The Invisible Dr Mabuse (Harald Reinl, 1962)

by Douglas Buck January 11, 2019 5 minutes (1180 words) DVD

Mabuse’s returned, having escaped from certain death yet again, and square-jawed FBI agent Joe Como (Lex Barker) is back on his trail (though Como, unlike Mabuse, was doing just fine at the end of the previous film, having not only thwarted our crime-obsessed megalomaniac’s nefarious plans, but being properly rewarded for his heroic efforts with the delectable gift of superstar international sex symbol Daliah Lavi), even if the silly German police won’t believe the intruding American that it’s the fatherland’s own evil megalomaniacal overlord behind the latest wild scheme to steal the secret invention of invisibility from the brilliant reclusive scientist Professor Erasmus… with which to rule the world (gee, doesn’t sound like Mabuse at all…).

Ah, legendary producer Artur Brauner, a film lover who almost single-handedly raised the German film industry out from the ashes of war, luring back from Hollywood famous German directors like (original cinematic Mabuse creator) Fritz Lang and Robert Siodmak, whose first financially disastrous attempts at prestigious productions saw him heading towards bankruptcy, quickly leading him to sensibly switch to more easy genre fodder that, while derided by critics, provided a steady profit…. and the whacky “Mabuse” crime/espionage/sci fi film series, for better or worse, was right up that alley. Convincing Lang to make his German comeback with The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse (coming almost thirty years after Lang’s last Mabuse film!) was just the surprise success Brauner needed (even if the madman Lang despised it) to get the ball rolling to crank up a Mabuse film assembly line.

This third film in the Brauner “Mabuse” cycle (and fifth in the complete series that started with Lang’s quasi-expressionistic silent epic two-part masterpiece Dr Mabuse all the way back in 1922) doesn’t stray far from the formula set up in the previous entry from the year before The Return of Dr Mabuse (namely, a shadowy Mabuse out to realize his criminal kingdom by stealing a brilliant, if outlandish, invention, his thuggish if bumbling henchmen carrying out his scheme, figures of the law out to stop him, and a beautiful woman somehow getting all mixed up in the middle of it), which isn’t necessarily a problem (the fun of these Brauner “Mabuse” films isn’t the plot, anyway, but the playing out of this bizarre mishmash of genres, with that most unlikely of supervillains at its core), it’s more the pedestrian feel to the execution… and the growing sense of a small core of filmmakers (producer Brauner, director Reinl and returning screenwriter Ladislas Fodor) churning out a ‘quickie’ with a lessening sense of the previous efforts’ inspiration.

Considering he was following a cinematic master in Lang (albeit, long past his greatest years), Reinl did some impressive work in his first Mabuse entry (along with the story itself having an enjoyable cavalcade of mis-matched and uncertain identities, even falling into certain meta-territory, one of the pleasures – when done right — of entering the Mabusean Universe), unfortunately he follows it up with much less of an inspired outing this time around. The Invisible Dr Mabuse is sorely lacking the sense of a fevered auteur with a genuine perspective that transcends the essential silliness of the narrative machinations (with things such as creating a palpable sense of paranoia, where everyone may be working for Mabuse — or just plain ‘guilty’ of something – that the film is working so hard to construct yet fails it, and which the first two Brauner Mabuse films were dripping in). It’s also missing the physically imposing presence of Gert Fröbe’s rain-coat wearing Inspector Lohmann (who, I realized as I was enjoying his eccentric behaviour in the previous entry, looks and acts suspiciously similar to Peter Falk’s “Columbo”, that iconic, iconoclastic homicide detective from 70’s American television). One-time Tarzan Lex Barker may be handsome enough, but, on his own, with no Lohmann to work off, he’s bland. Even the surprisingly graphic violence from the previous entry is toned back down again.

There is some fun effort with the shifting identity stuff (it’s clearly the severe-faced Wolfgang Preiss playing Mabuse’s doctor assistant… as well as, yet again, Mabuse himself, standing next to the now dead doctor, pulling off his fake ‘face’ mask – one of those tropes in the Mabuse film that really annoys me — and I include Tom Cruise’s later “Mission Impossible” films – I mean, how does the facial bone structure change by dropping on a mask exactly?) and they do create a nice sense of a shady urban setting. I was also impressed by the attempts at quasi-scientific explanations for the potential for invisibility. The fight scenes, however, feel underwhelming (as well as the ‘invisible man’ effects, even if they do try and find some novel ways to ‘reveal’ them – i.e., Como misting up the room with hot water, etc).

I’ve grown fond, watching these Brauner “Mabuse” films, of the slightly comic, rotund Werner Peters, who, in his energetic style, is equally adept as good guy or bad, appearing his third time around, now as the lead henchman of Mabuse (though I really wonder how good of an undercover agent Como can be if he can’t recognize the obvious fact that it’s Peters appearing in the clown costume throughout the film — and also – back to the points about lazy construction – his character’s slapped together death scene near the end is jaw-droppingly inept).

There’s fun to be had with The Invisible Dr Mabuse and some rudimentary attempts at adhering to the principals, with the bulk of it taking place in a theater (where pretending to be someone else holds sway, of course), with invisible henchmen running about and appropriately gothic elements such as Doctor Erasmus, revealed as horribly disfigured, in love, Phantom of the Opera-style, with one of the female performers (keeping himself invisible so he can stalk her), increasing amounts of trap doors and close calls our hero needs to escape from (with the first Sean Connery/James Bond effort Dr No coming out that same year, I can only imagine the international espionage and high-tech gadgetry angles going up – without the ensuing budgetary needs to make them convincing, however), trying to treat it all with at least some modicum of seriousness (thought the occasional broad humor between Como and the dimwitted policeman he teams up misses its mark entirely) but its all on a lesser scale, done better in the previous efforts.

Yeesh. With ennui already setting in watching this one, not so sure what it’s gonna be like with the three remaining Brauner/Mabuse efforts. Still interested enough to keep it going though (as if my obsessive habits would allow an alternative – I guess I still like to pretend I have a choice). And, hey, the return of Gert (soon to become James Bond’s titular nemesis “Goldfinger”) Fröbe’s Inspector Lohmann for the next instalment (no surprise, churned out and released the same year as The Invisible Dr Mabuse is certainly added enticement.

_The Invisible Dr Mabuse_ (Harald Reinl, 1962)

Douglas Buck. Filmmaker. Full-time cinephile. Part-time electrical engineer. You can also follow Buck on “Buck a Review,” his film column of smart, snappy, at times irreverent reviews.

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