We are straying a bit from the general format of the blog with this entry to present a film not in the Sight & Sound Top 250 — Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler, 1922) — mostly because our next blog entry is the sequel to this film. This four-and-a-half hour, silent crime epic was a big hit for Lang, and introduced a character he would come back to twice more in his directing career. Mabuse is a brilliant psychologist turned criminal mastermind, who crafts elaborate plots to manipulate world markets but isn’t above using his mastery of hypnosis to cheat at cards. The brilliance of the character and his spiraling decline offer up the chance for Lang to engage in some wonderfully stylized imagery and bravura action sequences — but perhaps not enough to justify the runtime. (271 min.)
J. – We have another break from the blog format here, in that this entry will be a monologue and not a dialogue. I had a little extra time on my hands, so I sat down to watch Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler on my own before S. and I viewed its sequel, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (which is tied for #235 on the Top 250 list). Because this film did not make the Sight & Sound list, and because we didn’t watch it together, I will try to keep things brief.
Dr. Mabuse starts out with a wonderful sequence that gives the audience a killer introduction to the titular doctor and provides powerful insight into his criminal genius and mastery of disguise. The doctor’s plot to manipulate the stock market is intricate, meticulous, and brilliantly executed by both the criminals and Lang. So excellent was this scheme, it appears pretty much to have been stolen wholesale for the ending of the Eddie Murphy/Dan Ackroyd comedy Trading Places (right down to the theft of the key documents taking place on a train!).
This first act is so good, however, that the rest of the movie is something of a letdown. We witness Dr. Mabuse holding sway over stock markets and world affairs from the shadows, and then have to content ourselves for much of the rest of the film to watch him cheat at cards. Consequently, most everything in the film seems rather petty in comparison to the bold, grandiose opening. And at over 4 hours in duration, the movie really needed a bit more of the bold and grandiose to justify its length. Many sections drag needlessly.
That said, there are numerous things to recommend in this film. Actor Rudolf Klein-Rogge does a remarkable job as Mabuse, creating a domineering character that needs to slip in and out of many personas to keep himself hidden from the authorities. He is wearing some elaborate disguise or another throughout half the film, and it is a credit to the make-up people and Klein-Rogge himself that the character is always able to surface through the false noses and facial hair, while still seeming viable that he would go unrecognized. It’s not surprising that Lang would use Klein-Rogge again as the mad scientist in his sci-fi epic Metropolis (1927).
When Mabuse comes to dominate people through his hypnotic powers, he does radiate power and malevolence very effectively. But even better is when Lang allows the viewers to see what Mabuse’s victims are experiencing as the doctor warps their minds. In one marvelous sequence, the prosecutor chasing after Mabuse is hypnotized into driving himself off a cliff. The squiggling, wriggling name of the quarry appears upon his windscreen as he drives and also leads him on down the road.
And matters come to a head with a terrifically shot siege of Mabuse’s hideout, as police and the military try to dislodge the desperate criminal gang. The action is intense, and the staging very modern compared to the sort of fighting one sees in films like Griffith’s from just a few years earlier. (It’s also very odd seeing German soldiers — with WWII-type uniforms — busting into a house and knowing that they are the good guys.) Mabuse’s breakdown at the end of the story is also handled quite well, and sets up the scenario for the superior sequel that Lang made a decade later.
In all, Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler is a good film with several truly excellent scenes and a very strong and interesting villain. Sadly, it has a weak and uninteresting hero (however strongly the film may try to insist otherwise). And the film’s tendency to drag its feet as it moves along leaves those excellent scenes (numerous as they may be) a bit too far apart. It’s also not essential to see the film to understand the events of The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (in which a summary of the first film is given), but it does help flesh out the power of the title character and demonstrate why he might be considered a threat despite the state we find him in at the beginning of the sequel. Dr. Mabuse also shows the chops that Lang had early in his career and his willingness to push the boundaries of the medium; attributes that would only develop over the next 11 years, during which he would produce three films in the Top 250 movies of all time.