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Silent Sunday Nights - January 2019
Remind Me

Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler

Years before he fled Hitler's Germany, settled down in FDR's America, and set up shop in Hollywood, the great Fritz Lang displayed a special talent for long-form cinema steeped in suspense, paranoia, and moody expressionist imagery. His crowning achievement of that period was Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, a two-part silent melodrama released in 1922 and clocking in at about four hours.

Although it's exquisitely weird at times, Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler is definitely not detached from reality. Lang used its obsessive characters and mercurial plot - taken from the first Mabuse novel by Norbert Jacques, who later wrote several more - to explore subjects of immediate interest to the moviegoers who made it a hit. The story is a volatile mixture of crime, violence, gambling, financial chicanery, and other ills, peppered with sidelong comments on the rise of mass entertainment and the speed and complexity of modern cities.

Most tellingly of all, the film etches a dark picture of psychoanalysis, then a new science on the cutting edge of medical progress. By making it the centerpiece of a tale about psychological deceit and exploitation, the film raises the disturbing possibility that the more we know about the human mind, the more mystifying and frightening it may seem. Lang's use of fictional events to illuminate real concerns is mirrored by the subtitles of the film's two parts. The first is "The Great Gambler: A Picture of the Time" and the second is "Inferno: A Game for the People of Our Age."

Known as Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler in its native Germany, the film revolves around a brilliant but insane scientist who's a spieler in several senses of the word - a gambler with foolproof ways to cheat, an impersonator with an array of impenetrable disguises, and a manipulator whose mesmeric spell can turn a victim into a mindless puppet. He's played by the reliably sinister Rudolf Klein-Rogge, who had just appeared in Lang's drama Destiny (1921) and would go on to the director's legendary Metropolis (1927) a few years later. He and Lang were on the same artistic wavelength at this point in their careers, and a better Mabuse would have been impossible to find.

In the film's first chapter, Mabuse engineers the theft of a briefcase containing the contracts essential to an international deal; then he watches the ensuing chaos at the stock exchange and uses his knowledge of the contracts' whereabouts to reap a criminal windfall. For another scheme he visits a gambling club, using his hypnotic power to put millionaire Edgar Hull (Paul Richter) into a trance and force him to lose hand after hand, even when the unfortunate gent is holding the winning cards. Mabuse then uses his own seductive mistress, dancer Cara Carozza (Aud Egede Nissen), to keep Hull within his grasp, but she lands in the custody of chief police inspector Norbert von Wenk (Bernhard Goetzke), who will stop at nothing to catch the Great Unknown, as he calls the elusive mastermind. The mad doctor also goes to a séance at the home of the aristocratic Countess Dusy Told (Gertrude Welker), using a hypnotic trick to disgrace her husband, Count Graf Told (Alfred Abel), and carry the wealthy woman away.

In his public life Mabuse is a celebrated psychoanalyst, and in the second chapter he agrees to treat Count Told for the mental illness he himself has caused, thus preventing the deluded man from seeking and finding his missing wife. Von Wenk is still on the job, though, and Carozza is still in jail. Afraid that she'll betray him, Mabuse sends her a dose of poison that she obediently drinks, knowing it will kill her. In later scenes he forces the melancholy Count to commit suicide, almost manages to kill von Wenk by mesmeric means, and ends up in a climactic shootout that kills his goons and sends him racing for his life in the sewers below the city. With no hope of escape, he loses his once-brilliant mind and becomes a quivering, hallucinating wreck.

That kind of finale leaves the door open for sequels, and sure enough, Lang and Klein-Rogge returned with The Testament of Dr. Mabuse a decade later. Like the first film, it was written by Lang and his wife, Thea von Harbou, who stayed in Germany and worked with the Nazi regime after Lang, who despised the Nazis, left the country for good. Lang said that the sequel put Nazi slogans into the mad doctor's dialogue, and both Mabuse films were banned by the government in 1933. But the evil doctor represents destructive forces broader than Nazism alone, which is why film historian Siegfried Kracauer singled him out as an archetypal despot who uses multiple aspects of modern society - the authority of science, the distraction of entertainment, the decadence of aristocracy - as tools for spreading confusion, disruption, and panic with an ease and ubiquity that border on the supernatural. Mabuse came back in one more Lang film, The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960), and other directors have resurrected him since then.

Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler was Lang's first real masterpiece, although he had worked on a similarly ambitious scale in The Spiders, a two-part mystery that premiered in late 1919 and early 1920. Ambition also marked Metropolis and the two-part mythical extravaganza Die Nibelungen (1924), another Klein-Rogge epic. Lang's list of accomplishments is long and lustrous, stretching from his innovative German films through such socially progressive Hollywood classics as Fury (1936), Scarlet Street (1945), Rancho Notorious (1952), and The Big Heat (1953), to name only a handful. But none outdoes Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler for liveliness, inventiveness, and sheer storytelling power. Like a benign version of its malevolent protagonist, it casts a very powerful spell.

Director: Fritz Lang
Producer: Erich Pommer
Screenplay: Thea von Harbou; based on the novel by Norbert Jacques
Cinematographer: Carl Hoffmann
Production Design: Otto Hunte and Karl Stahl-Urach
With: Rudolf Klein-Rogge (Dr. Mabuse), Aud Egede Nissen (Cara Carozza), Gertrude Welker (Countess Dusy Told), Alfred Abel (Count Graf Told), Bernhard Goetzke (Norbert von Wenk), Paul Richter (Edgar Hull), Robert Forster-Larringa (Spoerri), Hans Adalbert von Schlettow (Georg), Georg John (Pesch), Karl Huszar (Hawasch), Grete Berger (Fine), Julius Falkenstein (Karsten), Lydia Potechina (the Russian), Julius Herrmann (Emil Schramm)

by David Sterritt



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