The Return of Dr. Mabuse (1961) has enough unmaskings for an entire season of Scooby Doo.
With the exception of Inspector Lohmann (Gert Frobe) nobody is exactly who they appear to be. The plot — Lohmann must stop a Berlin/Chicago underworld alliance — is the scaffold on which the filmmakers hung a constant series of surprises, twists and mysterious figures. Return is the first Mabuse movie made without Lang, but it’s surprisingly good, way better than the 1960s’ remaining Mabuse films
Like Dr. Mabuse the Gambler, this film starts with a robbery on a train. The victim is a courier whose briefcase contains FBI intel on the Chicago/Germany alliance. A man with a wooden leg enters his train compartment, murders him and throws the body off the train. Lohmann gets word his vacation ain’t happening.
The investigation encounters false identities and dead ends like the underworld was having a fire sale. One of Chicago’s envoys, Pisaro (Laura Solari), buys it early on. A blind man who heard the killer’s wooden leg scraping along the street refuses to talk; Sandro (Ady Berber), a mob enforcer, whacks him just to be sure. The cops are baffled when they eventually capture Sandro, as he”s supposed to be in prison. Warden Wolff (Fausto Tozzi) insists this is the case, but the occupant of Sandro’s cell is a wooden-legged corpse. Another dead end.
Lohmann discovers a book on the criminal mind in Pisaro’s purse, which includes a chapter on the “Mabuse myth.” Could it be … no, Lohmann saw Mabuse die at the end of 1,000 Eyes, right? Mysterious lurking figure Joe Como (Lex Barker) thinks Lohmann is nuts for even considering the possibility.
Como introduces himself as an FBI agent on the same case; in reality he’s Scapio, Pisaro’s partner, posing as a cop. Except it turns out he’s Como, posing as Scapio posing as Como to trap the mastermind behind the alliance. The deceit works; Mabuse (though they don’t know that yet) contacts Como and agrees to demonstrate what he brings to the table. Sabrehm (Daliah Levi), a beautiful reporter covering the investigation, joins Como but has no idea her scientist father (Rudolf Forster) is already deeply entwined in Mabuse’s web.
The police try to interrogate Sandro, but he’s been hypnotized into a sock puppet. The police doctor almost brings him out of it, but Sandro gets a last command — kill yourself — and obeys. One of the doctors remembers reading about some mind-control research that could tie in … R.I.P. doctor.
Lohmann tracks down the relevant journal article and finds Sabrehm trying to steal it. It was written by her father, who’s now insane and locked up at Wolff’s prison, so Sabrehm doesn’t want him implicated. My, that prison’s looking suspicious, isn’t it? Como goes undercover as a con and discovers Mabuse is using Dr. Sabrehm’s formula to turn the prisoners into a zombie army. Sabrehm, not as crazy as he seems, gives Como a drug that protects him from the mind-control injection.
Como learns Mabuse will demonstrate his power by sending the brainwashed cons to seize a nuclear power plant. Como alerts the cops, but Mabuse catches on, pushes up the timetable and sends Como and Sabrehm to their deaths (they survive). At the climax, the cops fight off Mabuse’s army, then unmask Mabuse as Warden Wolff. Except in one final unmasking, it turns out Wolff is actually Dr. Jordan (Wolfgang Preiss), the Mabuse disciple of 1,000 Eyes, still alive. And still free, as he escapes at the last minute. In the closing scene, Como stares out Lohmann’s office window at the people passing below, conscious that any one of them could be the new face of Dr. Mabuse.
This film was the last good Mabuse film of the 1960s. It’s effective, twisty and entertaining, though more SF and gimmicky than Lang’s films (who needs strong will when you have brainwashing tech?). The following four films would similar elements, but they didn’t do it anywhere near as well.
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