train - featuring great comic-book style use of a bridge and a waiting getaway-car - and developing, via a brilliantly constructed Stock Market scam, into Dr. Mabuse's wildly grandiose, yet amazingly plausible plot to bring down the economy and reduce the nation to a state of virtual anarchy, Fritz Lang pokes a withering finger at the decadence that has befallen Germany since the Great War, and the vicious gulf between those with money and status and those without. In actual fact, the devious, scathing dissection goes even further than that and proves that the ones with the real power were those who had no idea what to do with it - the smooth and swift entrepreneurs who moved fast when the country was on its knees in the wake of the war and became barons of industry and commerce simply by being in the right place at the right time. It is precisely these shallow and most untraditional of sham-aristocrats that Mabuse targets primarily. Living up to his “gambling” reputation, he preys on these idle, self-centred fools with a primal cunning more akin to a predator toying with its intended victim, the bigger picture almost becoming lost amid his own wicked game-playing. Employing many stooges and mesmerising many “innocents” to do his bidding, his tactics lead to intimidation, murder and suicide. With the authorities, personified by Bernhard Goetzke's determined Chief Inspector Wenk uncovering his trail of deceit and extortion, Part 1 of the first film (The Gambler) culminates in something of a stand-off.
Already gripping and immensely satisfying on its own, this first, and lengthier section, absolutely asserts a spell that means you cannot wait to see how it all concludes.
Rather like Tarantino splitting his Kill Bill saga into two large films many, many decades later, audiences of the time then had to wait a month before they could see how Mabuse's grand masterplan would work out, or if Wenk would finally be able to close the net upon his nemesis. But, over on the second disc, Part 2 of Dr. Mabuse, entitled “Inferno”, carries the mayhem onwards with a faster, grimmer and more exciting series of events that allow Lang to become increasingly more bizarre and sinister. Plus, he gets to provide us with us with an elaborately staged gun-battle that comes across as a playful mixture of both Western shoot-out and gangster-siege, all aided by the fact that Lang insisted on using real guns with real bullets! The reactions of the actors when shots rip through doors, windows and walls around them are completely genuine.
There are so many notable images, impressions and scenarios - possibly enough to sink most other large-scale productions from Hollywood from the next two decades on their own. Mabuse's Tweedle-Dum (or is it Tweedle-Dee?) look-alike henchman, loyal until the end. A platoon of blind counterfeiters - yes, really, blind counterfeiters. Some ecstatic stage-work from a smitten, though irrevocably doomed erotic dancer, the alluring Mabuse-accolyte dancing between two Mardi Gras-style heads adorned with immense phallic noses. The haunting, blink-and-you'll-miss-it murder of a central character that is treated almost callously and glibly, but totally on purpose. There is the grandly subtle effect when a desert caravan appears to come to life and walk, en masse, off the stage and into a rapt audience, and a victim plagued by his own inner demons made manifest, though suggested, of course, by Dr. Mabuse. With another Tarantino-influence of having words float in front of us, or even run alongside a speeding car, as well as a magnificently concocted ethereal head rushing towards us, Lang's visual invention is taut, kinetic and captivating. With massive sets that many mistake for having been constructed in the more typical German Expressionist mode - in fact, they seem to mock such hyper-stylisation in favour of a more off-kilter and people-dwarfing, deep-focus milieu - and industrial-Gothic overtones, the film has distant echoes of David Lynch, a kind of pre-punk aesthetic. Surreal and fantastic, yet grotty and subterranean.
For a great many years, Dr. Mabuse was only available in a severely truncated form - the same version, incidentally, that played in Britain - and it was only back in the 60's that the missing footage was identified and reinstated. Many fans of the more familiar, shortened version were naturally ecstatic, but the curious effect of this expanded and now complete version was that it actually seemed to lose some of its once mesmerising power. There is still an understandable argument that the fully restored cut of Lang's first Mabuse film is overlong, inordinately padded and, as a direct consequence, drops much of its tension, moves considerably slower and is drained of some of its fearsome atmosphere. Personally, having never seen the drastically reduced 8 (from the original extravagant 20) reel version, I can only say that it would be unthinkable to see this complex and leviathan story in an abbreviated form. For a start, although I can see where some very appreciable cuts could be made - the lengthy romantic sub-plot, certainly - but the film requires mood to be build up, lingered upon, and then developed further. Very little of the film feels unnecessary. Some scenes go on for a long time, perhaps, to modern sensibilities, over-egging character beats, but, once again, there are few moments that feel like directorial indulgence and Lang's occasionally languid flow can usually afford lots of visual and thematic asides that only serve to make his unusual world all the more tangible.
As smitten as I was by all those atmospheric stills in old film books - and as appreciative as I am by vintage movies - I still had those far-too-common misgivings about Lang's silent Mabuse spectacle. Part of me was convinced that it would be chock-a-block with over-the-top manically wrought gestures and ridiculous gurning expressions - and nothing could be further from the truth. Dr. Mabuse is filled with top-class performances, credible character-based situations and multitudes of authentic bit-parters and extras who bring with them a genuine sense of period and mood and who do not simply mill about or stand and gawp in daft reactionary shots. In short, the film feels highly dynamic, involving and surprisingly “modern” in terms of the photography, the direction and the prevailing mood. Lang does tend to overdo the closing-iris scene dissolve but, otherwise, Dr. Mabuse is energetic with the luxury of its breadth, gripping set-pieces and clever audience manipulation.
Lang's second film in the Mabuse cycle is regarded by many to the best of the three. The Testament Of Dr. Mabuse (1933) actually does take place a full eleven years after the riotous events of the first film. Mabuse (Klein-Rogge, again) is now incarcerated, Joker-style, in an asylum for the criminally insane. Almost supernaturally, the arch-fiend's will seems to stretch out from his confines to envelope, ensnare and possess the minds of those who will succumb to his hypnotic powers. Re-fashioning his old league of unscrupulous legions by-proxy seems to be his motive, some insidious prime directive hidden amongst the compulsive writing that he undertakes. But the code is as elusive to his enemies as it is commanding to those in his thrall. Someone “becomes” a new Mabuse. A dangerous cartel of crooks and killers carry out the dire orders of this new crime lord. One amongst their number has reservations about these missions and becomes a loose canon, a danger to Mabuse's desperate plan and a possible hero. A Renfield-like witness babbles terrified lunacy and a strange message scratched on glass adds further mystery, reminding the authorities of the obsessed Mabuse's previous crime-spree. Another gun-battle and another, much more exciting and protracted car chase will ensue and the crazy, unbelievable extent of Mabuse's influence will revealed.
Testament also works as a sort of semi-sequel to Lang's tremendous, gut-punching M, in that it features the same Police Commissioner Lohmann who doggedly pursued Peter Lorre's infamous child murderer now assigned to investigating the strange string of violent events spreading fear across Berlin, and, once again, he is played by the tenacious Otto Wernicke. This doesn't so much as provide Lohmann with another mystery to unravel as create a fabulously realised milieu for the films to co-exist within, further depicting Berlin as one seething pool of festering fear, suspicion and dread. It is interesting to note that the city, as in the first film, is never name-checked, although it is fairly obvious were we are.
For a long time, Testament, like its forebear, was only seen in a truncated French version, having apparently lost five reels from the German original. These were then located and restored. But Lang even filmed an entirely separate French version, himself, simultaneously - just as was the case with Todd Browning's original Dracula, which received an arguably superior Spanish version - using a completely new cast and altering the flow of the film by simply not shooting certain scenes that he suspected would not play as well to foreign audiences. The imagery is, again, superb. An imposing imperator forever hidden behind a curtain, only his voice barking out hideous orders. The old cars racing along through eerie night-time forest lanes, the trees on either side stretching out like luminescent phantoms in the headlights, the repeated patterns of Mabuse's scrawled ravings, and the sudden rapt attention of a psychology class once the mad doctor's name is mentioned. But you've just got to adore the scenes when Mabuse's phantasmic head - bug-eyes and exposed brains - looms out at his intended hosts, and his astrally projected form moves across the room to inhabit theirs. Symbolic and extremely creepy, this Caligari-like ability also provides the film with some authentic supernatural qualities that go further than those we witnessed in the first adventure. Much better filmed and very stylistic - the opening sequence, alone, is a tour de force of suspense and action - proving just much Lang had come on in terms of more dynamic and personal direction.
Although I've mentioned Mabuse's Joker-like potency of corrupting influence even from behind bars, it is interesting to observe that Klein-Rogge, visibly even older looking than the mere eleven years difference between this film and the last would lead you to expect, even has a wickedly pointed nose that is now hooked like a beak making him resemble the many appearances of Batman's other notable adversary, the Penguin. Thus, like Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty, Fu Manchu and Nayland Smith, Bond and Blofeld, Mabuse, either in person or in unknown entity-mode, needs an adversary. In fact, without a Wenk or a Lohmann to goad, pursue and harass, his grand projects would have no real meaning, or value to him, personally, or in essence. Quite nicely, and in-keeping with the Bond legacy that Mabuse instilled, the plots are huge and intimidating, yet reined-in and intimately destructive. Klein-Rogge may get very little to do in this outing - mute and semi-catatonic (a neat irony on the somnambulist condition that he often placed his own victims in) for the most part - but his presence hangs over the film like a pall of smoke, a grim spectre permeating the proceedings as the seat of power is passed on. Oscar Beregi is superbly intense as the recipient of Mabuse's influence, Prof Baum, but the film definitely belongs to Wernicke.
The opening sequence, which recalls Peter Lorre's escape and evasion from the mob in M, is stunningly done. Plus we get a great exploding barrel gag that really fills the screen with stuntman-scaring flames and yet more real bullets being fired around the cast. Working with sound for the second time, Lang purposely uses the medium to evoke some striking effects. Gunshots, bomb-blasts and the pounding and grinding of machinery are brought to the fore. He even employs the type of overlapping dialogue - or, at least, a version of it that delivers very quick, staccato outbursts - that Howard Hawks would go on to make a trademark with. I like the way that Lohmann tricks a mind-snapped witness into divulging details by pretending to talk on a fictitious phone. There is even a nice moment when the exasperated Inspector seeks to avoid a conversation over a real phone by insisting his lackey “tell him I'm dead!” - mimicked by John Landis when has John Woodvine's Dr. Hirsch do exactly the same thing in An American Werewolf In London. But the best verbal gag that Lang employs comes when Lohmann hurls an abusive tirade at a slow-moving driver blocking his way during a high-speed pursuit - his wild obscenities, ironically, drowned out by the sound of the trundling truck and his own growling engine. The suspense of an assassination at a busy road junction must have had an effect on Hitchcock, with its contained set-piece realisation. And the fantastic cross-cutting between another pistol-packing gang-siege and our two lovers trapped in a room that has been set to explode is also something that Hitch would have taken notes from.
Critics have complained about the romantic sub-plot, something that Lang is fond of placing into his films, but I find this less distracting or pace-slowing than the wooing affair from the first Mabuse. However, in the earlier movie, the affair is an essential part of the plot and is never superfluous. Here, it may be an aside to the main narrative, but it never actually hampers the flow of the story. Like the first Mabuse, Testament thrives on an atmosphere of guilt, accusation and unwitting subterfuge. Characters constantly skirt around the truth, either knowingly and for their own ends, or under the direct influence of their “unknown” puppet-master. The film's notoriety is also, in large part, down to the erroneous claims that it was made as anti-Nazi propaganda and, after Dr. Goebbels saw it, demanded that it be banned as an obscenity, Lang then fleeing Germany with the film tucked under his arm. Well, the film was, indeed, banned, but it was Fritz Lang, himself, who made most of the sensational claims of having exposed the lunacy of Hitler's New Order and then being compelled to escape the country, fuelling the controversy and cementing his film as a righteous spark against the powder-keg of Nazism, and, of course, guaranteeing its success overseas. Lang, it appears, was his own best propaganda weapon, for the film only contains nominal references and metaphors against the rise of Hitler's Reich, remaining, first and foremost, a glorious and eerie thriller that excites and confounds in equal measure.
So, as we have seen, Mabuse is part Moriarty, part Fu-Manchu, part Blofeld, and with a smidgeon of the Joker thrown in. He is a Machiavellian figure of intricate villainy. Astute, conniving and sickly devious, he prowls around the hinterland of organised crime, becoming a bogeyman of almost Keyser Soze proportions. Yet, his broad and indeed international designs are always neatly self-contained and wrapped within tightly-woven narratives that threaten to constrict the films, hemming the characters all together in one single ball of delicious delirium.
If Lang is to be believed that he hadn't even wanted to make the second Mabuse film, then it must have taken some mighty persuasion for him to make a third, long after he had already made a name for himself in Hollywood with melodramatic thrillers such as While The City Sleeps, The Big Heat and Rancho Notorious. But discovering that he could still incorporate some sort of Germanic state-of-the-nation ethic, he came up with a surprisingly slick modern thriller that harked back to the plotlines, set-pieces and manipulative conceits that had made the first two films so compelling. Mabuse may not have risen from the grave this time out, but his legacy lives on with assassinations, terrorist attacks, misleading tip-offs and much skulduggery plaguing the city. With the character of Dr. Mabuse now split into several factions, and his combined motives masked by subterfuge, misdirection and deliberate goading, our attention is strung out along some narrative-twisting set-pieces.
With Ricardo Montalban-look-alike Wolfgang Preiss essaying the combined roles of the newly formatted arch-fiend, Gert (Goldfinger) Frobe as his rather inept, but extremely busy antagonist Commissioner Krass, Peter (The Wages Of Fear) Van Eyck as a wealthy and important, but rather charm-less American who manages to prevent the apparently luckless Marion (English genre starlet Dawn Adams) from committing suicide all coerced into the hunt for a newborn Mabuse, 1000 Eyes has a very cosmopolitan air to it. Indeed, the film was even supposed to have been shot with a simultaneous English cast, though this idea eventually fell through and Lang's epitaph gained, instead, just an English dub (which exists as an alternate track on this disc) as well as German one. Like many Italian movies of the period, 1000 Eyes was dubbed-over because of the multi-national stock of the cast, and has no original German language version.
Although many critics have dismissed this later instalment - its visual style, its characters and its warped logic are certainly off the beaten Mabuse trail - I actually found it to be very enjoyable. Frobe's blustery performance is fun and rife with the charismatic traits that made his Goldfinger so indelible. The ladies are very attractive - especially Adams and Marielouise Nagal, as an extremely curvaceous bit of fluff who may be a lot more than she seems - and the tricks of the shadowy, split-personified Mabuse are within keeping with those of the original master manipulator. One excellent point that David Kalat makes in his enormously devoted commentary is that 1000 Eyes fits right on in with two other classic genre films from 1960 - Hitchcock's Psycho and Michael Powell's Peeping Tom - in that all three are concerned with voyeurism. Powell's film made us complicit in the killings with disturbing POV shots, whilst Hitch had Norman Bates peering through a hole in the wall at Marion Crane as she undresses, titillating us as much as Norman. Lang's new Mabuse caters for his unwitting prey, ban Eyck's Henry Travers, a fabulous two-way mirror so that he can observe exactingly coordinated events under the guise of a cheeky glimpse at the girl he fancies in her hotel room, whilst also basing much of his own activities around multiple TV screens in his lair that reveal to him to the exact movements and assignations of the various characters he seeks to control via hidden cameras secreted around the building - literally a thousand eyes because, as it should be assumed, we must include our own eyes in this number as well, as who are we if not a duplicitous audience? This two-way mirror scam is sort of recalled by Brian De Palma in Body Double which, in itself, is an evolution of Hitchcock's Rear Window, something that possibly even prompted Lang.
Where the first two films were concerned with mind-control and suggestive manipulation, Testament going even further by having Mabuse able to move his spirit out of his body, the fantastical elements of 1000 Eyes are strictly limited, or even non-existent. With the real Mabuse no longer alive, his name alone is passed on, and his powers conjured out of elaborate parlour tricks and new technologies that surprise and amaze, yet are founded completely in the land of science and reason. Yet there is something highly creepy about the suspicious blind seer, Cornelius (Preiss again), and his Einstein-like waft of silver locks. When he removes his black spectacles to reveal albino-white, pupil-less eyes he looks like something out of Village Of The Damned or The Omega Man. His séance, arranged and orchestrated by Frobe's bumbling cop in the vain hope that it will provide some clues about this Mabuse-wannabe's plans but, in reality, is just another ruse that has been devised by the ever-devious Mabuse, himself, actually supplies a few judders and a great jolt at its climax, even though we can guess that we are being duped just as much as Frobe. Machine-guns rattle, cars roar and an impressive needle-firing rifle add spectacle and menace. There is even a marvellously hair-raising stunt when Dr. Mabuse shoves a now-useless henchman (he's been shot) out of his car and into the path of the squadron of police vehicles chasing after him, and only narrowly missing the body!
Being the most obviously contemporary of the three, 1000 Eyes looks modern, clean and conventional, its setting much more familiar and its overall attitude a little more relaxed. Lang also shoots the film with basic TV-style camera set-ups (as Hitchcock did with Psycho) and uses far less showy editing or optical effects. Gone are the big, baronial sets and the impossibly wide doors of the first two films, replaced by cool, airy apartments, busy but spacious dance-halls and a thoroughly sanitised and more intimate environment. Atmosphere is, therefore, not at the same premium of pseudo-Expressionist grandeur that the first two films were abundant in, but it can still be found in the weird wall-hangings in Cornelius's séance-room and the great use of light and shadow. The film feels newer and a lot fresher and probably benefits from Lang going back to black-and-white photography over the Technicolor that he had just begun to use in America as this, at least, appeared to conjoin this outing with the previous two from a visual standpoint that follows suit. The 1000 Eyes Of Dr. Mabuse marked a long-awaited return for Lang to the great myth that he had created, and the resulting film was well-received by those who still recalled the bewitching power of the title character and also by those who had only heard, in true Mabuse tradition, of his lurking, string-pulling presence. By now, the Nazi angle and the wariness of dictatorship had been replaced with mistrust of a slightly different sort. This was now the era of the Cold War and spies were becoming the natural heroes, but Dr. Mabuse was still determined to subvert everything.
The success of the film prompted plans for a whole series of further Mabuse adventures, but Lang wanted no part in what he feared, quite rightly, would degenerate into so much formulaic pulp. And he kept his word. Although a series of them did get made, with only Harald Reinl's The Return Of Dr. Mabuse in 1961 apparently being worthwhile and paying due respect to the character, the Mabuse name and Lang's style, Lang would not make any further films, The 1000 Eyes Of Dr. Mabuse being a very fitting final swansong. It should be noted that Gert Frobe would go on to feature in many of the five official sequels, even going on to assume the name of Inspector Lohmann in deference to Otto Wernicke's garrulous old copper!
Ostensibly crime dramas, all bar the third film contain copious mystery, supernatural elements and potent images of horror that certainly linger in the mind, and the full trilogy still stands as a wonderfully rich and impressively imagined odyssey of the weird and the deranged. Rudolph Klein-Rogge creates a definite monster with his serpentine embodiment of Dr. Mabuse, but his clever and inspired performances in the first two movies also depict this glowering schemer as someone who can be as typically flawed as anybody - prone to rage, over-ambition and the fragile shift of confidence from power to collapse. Folks, these films burned in my imagination when I was child flicking through my treasured horror-film tomes, and I always longed to see them, if only to work out what all the fuss was about. Well, after seeing Fritz Lang's seminal trio now, I can testify that they are all very definitely well worth experiencing. The character of Dr. Mabuse reaches out from the films, precisely as he is intended to, enmeshing us in his nefarious ideals - gangster, terrorist, rebel, visionary, he is insurrection written both in blood and in the guilt-ridden grime of a world that had already gone mad and was struggling in the morass of post-traumatic stress.
Well, if you have been able to stick with me through all of this, then I hope you will appreciate just how important and influential these films really are. This is a pricey boxset, but what it contains are three pivotal, though strangely unsung productions that more than warrant adding to any cinephile's collection.