Director: Fritz Lang
Screenplay: Fritz Lang, Heinz Oskar Wuttig
Starring: Dawn Addams, Peter van Eyck, Gert Fröbe, Wolfgang Preiss, Werner Peters, Andrea Checchi
Country: West Germany, France, Italy
Running Time: 103 min
BBFC Certificate: 12
Fritz Lang’s ‘Mabuse’ trilogy spanned nearly the whole of Lang’s career. The first film (actually spread over 2 films due to its length), Dr. Mabuse the Gambler, came in 1922, only three years into his directorial career. Its follow-up, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, came in 1933 and the final part, The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (a.k.a. Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse) appeared several decades later, in 1960, and proved to be the last film Lang made before his death in 1976 (his failing eyesight prevented him directing in those intervening 16 years). The films show Lang’s mastery of the cinematic craft in markedly different eras. Most notably, The Gambler was made in the silent era and Testament in the early age of sound. The Thousand Eyes is less highly regarded than its predecessors and, on the surface, appears more derivative. However, it is believed to have been influential on the French New Wave (it was loved by the Cahiers du Cinema writers, with Francois Truffaut calling it “one of the best films of the year”) and its themes of voyeurism via modern technology was quite ahead of its time. It was successful enough to spark a series of further sequels too (without Lang at the helm),
It does seem odd that Lang would return to the ‘franchise’ so many years later though. There are several suggestions for how it came about discussed in the booklet and commentary track included in Eureka’s long-awaited Blu-ray release of The Thousand Eyes. Skipping to the important details though, Lang was asked by producer Arthur Brauner to remake a number of his early successes (as the German industry was struggling after the war, so ‘safe bets’ were the only titles that could get greenlit), but he refused. Lang’s response when asked to remake Mabuse was originally “no. For me the bastard is dead and buried.” However, he eventually came around, seeing a chance to make a film that commented on post-WWII Germany, much like the other Mabuse films were commenting on their times. His film wasn’t actually a remake in the end either. Instead, he made a follow-up which references the others but is its own entity and acknowledges that the original Mabuse died in the 30s.
I’ve long been a fan of Lang’s work, including the first two Mabuse films, but I hadn’t previously seen The Thousand Eyes, so I gave it a look and my thoughts follow.
The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse has quite a dense plot, so I won’t go into too much detail here, but basically it opens with a reporter being assassinated in broad daylight using a silent but deadly prototype weapon. This seems to be linked to nuclear technology being brought into Germany by the American industrialist Henry Travers (Peter van Eyck) and kicks off a hunt for an evil criminal genius who seems to be taking cues from the infamous, but long dead, Dr. Mabuse.
The hunt involves a disparate bunch of characters. These include police commissioner Kras (Gert Fröbe), a suicidal woman who falls for Travers called Marion Menil (Dawn Addams), an initially bumbling but later suspicious insurance salesman named Hieronymus B. Mistelzweig (Werner Peters), and the mysterious psychic Peter Cornelius (Wolfgang Preiss). They largely convene in the hotel Luxor where many crimes with a ‘Mabusian’ touch have previously taken place.
Like the other Mabuse films, this is a well-paced, gripping mystery thriller. Though, on the whole, it’s perhaps not as impressive as the other two, I’d argue its story is a little stronger. At least it seems a touch more plausible, with the earlier iterations of the character relying on considerable suspension of disbelief, particularly when it came to their far-fetched mind-control aspects. There is a psychic with uncanny ability here, but the film has answers further down the line as to his ‘skill’ and he doesn’t have direct control over other people’s actions.
Plausibility aside, the script also does a fine job of juggling a complex web of characters and initially disconnected stories. This expert weaving of strands makes for a film where it’s as unclear who the heroes are as it is the villains. This creates a wonderful sense of paranoia and mistrust. It also allows for some enjoyable curveballs to be thrown at the audience during the course of the film. I certainly didn’t guess how it would all turn out, though one or two elements were on the cards.
Some critics have complained about some members of the cast, most notably claiming Peter van Eyck lacks the charisma needed as a leading man. However, I’d argue this helps us question his character, adding to the menu of possible Mabuse candidates. Away from Eyck, we get an enjoyable performance from Gert Fröbe, who would soon become best known as Goldfinger in the 1964 Bond film, and some fine layered work from Wolfgang Preiss and Werner Peters.
Lang, even at the ripe old age of 70, could still direct a set-piece with a keen sense of rhythm and drama, delivering plenty of thrills through the 100-odd minutes of running time. It was a low-budget affair, but only shows it in the fairly minimal number of locations. Shot in black-and-white and without any elaborate set-design, it has the look and feel of a film noir, a genre Lang excelled in during his stint in Hollywood. He’s always been an expert at intercutting between situations and stories too, and here he gets plenty of opportunities to show that skill off.
Lang also makes good use of the relatively modern idea of surveillance technology, creating a prescient take on ‘Big Brother’ and voyeurism. The Thousand Eyes has been considered part of an unofficial trilogy of films on the theme of voyeurism, all released in 1960, which included Psycho and Peeping Tom. However, as fantastic as those films are, it’s Lang’s entry that seems most attuned with the way the idea would develop in the future.
Overall then, though it may not be as groundbreaking as Lang’s other Mabuse films, feeling more aligned to the B-movies he made in America, it’s nonetheless an exciting crime thriller with plenty of surprises up its sleeves. Taut and gripping, it saw Lang on fine form, right to the end.
The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse is out on 11th May on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series. The transfer looks great. There’s the odd, barely noticeable line or fleck here and there, but on the whole it’s a clean and clear picture. I did notice a strange high pitched noise subtly in the background of the soundtrack though (I watched with the German language track). I don’t have the best speakers in the world, so perhaps it was a hardware issue, but I haven’t noticed it before.
You get a few special features included in the set:
– LIMITED EDITION O-CARD SLIPCASE [First Print Run of 2000 copies only]
– 1080p presentation on Blu-ray
– Original German soundtrack
– Optional English audio track, approved by Fritz Lang
– Optional English subtitles
– Feature-length audio commentary by film-scholar and Lang expert David Kalat
– 2002 interview with Wolfgang Preiss
– Alternate ending
– Reversible sleeve featuring newly commissioned and original poster artwork
– PLUS: a collector’s booklet featuring a new essay by Philip Kemp; vintage reprints of writing by Lang; an essay by David Cairns; notes by Lotte Eisner on Lang’s final, unrealised projects
David Kalat’s commentary is wonderful. On top of a lot of thoughtful analyses of the film and tonnes of background information, he makes interesting comments about dubbed vs subtitled films back then and how sensibilities have changed. Respected critics preferred dubs in many cases as they believed subtitles distracted your eye from the picture. The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse is an interesting case as it featured actors speaking different languages on set, so all versions of the soundtrack are dubbed in some way. German was the most common language used though, so that track is probably the closest you’ll get to what was recorded. You get the option of both the English and German versions on the disc.
The interview with Wolfgang Preiss is interesting too. He enjoyed a long and fairly successful career, featuring in several big Hollywood productions (usually as Nazis) as well as another bunch of Mabuse films.
The alternate ending is quite an eye-opener. It’s only a fraction longer than the ending we get but adds a subtle difference that strongly hints at a tragic twist. The ‘original’ ending does seem to cut a little hastily in comparison, so I believe this alternative one could well have been Lang’s intended denouement, or at least at the time of the shoot.
The booklet, as always, is a treasure trove of valuable essays, interviews and such, so I’d strongly recommend you give it a read.
A wonderful set all round then.