So. Like Les Vampires, this German work was a multi-part serial, with a brave young man investigating the workings of a criminal mastermind; also like Les Vampires, there was a heady mix of vamps and hypnotists and double-crossing and secret disguises and showgirls in league with the bad guys.
Unlike Les Vampires, however, I was bored out of my ever-lovin’ mind watching this.
I couldn’t pinpoint the reason why, to be honest. There aren’t quite so many frenetic flights of fancy, and the plot hangs together a bit more closely. The criminal mastermind in this instance, Dr. Mabuse (played by one Rudolf Klein-Rogge), has his fingers in a number of pies – insider trading one minute, counterfeiting money the next. His forte, though, is gambling – especially since he is also a hypnotist and mentalist, and tends to subconciously get his opponents to throw their hands or hypnotize them into thinking they have better cards than they do. He’s the real ringleader in this case – the showgirl Cara Carozza, unlike Irma Vep, is just a sidekick – a smitten woman willing to do just about anything for the Doctor out of love for him.
And the good guy hot on his tracks is someone with a bit more authority than a journalist – State Prosecutor Norbert von Wenk, by name. (And you will know that name because they mention it a lot – title and all.)
Von Wenk actually doesn’t turn up until about midway through the first act – which may be why I was left so cold. Von Wenk’s investigation running up against Mabuse’s gambling and mind control are the real heart of this story, but they don’t even turn up until about 40 minutes in; before then, you have to sit through a couple of Mabuse’s other capers, neither of which really advances the plot, and may serve only to emphasize that He Is The Bad Guy. But his dour glances and the cruel way he berates his staff drive that point home just fine, thanks, and we don’t need to see the convoluted 20-minute sequence detailing the exact plot Mabuse uses to manipulate Berlin’s stock market. (….A faked corporate memo, by the way. Meticulously dropped from a moving taxi at precisely 3 pm, by a man in a striped shirt, and delivered to the floor of the market precisely 10 minutes later. You know, just in case you were wondering.)
Things do pick up a bit in the second half; Cara Carozza is imprisoned under suspicion of collaboration, and Von Wenk tries to persuade her to turn Mabuse in, but instead she kills herself, thanks to some poison that one of Mabuse’s henchmen smuggles in to her. Then Von Wenk is called to investigate the disappearance of a Countess, whom he’s seen lurking about some of Mabuse’s casinos; she’s not in league with Mabuse, however, she’s just a bored Countess.
But she’s caught Mabuse’s eye as well, and he kidnaps her, using his cover as a Doctor to “treat her husband for depression” (but really convincing the Count to kill himself).
Von Wenk finally connects the dots while attending an exhibition by “the famous Mentalist, Sandor Weltemann” (Mabuse in disguise, of course) and is called up on stage as one of the volunteers for some innocuous stunt.
Mabuse hypnotizes him and plants the suggestion that he is to leave the theater immediately and kill himself by driving his car into a lake. But fortunately Von Wenk is being watched by other police officers who chase after him and snap him out of it – and what luck, Von Wenk has figured out that Weltemann also looks a lot like some of the other characters he’s met over the course of the film, and is able to name Mabuse as their mastermind. They surround Mabuse’s mansion, subdue his henchmen, rescue the Countess, and chase Mabuse through a secret passage, finding him trapped in the counterfeiter’s hideout. The doors on the hideout all lock from the outside, so Mabuse has been conveniently trapped for them – and his helplessness has also driven him mad, so he is conveniently easy to capture and take to an asylum, the end.
Okay, there were some things I liked. There’s an underground casino Von Wenk attends with Corozza at some point, in an effort to flush Mabuse out, which has an intriguing circular gambling table. The host also demonstrates that at a signal from their watchman, a false stage, complete with dancing girl on standby, will drop down from the ceiling and cover over the table, disgusing the illegal casino as a more legal nightclub. The sequence dragged a tiny bit, but it was a cool bit of stagecraft.
There’s also an extra in the “mentalist stage show” scene who had a brief, funny bit of business; one of Mabuses’ earlier hypnotist stunts involves persuading a woman to take Von Wenk’s gun and give it to another random audience member, a meek-looking gent who gingerly accepts it , and then spends several seconds holding it between two fingertips like it was a dead rat before scurrying to return it to Von Wenk.
Still – one set change and one extra weren’t enough to win me around to this film.