Maybe there is a certain amount of expectation when heading in to watch a Fritz Lang film full of paranoia, cynicism, and deep-rooted surveillance. However, finishing the viewing of Lang’s creaky final feature, The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, that expectation was cruelly dashed. There was a deep sense of bitter disappointment. Something that one gets looking back at an artist’s work which is not talked about as much as their much-noted masterpieces.
The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse was the last film by Lang, who had gone back to Germany after fleeing the country during the Second World War. Mabuse, a literary Svengali type character, who operates a deeply intricate series of mechanisms and schemes to try and dominate was first adapted to screen by Lang in cinema’s silent era. Thousand Eyes arrived in 1960, 27 years after the series’ second entry The Treatment of Dr. Mabuse (1933). It was claimed that Treatment intentionally had the titled antagonist hold similarities to one Adolf Hilter and the film was banned by Joseph Goebbels after the suggestion that the film could undermine the German leader once he got into power.
Such trivia makes the return and continuation of Mabuse at the start of the ’60s feel like an intriguing premise. Suggesting that a cold, calculating evil lays silently in wait for a chance to occupy and enslave society if the chance arises is a compelling idea. Mabuse becoming a fictional figurehead of a New World Order before the swinging sixties kicks into gear? Yes, of course, we have hindsight now, but such shadowy dealings are attractive ones. Particularly to middling film writers who at the time of writing are trapped within the confines of a global pandemic… I digress.
While Thousand Eyes is not the two-part, nearing five-hour opus that Lang’s first dealings with Dr. Mabuse (Dr. Mabuse The Gambler, 1922), it does hold the kind of devious, over-elaborate plot that could easily be placed within such a running time. A journalist dies in his car during midday traffic, a well to do woman contemplates suicide after receiving a concerning note, while a blind fortune teller holds the power to see events happening in the future but seems hazy on who it may happen to. There is also an overly cheerful insurance salesman, a wealthy businessman, and a dogged detective all spending an inordinate amount of time at the infamous Luxor hotel. These people will all intersect, and Dr. Mabuse will be the tie that binds them.
Despite some sharply cut transitions and voyeuristic paranoia, Thousand Eyes gets too bogged down in its convolutions to make any real mark. Lang’s final film is well crafted as expected, but the dubious figures and dark clouds of its international terrorist take a while to get going, and while there is a clear sense of paranoia and confusion, any sense of true danger feels fleeting.
It is easy to claim that this whodunit espionage holds a certain amount of relevance to current events as modern culture is now in a state of constant surveillance, while so much socio-political currency is cultivated by social media shysters who wouldn’t seem too out of place in a story such as this. Mabuse’s curious methods appeal in the same way David Icke can draw crowds. Shadowy organisations pulling the strings and causing chaos from behind the scenes have become all the rage in the western world for obvious reasons.
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However, with Lang’s knowledge steeped in the malevolent era of the Nazis, he not only makes a passing glance to the past but his viewpoint of the then present does not inspire too much either. The characters here come off as cold and unsympathetic and it is difficult not to shake off a certain feeling of aloofness. Granted we are talking about a Fritz Lang film here. Cynicism, for instance, is to be expected, but even M (1931) provides an element of identification towards the events at hand. Something that the centre of Thousand Eyes is sorely lacking.
To paraphrase Scott Tobias in a capsule review of the film for the A.V. Club in 2002, the idea of Mabuse leaves a lasting impression. And there’s no surprise that the shifting presences of the character allowed more Mabuse sequels well into the ’60s. It is, however, possible that as the Thousand Eyes slowly close over the Luxor hotel, there may be more exciting espionage elsewhere.
With that said, this Masters of Cinema edition does not disappoint when it comes to the Blu-ray extras. As I have hinted in previous reviews, these older films do well to place interviews and extras on the disc. For many, it was felt that extras were extraneous – think Spielberg being uninterested in doing commentaries. Nowadays with film holding less emphasis on terrestrial television, and streaming still feeling a phantom zone at times when it comes to looking at the back history of cinema, Thousand Eyes does its part in keeping a part of film history alive. The finished disc features a collector’s booklet with essays by Phillip Kemp and David Cairns, and notes on Lang’s final unrealised projects by Lotte Eisner. There is a 2002 interview with Wolfgang Preiss as well as an alternative ending to the film which, while it cannot be said that this was the director’s original vision, certainly plays more in his wheelhouse.
The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse is out on Blu-ray on 11th May from Eureka Entertainment.