Friday, July 31, 2015

Before I Die #550: Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler (1922)

This original poster from Germany suggests how
titanic the title character is, looming over all.
This is the 550th of the 1,160 films on the "Before You Die" list which I'm gradually working my way through.

Director: Fritz Lang

A clear and engaging step forward for film, if not exactly as "timeless" as some would have you believe.

Dr. Mabuse bears all of the typical trappings of silent films. The acting is physically exaggerated. The plot must be kept relatively simple, given the lack of sound and, hence, true dialogue. The pacing is rather slow, by any cinema standard after the advent of sound five years after this movie's release. Despite these, I found myself drawn into much of the film. It struck me as a far superior version of the 1915 film series Les Vampires, a "classic" which I found interminably dull.

The story is essentially a crime drama/suspense tale, focusing on a complex cat-and-mouse game between a nefarious mastermind criminal, Dr. Mabuse, and the state's attorney, Mr. von Wenk. Mabuse is a sort of prototype of Hannibal Lector - a brilliant but sociopathic psychoanalyst who uses his knowledge of the human mind to manipulate others into giving him what he wants. While Mabuse never does anything as grisly as the cannibalistic Lector, he does bend various people to his will, taking from some their tangible goods like money and jewels, while evoking from others their blind and unquestioning loyalty. As a concept, he's a rather terrifying figure who was a sort of twisted amalgam of the arch-villain Moriarty and a soulless Sigmund Freud, the latter of whose theories were still quite fresh upon this film's release in 1922.

The search for and pursuit of Mabuse is mostly what drives the plot and the movie. In truth, the story takes far too long to tell. The movie was actually two films that add up to a four-and-a-half hour epic. If the same story had been told with more efficient pacing, though, it should really only have been two or two-and-a-half hours, maximum. There are still many sequences that were clearly products of their time - scenes of simple movement of bodies and props, rather than any actions or interactions which further or deepen the story. I only assume that, like all other films of its time, such scenes were enough to dazzle audiences for whom movies were far from a typical part of life. Fortunately, the movie is divided into many acts, which made for convenient pausing when the length got too taxing for me.

When not trying one's patience a bit with overlong scenes, though, the plot is a classic criminal pursuit. What sets this apart from others from the era, though, is the relative psychological complexity of Mabuse himself, as well as a few of the secondary characters. Admittedly, most of the characters are typically one-dimensional "heroes" or "villains;" but Mabuse and a few of his victims show more depth than one would find in contemporary films like those of D.W. Griffith. Mabuse's motivations go beyond mere greed, and the swell of his boundless megalomania can be fascinating.

Just one of the many scenes which exhibit Lang's eye for
striking set designs and shot framing. These techniques,
along with overlap dissolves and other special effects, really
set this movie apart from nearly all of its contemporaries.
The other obvious merit of this movie is the highly skilled film technique which Lang was employing. While there are plenty of "filler" sequences which are no different from any other silent films of the time, there are many striking scenes. With a keen eye for framing, composition, and set design, Lang put together many truly artistic moments in this movie. You can easily see some of the creative seeds that would eventually grow into the style that he would use several years later in his masterpiece Metropolis, the film that is widely regarded as the "Omega" of German expressionist movies.

Though there were some contemporary films that probed the human condition and social woes with more depth and pathos, such as Micheaux's Within Our Gates, Dr. Mabuse is clearly a titanic film. I suppose it to be too long and simplistic to win over viewers with no interest in silent films. However, those with any curiosity about a major early step in the evolution of film will find much to appreciate in this 93-year-old classic.

That's 550 films down. Only 610 to go before I can die...