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.

Frozen Alive (1964)

Frozen_Alive_(1964)‘It only remains for me to thank all our contributors for this very interesting symposium on hypothermia.’

Two scientists conducting research into cryogenics achieve notable success with freezing and reviving monkeys. They want to move onto human testing, but their request is blocked by the front office, who fear the repercussions of possible failure. Meanwhile one of the scientists is having problems with his wife, who is bored, jealous, and has a drink problem. She’s also hanging around with an old boyfriend, who is still in love with her.

Marianne Koch and Mark Stevens are experimenting with a new kind of deep freeze at the ‘World Health Organisation Low Temperature Unit – Berlin Division.’ Their success brings them an international prize, with big bucks attached, but trouble is just around the corner in the form of red tape and Stevens’ drunken wife. Really for a top research scientist, he’s a bit of an idiot, failing to see that Koch is nuts about him, he really feels the same way about her, and that his wife is understandably getting rather pissed off about the whole thing.

Flat and unsatisfying mixture of science fiction and a murder mystery that really isn’t one thing or the other. The science fiction aspects are underplayed, and the murder mystery seems to have been tacked on almost as an afterthought. It’s mildly pleasing that Koch is nominally in charge of the cryogenic project and that Stevens has just come in to help out, but it’s him who handles the difficult questions at the scientific conference at the start of the film. But it doesn’t matter that much, after all the whole shindig was presumably only held for the benefit of the film’s audience anyway.

Frozen_Alive_(1964)

‘Roll up, roll up!’

There is a pleasing lack of scientific gobbledygook for a change, but it’s never a good sign when plot threads are tied up by a convenient phone call at a film’s climax. The story has some potential, but never really comes to life and wastes a decent, professional cast, who make what they can out of roles that are severely underwritten, and drama that is half baked at best.

Stevens and Koch are a lively, sympathetic couple and John Longden shines as their immediate boss, delivering his dialogue in a refreshingly dry manner. However, Delphi Lawrence is handed a shallow, shrewish role as Stevens’ wife, and this helps rob the tale of any depth, grit or moral ambiguity. Everything is very black and white. Similarly, Walter Rilla (‘The Terror of Dr Mabuse (1962)) is good value as the politically astute head of the institute, but his role is a total cliché.

The only surprise here is that matters manage to remain vaguely interesting throughout the rather lifeless, under developed 80 minutes.

The Gamma People (1956)

The Gamma People (1956)“You asked me about the ray, Mr. Vilson…”

Two journalists find themselves stranded in the tiny Eastern European republic of Godavia where a Professor is carrying out strange experiments on the local children.

U.K. Science Fiction was not exactly booming in the 1950s but the success of TV serial ‘The Quatermass Experiment’ – and the subsequent movie – did inspire a handful of projects, probably none more curious than this one; a strange mixture of comedy, politics and horror.

The first point of interest is the presence of star Paul Douglas, a nationally famous American sportscaster until he switched to acting in middle age. Importing a ‘name’ to ensure sales abroad was standard practice for British films of the time but Douglas had been 3rd billed behind Grace Kelly and Stewart Granger in ‘Green Fire’ (1954) less than 2 years earlier so why did he agree to appear in this? The other journalist is played in his usual fashion by Leslie Phillips (yes, the ‘Carry On’ and ‘Doctor in Love’ guy) and the idea that he’s best friends with the dour Douglas is simply impossible to swallow. Phillips is prominent in the movie early on (for the comedy) but gets a bit lost later on (when things get serious).

The only convincing notes in the movie are supplied by the locations (Hertfordshire standing in surprisingly well for Eastern Europe!) and the performance of Walter Rilla as the villain; cool, suave and ruthless. He is experimenting to create a super race – intelligent, emotionless and obedient. Apparently, he aims to achieve this by a cunning use of modelling classes and hair driers. It’s working too – local moppet Hedda is well on her way to being a concert pianist and headboy Hugo is a right superior little shit. Sadly, the process is not always successful and Rilla’s rejects are a goon squad that display a worrying tendency toward violence and out of control eyebrows.

"Something for the weekend, sir...?"

“Something for the weekend, sir…?”

What really scuppers proceedings here is the uncertainty of tone. At first it seems like a bit of a lark – Phillips smirks and tries to chat up ‘birds’, the local police chief blusters in a silly hat and the telegraph officer channels Monty Python. But then it all gets a bit heavy with robotic kids and the oppression of the local populace. Eventually, the natives get restless when their carnival is cancelled, go into open revolt and our heroes take on the good professor in his Science Fiction lab. It’s a mix that just doesn’t gel.

But there are some interesting ideas here. In the opening sequence, the journalists end up in Gorovia when their carriage becomes uncoupled from a train. We see the coupling bend and then cut to two of the children sitting by the side of the track. After the train separates, they rush to throw a switch and divert our heroes on to another track. It all looks planned. Similarly, subsequent event infer that they are something more than ‘ordinary’ children but this line of the plot never really goes anywhere. A year after the film’s release, John Wyndham published his novel of super intelligent, alien children called ‘The Midwich Cuckoos.’ Three years after that it was turned into the creepy classic ‘Village of the Damned’ (1960) with George Sanders. And who directed that movie? Walter Rilla’s son, Wolf! It’s probably just a co-incidence but it’s curious just the same…