Deserves more eyes on it
CBS’ late, unlamented TV show Big Brother ain’t got nothing on Dr. Mabuse. Fritz Lang’s return to the character he made famous in a series of German films reflecting the methods of the rising Nazi threat in the ’20s and early ’30s, The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse served as an inspiration for Alphaville and Sliver, as well as recent “reality” television programs.
Lang, for those of you who don’t know, was the foremost director in Europe — and perhaps the world — back in the 1920s, when Berlin was second only to Hollywood in film production. He was a pioneer in the genres of suspense (Spies), science fiction (Metropolis and Woman in the Moon), adventure (The Indian Tomb), fantasy (Siegfried) and horror (M) — but perhaps his greatest success in Germany came with a series of pulpy mystery films about a psychically powerful super-criminal named Dr. Mabuse.
The Mabuse films were not only thrilling entertainments, but also wicked indictments of German society at the time, especially the criminal tactics of the rising Nazi party. It was a Mabuse film that was first to be banned in Germany at the order of Joseph Goebbels, after which Lang was offered the job as chief of film propaganda. Lang politely accepted, then swiftly snuck out of the country.
Lang ended up in Hollywood, where for many years he was a top director, making such classics as Ministry of Fear and Rancho Notorious. But by the late 1950s, Lang became disenchanted with the new Hollywood system. And so, he found himself looking elsewhere for work. This was just the chance that Arthur Brauner — a lifelong Lang fan and Holocaust survivor who had risen to head his own film studio in Germany — had been waiting for, and it wasn’t long before he’d lured Lang back to Germany to remake some of his old classics.
However, when it came to Mabuse, Lang chose to create an entirely new story — one that would bring Mabuse’s methods into the atomic age.
Inspector Kras (Gert Frobe, Goldfinger himself), is bothered by a phone call from blind psychic Peter Cornelius detailing a vision of murder at a busy intersection, which amazingly comes true. Newsman Peter Barter (Bruno Pantel) is killed by a new kind of dart gun — at the command of a man with a deformed foot.
Fifteen men have died mysteriously in the past months. All of them were guests of the Hotel Luxor. Clues lead the police to an impossible conclusion — is Dr. Mabuse at work again, 28 years after his death?
Mabuse’s agents are cooking up a scheme targeting rich American Henry B. Taylor (Peter Van Eyck), who is actually an industrialist named Travers. In Berlin to make a deal to build rockets for Germany’s space program, Travers is staying at the Luxor, too. Thus, he is on hand to rescue suicidal woman Marion Menil (Dawn Addams), threatening to jump from the ledge outside his window. Menil had suffered a nervous breakdown recently and is under the care of Dr. Jordan (Wolfgang Preiss), who is called in to assist.
Hieronymus B. Mistelzweig (Werner Peters), an insurance man and astrologer, identifies the woman for newsmen. A telegram to Menil indicates some kind of guilt, and that she’d met Barter before his death. Is she merely a damsel in distress or something more?
One thing you can be sure of in a Lang thriller is that no one is really what they seem to be. Who is the real criminal mastermind? The final revelation is followed by an action-packed conclusion, complete with gun battles and car chases, belying Lang’s undeserved reputation as not being able to direct action.
All Day has painstakingly reconstructed the film to its original widescreen glory, using the original negative elements for the most part, and bringing new life to a film that has only been seen in murky video copies from 16mm prints. The use of PAL equipment to remaster the film accounts for a six-minute difference from the listed original running time.
English subtitles (above the matte) more accurately translate the original German language track, rather than following the English dub track. A Mabuse filmography, illustrated with rare posters, includes shoddy American trailers for this and other Mabuse features — indicative of their treatment in America, where they were often re-titled to disguise their place in a series and used as filler on double feature programs. There’s also a photo archive of stills and publicity material.
A 34-minute original documentary The Eyes of Fritz Lang compiles interviews with experts on the subject of Lang, telling of his working methods, his flight from Germany, his return to Germany and Mabuse for his final films, and his final years in Hollywood.
David Kalat, president of All Day Entertainment, himself provides an audio commentrak. Kalat, author of the upcoming book on the subject — The Strange Case of Dr. Mabuse, due next year from McFarland — makes for an extremely qualified and enthusiastic commentator, both on the subject of Fritz Lang and the Mabuse series. His commentrak is among the best of the “lecture” style, always lively and engaging and never giving the impression of a read speech. Kalat also includes a lovely little booklet in the case that reprints a Roger Greenspun FILM COMMENT review of the film, errors and all.
All Day is to be congratulated for bringing attention to little known — but deserving — films like this one, and giving them such an excellent presentation on DVD. (The film is also available on tape from Kino International.)