Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler (Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler)
Germany (1922) Dir. Fritz Lang
The criminal underworld of Berlin is run by the mysterious Dr. Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), a master of disguise and mental manipulator and hypnotist. While his minions handled a counterfeiting scheme, Mabuse cons rich fools out of their money at gambling establishments, in disguise, using the power of suggestion to make them play badly. Following the theft of some important documents to cause confusion at the stock market and walk away with a huge profit, Mabuse’s next victim is Edgar Hull (Paul Richter), the son of a millionaire industrialist, whose misfortune was noticed by State prosecutor Norbert von Wenk (Bernhard Goetzke), keen to bring the “Great Unknown” to justice. With the resourceful and equally clever Wenk on his trail, Mabuse pulls out all of the stops to continue his campaign of fleecing the rich while avoiding Wenk’s interference.
Fritz Lang certainly likes his epics and this film is certainly that. Clocking in at over four and half hours, the first of three films revolving around Dr. Mabuse (followed by 1933’s sequel The Testament of Dr. Mabuse and 1960’s The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse) is a sprawling and multi layered tale which, to be frank, could have been a bit shorter. In fact it could have been about two hours shorter – not that the content could be easily abridged as Lang and scriptwriter/wife Thea von Harbou have ensured that almost everything featured here is relevant and important to the plot.
As with every great criminal mastermind, Mabuse has a group of loyal subordinates to help his evil plans come to fruition. They include coke addict butler Spoerri (Robert Forster-Larrinaga), fat thug Petsch (Georg John), chauffeur Georg (Hans Adalbert Schlettow), maid Fine (Grete Berger) and head of the counterfeit scam, Hawasch (Charles Puffy). The jewel in the Mabuse crown is Folies Bergère dancer Cara Carozza (Aud Egede Nissen), skilled at manipulating men with her overt sexuality, despite her unbridled love for Mabuse. Cara is used to seduce Edgar Hull and feed him false information to lure him to various gambling dens. Not far behind is prosecutor Wenk, proving himself to be smarter than Mabuse gives him credit for, also using disguises to infiltrate gambling dens, unfortunately for Mabuse, one where he is executing his latest scam. The bottom falls out of Mabuse’s plan when his mind tricks fail to work on Wenk, and upon learning that he and Hull are working together, Mabuse begins to take Wenk seriously, orchestrating some of his most devious schemes to rid him of his biggest threat, which backfires spectacularly.
Still only halfway through the film and things becomes even more sinister when Mabuse falls for the charms of bored gentry Countess Told (Gertrude Welcker) and decides she need to be separated from her drippy husband (Alfred Abel). So with a combination of hypnosis, make up and deception, Mabuse discredits the Count, makes him believe he is going mad and kidnaps the Countess. I’m guessing the flowers and chocolates didn’t work.
Lang has a way of making his mad geniuses seem almost respectable and worthy of our applause than our disdain, through the sheer inventiveness of their criminal schemes and Mabuse is a prime example of this, making him a far more compelling and exciting character for the viewer to invest in than the drippy protagonists. While the resources available to Mabuse may be quite rudimentary compared to today’s criminal who can benefit from modern technology, the template for all the great evil masterminds can be found here in Lang’s adaptation of novelist Norbert Jacques’s creation, some of the ideas Lang himself resurrected for his 1928 classic Spies, while the influence of this film can be seen in other seminal works from Lang, including his masterpiece Metropolis.
Fantasy elements aside, this film develops into a taut and well crafted cat and mouse crime thriller detailing Mabuse’s gradually descent into madness as Wenk’s net begins to close in on him while trying to stay that one step ahead of Wenk. Lang ensures Mabuse gets his comeuppance in a suitably effective and surreal manner with some unique and inventive camera techniques for the time. In Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Lang has one of the finest screen villains at his disposal, delivering a performance which serves as precursor to his later and more noted mad genius roles under Lang’s direction, although some of that may have come from the fact that Lang had just married Klein-Rogge’s ex-wife Thea von Harbou (with whom Lang was having an affair). As much as this feels like a one man show, the remainder of the cast are given sufficient screen time to make a good account for themselves.
The most remarkable thing about Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler is how ahead of its time it was for 1922 and Lang was only three years into his film career as a director. Regardless this remains another hugely influential work from the legendary German auteur.