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Film / Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler

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The many faces of Doctor Mabuse.

"There is no such thing as love, only passion! No luck, only the will to gain power!"
Dr. Mabuse

Dr. Mabuse the Gambler/Dr. Mabuse, King of Crime is a two-part German silent film from 1922 directed by Fritz Lang. It was adapted by the novel of the same name by Norbert Jacques, which was written to deliberately mimic and cash in on the popularity of Fu Manchu and Fantômas while delivering political commentary about Weimar Germany. It follows psychoanalyst and criminal mastermind Doctor Mabuse, who has gained wealth and control of Berlin through a vast and elaborate crime network that he uses for everything from counterfeiting and sabotage to manipulating the stock market through complex means. Eventually, State Prosecutor Norbert von Wenk begins to unravel the complex defenses surrounding Mabuse's identity and becomes determined to take him down.

The film was a major hit in Germany that helped elevate Fritz Lang's directorial career (enabling him to produce big-budget projects like Die Nibelungen and Metropolis) and turned lead actor Rudolf Klein-Rogge into a popular stock villain star. It is remembered today for its innovative narrative techniques, Expressionist imagery, complex commentary on the Weimar Republic, and for codifying many of the tropes associated with organized crime films.

Lang followed with the belated but highly acclaimed sequel The Testament of Dr. Mabuse in 1933, and the less well-regarded The Thousand Eyes of Doctor Mabuse in 1960. A series of inferior films was spun off from there in the 1960s and '70s, and a new Mabuse film is listed as "in development" on the IMDb.

This film provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Absurdly-Spacious Sewer: As the police storm his building, Mabuse escapes via the standard roomy, well-lit sewer tunnel.
  • Action Prologue: The film kicks off with one of Mabuse's minions stealing a secret treaty from a courier, which Mabuse uses to manipulate the stock market to enrich himself.
  • Battle Butler: Some of Mabuse's henchmen.
  • Bond Villain Stupidity: Mabuse never tries to kill von Wenk by simple, efficient methods. This leads to his downfall.
  • …But He Sounds Handsome: In Dr. Mabuse the king of crime, Mabuse tells Prosecutor von Wenk that only "a great will of immeasurable strength" could do the kind of hypnosis the "mystery criminal" has done. Mabuse is, naturally, talking about himself.
  • Chekhov's Gun: A mook explains that the trap door to the counterfeiting room can be opened easily from outside but can't be opened from the inside without a key. Guess where Mabuse winds up trapped at the end of the movie after his flight from police.
  • The Chessmaster: In his Establishing Character Moment, Mabuse orchestrates the theft of a business contract, which causes prices in the stock involved to plummet. In the guise of a stockbroker, Mabuse buys those shares once they have reached rock bottom, then arranges for the stolen contract (apparently unopened) to be found. In reaction, the stock prices rise again, and Mabuse reaps the profit.
  • Chewing the Scenery: Mabuse does this when Carozza tries to warn him to watch out for Wenk.
  • Counterfeit Cash: Just one of Mabuse's many criminal businesses, with the bills printed by blind men apparently unaware of their criminal involvement.
  • Crapsack World: Weimar Germany wasn't a nice place.
  • Cyanide Pill: Carozza ultimately takes one of these on the orders of Mabuse.
  • Dark Mistress: Cara Carozza isn't just a mistress for Dr. Mabuse; she's also his henchwoman, and the resident vamp.
  • Diabolical Mastermind: An early example and one of the Trope Codifiers.
  • Driven to Madness: In the climax, Mabuse becomes trapped in the counterfeiting room and swiftly succumbs to madness, hallucinating the ghosts of his victims and seeing demonic faces on the printing machines around him. By the time the police arrive, Mabuse is in a totally broken state.
  • Driven to Suicide: Most notably Count Told, who becomes suicidal due to Mabuse's machinations and cruel words (the doctor lies to Told that his wife has left him). Also Carozza, who takes a Cyanide Pill apparently out of devotion to Mabuse.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Played with. Mabuse, who has a wide-ranging criminal empire and orders murders without a second thought, says "I'm no pickpocket" when presented with the contents of Wenk's wallet and pockets. He orders them returned to Wenk. This may be more of him considering pickpocketing beneath him.
  • Every Car Is a Pinto: A car plunges into a quarry and "explodes" with a fairly unconvincing smoke bomb effect.
  • Fanservice Extra: There's a naked lady as part of the decoration at the casino where Carozza lures Hull to be killed.
  • Fighting from the Inside: When Mabuse first hypnotizes him, Wenk manages to break free of his control through sheer willpower. Unfortunately, he's not so lucky the second time.
  • Follow That Car: When Mabuse flees the Palais Andalusia gambling club in a cab with Georg at the wheel, Wenk sees them drive off, hails an arriving horse-drawn carriage, and tells the driver to follow the car.
  • The Gambler: There are many gamblers in the movie, but Mabuse is the most prominent. Not only does he earn a tidy profit by fleecing victims with his psychic powers, he also takes a perverse pleasure gambling with "human lives and human destiny" to affirm his power over others.
  • Hallucinations: Mabuse's Villainous Breakdown in the climax begins with hallucinations of his victims, which demand he play cards with them. Mabuse then hallucinates glowing eyes and demonic faces on the printing machines around him.
  • Haunting the Guilty: As Mabuse slips into madness at the end of the film, he has visions of various people who he killed or drove to suicide.
  • He Knows Too Much:
    • When one mook is arrested, Mabuse arranges a blockade on the streets, and then has a sniper take out the mook when the paddy wagon stops.
    • Cara Carozza refuses to talk to the police as she is Mabuse's Love Martyr, but better safe than sorry, so he has poison smuggled into the prison with instructions to take it — which she does.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Carozza kills herself because of Mabuse's order. This trope is inverted, because not hero, but villain kills herself for evil goals.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: After Mabuse's hideout is stormed by the cops and army, he escapes through a tunnel to his counterfeiting workshop, but forgets that he deliberately designed it so the doors could only be opened from outside to stop his staff stealing.
  • Hypnotic Eyes: This is a part of Dr. Mabuse's whole schtick, perhaps played most memorably in the card playing scenes ("YOU TAKE").
  • Hypnotic Head: While hypnotized by Mabuse, Wenk sees his surroundings go dark, except for Mabuse's head, floating in a black void.
  • I Have You Now, My Pretty: When Mabuse kidnaps Countess Told.
  • Idiot Ball: Von Wenk is told that somebody forced Count Told to cheat at cards using hypnotic force, and that Dr. Mabuse was the only party guest who Countess Told didn't already know. Then he agrees that Count Told go to Dr. Mabuse for therapy...
  • Illegal Gambling Den: There are a couple of these in the film, with Wenk first meeting Mabuse at one, and Hull being killed right outside another.
  • Ironic Echo: Under the power of Mabuse, Count Told plays a card game and is caught cheating, costing him his reputation. In the climax, Mabuse hallucinates the ghosts of his victims (including Told) and is driven to play a card game with them; the ghostly Told then accuses Mabuse of cheating.
  • Large Ham: Mabuse himself. Despite we never hear him talk in his emotive moments his face is always contorted in distorted maniacal expressions definitely over the top even for a silent movie.
  • Love Martyr: Cara Carozza, who is deeply in love with Mabuse despite the fact that he doesn't give a crap about her, and is actually after Countess Told. She participates in his evil schemes, up to the murder of Hull, because she loves him. She refuses to incriminate him after she's arrested for Hull's murder, because she loves him. When Mabuse has one of his mooks infiltrate the jail and hand her some poison with instructions to take it, she does, and dies.
  • Magicians Are Wizards: Some of the tricks Mabuse does as Weltmann the magician could have been done by mundane means, but others are definitely done using his psychic powers.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Mabuse, again. He manipulates people to his own gain, drives them to suicide, and successfully outsmarts police. Till the end.
  • Master of Disguise: One of Mabuse's many talents; however, Lang intentionally makes these Paper-Thin Disguises for the benefit of the audience.
  • Match Cut: From the hands of gamblers at a gambling table to the hands of the attendees of a seance.
  • Meaningful Name: The name Mabuse is derived from "M'abuse", French for "I abuse myself", which alludes to Mabuse's self-destructive tendencies.
  • Milking the Giant Cow: Dr. Mabuse does it at least in one scene.
  • Mind Rape: Mabuse drives a patient to suicide with nothing except the power of his words.
  • Morally Ambiguous Doctorate: Mabuse is a respected psychoanalyst and hypnotist, talents he incorporates into his evil schemes.
  • Nervous Wreck: Spoerri, one of Mabuse's underlings, is a coke fiend who seems to be in a perpetual state of anxiety.
  • Painting the Medium:
    • This occurs both times that Mabuse hypnotizes Wenk. In the first instance, Mabuse tells Wenk that his glasses are "Chinese, from Tsi-Nan-Fu", and Wenk sees the words appear on his cards and on the table. The second time, Mabuse orders Wenk to drive his car off a cliff, and we see the name of his destination (Melior) superimposed on his car and in the night sky.
    • This is also occasionally done with the inter-title cards; for example, when the "ghost" of Hull tells Mabuse to be the dealer in one last card game, the words in the inter-title are uneven and wavy-looking.
  • Psychic-Assisted Suicide: Disguised as Weltmann the magician, Mabuse hypnotizes Wenk into leaving the auditorium and driving his car into a quarry. He's only saved thanks to the intervention of his suspicious colleagues.
  • Psycho Psychologist: Mabuse is, as stated above, a psychoanalyst, and he drives Count Told to suicide with a mixture of naturalistic perversion of the therapeutic process and hypnotic suggestion while pretending to treat him.
  • Resignations Not Accepted: As pointed out by Spoerri's friend, who mentions the "termination plan" and then makes a throat-cutting gesture.
  • Scream Discretion Shot: A silent example. After one offscreen instance of the aforementioned driven-to-suicide, one character walks in to discover the body. Cue title card: "BLOOD!"
  • Shadow Dictator: Mabuse, though he runs a criminal network, not a government. He actually notes later on he's basically running "a state within a state".
  • Straight Edge Evil: In his first appearance, Mabuse rebukes his underling Spoerri for taking cocaine.
  • Sympathetic Inspector Antagonist: State Prosecutor Wenk, who quickly becomes a thorn in Mabuse's side (and the subject of much of his ire).
  • Übermensch: Mabuse definitely believes himself to be one, gambling with people and destinies because of his twisted God-complex. He even mentions "the Will to Power" while talking to Countess Told.
  • Upper-Class Twit: Edgar Hull, one of Mabuse's victims.
  • The Vamp: Subverted with Mabuse's lover, dancer Cara Carozza. She seduces men for evil goals, but not because she is evil herself, but for Mabuse, because she loves him.
  • Villainous Breakdown: After realizing that he is trapped in the counterfeiting room with no way out, Mabuse has a complete meltdown. He hallucinates the ghosts of all the people he's ordered to die over the course of the movie, including Cara. By the time the cops finally enter the room Mabuse is in a catatonic trance.
  • Villain Protagonist: Dr. Mabuse is the undeniable protagonist and a thoroughly loathsome person.

Alternative Title(s): Dr Mabuse, Doctor Mabuse