Friday, June 20, 2008


Dark, stylish crime melodrama from Fritz Lang featuring what may be the first modern "supervillain" in pop culture history. We see Hofmeister, a disgraced policeman, on the run from a gang of counterfeiters who attack him with barrels of chemicals which create a huge fireball; he escapes and calls his former boss, Inspector Lohmann, to rat out the criminals, but just as he's about to talk, the lights go out and something awful happens to make Hofmeister turn into a lunatic. However, he does manage to scratch the name "Mabuse" into a window. Lohmann learns of a Dr. Mabuse, a former crime lord, who has spent the last several years in the local asylum completely mute, spending most of his waking moments filling notepads with indecipherable scrawls about an "endless empire of crime" that would disrupt society on every level. Soon the asylum's Dr. Baum discovers that among his writings is a detailed description of a recent unsolved robbery. How could Mabuse be running a crime ring from his isolated cell? Meanwhile, we meet Thomas Kent, a man who joined the counterfeiters (who are also into blackmail and dope) out of desperation when he was unemployed; now that he has the love of a good woman, Lilli, he wants to get out, but the gang wants him to prove his mettle by committing a murder. The boss of the gang is an unseen figure who sits behind a curtain in an otherwise empty and dilapidated room, giving orders through a microphone. When Kent and Lilli are captured and brought into the boss's room, they discover that the figure behind the curtain is just a cardboard cutout. They are locked in the room and told they will die in three hours when a bomb will go off. Back at the asylum, Mabuse is found dead, but suddenly Dr. Baum begins acting strangely. Has he been possessed by the dead crime lord?

This is a striking film from start to finish: the opening chase with guns and barrels has a loud clanking industrial sound in the background that prefigures the feel of a David Lynch film, the ending is creepy and irrational, and much in the middle is unsettling. The sets (which alternate between cluttered and stark) and visuals are always interesting. The film partakes of several genres: crime film, romance, supernatural thriller, comedy (there is some comic relief, mostly involving Inspector Lohmann), and social commentary--many critics see the powerful madman Mabuse as a Hitler figure, though I'm not sure that parallel really holds up to scrutiny. Rudolph Klein-Rogge, who plays Mabuse (and Rotwang the mad inventor in METROPOLIS) doesn't have much to do but he certainly looks appropriately mad and creepy. Gustav Diessl, star of several of the German Mountain films of the era, gets the showiest part as Kent, and does a fine job with it. Much of the film has the feel of a serial, but the somewhat open-ended conclusion ends things with a more modern touch. Lang made an earlier film with the Mabuse character, and others have been made since. A must-see for film buffs. [TCM]

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