Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (Lang, 1933)

Like Fritz Lang’s classic M, his second film of the sound era is an exciting search for an elusive criminal. In fact, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse even has the same investigator. However, unlike the earlier film, the Germany of Dr. Mabuse is a place haunted by an influence that nothing short of supernatural. Locked up in a mental institution where he scribbles down diabolical schemes on copious amounts of paper, Dr. Mabuse shouldn’t be a threat to the outside world. And yet, somehow, the crimes that he conceives actually begin to take place. Later, when it seems as if Mabuse is utterly incapable of plotting, let alone finding a way to instruct a gang of criminals on the outside, the disturbances continue. Even when Mabuse’s gangsters are captured and interrogated, they are of no use to the police because they all claim to have never seen the face of the man who serves as their leader.

Although the set-up is a fairly standard police investigation, Lang’s execution is anything but conventional. Scene after scene draws us deeper into a world that is far more complex and mysterious than we initially expect. Lang’s film crosses over from thriller to horror to mystery to allegory effortlessly, providing an experience that is both immediately entertaining and rich in substance. In a virtuoso sequence, Lang cuts back and forth as characters in two different locations are trapped in desperate situations. Either one of these would have been more than capable of holding us in tense anticipation; yet, Lang offers them simultaneously, heightening our investment, rather than dissipating it. As audience members, we have the mystery largely pieced together before the on-screen investigator does. However, while this might spell boredom in a lesser film, Lang employs exhilarating special effects and masterful pacing to insure that we are kept in rapt attention all the way through to the end.



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