Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler

Posted in '20s, Crime, Film Noir, The Reviews by - November 01, 2013
Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler

Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler Title

This movie is really old. This movie is two movies long. I don’t mean there’s a sequel; I mean it’s actually two movies long. You don’t get to the end until you get to the end of movie two. It’s also a silent film from Germany made in the early 1920s. If you’re still interested in the movie after hearing all of this, we can continue!

Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler 1

“Expressionist techniques heighten the emotion of my dinner.”

Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler (Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler) is directed by Fritz Lang (famous for Metropolis, M, and countless film noir movies) and written by Lang and evil Nazi (no shit) ex-wife Thea von Harbou based on the early 20th century German pulp novel sensation by Norbert Jacques. Lang and von Harbou made a series of really good, really influential Expressionist movies and this is a good example of their silent films. The film is obsessed with crime, post-World War I moral decay, and it is a weird combination of the pulp detective adventure and an unrelentingly dark, brooding philosophical study. They really knew how to party in Weimer Germany. While it is nowhere near as paranoid or as polished as its sequels The Testament of Dr. Mabuse and The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, it’s still a clever, interesting movie that stands out among silent crime films.

"I'll have what she's having."

“I’ll have what she’s having.”

The acting is over the top, but this is intentional: It’s an Expressionist film and Expressionism is all about reality twisting to meet the heights and depths of human emotion. But we’re not just talking acting, we are also talking about intentionally unrealistic sets, weird camera angles, and murky shadows. The direction, editing, and special effects all seem commonplace or even hokey nowadays, but at they time they were bold experiments. Without movies like this one, you would not have your Godfathers and your Batmen.

"Oh my god! Who beefed?"

“Damn! Who beefed?”

Dr. Mabuse is a gambler, a profiteer, a conman, and a hypnotist. He’s not exactly a cackling, mustache-swirling madman, and he’s not exactly a world-conquering Bond villain, but he is brilliant and as cold-hearted as they come. One of his best schemes involves rigging the stock market and winning huge amounts of money at the expense of panicked investors. Actually, this kind of bothered me, because this great scheme is very early on, and he spends a lot of the movie doing less impressive things like cheating at cards and blackmailing gamblers. I mean, that’s interesting and it’s great fun watching his victims squirm and the basically incompetent police failing to catch him over and over, but honestly, it does not stand up to rigging the stock market!

Oh my god, where do I get those chairs?!

Oh my god, where do I get those chairs?!

There’s not much point in doing a synopsis since this movie is about a million hours long, but this movie is less about character development and more about clever schemes and fights with cops. This might make for a forgettable movie, except for the film’s visual flair. If you’ve seen later Lang films or even modern filmmakers heavily influenced by his work (see: Tim Burton) you might not be impressed, but for 1922, this is amazing. Stark and beautiful, the camera angles, set design, costuming and make-up all create an enchanting but deeply ugly world.

Michaelangelo, is that you?

Michaelangelo, is that you?

From today’s perspective, the movie is probably hard to take (it’s really, really long) and it make seem unremarkable considering what has come since, but it was truly groundbreaking at the time, and remains the only movie I can say was both really, really long and still well-paced and exciting. Maybe it’s a better idea to watch the first film one night and the second film the next night the way German audiences probably saw it in the 20’s. I just sat through the entire thing and my eyes were drying up in my skull.

These damn kids with their booze and their drugs!

These damn kids with their booze and their drugs!

But that doesn’t change the fact that this is an impressive crime outing by one of my favorite directors, and one of the cornerstones of what would eventually become film noir. It’s a good movie, but it’s hard to recommend, especially since its sequels Testament and Thousand Eyes are just stunning.

Oh jeeze.

Oh jeeze.

Try not to hold it against the film that Thea von Harbou made Nazi propaganda films while her husband Fritz Lang and compatriots like Billy Wilder fled Germany.



The '20s were a hardcore party decade.

The ’20s were a hardcore party decade.

This post was written by
Born in the flaming ruins of Michigan, Jeremy escaped certain death at the hands of his tormentors for the greener (or at least less-on-fire) pastures of California. Now from his secret catacombs beneath San Francisco, he writes torrid tales of dinosaurs, robots, and monsters. He has a BA in cinema and no sense of propriety. He makes podcasts at Destroy All Podcasts and comics at Destroy All Comics and music at Violence Mars. He is a rascal.

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