Lang’s technically dazzling thriller about a criminal organization operating out of an insane asylum treads that fine line between horror-movie sensationalism and the brass tacks of the shrewdest policiers. The tautly structured script weaves together three storylines all of which knot together over the question of the late madman hypnotist, Dr. Mabuse (Klein-Rogge), whose criminal scribblings still exert a maniacal influence over asylum chief, Prof. Baum (Beregi). While Baum presides over his cabal of terrorists bent on destabilizing world order, one of his lackeys–the earnest, romantic stalwart Tom (Diessl)–decides to throw a wrench in Baum’s proverbial machine, and Lohman (Wernicke), a local detective, comes snooping around, investigating the disappearance of a colleague. Lang’s entire cast shines, particularly Wernicke, as the sour-faced, distempered Lohman, and Beregi as the crazy-eyed Baum, but it’s the director’s ambitious command of the medium that keeps us rooted to our seats from start to finish.
Among the greatest thriller-makers ever, Lang was also ahead of his time in the way he exploited off-screen sound (catch the even earlier, groundbreaking M) and the knowledge that it’s what you don’t see in the frame that grabs your audience. Mabuse is technically a marvel: its editing and story rhythms suggest a modern, sophisticated filmmaker, full of ingenious visual touches, all with a meticulous eye for realism (the siege on the crooks’ hideout and the climactic car chase both feel intensely palpable) and always with a wink and a nod towards the bizarre (the spectral Mabuse is unforgettably creepy). By the way, 1932-33 marked a quantum leap forward in the artistry of both cinema sound and of visual effects, as evidenced in the triple whammy of Mabuse, King Kong, and I’m a Fugitive From a Chain Gang. All are must-sees.
Directed by: Fritz Lang
Written by: Fritz Lang, Thea von Harbou
Cast: Oscar Beregi Sr., Paul Bernd, Henry Bless, Gustav Diessl, Paul Henckels, Oskar, Otto Wernicke, Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Adolf Licho, Theodor Loos