The Death Ray of Dr Mabuse (Hugo Fregonese, 1964)
The Mabuse franchise roles on, with British secret service agent Major Anders (Peter van Eyck, returning as yet another character in the series) drags his girlfriend Judy (Rika Dialina) to an island off the Mediterranean pretending to be newlyweds so he can spy on, as well as protect from other nefarious international forces, the misanthropic Professor Larsen (O.E. Hasse, apparently a big deal of a German actor at the time) as he develops the ultimate weapon of war, a massive Death Ray mechanism, in his undersea bunker.
A secret criminal organization working hard to gain access to some deadly new technological gadget. A mysterious controlling figure leading them, with only a shadowy silhouette behind a screen giving orders (as if we don’t all know who that is!), with only the British authorities (and a few gorgeous kitty cat women somehow mixed in the middle of it) standing between evil forces gaining world domination and the good guys winning. And a virtual cavalcade of double crosses and false identities revealed.
It started out great fun, with Fritz Lang’s inspired opening salvo, 1,000 Eyes of Dr Mabuse, released just four years earlier leading the charge… yet, with a staggering six Mabuse entries (including this Death Ray) since…well… it’s getting a bit too familiar. Screenwriter Ladislas Fodor (who did five of them) and producer Arthur Brauner (the once determined force who managed to pull the original silent cinema Mabuse creator Lang back into the fold in the first place) were clearly losing momentum. Even the colorful (yet ludicrous) scifi elements and growing international espionage they threw into the last few were reaching a wearying point.
Director Fregonese doesn’t provide much of a counter-argument for being a mostly forgotten filmmaker, with his lighter touch (such as the running gag of the island’s favorite pastime being ‘gossip’, to the point that everyone knows Anders – and introduces him around, to his eternal frustration – as ‘a secret agent’) coming across as the weakest so far; it’s too silly and the least interesting.
I did find myself cheekily amused by just how sexist this entry gets (not that these films – or the espionage genre at the time — were ever exactly sparkling examples of female empowerment), with, for instance, the dopy Judy, surly at Anders constantly being too pre-occupied for any sexual interest (or marrying her, which she believes is why she’s there!), convinced to join a brothel of female secret agents about halfway into the story, happy to bed possible spies in order to sneak info out of them… and, with all the hottie possibilities Anders has, I have no idea what the surprising lack of interest in sex is about, as he reacts with disdain towards the endless island women throwing themselves at his feet.
Fregonese does manage to muster up some excitement in the underwater battle scenes, with enemy agents in swimming gear shooting spears at each other, that suddenly made me realize how reminiscent this Mabuse story feels to an entry in that other espionage over-the-top franchise, one with a substantially larger narrative canvas, budget and profile, also dealing with a tropical island madman and a British agent (only this is one we all know and love – who, like any self-respecting fantasy of male-wish fulfilment, might have the same disdain towards the opposite sex, but he never gets his fill of devouring their willing and delectable flesh – that being, Sean Connery’s particularly virile James Bond), out to stop him from controlling the world with his deadly weapons; namely, Thunderball.
Strangely, that Bond film came out a year later than Death Ray, with the Fregonese underwater battles surprisingly playing in German cinemas first (as minor as they are compared to the impressive-by-sheer-scale of the Thunderball ones), yet a little research has revealed the Bond script was floating about long enough before going into production it seems likely that Brauner and the Mabuse crew managed to get their hands on an early draft of the script and, as all good opportunistic exploitation producers do, got an early jump on it, hoping to benefit from comparison.
Though the strikingly sharp-featured Wolfgang Preiss is listed in the Death Ray credits as Dr Mabuse (a role he had played in all five Brauner films up until this one), he never actually shows up (not even as a disembodied head supernaturally able to enter and control the mind of the next weak-willed doctor or scientist with visions of egomaniacal grandeur he has chosen to do his latest nefarious bidding – before being thwarted naturally). Perhaps even Mabuse himself was getting tired of it all.
Not a moment too late, Death Ray wraps up the original Brauner black & white Mabuse run. While each had their charms (with the first Lang one, “1,000 Eyes” and the remake of “Testament” being the two truly quality, inspired entries), Death Ray shows the makers having reached their creative limits. Fortunately, Brauner concluded the same and drew the series to a close; temporarily anyway, as, for better or worse, there’s still more to come in my screening series of ‘Mabuse in the movies’…