By the late 1950s Fritz Lang was finding his career as a Hollywood director both more difficult and less rewarding, and with the Hollywood system changing as the studio system declined he was finding it hard to adapt. So when German producer Artur Brauner tried to tempt him to return to Germany to direct Lang was more than willing to do so. He made his last three movies in Germany, the very last being The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse), made in 1960.
This was more than just a return to the subject master of his early German movies (he’d made two films about the notorious super-criminal Dr Mabuse in the 20s and 30s). As much as I like Lang’s Hollywood movies (and I like them a good deal) I can’t help feeling that that The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse was also a return to the real Lang. Like the earlier Mabuse films it’s a mix of science fiction, spy movie and crime film and it makes fewer concession to realist cinema than his American films.
It opens in stunning fashion, with a visually dazzling traffic scene involving the murder of a man in a car, intercut with scenes in police headquarters and scenes of a mysterious psychic predicting the murder. It’s disorienting and misleading, and it sets the tone for the whole movie. Nothing we see is really as it appears to be, the characters are not who we think they are, the relationships between people and events are not what we suppose them to be. We’ve entered a world of illusion, paranoia and conspiracy, and while Dr Mabuse speads his web of deceit over the characters in the movie Fritz Lang is entangling the viewer in a similar web of deceit.
We’re presented with a wealthy handsome American hero, and we see him save the life of a unfortunate woman who has been drive to attempt suicide. We meet the detective chief, Kriminalkommissar Kras, the enigmatic blind clairvoyant Cornelius, the smooth-talking psychiatrist Dr Jordan, a buffooonish insurance salesman who rejoices in the name of Hieronymus B. Mistelzweig, the beautiful and tragic Marion Meril, and the sinister assassin known simply as Number 12. We gradually piece together the connections between these characters, but our assumptions are entirely wrong. And the assumptions the characters make about each other are equally mistaken.
We know there is some very large-scale plot afoot, with international repercussions, and we (and Kriminalkommissar Kras) soon come to the conclusion that the shadowy presence of the evil Dr Mabuse is behind it all. The only problem with that theory is that Dr Mabuse has been dead for 30 years. But the touch of Dr Mabuse is unmistakeable.
Most of the movie takes place in the luxurious Hotel Luxor in Berlin. This hotel was based on an actual hotel built by the Nazis during the war (not just built under the Nazi regime but actually built specifically for the purposes of the Gestapo). Lang had read about this hotel and had been fascinated by it, and it becomes a leading character in the movie in its own right (and it eventually offers the explanation for the title of the film).
If the identities of the characters are shifting and misleading, their motivations are even more ambiguous, and even more questionable.
The movie was a low-budget affair but Lang, relishing the freedom from the constraints under which he had always had to work in Hollywood, really lets himself go. It’s a bravura directing performance. The multi-national cast is composed of experienced and extremely competent performers, with Dawn Addams as Marion and Gert Fröbe as Kras especially good, while Howard Vernon (a very familiar face to fan of European cult movies) makes the most of his small role as Number 12. Karl Löb’s black-and-white cinematography is gorgeous.
The DVD from Allday Entertainment, released through Image, is magnificent and packed with extras.Which is just as well - the film is so complex that you really need to listen to the commentary track and watch the featurette. This was Lang’s final masterpiece, and it’s a dazzling achievement by one of the giants of cinema. It’s also an insanely entertaining movie.