The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse

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Among the weekend’s viewing was the third and final film in Fritz Lang’s Mabuse cycle, The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse (1960). This was also Lang’s final feature, made after his return to Germany in the late 1950s, and another film of his that for many years I knew only as an impossible-to-find title. I’d read about the Mabuse series in Lotte Eisner’s study of Lang’s career even before the name and character was co-opted by Propaganda for their first single in 1984, but the only films of Lang’s that ever used to appear on TV were the Hollywood features or, if you were lucky, a poor print of Metropolis. Mabuse was a source of fascination for the way the character connected the beginning and ends of the director’s career, as well as being a German take on the Moriarty-like super-criminal. The first film in the series, Dr Mabuse, the Gambler (1922), condenses the corruption of Weimar Germany into a potent physical icon, while the sequel, The Testament of Dr Mabuse (1933), reflects the fevered moment when real super-criminals were taking control of the nation. The Nazis were sufficiently discomforted by Testament to ban it shortly after its release.

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Cornelius the psychic with insurance salesman Hieronymus B. Mistelzweig and police inspector Kras.

The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse appeared just as new super-villains were emerging to oppose James Bond and his imitators. One of Bond’s early adversaries, Auric Goldfinger, was portrayed on screen by Gert Fröbe who appears here on the opposite side of the law as homicide inspector Kras. Fröbe’s tenacious policeman is one of the few fixed points in a plot filled with twists and deceptive identities. Assassinations and double-crosses are a staple of this type of thriller but Lang also gives us an early example of electronic surveillance in a contemporary setting, together with a séance that harks back to a similar scene in the first Mabuse film. The séance is an unusual touch in a story otherwise devoid of similar moments, prompted by the film’s most mysterious character, Cornelius the blind psychic. With an appearance reminiscent of the late Karl Lagerfeld, Cornelius is an overt throwback to Lang’s pre-war films, many of which hinted at the mystical or supernatural even when such hints seemed unnecessary; Rotwang, the robot-builder in Metropolis (played by the original screen Mabuse, Rudolph Klein-Rogge) is a mechanical genius who just happens to live in a house more suited to an alchemist, with a huge inverted pentagram on one of its walls. The sinister motives of Cornelius aren’t so baldly stated but his consulting room is lavishly decorated with astrological diagrams. The psychic, together with the criminals and the police inspector, create a problem common to films of this kind in which the more colourful characters generate greater interest for the viewer than do the romantic leads. After a succession of breathless opening scenes, Thousand Eyes sags a little while wealthy industrialist Henry Travers (Peter Van Eyck) is getting to know Marion Menil (Dawn Addams), a woman he rescues from a suicide attempt. The film also lacks the subtext of the earlier episodes, although Mabuse’s scheme turns out to be diabolical enough for any of James Bond’s Cold War enemies.

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The séance.

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Weekend links 323

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Mescaline Woods (1969) by Gage Taylor.

• The soundtrack to The Man Who Fell to Earth will be released for the first time next month in a double-disc set (CD & vinyl). This isn’t, as some people have hoped, David Bowie’s unheard music for the film, but a collection of the pre-existing songs and other pieces, plus the original compositions by John Phillips. Consequence of Sound has a track list.

• At Scream Addicts: Joe R. Lansdale talks about the only film adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House that you need to see: the 1963 version directed by Robert Wise.

• The new wave of new age: How music’s most maligned genre finally became cool by Adam Bychawski.

• Transmissions From The Abyss: Dark ambient music for the perfect headspace by S. Elizabeth.

Jason Farrago reviews Art Aids America, an exhibition at the Bronx Museum, New York.

Curse Go Back: a limited reissue of tape experiments by William Burroughs.

Samuel Wigley on Notorious at 70: toasting Hitchcock’s dark masterpiece.

Toyah Willcox remembers working with Derek Jarman on The Tempest.

• “Why are musicians so obsessed with David Lynch?” asks Selim Bulut.

• Read the original 32-page programme for Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

David Parkinson chooses 10 essential films starring Oliver Reed.

• Mixes of the week: The Sounds of the Dawn NTS radio shows.

Keith Haring envisions Manhattan as a kingdom of penises.

Frank Guan on Massive Attack’s Blue Lines, 25 years on.

Honky Tonk Pts 1 & 2 (1956) by Bill Doggett | I’ve Told Every Little Star (1961) by Linda Scott | I’m Deranged (1995) by David Bowie

Blade Runner vs. Metropolis

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Given the chronology this should really be “Metropolis vs. Blade Runner” but most people are more familiar with Ridley Scott than Fritz Lang so I’ve let Blade Runner determine the order of the shots.

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These shot comparisons aren’t exactly news but they’ve become more evident since rewatching the restored print of Metropolis. Among other things, the rediscovered footage yielded a scene with a character reading a newspaper that’s a match for Harrison Ford’s first appearance. The similarities extend, of course, to the thematic: futuristic megacities, flying vehicles, the creation of artificial human beings. Both films also end with a struggle to the death on the roof of a building. The cinematographer for Blade Runner was Jordan Cronenweth; Metropolis was the work of Karl Freund, Günther Rittau and Walter Ruttmann.

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Einstein on the Beach

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Well this was a revelation. Einstein on the Beach (1976) is Philip Glass’s first opera, a collaboration with theatrical producer Robert Wilson, and the only Glass opera with which I’m familiar. With a running-time of almost five hours it’s not light listening, and when many of the pieces consist of little more than slabs of keyboard or choral arpeggios it’s always been evident that visuals are required to augment music that otherwise threatens to outstay its welcome.

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The opera has been revived several times, and in 2012 a touring presentation was staged. Despite it being one of the most celebrated works by Glass and Wilson a complete performance has never been filmed, until this month, that is, a staging at the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris. The shots here are from a video stream of the entire four-and-a-half hour show, and it’s astonishing to discover how much your appreciation is elevated—and the music enhanced—by the performance and the production.

Einstein’s life is the ostensible subject but it’s up to the audience to interpret the many allusive symbols and motifs that may (or may not) be derived from either the man’s biography or his scientific theories. The libretto is strictly formal and fragmented, and while the score alone may drive some listeners to distraction the visuals change continually, maintaining the interest while the text and music work through their cycles. Philip Glass had this to say about the work in 2012:

The opera isn’t a narrative about Einstein’s life. What connected Bob and I was how we thought about time and space in the theatre. We worked first with the time—four hours—and how we were going to divide it up. Then we thought about the images, and then the staging. I discovered that Bob thinks with a pencil and paper; everything emerged as drawings. I composed music to these, and then Bob began staging it.

Yet the piece is actually full of Einstein. Practically every image comes from Einstein’s life or ideas: trains, spaceships, clocks. And I suggested we have a musician taking his part, because Einstein played the violin—although he was such an amateur musician he couldn’t possibly have played the music I composed for him. (more)

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I’ve seen many photos of Wilson’s designs for the opera in the past but static views do nothing to convey the drama and impact of his designs when you see them coming together on the stage. The same goes for the performers, many of whom are required to be trained dancers as well as actors: several scenes are elaborate dance pieces. It’s been a pleasure to see at last the presentation of the mysterious “Knee Play” sections which separate the four acts. And I was surprised by the similarity—intentional or not—of some sequences to the shots of the slaving workers in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, especially the climactic (and incredible) “Spaceship” scene where the whole stage erupts into light and movement. It’s easy to see why New York’s art crowd were so beguiled by this opera following its first performances in the 1970s, it really is a remarkable piece of work. The streaming version will apparently remain active for a while (there’s also a DVD release planned), and while I wouldn’t want anyone to indulge in piracy I’ll note that there’s currently a torrent of the entire video circulating if you know where to look. If you’ve any time for Philip Glass I can’t recommend this too highly. (Via Metafilter.)

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Uncharted islands and lost souls

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The pulp fiction of the early 20th century favoured remote or uncharted islands as locations for the bizarre and the fantastic; in isolated jungles all manner of savage and grotesque behaviour could take place out of sight of the civilised world. Islands are secure from interference; they can be visited by accident or intention, and later fled from when everything goes wrong. The Island of Doctor Moreau is an early example of the type although Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island (1874) pre-dates it by twenty-two years. The Island of Lost Souls (1932), the first film adaptation of the Wells novel, is one of a crop of mysterious islands that appeared in the 1930s following the success of the Universal adaptations of Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931). The recent Eureka DVD/Blu-ray edition of the film is the first UK release to present the film in its original, uncensored form. I watched it this weekend.

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Moreau (Charles Laughton) and Montgomery (Arthur Hohl) at work.

HG Wells famously hated the film, and his vociferous complaints helped to ensure it was banned in Britain until 1958. Even without Wells’ complaints there was enough there to bait the censors who declared it to be “against nature”: writers Philip Wylie and Waldemar Young push the erotic implications of Wells’ story to a degree that would have been impossible in 1896, and would be equally impossible two years later when the Hays Code clamped down on cinematic salaciousness. Charles Laughton’s Moreau is eager to discover whether Lota, the Panther Woman (Kathleen Burke), will show any sexual interest in the marooned Edward Parker (Richard Arlen). The bestiality theme continues when Parker’s fiancée arrives on the island and finds one of Moreau’s Beast People at her bedroom window. Add to this Moreau’s declaration that he feels like God (a similar line was cut from James Whale’s Frankenstein), a traditional British squeamishness towards maltreating animals (unless they’re foxes), and the Panther Woman’s skimpy outfit, and it’s no surprise that the authorities collapsed with the vapours.

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Sensationalism aside, this is one of the greatest horror films of the early 1930s, and one which follows its source material with much more fidelity than Universal’s Dracula and Frankenstein. The production had been commissioned by Paramount to capitalise on the success of the Universal films, hence the presence of a very hirsute Bela Lugosi as the Sayer of the Law. Cinematographer Karl Struss had worked the year before on Rouben Mamoulian’s excellent Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; prior to this he photographed Sunrise (1927) for Friedrich Murnau. The combination of Struss’s chiaroscuro compositions, some adept direction from Erle C. Kenton (including crane shots), and a tremendous performance by Charles Laughton puts The Island of Lost Souls in a different league entirely to Tod Browning’s stagey and over-rated Dracula. Laughton’s cherub-faced Mephistopheles is a performance that runs counter to the cod theatricals of the period: he’s sly, confident and completely authoritative even if he looks nothing like Wells’ white-haired doctor.

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