Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler (1922)

Fritz Lang was a writer/director with a highly successful career spanning Germany to the USA. During this time, Lang created some of cinemas finest work and its most macabre. Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler is the first episode in a trilogy, beginning early in Lang’s career and completed as his penultimate piece. The Gambler introduces the struggle of detective Wenk (Bernhard Goetzke) in his attempts to wrestle Berlin free from the claws of arch-criminal Dr. Mabuse (Rudolph Klein-Rogge).

Whether in film or novel, it appears a universal truth that everybody loves a good villain. In many ways, Dr. Mabuse is the perfect bad guy, a vile concoction of equal parts Goldfinder and Moriarty. Mabuse is highly resourceful, extremely wealthy and an incorrigible dastardly villain with disturbing mind powers. He is both everywhere and nowhere, forever incognito and able to tend to his numerous evil schemes. Mabuse’s twisted nature is a grand exaggeration but one which suits the seedy and surreal universe he stalks from hidden hidden den to secret sanctuary. The eponymous villain and his ensemble of henchmen are intriguing caricatures, as at home here as in a Dick Tracy cartoon as Lang infuses German Expressionism to accentuate the juxtaposition between them and the clean cut heroes.

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These characters fit comfortably in the skin of the grand world Lang creates. It is an unusual universe with malleable rules where anything dangerous is possible. It is impossible not to be swept up in a world like a fearsome version of boy’s make-believe. It is a world as exciting as it is enchanting, where cars are fitted with knockout gas and illegal socialite-filled gaming dens can transform and disappear at the click of a button. It is a dwelling of the macabre and fantastic which Lang threads across a complex and sophisticated plot, and through highly competent camera vision. Within only the daring opening train robbery, Lang quickly sinks tenacious claws into your attention until the explosive finale.

The four hour run time of Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler may strike some as hard going, but rarely is a film able to run so long yet still feel bursting with ideas. Each sequence rings with originality and freshness, from the stock market panic to Mabuse’s magic show in yet another costume, every idea is unique, or at least captured in Lang’s unique fashion.

Lang has created a lean behemoth with countless interesting settings and sequences. Seances, gambling dens and cabaret shows: each graces the screen for as long as it is interesting before hurtling to the next advancement of this twisted story.

Classic Moment… 

Wenk infiltrates a secret gambling ring in disguise. With a huge bundle of cash, Wenk hopes to eventually draw Dr. Mabuse on  to his trail and capture him. What Wenk does not initially realise is Dr. Mabuse sits at his card table, also in disguise. What follows is an excellent and creepy sequence in which Dr. Mabuse demonstrates his supernatural mind power to win a card game. Wenk does his best to resist and a battle of wits and wills ensues. A masterful scene of Good vs Evil on a minute scale in a huge plot. Tsi-Nan-Fu….

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