The Mabuse Trilogy, Part III: The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960)
This is the third in a three part series of essays concerning Fritz Lang’s Mabuse Trilogy. For parts I & II see The Mabuse Trilogy, Part I: Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler and The Mabuse Trilogy, Part II: The Testament of Dr. Mabuse.
“I feel a sense of discomposure about this case,” says a police officer early on in The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960), “It’s like I’ve already gone through it.” Fritz Lang’s final film leans heavily on his classic 1924 and 1933 films about a power-mad genius with hypnotic powers. It has many of the same elements of prior films, a murder at a traffic stop (seen in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse), disguises (seen in Dr. Mabuse the Gambler), police station bombings (the Gambler), seances (the Gambler), and a rumpled, unglamorous cop trying to make sense of it all (Testament). But Dr. Mabuse is dead, though not according to some. . .
Henry Travers (Peter Van Eck) is an American weapons manufacturer who has just sealed a major business deal. He finds a welcome distraction in the form of Marian Menil (Dawn Addams), a fellow guest at the Hotel Luxor who he meets when he helps talk her off of a ledge. She’s fleeing from something, but when she won’t open up to Travers about her past, he begins having her followed. His surveillance comes to the attention of Berg (Andrea Checchi), a hotel employee, who reveals a room next Menil’s with a two-way mirror that he can use to spy upon her. But Travers isn’t the only one interested in keeping an eye on Menil. She was one of the last people to have contact with a TV reporter who died at the wheel of his car after being shot with a stolen US Army prototype weapon. The reporter’s death is only one in a series of unsolved crimes with international implications that can be linked to the Hotel Luxor. If that didn’t make things complicated enough for Kras (Gert Frobe), the officer investigating the murder, there’s also a blind psychic, Peter Cornelius (Wolfgang Preiss) who is able to furnish him with cryptic clues to the crimes, including the mention of a mysterious Dr. Mabuse.
As the Mabuse series evolved, Lang explored different eras and social conditions with his films. Dr. Mabuse the Gambler was rooted in the culture of the Weimar Republic that spawned it, while The Testament of Dr. Mabuse can easily be seen as Lang’s response to the rise of the Nazis. The Thousand Eyes. . . is the Cold War entry into this trilogy, and in spite of the repetition of elements from the prior films, it’s set in a very different world with very different concerns.
While the villain of The Testament. . . is concerned with creating a destablized environment of fear and distrust in order to control the masses, this film’s villain has different means in mind. He still tries to control individuals using his signature means of hypnosis and hidden identities, but the path to power he sees is quite different. He seeks to possess the arsenal that Travers, as an arms manufacturer, has under his control. Controlling the people as a body is irrelevant; by this time, the scene in the first Mabuse film where he uses political rhetoric to trick a crowd into intercepting a police van seems as anachronistic as that same film’s inter-titles. Power here is disconnected and isolated from the populace; they are simply the swarms on the sidewalk gazing up at Menil standing on the ledge, ant-like and inconsequential.
This depersonalized aspect is a big part of what makes The Thousand Eyes. . . the least successful of the three films. Lang’s Mabuse films form a trio of meditations on the changing faces of power and control. In the earlier, more Expressionistic films, these faces were very literally exposed in facades. The idiosyncratic sets (particularly the home of Count & Countess Told) were a huge part not only of the film’s visual appeal but also of the characterization. Lohmann’s office, Baum’s lecture theatre, and even Hofmeister’s hallucinatory living room are major ways that Lang tells us about who these people are. With The Thousand Eyes. . . taking place in a hotel, we’ve traded designed, personal environments for the blank walls of Travers’ hotel room and the police station conference room. Whatever arguments you can make for this representing a flattened, bureaucratized system of power, it also means that the film is mostly grey and uninteresting to the eye.
This lack of visual panache is a major impediment to treating The Thousand Eyes. . . as much more than an assured genre picture. Unlike Rear Window, the surveillance concerns are institutional and not personal (voyeurism is touched upon, but not acknowledged), preventing it from having that same type of emotional charge. Its complex plotting prevents Lang from lingering on any of the characters long enough for them to make much of an impression. The only memorable dialogue comes from Mistelzweig (Werner Peters), an insurance agent who hangs around the Hotel Luxor and attempts to sell policies based the horoscope information of his potential clients. He’s the most consistently enjoyable screen presence and his discussion of the astrological signs attached to buildings (he equates the laying of the cornerstone with birth) is downright Pynchonian. But even with this playful eccentricity, The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse points more towards the franchise of Mabuse spy pictures it would spawn than the cinematic milestones that preceded it in the series. That being said, it was strong enough work to inspire further– non-Lang directed–sequels. It testifies to what a powerful filmmaker Fritz Lang was if even his final work was taken up as the starting point for other directors.
Watch the Trailer for The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse here