Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler (1922)

Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou’s sprawling adaptation of Norbert Jacques novel is a fascinating descent into the crime web of a striking man, able to strike fear and inspiration into his victims, so much so that in retrospect this 1922 German film seems to uncannily predict Hitler’s rise to power.  Beyond those parallels, this crime thriller is admirable for being far more sophisticated and intellectual than its contemporary counterparts.

Its protagonist is a far more calculating and clever man than the chubby mob bosses and well-dressed professionals that often perpetuate the crime genre. Dr. Mabuse (Rodolf Klein-Rogge) is nothing short of a mastermind. In the opening sequence his men pull off an elaborate heist to find insider information on a trading deal, the kind of information that once discovered to be missing sends the stock market spiraling out of control. The cool Mabuse snaps up the plummeting stocks, and then has his men turn in the document, apparently untampered. The prices skyrocket, and Mabuse sells, only a second before the market closes. He’s made a small fortune in a little less than an hour.

Unlike the likable and charismatic personalities of modern crime stories, Mabuse is much more than a striking figure with a commanding personality, he’s got an ace up his sleeve. The man’s studied in hypnosis, so much so that he’s able to beguile young men into playing cards while under his influence, having them throw away small fortunes as their minds helplessly linger over three Chinese words.

The aforementioned Hitler parallels are uncanny. But what makes the character work more than anything else is Rudolf Klein-Rogge’s performance. He spends most of the film passing himself off as any number of Mabuse’s various guises and while he effortlessly melts into each costume, when under no pretense, his Dr. Mabuse is a steely-eyed, intense forced to be reckoned with. Even without hypnoses he’s a striking and imposing figure, filling any room he enters.

The film’s story spans a number of Mabuse’s rackets and shows a web of deceit, greed and deception that permeates almost every conceivable level of society. As long as it is, the film never feels tedious, each new act weaves yet another strand of a larger web and shows another fly caught in Mabuse’s web, another character falls into places.

What makes the film all the richer is that the film isn’t interested in crime violence. Mabuse’s plans are so well-thought out that physical force becomes so unnecessary when one can corrupt at the level of an individual’s willpower. Mabuse’s plans are grand and social, revolving around using both the upper and lower class to grow his wealth. He picks the pockets of the wealthy and uses the poor to run his forgery scam.

It’s disappointing that a film so smart and encompassing ends on a cliché note. The battle of the wills is swapped for a much more intense and prototypical crime film climax. For a film built around the battle of the wills, the story doesn’t have the will to stick to how smart and intelligent it can be by the end.

While this epic crime drama may not be as influential, iconic or excellent as Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou’s Metropolis. The film should be to crime dramas what Metropolis is to the sci-fi film. As time marches on, the effects of the film have worn down, the antics of hyper-violent and reckless criminals taking over the crime film rackets, criminals who aren’t nearly as smart or memorable as the Dr. Mabuse character.

© 2012 James Blake Ewing