The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (Fritz Lang, 1960)
A group of disparate characters — including an inspector (Gert Fröbe) out to solve the recent murder of a news reporter, a boisterous yet suspicious insurance salesman (Werner Peters), a rich American billionaire (Peter Van Eyck) working out a deal to buy a nuclear power plant(!) and the striking yet suicidal young woman Marion (Dawn Addams) the billionaire just talked down from jumping off the hotel ledge — circle about the Hotel Luxor, a lodging we learn had an infamous connection to the Nazis during the Second World War. With their increasingly menaced circumstances closing in about not only the blind fortune-teller Peter Cornelius, who is able to accurately conjure up personal mundane events he shouldn’t know anything about along with unsettlingly predict coming violence and death, and Marion’s controlling doctor, Professor Jordan, who has the uncanny ability to arrive within moments every time his name is dropped (I may be giving away something here, as a false actor credit is given to the Jordan character to playfully throw off the scent, but both Cornelius and Jordan are played by Wolfgang Preiss – sorry, it seemed right away obvious to me as I was watching… if you don’t notice, get your head out of your proverbial backside and pay attention! It’s a Mabuse film, after all, false identities abound), but to a terrifying crime lord hovering in the background, an iconic figure from the past, who, though deceased almost 30 years somehow may be guiding the nefarious events, his insidious name bubbling up from the shadows; yep, none other than… Mabuse.
What a strange franchise the Dr. Mabuse series is, starting with the fact that the first three entries were made (all by Lang) over a period of almost 40 years — I mean, who exactly was still pining for a Mabuse film 27 years after the previous entry, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse? — with the succeeding sequels (no longer directed by the aging Lang) coming much more fast and furious guided by opportunistic German producer Artur Brauner in apparently much more formulaic style. With its bleak nihilistic perspective, urban noir settings, no real main protagonist and a shadowy barely-seen antagonist who represented an evolving Hitlerian type criminal overlord (delivered directly to a German audience, by 1960, that was apparently quite squeamish with looking too closely at the harsh truths of their country’s horrific acts during a war that wasn’t even quite two decades behind them), it’s not exactly material crying out for commercial acceptability… and, yet… all three were financial successes there; must be the power of fiction, allowing a society to grapple with these unimaginable events — as well as the underlying nagging questions of their own culpability – hovering deep in their psyches, deflected onto make-believe representations.
Lang gets off Thousand Eyes in exciting style, announcing right away (for anyone familiar with the previous films) that Mabuse (or a Mabusian-style scheme) is back in action. The opening assassination is carried out as an almost exact replay of one carried out by Mabuse’s (well, more accurately, the psychiatrist’s who he has mind-controlled from his mental ward) henchmen on a highway in Testament. While still effectively done, it’s less ‘audio’ clever than the one in Testament, with in that film the sniper relying on the honking of the car horns around him, including that of the victim himself (¬_Testament_ was made in 1933, a few years into the dawn of sound in cinema, and rather than reject or dismiss sound, Lang, as would Hitchcock, immediately found brilliant ways to narratively play with this new cinematic device). The Thousand Eyes narrative quickly moves into the precinct office of Inspector Kras (again, mimicking a number of the shots from earlier entries), with dishevelled Gert Fröbe (who would soon be exploding into international fame as the titular villain in the third James Bond film, 1964’s Goldfinger) an obvious stand-in for the equally disgruntled, larger-than-life Inspector Lohmann on Mabuse’s trail played by Otto Wernike in Testament (with Wernicke having played the same inspector, just as magnificently in Lang’s 1931 M) and on into the Langian shadowy room of seemingly well-positioned male authority figures filling the space with cigarette smoke and providing story details with their pontification (as well as literally mentioning ‘Mabuse’).
There’s a profound stylistic difference between Thousand Eyes (which was Lang’s very last film) and Lang’s earlier Mabuse films though. Gone is the hypnotic, quasi-expressionistic look and feel of those efforts. There is no camera trickery, no dissolves or optical illusions. Thousand Eyes follows much more closely with the more sparse and straight forward style that Lang incorporated upon moving to America that he then took back with him for his last films in Germany (with the paranoid director having burned every possible bridge when he left Hollywood, leaving no producer willing to work with such a madman). While I guess you could convincingly argue the stylistic shift made sense to the narrative, with the quasi-supernatural mind-control and hypnosis utilized by the earlier Mabuse (extending from beyond the grave in “Testament”) replaced with the much less ethereal and more realistic electronic surveillance of the latest Mabuse acolyte (who, as in “Testament”, has his scene, after his un-masking, of feverishly recounting his drive to fulfill the mission of ‘Mabuse’ – including the typical ‘they called him mad, but he was a genius!’ rant) through the ‘thousand eyes’ of hidden cameras installed by the Nazis around the Luxor Hotel where most of the film takes place, including in all the rooms, I couldn’t help but miss the profoundly poetic and evocative filmmaking style that Lang brought to the first two Mabuse films.
Lang tries to make up for the loss of stylistic flourishes by upping the conspiratorial Mabusian principles to all new levels – the endless false identities, the characters building lies upon lies to either expose the truth or get away with crimes, pile up as never before (yet somehow remain clear, though I watched it a second time to make sure I had it all right). Almost every character, from the main stars to the bit players, at one point or another, pretends to be someone else, with no one free of guilt or responsibility, including the inspector himself, who, in spreading false information of supposed newly discovered clues that don’t exist in hopes to rouse the hidden criminals from their lair, manages to get two people killed, one being one of his own men (to seemingly little concern by him). Van Eyck’s billionaire character, ostensibly the hero of the piece, acts as insidiously as any Mabusian villain in controlling the seemingly emotionally troubled Marion, who he just saved from her suicide attempt, starting with ‘taking ownership’ over her, following her and making demands on her, to the point of actually spying on her from a room with a one-way mirror he rents directly adjacent to hers. Of course, no surprise, it’s eventually revealed she herself is pretending, not what she claims to be but instead guided to deliberately manipulate this saviour; all part of the Mabusian villain’s nefarious plans.
A nice surprise is the way Lang plays around cleverly with meta-conceits, a perfect example being the scene of Eyck having a dinner conversation with Marion at a table, with the camera pulling back revealing we’re actually watching through a television screen from Mabuse’s lair. Add to that the deliberately constructed sense of audience-complicity played out with the sexually excited Van Eyck character clandestinely watching the unknowing Marion changing in her room (though, in fact, as we’ll discover, she did in fact know) and Lang can be appreciated as a filmmaker still finding new ways of exploring cinema, even with his last film. Also interesting to note how similar in execution and intent the voyeuristic mirror scene is with that of Tony Perkins’ Norman Bates watching that other Marion, played by Janet Leigh, changing in her bathroom through a peephole, again from Hitchcock – the similarities between the two directors keeps growing as I’m watching Lang’s work – in that same year’s Psycho.
Despite Lang’s protestations of how much he despised the cast – especially Fröbe and Preiss, who apparently didn’t treat the egomaniacal director with the fawning reverence he felt he deserved – I find it a pleasingly colourful cast of character actors that any crime film, especially one as eccentric as this, should be pleased with. Along with the aforementioned lot, there’s the menacingly sharp-featured euro-genre regular (and favourite of Jess Franco) Howard Vernon playing a cold blooded hit man and the less celebrated though still welcome Andrea (Mario Bava’s Black Sunday) Checchi as a very shady hotel detective (do hotel’s actually have those?)…
Thousand Eyes is a fascinating amalgamation of 60’s crime film (on the surface anyway) and nihilistic-flavored auteur film. It may not be anywhere near as cinematically brilliant as the first two Mabuse films, yet it remains a compelling effort, ripe with Lang’s scathing worldview, with his ability to play out complex and novel conceits still admirably on display (though more narratively than cinematically now). Even the ending, which appears on its surface to be a happy one, leads to many questions on closer inspection.