By Walter Von Bosau
The quote above comes from one of Ray Harryhausen’s most famous films, but it could also have been spoken at his birth, for this cinematic special effects genius would infuse all of the films he worked on with a special brand of magic – and one that would pay dividends beyond even his imagining by inspiring leagues of filmmakers and technicians to follow in his footsteps and make a career in movie special effects their own.
Raymond Frederick Harryhausen was born on June 29th, 1920 to Martha and Fred Harryhausen in Los Angeles, CA. From an early age (like many boys) he was fascinated with dinosaurs and would spend many hours at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum studying the murals of prehistoric life by artist Charles R. Knight (an example of which is seen below). Unlike many boys, however, he had a hobby of making his own dinosaur models and filming them in the garage of his parent’s home.
In March, 1933, young Harryhausen had a life-defining moment when he went to see KING KONG. The film amazed the teenager, showing his beloved dinosaurs coming to life and engaging the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’ in battle. He then tried to find out all he could about how the creatures were filmed (unlike today, information of this sort was quite scarce) and eventually was able to meet the special effects director of KONG, Willis O’Brien. Harryhausen told the tale many times of he and his parents visiting O’Brien and his wife Darlene, taking his allosaur model and a short film he had made to show them. O’Brien gave the young man helpful criticism on how to improve his models, while Darlene lavishly praised both the model and the film, causing O’Brien to say, “You realize you’re encouraging my competition, don’t you?”
During World War II, Harryhausen worked with director Frank Capra and his film unit, using his knowledge of stop-motion animation to create instructional films for the GI’s (such as How to Bridge a Gorge, 1942). At the end of the war, Harryhausen resumed his connection with O’Brien, who offered him an animation job on his next project, 1949′s MIGHTY JOE YOUNG. By his own estimates, Harryhausen said later that he was responsible for approximately 85% of the animation of the film, which was an excellent training ground for what was to come.
By now, Harryhausen had gained a reputation for working quickly and inexpensively and was approached by Warner Brothers to make a dinosaur movie for them (after being turned down by O’Brien, who wanted more money for the effects than they were willing to pay – he then recommended Harryhausen). Based on childhood friend Ray Bradbury’s short story (“The Foghorn”) that had appeared in THE SATURDAY EVENING POST magazine, it was fleshed out to feature-length and became the sleeper hit of 1953, THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS. Other signature low-budget Harryhausen films followed in its wake throughout the 1950′s, including IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA (1955), EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS (1956) and 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH (1957).
In 1958, Harryhausen’s star would rise immeasurably with the release of THE 7th VOYAGE OF SINBAD. His producer and collaborating partner Charles H. Schneer had convinced him this was the film to shoot in Technicolor (which Harryhausen had resisted with his earlier films due to the additional problems color presented for animation). Schneer’s instincts were spot-on and 7th VOYAGE became one of the top box-office hits of the year. From the opening sequence with the Cyclops on the island of Colossa to the fight to the death with a sword-wielding skeleton, the film presented an astonishing display of Harryhausen’s perfected stop-motion technique – the marriage of his animated models to live action actors, all shot in Technicolor and scored by the maestro of film composing Bernard Herrmann.
With the success of 7th VOYAGE, Harryhausen embarked on a wondrous decade of work, bringing forth many of his best remembered and most cherished films, such as THE THREE WORLDS OF GULLIVER (1960), MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (1961) and my personal favorite of his films, JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963), which I have written about separately (see the following link: jason-and-argonauts-1963-shown-june.html).
The latter half of the decade would bring more wonders from the fertile imagination of Harryhausen, including FIRST MEN IN THE MOON (1964), ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. (1966) and THE VALLEY OF GWANGI (1969). All of the films were well-made and technically proficient, but none made the kind of money 7th VOYAGE had (with the exception of ONE MILLION YEARS B.C., and the argument can [and has] been made that a good part of that was due to Raquel Welch’s ‘assets’ in the film – indeed, a poster of her character in the movie was one of the best-selling posters of the 1960′s). Audience taste had changed and it seemed nothing that Harryhausen and Scheer offered to the viewing public was to their liking. Discouraged but not giving up, Schneer suggested a return visit to an old friend.
1974 would bring about a much-heralded (and needed) renaissance to both men’s careers with THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD. More seamless animation, more amazing creatures (including a cyclopean centaur, a griffin and homunculi) and a showcase moment in the film, when Sinbad and his men battle a six-armed, scimitar-laden statue of Kali come to life (courtesy of the dark sorcery of the magician Koura, ably portrayed by Tom Baker before he began his historic run on television’s DOCTOR WHO). The film was a box-office smash and the team of Harryhausen and Schneer tried to make the third time a charm with 1977′s SINBAD AND THE EYE OF THE TIGER, but the audience was having none of it, instead giving their allegiance that summer to a little film that went by the name of STAR WARS.
Times were changing and the way films were being made was changing, as well. Harryhausen’s films were always an occasion to be welcomed, as they were few and far between. The very nature of his job contributed to that factor, as he was a one-man operation for most of his career. With the dawning of the 1980′s, however, his method of animation was being eclipsed by a new, faster and (eventually) cheaper process, Computer Generated Imagery, or CGI. It is the preferred choice of film technicians everywhere today and there are whole companies devoted to it, but it lacks the one thing that was always present in Harryhausen’s films … the human touch. More on this point in a moment.
Harryhausen’s final feature would come in 1981. CLASH OF THE TITANS would be all new: new studio, the biggest budget of any of his films, an all-star cast (including Sir Laurence Olivier as Zeus) and a return to one of his favorite topics: Greek mythology. It would also be the first time he would share the major animation duties (in order to make MGM’s targeted release date), calling upon fellow animators Jim Danforth and Steven Archer to assist. He would save one sequence for himself to mark the capstone to his animation career – the fateful battle between Perseus and Medusa in her temple. An atmospheric and suspenseful scene, it is the highlight of the film, with Perseus and his men going from hunters to hunted and being calcified by the Medusa’s gaze one by one. Harryhausen’s design for the Medusa is a triumph as well: half-woman, half-snake – a slithering nightmare with a quiver of arrows to distract you and a deadly stare to send you instantly into eternity.
The film boasts other wonders, too – from the magnificent Kraken to the beautifully rendered Pegasus, and the assorted giant scorpions, vultures, two-headed dogs and Athena’s mechanical owl Bubo. CLASH was a feast for the eyes and one of the best films of the summer of 1981. With the completion of the film, Harryhausen announced his retirement and spent his remaining years writing, sculpting, attending conventions and doing commentary tracks for DVDs, both for his own films and others (including KING KONG, the 1935 version of SHE, etc.) – he was always a welcome guest at many animation studios and film sets, usually bringing all work to a halt as everyone wanted to meet him and tell their stories! At Industrial Light and Magic, they have a permanent bronze statue of Ray and the skeleton from 7th VOYAGE (seen at right). His legacy continues to live on.
The above is only an overview of Harryhausen’s career. There are a number of books available that cover every facet of his films, ranging from Harryhausen’s own books (including his oft-updated Film Fantasy Scrapbook) to the exhaustive three-volume set “Ray Harryhausen: Master of the Magicks” by Mike Hankin. In addition, there are websites, magazines and documentaries on the man and his films (the best of which is director Gilles Penso’s 2011 film RAY HARRYHAUSEN: SPECIAL EFFECTS TITAN, which uncovers long-lost effects and test footage and shows how it all came together).
In the documentary, Harryhausen is called “the godfather of special effects” – it is as good a name as any, but doesn’t really relate WHY he was so important to fantasy filmmaking. Part of the the reason is because he was making films no one else could make … and he was doing it alone. The painstaking detail required in stop-motion animation requires the patience of a saint, the memory of an elephant and the stamina of an athlete – all so some jointed models can move convincingly across a movie screen. Others tried to do what Harryhausen was doing, with limited degrees of success. The only other animator who came close was Jim Danforth (see his WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH (1971)). The list of BAD stop-motion goes on and on – two examples of how NOT to put your finished product on the screen would be THE BEAST FROM HOLLOW MOUNTAIN (1956) and DINOSAURUS (1960).
The other reason is because of the personality he was able to instill in his models, an amazing trait that instantly signals a creature on screen as one of Harryhausen’s “children”. From the newly hatched Ymir rubbing his eyes and crying at his unfamiliar surroundings in 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH to the surprised and enraged Cyclops finding human interlopers on his island in 7th VOYAGE (and later licking his lips in anticipation of the slowly-cooking sailor over his fire), all of his models have not just movement, but a cinematic spark of life to them that completes the suspension of disbelief when watching the films and connects with the audience, young and old alike. His creation’s deaths are always tragic as well; whether it be the irradiated Rhedosaurus burning from within as he destroys the roller coaster in THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS or the confused and defiant Ymir being blasted from the top of Rome’s Colosseum via bazooka, Harryhausen always invested his creatures with personality and pathos. Reflect on that for a moment … all of this with incremental moves of models only inches high, made of fur, rubber, and metal joints, moving an inch at a time and still managing to bring forth not only movement but also personality. He was a gifted artist and his craft touched a nerve for many young men and women. Take a look at the accolades on his passing – George Lucas (just to use an example) said, “Without Ray Harryhausen, there would likely have been no Star Wars.”
I was one of those young men back in the 1960′s and ’70′s who relished each of his new films, having discovered his artistry with a viewing of JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS. I vividly remember going with friends in 1974 to see THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD and being so awestruck by it that I immediately sat through a second showing! I also remember a violent storm passing through Minnesota in June of 1981 and the local paper showing the damage to the theater marquee due to high winds. The film on the demolished sign? CLASH OF THE TITANS.
My fondest memory of Ray Harryhausen, however, was my chance to meet him and his wife Diana in 1990. I was volunteering as a projectionist for the FANEX film convention in Towson, Maryland, and Gary and Sue Svehla (the organizers of the show), knowing of my admiration for him, had arranged for me and my friend Mark to take them to lunch, to have time alone with them away from the convention. We both peppered him and his wife with questions (all of which I’m sure he had heard a thousand times before) and were able to get to know more about him and his films, if only briefly. I was surprised when he mentioned that Boston (my home city) was always a hard market for his films (not due to me, as I saw them many times when they arrived!) – it was a treasured time for both Mark and myself, and a bit of carpal tunnel syndrome for poor Mr. Harryhausen as both of his fans had plenty of items for him to autograph – the photo here is from that convention.
While I am truly sad at his passing, I am comforted in the knowledge that Ray Harryhausen lived long enough to see the fruits of his labors, not in the films he made, but in the lives of the many people he inspired with his films. So many times an actor or artist goes to their grave not knowing if what they toiled and slaved for all their lives made a difference. In 1992, he was awarded the Gorden E. Sawyer Award, an honorary Oscar for his lifetime of achievements in the field of special effects. Tom Hanks, who presented it to him at the ceremony, said, “Some say Citizen Kane is the greatest motion picture of all time. Others say it’s Casablanca. For me, the greatest picture of all time is Jason and the Argonauts.” Director Terry Gilliam said of Harryhausen, “What we do now digitally with computers, Ray did digitally long before but without computers. Only with his digits.” I think the final word, however, belongs to the man himself: “I’m very happy that so many young fans have told me that my films have changed their lives. That’s a great compliment. It means I did more than just make entertaining films. I actually touched people’s lives — and, I hope, changed them for the better.”
Walter von Bosau, Krasker Film/Video Services
I have always had a fascination with the chapterplays, or the “cliffhangers”, the old serials of yesteryear. Having just recently finished the 1915 French serial Les Vampires (directed by Louis Feuillade and pictured at left), I was struck by how little the formula changed over the decades when the serials were at their peak and how much their motifs are still in use today. The serials lasted well over four decades, from the silent era until the mid-1950s (for a fairly complete listing of the major serials and their years of production, see this link): List_of_film_serials
In the silent era, the most famous American serial star was Pearl White, star of THE PERILS OF PAULINE and many others. Dangling from cliffs, speeding to her doom in runaway cars or plummeting to certain death was all in a day’s work for Miss White. Forget Mary Pickford – many a red-blooded American girl (especially in the constricting society of the 1910s and ’20s) wanted to be Pearl White. Therein lied one of the major attractions of the serials: for 15 minutes each week, you could get lost in the fast-paced adventure unfolding on your local movie screen, full of brave heroes and heroines, dastardly villains and inescapable death traps … or were they? There was only one way to find out – come back next week!
So with coin in hand, you would rush back to see how Pearl (or whoever) got out of her latest scrape. It usually involved a “cheat”, a crucial piece of footage not shown at the end of the previous chapter. You would groan and shake your head, but were willing to go along with the deception (and the continuing deception) for the next twelve to fifteen chapters, because it was so fun.
Pearl was the most famous of silent heroines, but she was by no means the only one. Other notable scrappy serial stars included Helen Holmes and Ruth Roland, as well as lesser-known stars Kathlyn Williams, Mary Fuller and Norma Phillips. The silent chapterplays were heavily female oriented, coinciding with the Women’s Suffrage Movement and the first wave of feminism, but with the coming of sound and the expansion into new subjects, that would soon change.
By the 1930s, the serial cliches were firmly set in place. The basic plot went something like this: hero/heroine (plus various comic relief sidekicks and red herrings) are on the trail of a treasure/invention that can be used for the good of humanity. Enter villain (who can be posing as one of the good guys/red herrings and is often hooded/masked/disguised) who will now Stop At Nothing to get his/her (yes, there were female villains, as well) hands on said treasure/invention (usually NOT for the good of humanity). As each death trap fails to kill off our stalwart heroes, the villain tries something even MORE outlandish until the final chapter, where he/she gets their final unmasking and comeuppance (and more often than not, meeting a horrible death at the hands of one of their own death traps). What was needed now was where to draw inspiration to keep the crowds coming back for more. Hollywood, always on the lookout for the Next Big Thing, took their cue from what the public was following – in the 1930s, that was the radio thrillers, the pulp magazines and the Sunday Funnies.
Tarzan, Tailspin Tommy, The Shadow, The Spider and more Western serials than you could roll a sagebrush at regularly made their rounds in America’s movie houses of this time. It wasn’t until 1936, however, that the chapterplays really hit paydirt. Those who worked in serials knew their core audience was mainly kids – they were the return customers who sweated it out every week to see how their hero escaped immolation, decapitation or worse. It was their hard-earned dimes that kept the movies going – especially during the Great Depression, when discretionary income of ANY kind was hard to come by. The studios knew what the kids wanted and who their most beloved heroes were, and so Universal gambled (and won big time) with Alex Raymond’s FLASH GORDON.
This one had it all – spaceships, swordfights, dinosaurs, Hawkmen, Lion Men, Shark Men … and the best serial villain of them all, Ming the Merciless (played to perfection by Charles Middleton). Olympic swimming champion Larry ‘Buster’ Crabbe won the role of Flash and was forever wedded to the role. The serial was so successful, it spawned two sequels (the only serial with that distinction).
The serials thundered along into the 1940s, with every genre imaginable thrown up onto the screen. Like air battles? You could watch SKY RAIDERS, ADVENTURES OF THE FLYING CADETS, JUNIOR G-MEN OF THE AIR and more! Air travel make you sick? Prefer something at sea? There was SEA RAIDERS, THE HAUNTED HARBOR and DON WINSLOW OF THE NAVY to choose from. Keep in mind that America was now firmly embroiled in World War II, so Axis criminals abounded and saboteurs were running rampant! Ordinary heroes and superheroes had their hands full with the Nazi Menace and their cronies. From jungle adventures to spy thrillers, and from Mounties to Medieval heroes, the serials had their Golden Age during this era.
Sadly, all good things must come to an end. The children of the ’30s and ’40s had grown up, the harsh realities of a Depression and a World War had eroded a lot of the magic of the movies, and with the dawning of the 1950s, a new threat emerged – one that the serials could not survive: television. Serials were always made on a low budget; with the changing times, growing costs and fewer return customers, the writing was on the wall. The last serials were made in 1956 and then it was all over. Those who could, made the leap to television – veterans like director William Witney and John English (who co-directed my personal favorite serial, 1941′s THE ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN MARVEL) and actors like Buster Crabbe continued and flourished in the new medium. Ironically, television became the center of the rebirth of the serial, both literally and figuratively. In the early days of TV, network programmers were starved for content and took to showing a number of the old serials in their afternoon time-slots. It was a perfect match and the kids loved it: a chapter a day, Monday – Friday, with plenty of time to squeeze in the all-important commercials.
Today? Take any given night on TV and look at the listings. Some of the most popular and highly rated shows are the serialized cliff-hanger dramas, the ones with a continuing “mythology” that people follow from week to week to find out what is going to happen to their favorite characters. A perfect example was the soap opera DALLAS. On March 21st, 1980, the season ended on a cliffhanger ending – and America demanded to know, “Who shot J.R. Ewing?” It was the highest-rated television episode in TV history at that time, and other shows quickly took notice. Many serialized shows (such as 24) now regularly end their season on a cliffhanger – following an honorable tradition that stretches back 100 years.
Walter von Bosau, Krasker Film/Video Services
Ah, the month of October! Summer is gone and there’s a brisk nip in the air giving you fair warning that Winter will soon be upon us – but before it arrives, we have Fall. That in-between time, too warm for Winter yet too cold for Summer, a time of changes, both seasonal and personal. The light clothes are put away and the sweaters come out. The nights get darker earlier and the houses are decorated – with every sort of ghoul and goblin imaginable. Why? Because Fall is also the time for Halloween. Forget Christmas – many a child will tell you that Halloween is REALLY their favorite holiday, that one special night they get to stay up late, get dressed in a costume and go door-to-door trick-or-treating for candy. I still recall a year I went out with my son and he went non-stop for three hours! It’s also the season to revisit old friends and family … but not the kind you’d invite to dinner.
While Thanksgiving is the traditional family reunion time, I’ve always looked at Halloween as a time to revisit the cinematic aunts and uncles who made me the unabashed horror fan I am today. It’s a tradition I passed on to my son when he was young, and one I hope he continues. If you’re looking for something spooky to show to the young and/or timid of heart, may I recommend the Universal Studios Classic Monster Collection. An eight disc DVD boxed set, it’s a crash course in monster-dom; specifically the Old School monsters of Universal Studios.
Are you a Twi-hard? Love the vamps of TRUE BLOOD or THE VAMPIRE DIARIES? Then check out their great-granddaddy Bela Lugosi in DRACULA (1931, 75 minutes). Originally released on Valentine’s Day in 1931, it was advertised as “the story of the strangest passion the world has ever known!” Director Tod Browning was no stranger to vampires, having directed Lon Chaney in the (long lost) LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT in 1927. Sadly, seen today, his DRACULA is no better than a curiosity, almost filmed as if it were a stage play, with very little camera movement to bring it to life (as it were). That’s where the joy of the Special Edition DVD kicks in: on the same disc is the SPANISH edition of the film, shot on the same sets with a different cast and director (George Melford), and with a creeping feeling of terror the Lugosi version never masters. They are both eerie in their own ways, and make for a fascinating night of side-by-side comparisons.
Vampires leave you cold? How about something a little more … stitched-up? Then you need to check out director James Whale’s one-two punch of FRANKENSTEIN (1931, 71 min.) and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935, 75 min.) – both with the gifted Boris Karloff. He was indelibly linked to the Frankenstein Monster his entire career, calling the character “my old friend”, and had an amazing gift for pathos under the heavy makeup and pounds of costuming. Even today, you still feel the creature’s plight, thrust into situations not of his making, wanting only love and companionship and shunned and attacked on all sides. If possible, see these with a young horror fan, who is just seeing them for the first time – it’s a revelation what the kids come up with. Karloff said many times that when children wrote him fan mail, they always understood and sympathized with his portrayal of the creature, and felt bad for him. BRIDE is a Hollywood rarity: a sequel better than the original. Both Karloff and Whale were familiar with and more assured in their roles, and it shows. The addition of Elsa Lanchester as the titular Bride, with her electric hairdo, remains a stunner today.
If vampires and monsters are STILL too much for your timid audience, then start them out with 1933′s THE INVISIBLE MAN (71 min.) – another James Whale film, this time with Claude Rains in the (unseen) titular role, with ground-breaking special effects by John P. Fulton. Of all the films so far discussed, this one was closest to it’s original source, the novel by H. G. Wells. DRACULA, although based on Bram Stoker’s novel, more resembles the stage play by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston, while FRANKENSTEIN and BRIDE were a mish-mash from all over, taking bits of Mary Shelley’s original novel and spreading it out over two films, along with play adaptations and original bits from Whale himself. THE INVISIBLE MAN sticks very closely to the novel, and thrilled audiences of the time, especially with Rains’ dramatic unveiling of … nothing … underneath his bandages, before going on his crime spree.
We now turn to my personal favorite in the collection, 1932′s THE MUMMY (74 minutes). Another masterful performance by Boris Karloff under the brilliant (and daunting) makeup of Jack Pierce, THE MUMMY still brings chills today. I have written about the film before in greater detail, so rather than rehash it again, may I direct you here: mummy-january-1992.html.
For those of you who prefer monsters of the more hirsute variety, there’s the 1941 production of THE WOLFMAN (70 minutes). Lon Chaney, Jr. portrayed the cursed Lawrence Talbot for the first time in this film which, like Karloff’s Frankenstein Monster, would become his signature character. Bitten by a werewolf at a gypsy camp (Bela Lugosi), Talbot is now eternally cursed with the affliction of lycanthropy and all it entails. His father, Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains), believes none of this, eventually killing his own son with his silver-headed cane … until the next sequel. Of all the films in this set, I think this one has the most quotable lines (courtesy of writer Curt Siodmak), such as my favorite, “Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.” The film still holds up well today and was the basis of a criminally ignored remake in 2010 starrring Benicio Del Toro in the Lawrence Talbot role.
The weakest link in the set is provided by 1943′s PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (93 minutes). Supposedly a remake of the 1925 Lon Chaney version, this Technicolor extravaganza forgets who the story is supposed to be about, concentrating more on the opera performers (Nelson Eddy and Susanna Foster) than the Phantom himself (Claude Rains) – ironically, by shifting the mood away from horror to romance, it predates the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical version, which was one of his most enduring successes. The film is still worth seeing, but you would be better served tracking down the original silent Chaney version to see the story done properly.
The collection ends with Universal’s last great original monster: THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954, 79 minutes). I still have fond feelings for this old chestnut, as it was the first film I saw in 3-D (at a re-release showing). I was so taken by it I ran a 3-D double feature of it and IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE one weekend at my college, and those silly glasses were popping up all over campus for months afterwards! Sadly, the version here is not in 3-D, but the film holds up well in whatever dimension you view it in. The tale of scientists who come across a missing link ‘Gill Man’ deep in the Amazon and his fascination with the woman aboard the expedition (Julia Adams), it’s the deepest (no pun intended) themed film here. A lot has been written and seen in this film that I’m not sure director Jack Arnold ever intended: themes of conservation vs. destruction of native environments, of erotic interspecies romance, etc. Sometimes a monster movie is just a monster movie, I say! It is another title that holds up as well today as when it was first made, and is another favorite of mine – I have a stuffed Creature behind me in my office as I type this, so I have to watch what I say! :)
Finally, if you have any interest in or love for the old Universal Horrors as I do, it would be remiss of me to end this article without mentioning a book from 2009, Michael Mallory’s Universal Studios Monsters: A legacy of Horror. Filled with stories and anecdotes about the films mentioned above and more, by the people who made them, this is an AMAZING oversized book, crammed with detail and behind-the-scenes photos, many of which I’ve never seen published before. It’s a perfect complement to the DVD set for the horror fan in your life.
So when the pumpkins have all been carved and the trick-or-treaters have all been served, sit down and turn off the lights and get to know your Halloween family all over again – you’ll be glad you did.
Walter von Bosau, Krasker Film/Video Services
Dr. Mabuse is dead! Long live Dr. Mabuse! This was the theme of Fritz Lang’s final entry of his ‘Mabuse trilogy’, as well as being his final film as a director. In the best Mabuse tradition, it has something for everyone: women driven to madness and suicide, people who are NOT what they seem, masters of disguise and ingenious methods of death and destruction. The film begins with such a death, that of investigative TV reporter Peter Barter, by a high-pressure needle gun to the brain (in a drive-by shooting that is almost a scene-for-scene copy of a similar execution in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse). Sharp-eyed viewers and students of world cinema will recognize Jess Franco’s favorite go-to villain Howard Vernon as the assassin ‘No. 12′.
Barter’s murder is just the latest in a long line of puzzling homicides for Police Commissioner Kras (Gert Frobe, of GOLDFINGER fame). With no clues to go on, he reluctantly turns to celebrated blind psychic Peter Cornelius for help. The Commissioner and Kras have a history together, so much so that the psychic’s German Shepherd knows him by smell as an old acquaintance. As psychics go, Cornelius is an exercise in frustration. He can warn Kras of crimes that are going to happen, but never with specifics, such as who the victim or killer are. His next warning to the Commissioner concerns the Hotel Luxor in Berlin, which already has a reputation for more than average sordid happenings.
At the hotel, a suicidal woman about to jump off a ledge. She is Marion Menil (Dawn Addams), long-suffering spouse to an abusive, club-footed husband. After her latest ordeal she decides to end it all, but is talked down and into the room of American millionaire industrialist Henry Travers (Peter van Eyck). He is entranced by her beauty and is determined to help her – she at first refuses, not wanting to draw him into her troubles, but eventually gives in out of hopelessness and exhaustion and with nowhere else to turn. Dr. Jordan (Wolfgang Preiss), her psychiatrist, is called after Marion’s suicide attempt, and confers with Travers about Marion’s past and her situation. Travers promises the doctor (and the police) he will take responsibility for her, and slowly the two begin to fall in love.
More characters are introduced: the seedy insurance agent Hieronymus B. Mistelzweig (Werner Peters), who runs his business out of the hotel (when he’s not cadging free drinks) and has a finger in everyone’s business; the hotel director and house detective, who seem to know far TOO much about all of their guests, and others. The paths of Cornelius and Travers intersect, with the psychic telling the industrialist that a business deal he is waiting to hear about will not go through. As predicted, the Taran Nuclear Works plant deal falls through and Travers becomes more curious about Cornelius.
Back at the hotel, we finally see the ‘Thousand Eyes’ of the title of the film. It turns out that during World War II, the Nazis had installed secret cameras and microphones in all the rooms, with a massive spy control center in a concrete bunker in the basement. All the better for blackmailing, intimidation and the learning of state secrets. However, they did not stop there – Travers is shown into the room next to Marion’s by the hotel manager, who promises him “something interesting”. That something turns out to be a one-way mirror built into her room so he can spy on everything going on there. While he is offended by the man’s salaciousness, he rents the room out so no one else can spy on her. Timing is all, as he observes Marion and her husband, who forces his way into the room and begins attacking her again. Trying to defend herself, she falls back and is about to be mortally hurt by the man when Travers breaks the mirror out and shoots the husband dead. Like it or not, he is now involved up to his neck.
Marion tells him she can take care of the body and calls Dr. Jordan, who arrives in record time, agreeing to write a death certificate for a heart attack and has the body taken out discreetly via the freight elevator to his waiting ambulance. As it pulls away, the ‘dead’ husband pulls the sheet off, pleased with “Mabuse’s” plan to capture his ‘death’ on film for blackmailing Travers. Not as pleased as No. 12 and his needle gun, who tell him his usefulness is up and shoots him. They dump the body and disappear.
Kras, Travers, Marion and Mistelzweig are all invited to a seance’ given by Cornelius. Before it can get underway, however, Cornelius asks to change seats with the Commissioner. As he does, Kras settles in only to be told by Cornelius to get down – an assassin’s bullet strikes the seat where Kras’ head had been moments before! Kras and his assistant try to capture the gunman without success, and the seance is called off. Mistelzweig stays behind, trying to interest Cornelius in becoming his business partner in the insurance racket, but is turned down. He tricks Cornelius into giving away the fact he’s not REALLY blind, but has been wearing white contacts the entire time – he’s willing to keep the secret, saying it’s a nice touch, and advises him to re-think joining him.
The film ramps up to it’s whirlwind conclusion back at the hotel when Travers figures out Marion isn’t what she claims to be and was in on the blackmail attempt – she swears to tell him all, but only when they’re outside. Her panic starts to get to him as well, and they take an elevator to the lobby. Instead of the lobby door opening, however, a SIDE door opens, revealing the spy center. The manager and hotel detective both work for “Mabuse”, and when questioned by Travers who he is, they tell him he’ll meet the good Doctor soon enough … and then he and the girl will die. Travers tries to shoot it out and escape, but Marion is wounded in the process and they are both locked in the camera center.
Out in the lobby, Mistelzweig sees the elevator come down but the door never open. He also sees Dr. Jordan ENTER the same elevator, without it ascending. He nods, putting it all together. In the control center, Dr. Jordan reveals Marion was under his hypnosis, working to make Travers love her. She would marry Travers and he would have been killed, with Marion inheriting all his assets, including the Atomic Plant where Jordan would have made and deployed nuclear missiles. “You are insane”, says Travers. “Maybe … that’s what they said about Dr. Mabuse … who died 25 years ago and whose name and plans I used.” Leaving Travers and Marion to die in the soundproof room, Dr. Jordan takes off his goatee and hairpiece to walk past Kras and the police in the lobby. Mistelzweig (who, it turns out, is secretly an Interpol agent) has a surprise of his own for Jordan … the German Shepherd! Turns out Dr. Jordan was ALSO the fake psychic Cornelius and is given away by the dog.
Thanks to No. 12 and his machine gun, Jordan/Mabuse gets away in a sedan for the final car chase, with Kras and four motorcycle cops in pursuit. Mistelzweig goes into the control center and cleans up the henchmen there, freeing Travers and Marion. Jordan/Mabuse are cut off on a bridge by the police and plunge to their death over the edge. The final shot is a kiss between Travers and Marion (in a hospital bed), whereupon her head lolls gently over. A quick pan to their clasped hands makes you wonder – is she unconscious? Dead? That is for you to decide.
All Day Entertainment did a marvelous job restoring the film on DVD, and includes both the original German and (horrible) English dubbed soundtrack. The extras include another informative audio commentary with David Kalat, poster and ad art from the Mabuse films, trailers from other entries in the series (most of them hopelessly inept and renamed) and a 35-minute documentary featurette called “The Eyes of Fritz Lang”.
As I mentioned earlier, this would be director Fritz Lang’s last shot at a Mabuse film, and his last directorial effort period. The title makes this even more ir0nic, when you consider Lang had to give up directing due to his failing eyesight (and advanced age). The film was very well received at the time of it’s release, leading to a mini-Mabuse marathon, with a series of lesser films over the next few years by different directors. The Mabuse Cycle, with their dreams of world conquest and advanced weaponry, were the prototype for the James Bond series that would begin two years later with 1962′s DR. NO. Not a bad legacy, after all. When you see the newest chiseled actor playing 007, you can admire his stunts and coolness in the theater … but when you see the latest megalomaniac he’s up against, remember to give a small salute in the dark to the latest child of Dr. Mabuse.
Walter von Bosau, Krasker Film/Video Services
In 1933, Fritz Lang continued the adventures of one of his earliest successes, that of the demagogic madman and criminal mastermind Dr. Mabuse. Confined to an asylum at the end of 1922′s Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler), the good (bad) doctor (again portrayed by Rudolph Klein-Rogge) has been locked away for the last ten years, staring into space and doing nothing but writing … and writing … and writing. At first the writing is nothing but doodles and scribbles, nonsense words that fill up pad after pad. Over time, however, the writing starts to make sense, a word here, a sentence there, until it all comes together (complete with complex drawings) for Mabuse’s Manifesto on how to run a Criminal Empire.
In the original 1922 film, Mabuse used “telepathic hypnosis” to bend people to his will and control his victims. Lang suggests that the doctor’s power has grown exponentially (since he has been locked away for over a decade, both physically in the asylum and psychically piecing back together his shattered mind, making it stronger and more dangerous) and that he is getting the cogs running again for his second stab at world conquest. The question becomes how is he doing this while locked away in solitary confinement? We are shown a gang of men, all with different code names and departments, getting the typewritten summons from “Dr. Mabuse” to meet at a certain time and place for criminal instructions. Upon their arrival at a warehouse, they are ushered into a curtained room, whereupon they are given orders by an anonymous shape behind the curtain.
One such hireling is Thomas Kent (Gustav Diessl), an executive who has made bad decisions before in his life and served his time in jail, a man who has the love of the beautiful Lilli (Wera Liessem) and wishes to go straight, but who is caught up in the strangling web of Mabuse. Tom tries to break off the love affair with Lilli, telling her of his prison time for murder and his past. She assures him it doesn’t change her feelings for him, which gives him the courage to confront Mabuse and refuse to do any more of his dirty work. Announcing his intentions to quit the group, Tom and Lilli are told they have walked into a death trap and have only three hours to live! Tom shoots the character behind the curtain, only to find a wooden cutout of a man and a loudspeaker … and an ominous ticking noise.
The police have been trying to track down the mastermind of the rash of crimes going on. Celebrated police Commissioner Lohmann (Otto Wernicke, reprising his role from Lang’s earlier hit M) is investigating the case of informant Hofmeister (Karl Meixner), whose mind has snapped after a run-in with Mabuse’s men (he is also now a patient at the asylum) – before they got him, he had time to scratch Mabuse’s name in a windowpane. Lohmann remembers the name and rehashes the events from the first film. Thinking he has the case wrapped up and the culprit caught, Lohmann calls the asylum – only to hear that Mabuse has died that very morning. Lohmann goes to the asylum to confirm this and is met by the director (and the man who had worked on Mabuse’s case the entire time he was interred) Dr. Baum (Oscar Beregi, Sr.) – much has been made of the following scene, where Lohmann (in the morgue with Baum and the corpse of Mabuse) dismisses the dead man as another harmless crank and Baum, rather than agreeing with the Commissioner, goes off on him extolling Mabuse’s genius and what he was trying to accomplish with his Manifesto. The reason why is because Baum’s words here (and some of Mabuse’s notes later on in the film) are taken from Adolph Hitler’s political screeds – this was Lang’s way of trying to warn the German people of the very real madman already in their midst. Unfortunately, it was a warning that was to fall on deaf ears.
Back at the curtained room, Tom and Lilli have tried to find the ticking bomb, only to be driven to frenzy as they find walls and doors are all lead-shielded and there is no way out. In desperation, Tom cuts a water main pipe to flood the room and dampen the blast of the explosion. It now becomes a test of which way they will die, by explosion or drowning. As they are gasping for air, the bomb (which was set in the floor) goes off, blasting a hole in the floor and releasing the water … and providing their exit. They instantly go to Inpsector Lohmann with their case and with Tom’s typewritten instructions from Mabuse. Lohmann informs them of Mabuse’s death, yet the crime reign still continues … but how?
As Doctor Baum had worked so closely with Mabuse during his stay at the asylum, collecting and reading his voluminous notes, Mabuse slowly took over Baum’s mind, until at the moment of his death, he performed his greatest feat: that of soul transference (seen on the screen via double exposure of Mabuse’s astral self leaving his body and entering Baum’s). Lang said that he regretted this portion of the film and that if he were shooting it again, would have left it out (leaving the plot more ambiguous). Tom and Lohmann go to Baum’s house and hear a recording from his study, saying, “I do not wish to be disturbed”. Tom recognizes the recorded voice as that of “Mabuse” at the warehouse, and looking at Baum/Mabuse’s notes on his desk for the next act of terrorism, sees it is for a chemical plant explosion that night. They arrive too late to stop the explosion, but Lang does manage to film an eerily-lit nighttime car chase of the fleeing Baum back to the asylum. Lohmann and Tom follow Baum/Mabuse to Hofmeister’s cell (which was Mabuse’s old cell), where they hear a violent, life and death struggle break out between the two men. Looking inside, Hofmeister is being led out and Baum is sitting on the cell bed, slowly tearing the Mabuse Manifesto into small strips, a page at a time. Mabuse’s tenuous hold on Baum’s soul has been broken, but at the cost of the man’s sanity.
The tales of the making of this film are nothing short of astonishing, including Lang demanding as much authenticity as possible of his cast by shooting real bullets during certain scenes! There is inventive use of sound throughout, but at the same time, there are long stretches of silence. This may seem disconcerting to modern viewers who are used to music playing in every scene, but keep in mind the first synchronized score for a film would not appear until Max Steiner’s composition for KING KONG (released this same year). Silent films had musical accompaniment, of course, to set a general mood, but it was not scene-specific for an entire feature.
The DVD of TESTAMENT is another Criterion Collection gem, a two-disc set featuring both this edition of the film and the French edition (which Lang shot simultaneously with different actors); audio commentary by David Kalat and many featurettes about all aspects of the character and the film, as well as a look at the advertising campaign and posters. The Mabuse-thon concludes next time with Lang’s final film in the trilogy (and his final film as a director), 1960′s THE 1,000 EYES OF DR. MABUSE. I hope you will use at least two of YOUR eyes to join me then.
Walter von Bosau, Krasker Film/Video Services
Criminal mastermind, master of disguise, hypnotist, psychoanalyst, destroyer of men and seducer of women – all these and more describe evil genius Dr. Mabuse. Created by author Norbert Jacques, Mabuse is the literary great-grandfather of other Machiavellian villains, from Fantomas to Ernst Stavro Blofeld and beyond. The pulp thriller was an immediate hit upon publication and was turned into a four hour extravaganza by noted director Fritz Lang, adapted for the screen by his wife Thea von Harbou.
In the film, Mabuse (Rudolph Klein-Rogge) controls his underworld empire through intimidation and terror. He knows all the illegal gambling houses and delights in going in disguise to find the foolish and the weak-willed, playing cards against them (while hypnotizing them across the table), feeding on their desperation as they lose more and more, then either making them his slaves or sending them off to destroy themselves if they are of no further use to him. He also controls a counterfeiting shop, with the use of blind workers to count and stack the bills (a motif that would be carried over in the Edgar Wallace thriller and film Dark Eyes of London).
Mabuse, in turn, is being pursued by State Attorney von Wenk (Bernhard Goetzke). For the majority of the feature, he does not know the identity of the master criminal, referring to him as “The Great Unknown”. Von Wenk captures one of Mabuse’s gang, his femme fatale Cara Carozza (Aud Egede Nissen) and tries to get her to talk. Instead she remains in jail, knowing the Doctor will come for her. And he does, but not as she expects. Another confederate arrives at her cell, with a suicide pill and instructions to end her life. La Carozza sees the error of her ways too late, but rather than turn in the man she loves, she takes the pill and buys him more time.
Mabuse turns his appetites (both sexual and monetary) on the Countess and Count Told. The Countess (Gertrude Welker) is a jaded sophisticate, one who has seen it all and done it all and is bored with life. Von Wenk tries first to get her assistance in breaking down La Carozza, but she is so shaken by the fierceness of the woman’s love for Mabuse, she cannot go through with it. After La Carozza’s death, Mabuse kidnaps the Countess to make her his latest sexual conquest, either by privation, starvation or hypnotism – it’s all the same to him. He has other plans for the Count (Alfred Abel): at a upper crust party, he hypnotizes the Count from across the room and has him cheat at cards, in full view of the other players. The Count’s reputation is destroyed and he comes to the famous psychoanalyst Dr. Mabuse for help. Mabuse agrees to take his case and sends him on a series of spiraling post-hypnotic suggestions, culminating in the Count’s throat-cutting suicide with a straight razor.
Von Wenk closes in on Mabuse, still not sure of his enemy’s identity, prompting the megalomaniac to attempt his greatest triumph. Disguised as mentalist Sandor Weltmann, Mabuse succeeds in hypnotizing von Wenk on stage and orders him to leave the theatre and destroy himself by driving over a cliff. Von Wenk’s deputies follow and save him before the fatal plunge, whereupon he finally figures out the identity of the mastermind. Surrounding his house, a shootout occurs between Mabuse and his gang and von Wenk, his deputies and the Army! Wounded, Mabuse escapes through the sewers to the counterfeiting house, only to be irreversibly locked in with the blind. As they shamble toward him, Mabuse’s mind finally cracks and he sees not the blind, but his dead victims approaching him, seeking revenge. Upon tracking him down at last, von Wenk and his men find a hopelessly mad Mabuse, who is led off to an asylum.
Seen today, the film is a quaint reminder of other pulp thrillers and cliffhanger serials that populated the movie theaters of the 1920s – ’50s. What one needs to remember while watching it, however, is the many innovations cinematographer Carl Hoffmann brought to the screen, breathing movable life to many scenes which had been static before. The casting is impressive, as well, with Rudolph Klein-Rogge’s Mabuse a dry run for his most famous role in another Lang production, the mad scientist Rotwang in Metropolis (1927). Ironically, his enemy in that film is the iron-willed Master of Metropolis, Joh Fredersen, played by Alfred Abel, who plays the weak-willed Count Told here.
Kino Video has released a magnificent two-disc DVD print of this title, with a masterful music score by Robert Israel and David Kalat performing commentary track duties. If you’re a fan of silent cinema or just want to see where cinema’s madmen got their start, this is a good jumping-off point. I’ll be back later as I continue my Mabuse-thon with the direct sequel, Lang’s 1933 film, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse.
Walter von Bosau, Krasker Film/Video Services