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Dr. Mabuse and his organization of criminals are in the process of completing their latest scheme, a theft of information that will allow Mabuse to make huge profits on the stock exchange. Afterwards, Mabuse disguises himself and attends the Folies Bergères show, where Cara Carozza, the main attraction of the show, passes him information on Mabuse's next intended victim, the young millionaire Edgar Hull. Mabuse then uses psychic manipulation to lure Hull into a card game where he loses heavily. When Police Commissioner von Wenk begins an investigation of this mysterious crime spree, he has little to go on, and he needs to find someone who can help him. Written by
Dr. Mabuse begins his reign of cinematic crime in this innovative and highly influential silent movie, which retains much of its power for patient viewers.
Dr. Mabuse is a name familiar to almost everyone in Germany, but most Americans would have to be told that he's a criminal mastermind, psychiatrist, gambler and hypnotist with supernatural powers. Mabuse is notable for his brilliant disguises and his gang of minions who conspire against people and institutions for the sole purpose of bringing power and wealth to himself. This evil genius is known only as The Great Unknown to those who wish to stop him. Mabuse was created by Norbert Jacques for a novel which has never been out of print in Germany. The director of this film, Fritz Lang, claimed him for his own; and now Mabuse is known not as a character in a novel but as a character in three Fritz Lang films, the first of which is this innovative and hugely influential silent movie.
Lang's storytelling techniques are especially innovative, but later spy films, including Lang's own, have greatly improved on what's here and leave modern viewers alert to the slow pace, murky details and confusing plot twists. What hasn't been improved upon is the artistry behind the photographic effects. I don't mean the effects themselves: modern special effects are infinitely more sophisticated. This film's effects have a great impact evenor especiallyon today's viewer who is accustomed to a rapid-fire series of elaborate, gaudy computer-generated pictures, like those in, say, Peter Jackson's "King Kong." Nothing in that film is as memorable to me as this movie's scene where the camera closes in on Mabuse and everything around him goes dark, leaving only one glowing, malevolent head floating in the blackness.
The highly exaggerated style of acting from everyone in the cast would look idiotic if seen in isolated bits. Von Welk (Bernhard Goetzke), tilting back his head and crossing his eyes as Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) hypnotizes him, would have been a perfect clip for Jay Ward's "Fractured Flickers." As part of this film, every melodramatic moment from the cast is effective in a way that a more naturalistic style can never be.
Fans of the Mabuse films, which number many more than just Lang's three, are sometimes disappointed by this first incarnation. This Mabuse allows himself violent emotional outbursts, while the later version is marked by icy self-control. The more familiar Mabuse may be an improvement over this one, but they don't quite replace him, and those films don't quite replace this one. This is a treasure for film historians, and indirectly a treasure for fans of the countless movies influenced by it.
For those who simply want a good movie, there's plenty here to reward them, provided they are very, very patient.
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