Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Oddball Film Report: A Dr. Mabuse double feature

Note: These reviews were originally written for Mr. Ken Begg's as part of Video Cheese, and have been published here by his kind permission.

   "Criminal mastermind Dr. Mabuse is back from the dead, and he has a mind control ray hidden in a camera!"

   This film serves as my introduction to Dr. Mabuse, the criminal genius who tried to rule the world across six 1960s German films (and a number of 30's films as well, although as far as I know the two slates of pictures are as unrelated as SOME GIRLS DO is from BULLDOG DRUMMOND'S SECRET POLICE). 

   I believe this to be the fifth episode of the series, and as we open.... Dr. Mabuse's previous criminal activities have gotten him iced. There's no way he could have survived whatever fate he met in the last chapter. That doesn't mean he's out of the game, though. In this one, his ghost or psychic will or something has taken over the body of the doctor who pronounced him dead! Apart from this, however, the film is straight science fiction.

   Making me happy right off the bat is a jazzy score that wouldn't be out of place in a super-duper spy film. If I can compare it to anything, it would be the brassy cues following Anthony Eisley's checkbook-happy secret agent Harry Sennate in 1966's Lightning Bolt

   Like any sinister super-agent of evil a cinematic spy would battle, Mabuse is back in action, building an army, and making plans to restore the British Empire to its former glory -with himself in charge this time. To facilitate this, he arranges for the freedom of a convicted doctor, alters his face, and sends him into the employ of a kindly scientist who is developing a brain control machine. Why is a 'good' scientist developing something that has "super-weapon" written all over it? Got me. The device itself looks like a circuit board from a modern computer, so you can't argue the man's genius!

   Maubuse naturally steals the device, duplicates it, and houses the ray-guns in the shells of cameras. This means his men can get close to anyone they wish, take their picture, and make them slaves. One such slave is the royal princess, Diana! Needless to say, Scotland Yard is on the case and a few important inspectors get the ray. (Klaus Kinski plays one of the cops, in a rare turn as a good guy.) There is one thing that can combat the ray, however.....

   I enjoyed this entry. For a dubbed German movie, it was one of the best I've sat through. The pace is swift, the action good, and the performances a bit more restrained than one usually finds (Kinski plays his part remarkably straight, for example). I can only hope the next Mabuse film I see holds up (when I wrote this, I had no idea how well it would!).

   As one might expect, there are some quirky elements here, such as how Mabuse avoids the effects of his own ray by means of small devices hidden in the heels of his shoes! That the hero sneaks in and finds Mabuse's shoes unattended long enough to discover these items and transfer them to another victim's shoes is a bit off-kilter. The moment Mabuse discovers his shoes have been compromised, however, is a pretty good one. 

   I'm looking forward to see what happens to Mabuse's disembodied spirit, or whatever that is, next. By chance, the other Dr. Mabuse film I have is the sixth and final entry to this particular series.

   "A secret agent must stop the world's greatest criminal mind from stealing the titular object."

   If I liked Dr. Mabuse vs Scotland Yard, I loved The Death Ray Mirror of Dr. Mabuse. That's chiefly because the final entry in the 60s cycle of Mabuse films is no longer the Wallace-type crime picture, but an all-out spy film!

   Goldfinger had been released earlier in 1964, bringing the official spy craze with it. If Dr. No and From Russia With Love were successful adventure movies, Goldfinger was a phenomenon, and became the spearhead of a new genre of colorful and exotic espionage epics. (Although, I should note, 007's producers at EON were already spoofing the kind of adventures the super spy engaged in as early as 1963 with Call Me Bwana, starring Bob Hope as a writer who claims to be an adventurer. Uncle Sam sends Hope to Africa to recover a fallen spy probe and he tangles with the required thugs and assassins. Its great fun if you get a chance to see it.) Bondmania had not just the nation, but the entire world in a tizzy. The Europeans latched onto the formula and cranked out countless mock-007's in films like Password: Kill Agent Gordon, Code Name: Jaguar, and Lighting Bolt.

   The Death Ray Mirror of Dr. Mabuse (which I thought was a typo when I saw it listed in the Sinister Cinema catalog) is amazingly ahead of the game in how it uses the various elements of 'the spy film' before they became so templated. Dr. Mabuse even manages to get the jump on Thunderball, by having a climax involving an underwater battle between two schools of frogmen, a full year before such a scene became one of the most famous and memorable climaxes in the Bond cannon! 

   Fittingly, our focus for this adventure is shifted away from Mabuse and onto the singular agent out to find him. The previous film focused more on the good guys as a team, although there was a designated hero for us to support. This time, despite still showing an entire organization at work, we are focused on the personal adventure of Major Andrews of British Intelligence. (Actually, his name could be Anders, its hard to tell sometimes.)

   When we last left Dr. Mabuse, he was a disembodied spirit (or something) that had taken over the body of another man. When it seemed the man was close to death, Mabuse's ghost evacuated and Scotland Yard took the confused man into custody. As we open here, we see the same fella being interrogated by the authorities in a hospital. Electroshock therapy is tried to restore his senses. It works, and the guy fights his way to escape. 

   I think the idea is that the jolt returned Mabuse to mental power, that the doctor who last saw the body of Mabuse had his will conquered by Mabuse and Mabuse's influence receded when the host body almost died. With a shock to clear mental blocks, Mabuse is back in charge. Admittedly, I had to piece all this together. All we know for sure is that the guy is a babbling fool, then becomes a commando when the shock is applied, and Mabuse is once again at large. I'm not sure how any of that could work if Mabuse's ghost had moved on as we saw last time. As unclear as all this is, it could be that we're not dealing with Mabuse at all, but a man who thinks himself to be Mabuse!

   Still, this is all just to set up the adventure for Major Andrews, who is sent to the island nation of Malta to help protect a powerful new death ray from falling into enemy hands. Obviously, Mabuse could control the world with this device, which shoots a powerful laser beam at the moon, which then reflects it back to any desired point on the globe! 

   To cover as a harmless, fun-loving vacationer, Andrews is ordered to bring along his over-sexed girlfriend Judy. For the rest of the picture, Andrews will be shot at, trapped, administer beatings, shoot some guys, snoop around to uncover the true identities of mysterious figures, save Judy, listen in on private conversations, uncover secret codes, and ultimately come face to face with Dr. Mabuse (or his latest host) and his underwater army.

Spy movie elements, some remarkably ahead of their time:
- The bad guys get their orders from a shadowed figure over a television monitor (in this case a cut-out of a man's head and shoulders is used, rather than an actual back-lit actor).

- The bad guys meet in an underground lair whilst clad in their wetsuits.

- The death ray mirror itself. While this would become a frequently employed device for would-be world conquerors, the use of such a device this early in the game is pretty impressive. Perhaps because this is so early in the game, they avoid building a big cannon-like device to mirror Goldfinger's cutting laser which almost splices James Bond in half.

- Andrews' chief in the field is a man who has seen rough times. He wear an eye-patch, has a burned face, and one of his hands is metal.

- Heavy use of underwater action. Again, this pre-dates Thunderball by a year. After Thunderball, such themes would become standard in the genre.

- One character can read minds, possibly in a mystical way. Supernatural elements wouldn't become common until later in the cycle, when writers began getting desperate for fresh ideas.

- Andrews tires to seduce multiple women to learn what they know. One is a fairly innocent relative of the man Andrews is assigned to protect. One is a ruthless assassin posing as one of the good guys. She invites Andrews to her place, shoots him (but he's wearing a bullet-proof vest), he threatens to beat her up, and she gets shot by the main villain before she can say anything useful. For bonus points, she's Oriental.

- The gadgets. Andrews not only wears a bullet-proof vest to an encounter he knows is a trap, but also carries a sound amplifier with an earpiece that allows him to overhear the key to a combination needed to open the vault to the death ray.

- A harmless gift is really an explosive device. In this case, flowers are sent to a girl for her birthday celebration on the island housing the death ray and its inventor. Lucky for her, Andrews is on hand to notice how heavy the flowers are. Flowers, by the way, are the most popular gambit in spy movies to either murder someone, or sneak in a listening device.

- The bad guys get close to their target by posing as a harmless fishing boat. That's the oldest trick in the book.

- The car chase.

- A local business is a front for Intelligence. In this case, a brothel, which is actually a pretty good place to collect information.

- Bad guys disguised as clergy.

- Jazzy music. Our score is made from a stock soundtrack, and I'm pretty sure I heard it in an American exploitation picture a couple years earlier than its use here. It vaguely resembles the end theme to Panic in Year Zero, so if fits this type of thing perfectly.

Unlike most spy films:
- The girls close to Andrews are absent from the climax. Both are spying on each other, and thus neither is placed in a situation of peril for Andrews to save them from. In fact, they're not seen again in the film!

- Despite having a huge death ray in an underground chamber on hand, they avoid blowing it all up for a big finish. Nor do we see the bad guys headquarters destroyed in a huge explosion.

- The title sequence plays up the action and science fiction aspects, but we are never shown a girl, even in silhouette.

- Our subject is black and white, as were the previous Mabuse entries. Most spy epics would be filmed in eye-jolting color.

   Again, for a German film like this, the pace is very swift. I'm used to sitting through dry spots during this kind of import movie, but this one kept moving! The shame here is that this was the last Mabuse film. Also, it may have been a bad move for me to start with the last two films in the cycle. When I eventually get around to seeing the earlier films, they're almost certain to be less lively.

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