#16 in my ranking of Fritz Lang’s filmography.
In terms of how directors go out with their final movie, this reminds me of Family Plot, Alfred Hitchcock‘s final film. There isn’t any comparison between the two in terms of tone or genre, but both The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse and Family Plot are solidly good works that firmly fit within the bodies of work of both men that may not reach the heights of their best, but do demonstrate many of their best qualities nonetheless. Lang’s final film is also the third film he made about the eponymous evil German doctor who has morphed over the decades from representing Weimar Germany’s failings to the dangers of a rising Nazi power to something else and possibly more interesting more than a decade after the fall of the Third Reich.
I was actually thrown off in the opening minutes of this third adventure about Dr. Mabuse. It opens with a repeat of a scene that occurred in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. In both the second and third film, a man gets shot in a car from a nearby car, leaving the car alone in the middle of the road as traffic goes around it. For a minute, I wondered if this was going to end up being some kind of remake instead of a continuing adventure, but instead we get a decidedly modern take on a film series’ history. What’s happening is not some sort of retconning of the previous films where Dr. Mabuse either never existed pre-Nazi or never died, but that everything in the previously released films did happen. What’s going on is that some force is recreating famous crimes done by Dr. Mabuse, and we learn very early that the criminals doing it think they’re working for Dr. Mabuse himself (though they don’t know the history).
The man who died was a journalist, and it gets Inspector Kras (Gert Frobe) looking into the Luxor Hotel, especially after it’s noted the long line of curious incidents leading to death are connected to it, the death of the journalist just being the most recent. At the hotel is currently staying a wealthy American, Henry Travers (Peter van Eyck) who is in the country to help secure rights materials necessary to build nuclear power plants in America. When a woman, Marion (Dawn Addams), tries to jump from the building just outside his window, he and her become intertwined with Henry trying to find a way to save her from the despair of her abusive husband.
Meanwhile, Kras goes to the enigmatic psychic, Cornelius (Lupo Prezzo), to find any kind of help he can, and Cornelius knows a lot that he shouldn’t know. Things that happen in other places, in the future, and he seems to be a real psychic, though completely blind.
Now, the way that this film feels so firmly in Lang’s body of work is the secret behind it all. The plot synopsis on the IMDB actually gives it away, so I’ll just dig in right now. As I’ve previously said, the two preceding Dr. Mabuse films used the eponymous villain as a vision into Germany at the time. There’s a great moment where the insurance salesman Hieronymus B. Mistelzweig (Werner Peters) tells of the history of the Luxor Hotel, how it was “born” in 1944, under Nazi rule, and never freed from it. It’s borderline haunted house stuff. It also points to the subtext of the film: the idea of Nazism haunting contemporary Western Germany. The things that the Nazis built still stand. The men who worked in the party were still around (largely, there were war crime trials). The ideology still existed at least on paper. Can Germany ever truly be free of it?
Also, the Luxor was built as a diplomatic hotel, so it was actually built with a host of spy equipment throughout. The way this is introduced is the sort of thing that Brian DePalma would later do, with a single shot of a television screen that pulls back to reveal the equipment controlling it. It’s creepy.
The actual story of the film plays out in a way that almost feels directionless for a time, and that’s purely because we don’t know what the whole plot is. We do get it straightened out in the final fifteen minutes or so, though. I think this will play better on rewatches because of that. Also, the twist about who is Dr. Mabuse is not that hard to guess. I also don’t think that the love story that develops between Travers and Marion is all that involving. It feels a bit tacked on, like the sort of subplot inserted to increase interest in the female quadrant of the movie going public in Germany at the time.
So, what is this movie? First and foremost, it’s a thriller about a series of crimes and a police investigator trying to navigate the morass of information available to find the culprit, having to push through current evidence and ancient history in the form of tales of a dead genius along the way. It’s also contemporary Germany dealing with the legacy of its own history that ended a decade and a half before. Those two parts are rather expertly intertwined in a dramatic procedural package that reminds me of a mixture of Dr. Mabuse and M. And then there’s some love story stuff that fits but doesn’t work as well. Like the rest of the Dr. Mabuse films that Lang made, I feel like it’s a couple of choices away from greatness. As it stands, those choices remain, and it’s still solidly good.
As Fritz Lang’s final film, it feels very appropriate as a reflection of what he was trying to do with his work as a whole.