#15 in my ranking of Fritz Lang’s filmography.
Fritz Lang and his writer Thea van Harbou return to the crime genre they had previously played in with The Spiders films, and they pull from the literary source written by Norbert Jacques about a Moriarty-like criminal genius. A four-and-a-half-hour affair, it shows us the criminal mastermind at his absolute and terrifying height before throwing him to his lowest level possible. It’s a metaphor for Weimar Germany, both the decadence and the depravity as well as the inevitable end. I still think it could have used some tightening as well as some elongation of some elements to make certain parts of the story more effective, but it is nonetheless an engrossing film with a strong visual sense at the same time.
The two-part film begins with probably its best single sequence (that has its own share of ridiculous working against it at the same time) where the titular Dr. Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) executes an elaborate plan that involves the stealing of a secret trade pact from a courier on a train, leaking the news to the stock market to cause a stock to plummet, and then having the information come out that the pact is intact and delivered without harm to have the same stock skyrocket. He executes this mostly from the shadows except the actual purchase and sale of stock which he completes with a cool demeanor while standing on top of a table on the floor. The rest is pulled off by his handful of lackeys that he keeps to exacting schedules with threats if they do not follow through as he wishes.
That is all a preamble to the actual story, but it’s a doozie of a preamble. There are some silly elements to it like the pact getting thrown from a speeding train and falling exactly into the backseat of a speeding car that’s moving perpendicular under a bridge just below, but it quickly makes the point and moves on.
The character of Mabuse is an interesting one in that he isn’t really driven by money or power. His attainment of riches in his first scheme of the film fills him with no satisfaction. What drives him is, quite simply, messing with people. That’s a glib way of putting it, he frames it more about having power over people, and he treats it deadly seriously. However, his desire is simply to exert his will upon others. He only believes in power, and he could reasonably be described as a nihilist. He ends up feeling like a proto-Joker, especially the version in Nolan’s The Dark Knight.
The story itself involves Mabuse using one of his many disguises and some kind of psychic power he has learned to influence rich men into gambling situations where they purposefully lose large sums of money to him. He focuses in on a young heir named Hull (Paul Richter), utilizing one of his minions, a dancer named Cara (Aud Egede-Nissen), to help influence him. After an initial encounter that leaves Hull in a debt of 150,000 marks, the police prosecutor von Wenk (Bernhard Goetzke) gets onto Mabuse’s tail with Hull’s help, bringing in the help of a bored Countess he finds at a secret gambling club named Daisy Told (Gertrude Welcker) who is married to the rich dandy Count Told (Alfred Abel).
It becomes a cat and mouse game as von Wenk tries to figure out Mabuse’s real identity, having nothing more than a series of names and physical descriptions that don’t match up because of Mabuse’s disguises and exacting planning. The first part ends with both women getting kidnapped by the other side. Mabuse, in a fit of what one might call jealous desire, forces Count Told to obviously cheat during a card game at his home and steals away with the Countess in the confusion. At the same time, von Wenk executes a raid on an illegal gambling den where Hull and Cara are, leading to a chase where Mabuse’s men accidentally kill Hull rather than von Wenk which leads to von Wenk capturing Cara and throwing her in prison.
The second half has a tighter focus and has Mabuse zeroing in on Count Told, exerting his influence over him to get what he wants, while von Wenk closes in on Mabuse by squeezing Cara. Mabuse gets desperate, sending one of his men into von Wenk’s office as an electrician to plant an explosive, but things go wrong. There’s a shootout that must have directly inspired Hitchcock when he made the first The Man Who Knew Too Much, and a chase that leads to Mabuse’s eventual defeat.
I do enjoy the film overall, but I don’t quite see the silent masterpiece that many others seem to see. Mabuse himself is a great character, and he is a wonderful vessel for meaning about contemporary Germany, but I think there’s some unclarity around his personal relationships, especially his desires around the Countess. I think it’s mostly just about his finding a new target to control, but the opening text of the second part (perhaps in an effort to simplify things in an introduction) says that he loves her. I can see him loving her and only knowing how to control her, but it’s unclear. The other side of this is Mabuse’s relationship with Cara, a woman who loves him deeply because of their relationship before the film began. I think this relationship is appropriately fleshed out (I dread the idea of a scene with Cara and Mabuse happily frolicking through a field), but I don’t think it forms the basis that it should when it comes to Mabuse’s obsession with Countess Told.
I also find von Wenk to be an uninteresting antagonist to Mabuse. He’s a generic police investigator. He’s dedicated and good at what he does, but he’s nothing but his role. He has no real character to him. I don’t need scenes of him at home with his wife, or anything, but a tic or two might have been nice.
The suspense of the chase is really well handled, and the film looks great. That’s the bulk of the film and I enjoy it for that. The ending with Mabuse being terrorized by visions is great as well. I just found some character stuff to be lacking here and there that the film rather heavily relied on. It’s not the elegant piece of art that is Destiny, but it’s also not the loose collection of ill-fitted ideas that was the second Spiders film. It’s solidly good.