Sunday, February 3, 2008

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (Fritz Lang, 1933) Professor Moriarty, Fu Manchu, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Hugo Strange, Hannibal Lecter--all master-minds of crime. But they don't hold a suddenly-snuffed-out candle to Dr. Mabuse, Fritz Lang's "man behind the curtain," so powerful he can control his vast drug, counterfeiting, terrorism, assassination and extortion rings from his near catatonic state inside a Berlin mental institution. Lang made three movies about Mabuse--one in 1922 "Mabuse, Der Spieler," and in 1960, "The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse," his last film. This one, the middle of the trilogy (or actually tetrology if you count "Inferno") , was made under the unapproving gaze of the Nazis, and subsequently banned by Goebbels, prompting Lang, one of the stellar visionaries of German cinema ("M," "Metropolis") to flee the country for Hollywood. And what a vision it is, reflecting the paranoia of National Socialist Germany. Men are sniped while trapped in traffic jams, or nearly blown to bits with barrels of gasoline. Lang even uses the limitations of film to keep you on edge, as lethal chunks of concrete fall from out of frame to threaten those trapped inside. No one is safe, and little is what it seems in the web that Mabuse spins, even unconsciously. One sees in this, the inspirations for Hitchcock and 007** (the film ends with an impressive series of chain-explosions), that not only evolved the thriller genre, but the action film as well. But leave it to Lang to take Mabuse's evil and take it to a supernatural level, as well. No one's safe, in reality or beyond. Now, that is genuine creepiness.

** For those of the comic set, one can look at Steve Englehart's collaborations with Marshall Rogers in "Detective Comics" and see that he drew the inspiration for the supernatural abilities of Dr. Hugo Strange from this very Mabuse film.

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