Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (1922)
I took a class at Ryerson called “Hollywood and Society” last semester. On the first day, we learned about the Lumière Brothers, and the last day was devoted to visual effects and Avatar. During the second class, we were shown a clip from Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler. The professor, Murray Pomerance, assured as that it was one of the most complex and suspenseful sequences ever committed to silent film at that point. It was the opening scene, depicting an intricate train robbery, and when it ended, and the lights were turned on again, there was no response. My professor knew that the silence wasn’t a result of us being underwhelmed or confused, but us understanding that the basic foundations of the modern action scene were laid down in 1922.
The director of Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, Fritz Lang, has a well-earned place among cinema’s greatest filmmakers. Many casual movie fans know him mostly for Metropolis, one of the most ambitious productions ever made. But Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler is another kind of monster. At an intimidating 270 minutes in length, it’s divided into two huge sections. Co-written by Lang, his then wife Thea von Harbou and Norbert Jacques, it features the titular Dr. Mabuse, a criminal mastermind with telepathic abilities and a penchant for disguises, who’s involved in gambling, stock exchange fraud, forgery and drug manufacturing. Lang would later explore the character further with two sequels, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) and The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960). Set in Weimar-era Germany, Mabuse visits various gambling dens in disguise to collect winnings from hypnotized victims. When a prosecutor becomes aware of his scams, Mabuse and his eclectic crew of henchmen are forced to play a battle of wits.
Part crime film, part social commentary (the film is set in post-World War I Germany after all, and its first section is titled “A Picture of the Times”) and part cat-and-mouse thriller, Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler is a surprisingly entertaining, and at times, groundbreaking film, dominated by Lang’s mastery of visuals, the sprawling plot and Rudolf Klein-Rogge’s central performance as the diabolical villain. While it may not be Lang’s most accessible film in terms of size and scope (if you’re new to his work, you’re better off starting with Metropolis or the insanely great M), Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler is the film in which Lang truly found himself as an artist, and its avant-garde, expressionistic leanings would not only shape his later films, but influence a great deal of cinema as well.
The Kino release of Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler is available from Amazon on DVD.