At its longest running time, Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler is almost five hours long, and it really overstays its welcome. Long movies should be epics, spanning many years, accompanied by stirring music. This movie is just a crime drama taking place over a matter of weeks, perhaps months. It might have been more palatable had it been presented today as a television series, divided into weekly segments of forty minutes each, allowing for commercials, but just barely.
When the movie begins, our credulity is strained by the elaborate conspiratorial network that has been set up to do what could have been done in a simple, straightforward manner. For example, when Dr. Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), the mastermind of a criminal organization, wants to meet secretly with one of his henchmen, does he just have the guy come over to his apartment where they can talk in private? It would seem reasonable enough, inasmuch as Mabuse’s henchmen can often be found at his apartment where he gives them instructions. But no! Mabuse puts on a disguise and pretends to have an automobile accident with his henchman, who then offers his car to Dr. Mabuse, as if he is just giving him a lift out of courtesy. Inside the car, Mabuse then gives his henchman the secret instructions. And how did they arrange to have this accident at just that time and at just that intersection, you ask? Why, they probably discussed it over at Mabuse’s apartment the day before.
The point of the secret meeting in the automobile has to do with the creation of a panic in the stock market concerning a stolen trading agreement between nations, allowing Mabuse, in disguise, of course, to sell high and then buy back low when the trading agreement is found, still sealed, just as Mabuse planned. That might have been interesting, had not the whole thing been rendered silly by the automobile accident nonsense.
Before going over to the stock exchange, Mabuse, in another disguise, goes over to a secret apartment where he has a counterfeiting operation going on. Does he keep the key in his apartment until he needs it? Of course not. He has a woman sit outside the apartment with the key hidden in a ball of twine, which he extracts when he wants to go inside. Once in the apartment, we find five blind men counting the counterfeit money and putting it in bundles. Presumably, all the bills are of the same denomination. They are never allowed to leave the place, and since they are blind, they don’t know who it is that runs the operation. We never see the money being printed, just counted. Perhaps it is being printed in another room by five deaf men who cannot hear Mabuse’s voice and thus do not know who runs the operation.
You might think that between these market manipulations and counterfeiting operations, Mabuse has all the money he needs, but as we later find out, money is not Mabuse’s ultimate motive. He does not want money so that he can live in comfort and luxury. In fact, he cares nothing about happiness, and indeed, his moods range from morose to grouchy to angry. What he wants is power, of which he can never get enough. Money is simply one manifestation of his power. Another is his ability to manipulate people. Finally, toward the end, he says he regards himself as a state within a state, with which he is at war.
Regarding his desire to manipulate people, we discover a new aspect of the movie that makes the counterfeiting and stock market machinations almost seem realistic by comparison. It turns out that he has mesmeric powers so great that he can compel people to do things from across the room simply by concentrating his gaze. Such are his powers that he compels several people to commit or attempt suicide. Also, his mental powers enable him to create illusions. In one case, in a different disguise, he puts on a performance displaying such skills, which includes making the entire audience see people emerge from a desert and enter into the aisle, only to vanish before their eyes. I found myself saying, “Mabuse gestures hypnotically,” in allusion to Mandrake, the Magician, a comic strip I never cared for.
At one point in the movie, another motive arises for Mabuse, lust for Countess Told. He kidnaps her and takes her to his apartment, but she keeps refusing his advances, saying she wants to return to her husband. As an act of revenge, Mabuse compels her husband, Count Told, to slit his throat with a razor. Why Mabuse didn’t just use his mesmeric powers to make the Countess get naked and hop in bed, I don’t know.
Prosecutor von Wenk finally figures out that Mabuse is the evil super villain behind all the bad things that have been happening. He gets an armed force together to arrest him, leading to a big shootout. But it doesn’t make sense that Mabuse would resist being arrested, because he could mesmerically compel the judge and jury to find him innocent, or, in a pinch, compel the guard to open the prison doors and let him go. And then he could gesture hypnotically to make it appear that that he was still in his cell.
I guess the people who made this movie realized that Mabuse’s powers could exceed any brought against him by the state, so they stooped to a deus ex machina. They made Mabuse go mad, seeing ghosts of those whose deaths he was responsible for. Reduced to a blithering loony, he is carted off to jail, or, as we find out in the sequel, to an insane asylum.