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.

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