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Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922)

Thriller Rated NR

A formidable piece of silent film history (the 2000 restored version runs 270 minutes), Dr. Mabuse the Gambler marks the first installment in a series that would resurface two more times over the course of Fritz Lang’s career. Was there something about the maniacal title character, a psychotherapist capable of controlling the minds of his victims, that especially appealed to the domineering director?

As played by Rudolf Klein-Rogge (Rotwang in Lang’s masterpiece, Metropolis), Mabuse may possess the cinema’s original evil stare. Dark circles surround his eyes, but the irises themselves are alarmingly light and fair, which may be why those who look into them become lost and hypnotized. Mabuse uses this power for trivial criminal purposes – his bread and butter involves donning elaborate disguises to attend gambling dens and manipulating the other players to his advantage – but he also has the grand plans of a megalomaniacal super villain. The movie opens with Mabuse’s scheme to manipulate the stock market, a sequence that ends with his triumphant, disembodied head superimposed over the tatters left on the trading-room floor.

Dr. Mabuse is a bit unwieldy in terms of structure, but it’s worth the sit for the eventual flashes of Lang’s visual genius.

It’s clear from the start that this isn’t going to be a standard crime melodrama, but rather a picture by one of the founders of film language (there’s an early action scene, involving the coordination of a train on a bridge and a car passing beneath it, of which a contemporary heist film would be proud). Originally released as two separate films and broken up into distinct acts, Dr. Mabuse is a bit unwieldy in terms of structure, but it’s worth the sit for the eventual flashes of Lang’s visual genius. Mabuse’s climactic comeuppance, in which a group of blind counterfeiters he employs morph into the ghostly forms of his murder victims, is enchanting and eerie, all the more so because of the silence of the film.

Dr. Mabuse the Gambler also gives you a sense of the discomfort, fear and even paranoia that may have been in the air regarding the burgeoning field of psychoanalysis (Freud would have been touring in Germany at the time of the movie’s release). Whereas Mabuse’s rival, state prosecutor von Wenk (Bernhard Goetzke), represents a reliance on facts and proven science – good, old-fashioned forensics –  the doctor himself dabbles in this new field of psychotherapy, one the movie equates with otherworldly powers and even, in one creepy séance sequence, the occult.

In the end, Dr. Mabuse may be less noteworthy as a coherent whole than as a hugely influential crime drama. Just as it’s hard to imagine so many science-fiction dystopias without Metropolis, just about every criminal mastermind, from Dr. No to Dr. Evil, owes something to Klein-Rogge’s hypnotic fiend. His stare pierces through victims, and the years.