Tuesday, June 17, 2014


MYTHICITY: (1) *good,* (2,3) *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure *

The three-film "series" of Fritz Lang's "Doctor Mabuse" films are nearly without precedent in cinema in that they trace a particular character's progress through three independent-of-one-another productions, all of which transpire in "real time." Most of the time, when a serial character like the Phantom or Batman begins in a given time, he never ages, but simply blends into whatever time-period he enters, as if he always existed then. The closest analogues to Lang's Mabuse films may be the serial characters of prose: Sherlock Holmes ages naturally, and though Fu Manchu has ways of avoiding the passage of time, implicitly he lives through all the historical events from the Boxer Rebellion to the Chinese Communism of the 1950s.

Mabuse was something of a German Fu Manchu, though his exploits are confined to one uncanny trope, for the master criminal is an illusionist, able to deceive the unwary with peerless disguises and to dominate the weak-willed through hypnosis.  Watching the silent original film-- easily the best of the three-- it's not hard to see why cineastes of earlier generations regarded MABUSE as one of Lang's keystone works. Despite the fusty atmosphere characteristic of much of German cinema of the silent years, MABUSE seems sui generis. Mabuse the great schemer, who gambles with lives and fortunes, has been called a metaphor for God and for a great director's own magisterial skills. The former metaphor only applies up to a point, for Mabuse is finally brought low by Chief Inspector Von Wenk, a rather colorless bureaucrat whose main talent is his doggedness-- another likeness to the prose Fu Manchu series.

The film's first half delivers the best goods, with the second half-- the part leading to the criminal's downfall-- proving rather dull, in part due to a tedious romantic angle.  To a modern viewer the most amusing sequence may be one in which a disguised Mabuse pulls a "Jedi mind trick" on a prosperous young man, convincing the fellow that the two of them are old friends. This deception gets Mabuse an invitation to an exclusive party, where he uses his gambling skills to gain greater influence over wealthy pigeons. But there are many strong visual sequences in MABUSE, and none stronger than those that focus on the febrile looks of the actor playing the villain: Rudolph Klein-Rogge.  The conclusion is the strongest visual element of the film's second half, though it seems too much like a borrowing from Shakespeare's RICHARD III:  "ruthless schemer is driven to madness by the imagined spectres of his victims."

TESTAMENT OF DR. MABUSE advances eleven years, with Mabuse confined to an insane asylum.
Inspector Lohmann, who had appeared two years before in Lang's 1931 success M, takes the role of Mabuse's pursuer-- or is it Mabuse? The prisoner in the asylum perishes halfway through the film, but crimes designed by a master criminals continue to be committed. The upshot is that just as 1922 Mabuse suffered from being "haunted" by spectres, the criminal's analyst Doctor Baum has been "possessed" by the spectre of Mabuse, if only in a figurative sense.  While TESTAMENT is a sound film and takes advantage of other advancements in cinematic art, on the whole it's a rather crabbed, one-note affair compared to the original silent film.  It does have a bravura car-chase scene which I'd characterize as the most exciting use of rear-projection I can recall.

THOUSAND EYES OF DOCTOR MABUSE was Fritz Lang's last film. It transpires in the Germany of 1960, about fifteen years from the end of World War II, yet once again Lang and his collaborators sought to show the vulnerability of ordinary society to master manipulators.  There's no serious intimation that Mabuse has come back to life, even though there have been strange new crimes on the rise, like assassinations in which victims are shot with an "iridium needle." Rather, what we have is a Mabuse manqué , though Lang skillfully directs the audience's attention aware from the proper suspect. Here, long after the demise of the Third Reich, Lang is able to directly associate the new Mabuse with the tyranny of Nazism, for the "thousand eyes" of the title are a multitude of cameras placed by an old Nazi hotel. With these cameras the would-be Mabuse gathers immense amounts of intelligence with which to manipulate his victims, relying in part on the illusion of his being a psychic to ply his blackmail trade.

I judge that all three films belong to the Fryean mode of "adventure," but only THOUSAND EYES qualifies as what I call a "combative narrative," one which culminates in a violent exchange between formidable forces-- in this case, the minions of Mabuse and the tough Inspector Kras. A few years later Gert Frobe, the actor who played Kras, would play a signature villain now better known than Mabuse, when Frobe essayed GOLDFINGER in 1964.

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