The Death Ray of Dr Mabuse/The Secret of Dr Mabuse/Die Todesstrahlen des Dr Mabuse (1964)

The Death Ray of Dr Mabuse (1964)‘You are out and about with girls while I have to stay at this brothel and live like a nun.’

A British agent is sent to Malta where a top scientist is experimenting with a death ray on an offshore island. An unseen criminal mastermind and his troop of frogmen plan to get their hands on the device so that he can rule the world. Could this unseen villain really be the infamous Dr Mabuse?

World renowned film director Fritz Lang returned to his native Germany a decade and a half after the end of the World War Two to film the underrated ‘The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse’ (1960). Although the film did not receive the critical plaudits that had greeted his previous excursions with the character in the 1920s and 1930s, the film was popular enough to spawn a series of five homegrown ‘Mabuse’ pictures released over the next five years, of which this was the final one.

Dr Mabuse is always a difficult proposition for a filmmaker. Unusually for a title character, he is always offscreen for the vast majority of the story. He’s a puppet master, the shadowy presence behind the scenes who pulls the strings of a large criminal organisation and manipulates the forces of law and order. Without that focus, audience attention switches to the activities of the good guys and the problem here is that the investigations of British agent Peter van Eyck are pretty underwhelming stuff.

We open with van Eyck investigating Professor Pohland (Walter Rilla) whose recent criminal activities were apparently provoked by the spirit of Mabuse. Pohland escapes but, despite this failure, van Eyck is assigned to Malta to investigate another scientist, Professor Larsen (O.E. Hasse) who is fooling about with a death ray. Not surprisingly, various nations are interested in this contraption which works using a synthetic ruby and a mirror. What is a surprise is that van Eyck uses his sometime girlfriend Judy (Rika Dialyna) as cover for the mission, the two allegedly being on honeymoon. Obviously, there were no qualified female agents available for the role. The local British secret service are located behind a pharmacy (and in a brothel) with operations directed by Admiral Quency (Leo Genn, complete with eyepatch, scarred face and stainless steel hand!) and his deputy Commander Adams (Robert Beatty).

What follows are some lacklustre espionage shenanigans as frogmen are washed up on the beach and van Eyck has a series of clandestine meetings with various femme fatales. These include the Professor’ s daughter (Yvonne Furneaux) and the secretary of the local museum director, played by Japanese actress Yôko Tani. The main thrust of the plot revolves around the secret identity of Mabuse rather than the death ray itself, which we never see in use. Could it be Hasse or his chess-playing partner Claudio Gora? Local playboy Gustavo Rojo, or his brother Massimo Pietobon? Or is Rilla still hanging around somewhere? Or, perish the thought, perhaps it’s Beatty or Genn?

The Death Ray of Dr Mabuse (1964)

She was never going to order extra large pilau rice with her curry again.

With so many suspects, and no real clues provided, the mystery is rather less than gripping and the audience is left with a parade of pretty dull action scenes, punctuated by van Eyck wrestling with various female members of the cast. Yes, it’s more like a half-hearted James Bond adventure than a Mabuse movie. There’s absolutely no sense of a vast criminal network or any trace of the sophisticated surveillance methods that made the character seem almost omnipotent in his earlier incarnations under Lang.

It’s a pity that the series lost its way so badly as the first couple of entries were really quite decent. Those featured ’Goldfinger’ himself, Gerte Frobe, as world-weary Kommissar Lohmann, and were placed in the hands of better directors than Hugo Fregonese who got the gig here. None of this is van Eyck’s fault, a capable leading man who had started his career as an assistant stage director with Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre. Recognition in front of the camera followed with a featured role in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s international hit ‘The Wages of Fear’ (1953) and he’d actually appeared in Lang’s 1960 Mabuse film. Furneaux starred opposite Christopher Lee in Hammer Studio’s ‘The Mummy’ (1959) and later appeared in smaller roles in Polanski’s ‘Repulsion’ (1965) and Buñuel’s ‘Belle de Jour’ (1967).

The ending of the film hints at a possible continuation of the series, but it’s no real surprise that it didn’t happen. Very disappointing.

The Terror of Dr Mabuse (1962)


Terror of Dr Mabuse (1962)‘Mabuse had the greatest brain that history has ever known. This brain here.’

Dr Mabuse survived the laboratory explosion that brought his previous schemes to an end but is incarcerated in an asylum for the hopelessly insane, where he spends his days scribbling endless notes and diagrams. These are seemingly meaningless doodles but a series of daring robberies point to a well-organised criminal gang and Inspector Lohmann finds that all roads lead back to Mabuse…

For the third in the new Mabuse series, the producers decided to return to the original trilogy, helmed by Fritz Lang, and remake ‘The Testament of Dr Mabuse’ (1933). Indeed, the film was released under that title in some territories.

So, we open with Mabuse in the nuthatch. We never find out how he survived the climax of the previous film, but I guess the producers weren’t too worried about it. He also looks remarkably well, considering, although he is apparently as crazy as a sack full of mice. This early sequence serves as a calling card for new director, Werner Klingler. The framing of shots and the striking interplay of light and shadow deliberately evoke German Cinema of the 1920s and 30s. From the start, we’re in no doubt: this guy knows his Mabuse!

Another big plus is the return of Gert Frobe as the local Police Kommissar, who was sorely missed in the previous entry in the series. Unfortunately, he’s saddled with some tiresome comic relief in the form of a sidekick, but some of the more painful dialogue may have been a result of the U.S. dub. There is also an early role for the luminous Senta Berger, who became a regular presence in Hollywood later in the decade. Here, she is simply saddled with the role of ‘the girlfriend.’

Terror of Dr Mabuse (1962) 2

‘You know, I’m beginning to suspect you might be a bit of a nutter…’

Unfortunately, the film never escapes the shadow of the original Fritz Lang classic. The plot is pedestrian and Helmut Schmid as a washed-up boxer and nominal hero never really engages audience sympathy. Too many of the details seem to be simply warmed over or rehashed from the good doctor’s previous cinematic outings. It’s a disappointment because there is obvious technical expertise on show and Frobe makes an unlikely, but very engaging, hero.

It probably seemed a safe bet to remake one of the original films for a new generation but, in the end, it would have made more sense to branch out in a new direction. An entertaining enough 90 minutes of action and intrigue, but it could have been so much more.

The Invisible Dr Mabuse (1962)

The Invisible Dr Mabuse (1962)‘We transport anything – including the dead.’

After an agent is found murdered in a theatrical trunk, top FBI man Joe Como returns from America to investigate. He discovers that his colleague was investigating a criminal plot called Operation X and that it may involve his old nemesis, Dr Mabuse, even though he’s supposed to be dead.

Lex Barker is back to lock horns with criminal mastermind Mabuse in this sequel to ‘The Return of Dr Mabuse’ (1961). In fact, it proved to be the second in a series of 5 German films made in the early 1960s. Here, Mabuse is operating out of a theatre, where heroine Karin Dor performs operetta every night. Apparently, the good doctor has the hots for Ms Dor (not very in character) and watches her every night from his box. While he’s invisible. This obviously draws far more attention than if he just turned up with a fake beard or something, but, no worries, the plot resolves these seeming stupidities with a neat elegance.

The Invisible Dr Mabuse (1962)

The custard pie fight had gone tragically wrong.

There’s a good level of atmosphere laid on by returning director, Harold Reinl but we never really get the sense of a vast criminal conspiracy with Mabuse at the head of it. Although, the good doctor comes over as an important villain, there a few signs of his presence when off-screen and it’s that omnipotence which is an essential component of the Mabuse cinematic experience. There’s also some rather so and so efforts at comic relief, which provoke groans rather than laughter.

On the side of the angels we are missing Gert Frobe as the local police Kommissar. Barker is a capable presence as the hero but, in the end, he’s a little bland and far more effective as a second lead. Having said all that, the film looks excellent with its crisp black and white photography, the theatrical setting is effective and the script throws in some neat twists and turns.

A definite step down from the first in the series but still worth seeking out.

The Return of Dr Mabuse (1961)

Return_of_Dr_Mabuse_(1961)‘I have a suspicion that there are numerous criminal elements in your prison.’

Sometime after the supposed death of mastermind Dr Mabuse, detective Gert Frobe’s plans for a holiday are interrupted when a courier is murdered on a train. As corpses pile up, clues lead to a prison and supposed FBI agent Joe Como. But could Dr Mabuse be the driving force behind it all?

Legendary German film director Fritz Lang returned to his homeland to make films as failing eyesight brought his career to its end. One of them was a sequel to the films that made his name more than 30 years earlier. ‘The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse (1960) was critically panned (somewhat unfairly) but was successful enough to lead to a brief series of follow up pictures in Germany, of which ‘The Return of Dr Mabuse’ (1961) was the first. These were dubbed into English for the international market and Lex Barker (‘Tarzan’ from 1949 to 1953) was cast to help sell the films abroad.

This is a good, efficient thriller with atmospheric black and white photography. The plot appears initially simplistic but becomes quite tangled, whilst retaining a coherent narrative. Director Harold Reinl was no Lang but he capitalises on the swift pace and does evoke a sense of the omnipotence of Mabuse, which Lang had managed so brilliantly in his films. The expressionistic lighting around the appearances of the mysterious Doctor is also a welcome throwback to older German cinema.

Return_of_Dr_Mabuse_(1961)

Goldfinger had a sentimental streak when it came to remembering his adversaries.

The lack of large set pieces, gadgets and effects do betray a lack of ambition, or perhaps budget, but this is still a worthy inclusion in the series. Twists in the tale are clever without being too outlandish and Frobe, returning from ‘The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse’ (1960), is an unusual, but charismatic, leading man. His performance overshadows the more conventional romance between Barker (hero or villain?) and Karin Dor. The final plot reveal is also pleasing for fans of the series.

Four more films of varying quality followed but this one is definitely worth seeking out. Probably best to avoid the poster art on the U.S. release, though:

‘He isn’t here, he isn’t there,
Yet his terror strikes everywhere!
He kills and kills without excuse, 
THE EVIL and FIENDISH DR. MABUSE!’

Ouch.