Dr. Mabuse and his organization of criminals are in the process of completing their latest scheme, a theft of information that will allow Mabuse to make huge profits on the stock exchange. Afterwards, Mabuse disguises himself and attends the Folies Bergères show, where Cara Carozza, the main attraction of the show, passes him information on Mabuse's next intended victim, the young millionaire Edgar Hull. Mabuse then uses psychic manipulation to lure Hull into a card game where he loses heavily. When Police Commissioner von Wenk begins an investigation of this mysterious crime spree, he has little to go on, and he needs to find someone who can help him.
Fritz Lang always struck an imposing figure. He was a broad-shouldered, barrel-chested man who loomed taller than most. He always wore a monocle in his left eye (according to Lang, from a wound he received in World War I), and always had a cigarette dangling from his long, bony fingers. Near the end of his life, he began to go blind and thus started wearing an eye patch over his right eye.
It was at this point, later in his life, that he found himself in the waiting room of a Hollywood producer. Although once one of the most well-known and respected directors in Germany, his stock had taken a nosedive since he came to America. He was a difficult man to work with, and the American studio system had relegated him to turning out one crime film cheapie after another. The secretary of the aforementioned producer called up Lang, totally unaware of his former status, and asked who he was. Lang, his English still tinged with a strong German accent, raised his voice and bellowed at her, “Dr. Mabuse!”
In 1922, five years before Metropolis, Lang filmed what would become the first in a series of films, Dr. Mabuse The Gambler. Based upon the novel by Norbert Jacques and written by Lang’s wife, Thea Von Harbou, Dr. Mabuse The Gambler became a box-office success that spawned at least nine sequels.
The film was released in two parts, Dr. Mabuse The Great Gambler: A Picture of Our Time and Inferno: A Play of People of Our Time. Together, these two parts combine to create one overarching story and film, simply called Dr. Mabuse The Gambler. Although it’s unheard of to modern audiences, this practice of releasing a film in two parts was not an uncommon practice at the time.
The film centers on the title character of Dr. Mabuse (played by Lang regular Rudolf Klein-Rogge), a criminal mastermind who uses a complex series of disguises and hypnosis to rule the criminal underworld of post-war Berlin. Mabuse preys on the decadence of the time, separating the neuveau riche from their money for little more than amusement. He’s a man of innumerable wealth, yet he has no real need for the money he acquires – what drives Dr. Mabuse is the overarching desire for chaos and destruction.
The first half of the film, The Great Gambler, largely focuses on the vice and crime that was prevalent in the post-war period in Germany. To illustrate his point, Lang filled the first half of the film with an array of set pieces that showcased the city’s decadence, and in turn, moral decay. Enormous gambling houses, restaurants and playhouses are packed to the brim with the grotesquely wealthy, gobbling up the excesses the city has to offer. It’s a visually beautiful film, one that stands up against Metropolis in terms of scope. Yet unlike Metropolis, the visuals of the first half of Dr. Mabuse The Gambler become a tad tiresome. Although the excessiveness of the visuals perhaps further illustrated the point Lang was attempting to make about society, at a certain point they become overbearing.
The second half of the film, Inferno, thankfully remedies the faults of the first half. Lang and his wife were wise enough to make Inferno stylistically different from The Great Gambler. No longer preoccupied with elaborate (albeit beautiful) sets, the second half focuses entirely on character. It’s in the second half that we begin to feel for the characters whose lives and wealth have begun to crumble because of the Doctor. Because of this focus on character, the pace of Inferno feels much more balanced and well plotted than The Great Gambler. However, one half of the film cannot work without the other, and it’s in their combination that the film truly reaches greatness.
The film drew heavily from other classic German silent films of the period, from The Golem to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and also included many of the crime genre staples that were expected of the time. Yet the film retains its potency due to the combination of the social critique from the first half, alongside the alluring characters of the second half. Much as he did with Metropolis, Lang took what could be considered pulp material and infused it with social commentary on German life, while never forgetting that a film’s first and foremost job is to entertain. Eighty-six years after its release, the film’s genre trappings remain remarkably contemporary. Characters who slip and out of disguise, femme fatales, and evil criminal masterminds are still prevalent in the crime genre to this day. Lang even ends his movie with a bang, with Mabuse and the police involved in a gunfight that seems heavily influenced by the American gangster film. However, Lang’s masterful handling of the material makes sure that these genre elements don’t overshadow the film’s message, and vice versa.
Following this film with The Testament of Dr. Mabuse in 1933 and with his last film, The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse in 1960, Lang brought to life one of cinema’s most memorable screen villains. It was through this villain that Lang held up a mirror to society, thereby creating a series of films that would become artifacts of the era in which they were made. The character of Mabuse, on the other hand, is the personification of societal evil, and is thus timeless.
Thanks for reading folks! Up next – Spies!