Monday Movie: Dr. Mabuse the Gambler, by David Bax
This article originally ran as part of a Home Video Hovel review.
For better or worse, they don’t make them like this anymore. Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler is a towering early achievement in cinema. This was five years before Metropolis, nine years before M and, of course, well before Lang came to America to make classic films noir like Scarlet Street. Lang’s early mastery of film craft is astonishing to behold. On the other hand, it’s not like you’re gonna miss any of it if you blink; this movie (split into two parts) is four and a half hours long. Like I said, they don’t make them like this anymore.
Dr. Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) is a dark and mysterious criminal mastermind who uses his sinister cunning as well as outlandish powers of hypnotism to sucker any and every rich mark he can find out of his money. In the film’s first half, we’re treated to the anti-heroic pleasures you might expect from a root-for-the -bad-guys conman or heist movie. As the movie goes on, though, Lang gently switches protagonists, aligning us instead with the noble investigator, Norbert von Wenck (Bernhard Goetzke), who dedicates himself to stopping Mabuse.
Though filmed mostly on soundstages, Dr. Mabuse is fascinating in its glimpse of 1920s Berlin. It feels almost as if we’ve been granted access to the idle vices of the city’s high society, where the brazen illegality of gambling is part of the fun and all-night benders are acceptable as long as you keep your coat and tails presentable.
Dr. Mabuse is not as virtuosic as Metropolis but it moves along at a good clip, even for its length. That’s not to say there’s no style on display here, of course. Lang’s exaggerated vignetting and irising are fun touches and there’s a visual motif of circles (like, say, the attendees of a seance arranged around a table), often spinning, perhaps as a life on the metaphorical wheel of fortune. And let’s not overlook the highlight sequence, a hallucination of one of Mabuse’s victims that utilizes double exposure to genuinely creepy effect.