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 Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1968)

Strange_Case_of_Dr_Jekyll_and_Mr_Hyde_(1968)‘Suppose this potion of yours did work? Suppose it did split the nature of man right down the middle? Might it not produce…a monster?’

Mild-tempered Dr Jekyll faces ridicule from the medical fraternity when he proposes his theories about the duality of man. Determined to prove the doubters wrong, he begins using chemicals to separate the good and bad sides in man. Unfortunately, he chooses to experiment on himself…

It’s fair to say that, although filmed countless times, there has never been a definitive version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic cautionary tale. Yes, Frederic March won an Oscar for playing the role(s) in 1931, and both makeup and SFX were impressive (for their time) but the rest of the film is creaky and stilted at best. The big budget MGM remake a decade later may have looked the part but suffered from the terrible miscasting of Spencer Tracy and Ingrid Bergman. Subsequently, there’s been dramatic versions, re-imaginings, comedies, a TV musical with Kirk Douglas (yes, it’s bad) and Hammer even gave us a transgender take with ‘Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde’ (1971) (surprisingly rather good). We’ve had Christopher Lee, Michael Caine, Oliver Reed, John Barrymore, Anthony Andrews, Bernard Bresslaw, Boris Karloff, John Malkovich and even David Hasselhoff!  The list goes on. But no definitive version.

TV producer Dan Curtis had hit the big time by creating horror-soap ‘Dark Shadows’ which first hit the small screen in 1966, ran for over 1,000 episodes and has been revived several times since, including Tim Burton’s big budget remake with Johnny Depp. During the show’s original 6 year run, Curtis began developing other projects, the first of which was this serious adaptation of the classic horror story. Filming began with Jason Robards in the title roles but was halted due to industrial action. When it resumed, Robards was no longer available, so Curtis re-cast, his surprising choice being Jack Palance, mostly known for playing villains in cinema Westerns. It’s reasonable to assume that a modern audience’s expectations for a studio bound 2 hour television production from the late 1960s starring that old cowboy geezer from ‘City Slickers’ (1991) would not be high. Obviously, there were budgetary and technical limitations with such an endeavour that have not stood the test of time too well, but what it does have in its favour easily outweighs such considerations.

First, we have what is quite probably the most literate, intelligent and fine adaptation of Stevenson’s novel ever to be filmed. The original work is a fairly short piece and screenwriters are usually obliged to embellish and add elements, usually Hyde’s dalliance with a prostitute and a tiresome love interest for Jekyll in the form of a fiancee from high society. Instead, Ian McLellan Hunter takes the main elements of the story and comes up with his own version of how events develop. These are completely in tune with the spirit of the original text and open out the story perfectly. There’s a superb opening scene where Jekyll is ridiculed by his peers which provides motivation for his reckless experimentation, a shady chemist (Oscar Homolka) who provides the doctor with the necessary chemicals, and Billie Whitelaw as the good time girl abused by Hyde, who rather foolishly sets her sights on Jekyll. Purists might complain at the changes but I don’t think anyone could argue that the novel needs serious adaptation for filming purposes and Hunter makes a good a job as could be imagined, even retaining the critical subtext about Victorian society and the evils of repression in general.

Strange_Case_of_Dr_Jekyll_and_Mr_Hyde_(1968)

His latest batch of home-brew was not a success.

A fine cast of respected British actors talent provides excellent support, including Denholm Elliott, Leo Genn, Torin Thatcher (the nasty magician in ‘The 7th Voyage of Sinbad’ (1958)), Duncan Lamont, and music hall star Tessie O’Shea. Although only making a brief appearance, O’Shea won an Emmy for this, which is a little puzzling. Rather amusingly, Billie Whitelaw gets an ‘introducing’ credit, despite first appearing on British TV 16 years before. Probably she was unknown to American audiences.

But the revelation here is Palance. Of course, he’d played plenty of psychotic villains in the past, but his Hyde is truly out of control; homicidal tendencies always lurking just below the surface, ready to be indulged at the slightest whim. Initially, the makeup may seem a little corny with the heavy monobrow, but, by the climax, the power of the performance transcends these limitations. Likewise the star gives us one of the best screen Jekyll’s; slowly seduced by the dark passions of his alter-ego, he becomes more assertive in his own life but ultimately cannot control his urges. It’s an excellent reading of the character, all the more remarkable when you consider the actor was a late replacement.

Of course, there are some problems. Director Charles Jarrott struggles to get any atmosphere out of the cheap, and tatty stages sets, with actor’s heavy footsteps often betraying the nature of their temporary construction. Also the camera work is uninspired, and features some unfortunate rapid ‘zooms’ which look pretty shaky. Producer Curtis and star Palance went onto collaborate on a version of ‘Dracula’ (1973), which is also well regarded in some quarters.

Definitive? Maybe not, but on balance, this is probably the best version of the tale filmed to date, and anyone looking to mount a new production could do a lot worse than look for pointers in Hunter’s excellent script.

Well worth seeking out.