Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

“The devil wants to be prayed to”: The Return of Dr. Mabuse

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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  1. Le Messor

    “joins Como but has no idea her scientist father (Rudolf Forster) is already deeply entwined in Mabuse’s web.”

    “I’m not the first guy who fell in love with a woman that he met at a restaurant who turned out to be the daughter of a kidnapped scientist, only to lose her to her childhood lover who she last saw on a deserted island, who then turned out fifteen years later to be the leader of the French underground.”
    (Come to think of it, the movie I’m quoting starts with a robbery on a train.)

    “then unmask Mabuse as Warden Wolff. Except in one final unmasking, it turns out Wolff is actually Dr. Jordan”
    And now I’m reminded of the unmasking scene in Shriek If You Know What I Did Last Friday The 13th.

    How many movies did Mabuse influence?

    1. For a really weird one, David Kalat points out in his Mabuse book that the final 1960s film, Death Ray Mirror of Dr. Mabuse, looks like a Thunderball ripoff (I’ll get to that eventually) but it came out first. So could it have influenced the Bond film?

  2. There are actually several I’ll be getting too in a later post that weren’t Mabuse films but got redubbed in Germany to make them so. E.g., Vincent Price’s “Scream and Scream Again” became “Living Corpses of Dr. Mabuse.”

  3. Le Messor

    I wouldn’t be surprised if it had!
    (influenced a Bond movie, I mean. This parenthetical brought to you by a need for more characters in my comment.)

  4. Jeff Nettleton

    Yeah, Return is the last really good one; though most of the German ones have something worthwhile in them (even if only a handful of good scenes.) Looking at the plot, you can see how they cobled it together from elements of the previous films, without making it a complete copy or remake (like the Testament remake, also with Frobe). the masquerading bit gets a bit overdone; but, they effectively keep the mystery of Mabuse going. That was one of the great elements of Mabuse; more often than not, he is an unseen figure in the shadows, pulling the strings. It influences a lot of stuff, including things like Keyser Soze, in The Usual Suspects, some of the bond villains (more Blofeld, than anyone else, particularly the early Bonds).

    Mabuse, himself, borrows a lot from the French Fantomas, as well as Conan Doyle’s Moriarty; but, the shadowy presence makes him more terrifying. He seems uncatchable, almost supernatural (and there is a supernatural element to the other Mabuse 60s films). Fantomas also operates under various disguises; but, perpetrating murder and mayhem along the way. Mabuse is more deliberate, more about power, and Lang’s had more social commentary.

    Thunderball grew out of a film script, called Longitude 78 West, co-created by Fleming, Kevin McClory, Ernest Cuneo and Ivar Bryce, back in 1959. The production fell apart and Fleming wrote his book in 1960 and McClory filed suit in 1961 and a settlement was reached in 1963. The film was released in 1965. The Death Ray of Dr Mabuse was 1964. So, Fleming still beat Artur Brauner to the punch, by 3 years. So, the film is likely influenced by the Fleming novel. Some of the plots in the later Mabuse were taken from Edgar Wallace novels, as well as plots for other German “krimi” films (crime films). Some were outright adaptations, others cribbed plot elements from the prolific pulp writer.

    There is a bit of a Bond connection, in that Frobe was Goldfinger, Daliah Lavi was in the spoof Casino Royale and Karin Dor (of You Only Live Twice) appears in the later Mabuse film, The Invisible Dr Mabuse.

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