Criterion Prediction #216: The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, by Alexander Miller
Title: The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse
Director: Fritz Lang
Cast: Peter van Eyck, Dawn Addams, Gert Frobe, Wolfgang Preiss, Werner Peters
Synopsis: After the mysterious death of a reporter, a blind clairvoyant and wealthy industrialist courts a suicidal woman who’s running from her dangerous, elusive husband while the two reside in a mysterious hotel constructed by the Nazis. However, there seems to be an outside force at work, pulling strings in a vast criminal syndicate.
Critique: The screen legacy of Lang’s Mabuse films needs to be seen to be believed.
Whenever I try to pitch someone on this decade-spanning, multi-volume crime saga, it usually starts with a gritty explanation that probably sounds as off as the rambling of a half-mad person, which is thematically consistent considering the content of the movies. In hindsight, if I recollect, my ramblings include, “Well, to really appreciate the Mabuse movies, you have to go back to the silent era but it really takes off in the 30s where the master criminal is running a syndicate from a mental asylum through a network of mind control…” That’s usually the point when the person in question drops out. While Lang’s densely layered series comes to a crest in the 30s with The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, his sinister creation (or shadow of) evolves into even more complex territory with his late-era, minor masterpiece The 1,000 Eyes of Doctor Mabuse. With each ascension, Lang’s contextual interpretation and technical design evolve and yet his association with the growth in distance somehow makes Mabuse more omnipresent and dangerous. In the 1922 mega epic Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, Mabuse’s a hulking physical presence, hypnotizing, gambling and engineering all manners of duplicitousness. Lang’s channeling the expressionist movement as well serials a la Fantomas, Judex and Les Vampires, in his evocation of supernatural villainy. In The Testament of Dr. Mabuse there’s an even more dangerous air of malevolence through the obfuscation of the character thanks to the introduction of sound. Lang’s incorporation of political anxieties (while his “courtship” with the Nazi party is inconsistently recorded) regarding the mounting presence of the Third Reich echoes in the paranoid architecture of the script and it stands as one of Lang’s best features. So, nearly 60 years later, Lang returns to the world of Mabuse and what does he bring to the table? From the outset, the incorporation of blind psychics, double-sided mirrors, hidden microphones, trap doors and star-crossed lovers might seem gimmicky. Still, the identifiable elevation of the series dictates otherwise in The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse. The nefarious cabal at the heart of the story is, like the film itself, a worldly affair, a French/Italian co-production Lang cobbled together after leaving his successful tenure in Hollywood. The controlled mise en scene, unadorned camera work and dialed down visual expressionism feels as if it’s the residual influence of Hollywood intervention and maturing aesthetic sensibilities. And yet the excitable air of tension and the crackling script lend the film a composed level of contrast where high-and-low art uniformly rattle off a tonally consistent (in terms of the series) narrative of supernatural intrigue which begets its film noir machinations.
Being the final feature for the iconic Lang, The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse retains a sense of cathartic release. The ghost of Nazism looms in the film’s primary setting, a labyrinth-like hotel of borderline cartoonish proportions with its hidden rooms and surveillance, perhaps reconciliation or returning to a theme in a more direct way than its predecessors.
Why It Belongs in the Collection The Criterion Collection tends to sidestep the major films from premier directors. While most of this is likely due to distribution rights, we’re more likely to see early, lesser seen or unexpected titles. Robert Zemeckis’ I Wanna Hold Your Hand; Christopher Nolan’s Following; Michael Mann’s Thief; Abbas Kiarostami’s 24 Frames. If we’re going to include more Lang, we could go with his more well-known noir films but The Big Heat is part of the Twilight Time inventory and The Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street are in Kino land. The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse has little-to-no presence on home video here in North America. The Masters of Cinema has assembled a complete Dr. Mabuse collection featuring Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, and of course, The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse. Masters of Cinema signals a film’s potential for a spine number in this region. Let’s hope for a similar three-title treatment.