Sunday 8 October 2017

My Top Ten films of all Time - (2) DR MABUSE, THE GAMBLER (Fritz Lang, Germany, 1922)

Fritz Lang
Fritz Lang first attacked Norbert Jacques' pulp creation Dr Mabuse in Dr Mabuse, The Gambler. He returned to the evil genius on two other occasions, The Testament of Dr Mabuse (1933) and The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse (1960). After that last film, German producers took up the Mabuse franchise with some glee and variations continued to come out for decades. Hugo Fregonese the peripatetic Argentina made one and Claude Chabrol did a quality variation, Dr M, with Alan Bates in the lead, in 1992. It is described as a remake of Lang's first go round. As recently as 2013/2014, a young American film-maker Ansel Faraj took up the challenge and made two more Mabuses in Los Angeles. 

The first of the Lang films was an epic two-parter. The only time I saw it complete in a cinema was at the theatre in the Musee d’Orsay back in 2004 where a beautiful 35mm print was accompanied throughout on the piano, with just a single 20 minute break. That in itself was also epic.

From squinting round the net I have discovered that the  DVD copy I possess, issued by Image Entertainment way, way back, is a cheapjack version running only 229 minutes. A ‘restored authorised’ version has been issued in the US by Kino Lorber on both DVD and Blu-ray and you can try and buy it if you click here.  

A website called “Not Coming to a Theater Near You" has some interesting information about the various DVDs, including that the latest Kino edition is “forty minutes longer, which makes the development of the story a lot clearer; and all the original in-frame German text has been retained, now subtitled into English.”

What impresses most about the film is that Lang’s film-making here goes far beyond his other relatively more simple silent film narratives. This is a world way beyond Metropolis, even though that film came five years later and had a much bigger budget. Here as well Lang is engaging much more directly with the times of Weimar Germany. Part one is indeed called “A Picture of the Times” and Part Two “A Play About People of our Times”.

Lang is aided immeasurably by the design of Otto Hunte and Stahl-Urach, by the extravagant costumes for the "Female Stars" by Vally Reinecke and by Carl Hoffmann’s photography. The use of the iris optical is predominant, a feature of film-making that would largely disappear as sound replaced silent cinema.

Opening sequence. Mabuse chooses his next disguise
In breath-takingly paced shorthand Lang establishes Mabuse both as a master of disguise and as someone who is set upon destabilizing the norms of society, most specifically by causing the stock exchange to crash. This film, made in 1922, indicates Lang had reached a point where his assurance in telling a story with complete simplicity and clarity was already quite mature. Famously his technique was called ‘one shot, one meaning’, something critics have quoted and discussed for decades.

There has been much attention paid to and written about Lang's silent period. I have read very little of it but I do know what I like best among his work. He is a master of depicting intrigue, deception, betrayal. He sees the venality under the surface. I suspect throughout his life he regarded the official police and authority structure as almost useless.

Lang followed this first Mabuse with two others but you can also find his best work exploring these themes in Spiders (1919), Spies, (1928), Manhunt (1941), Hangmen also Die (1943) and Ministry of Fear, based on the work of another master of intrigue, deception and betrayal Graham Greene (1944). 

One moment of reflection causes a major think about this series. I have ignored Louis Feuillade whose influence on Lang and his Mabuse movies is paramount. More later.

Dr Mabuse, the Gambler

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