Topics/Questions/Exercises Of The Week—25 October 2009

Glenn Kenny

Maybe you see further than I can see, 
or maybe things just look differently. 
Maybe I'm nothing but a shadow on the wall. 
Maybe love's a tomb where you dance at night. 
Maybe sanctuary is an electric light - 
I get so tired it's like I'm another man. 
And everything I see seems so underhanded. 
I don't see anything that I want. 
And I don't see anything that I want.

—Pere Ubu, "Heart of Darkness," 1975

Countess: Ich fürchte, es gibt überhaupt nichts auf der Welt, wofür ich mich auf die Dauer interessieren könnte…Alles, was fich vom Auto, von der Loge, vom Fenster aus beobachten lässt, ist teils widerwärtig, teils uninteressant…Mindestens is test lang; weilig!

Mabuse: Sie haben recht, Gräfin—nichts auf der Welt ist auf die Dauer interessant—ausser einem…

—From Dr. Mabuse, Der Spieler, I: Der Grosse Spieler, screenplay by Thea von Harbou from the novel by Norbert Jacques, directed by Fritz Lang, 1922

Anatomy Of The Movie Super Villain: It's a rather slow news week, unless one is into Oscar prognostication, which this one is not, and plus which this one is deep in thrall to what's likely going to turn out to be one of the DVDs of the year, the Eureka!/Masters of Cinema box of Fritz Lang's incredible Dr. Mabuse trilogy, comprising the two-part 1922 epic Dr. Mabuse Der Spieler (Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler), 1933's Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse, and 1961's Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse (The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse). Note the temporal gaps between the three films. Note, too, that although only the first one announced itself as "a story of the time," each one is, in fact, a story of its time, the first a tale of rot, the second a tale of encroaching fascism, the third a tale of justifiable paranoia.

Our question, though, is this: who is the more exemplary template for what has become the indomitable movie supervillain? Is it Feuillade's Fantomas, serialized in France 10 years prior to Mabuse by Feuillade and again by Edward Sedgewick in 1920? Or Feuillade's Judex? Yes, he is a hero,  but he is also a figure of dread who often uses the methods of a villain, in one case forcibly imprisoning a corrupt banker in order to force a confession from him. Or is it the master of disguise Mabuse?

If I argue in favor of Mabuse, it's not just because so many great cinematic supervillains in his wake have put "Doctor" in front of their names. It's because, as formidable as those prior figures are, Mabuse is really the most modern of them, sliding, inexorably, into the realm of the post modern. First there's the nature of his schemes; the robber barons Mabuse brings to ruin in the early films are the descendents of Balzac, yes, but there's nevertheless something very contemporary about the scene early in part one of the first film in which, by way of corporate espionage, Mabuse brings down the stock market.

Then there's the matter of Mabuse's disguises, which make him an unusually fluid character, one who can mix with the most inaccessibly super-rich and hunker down in the lowest gutter later in the same evening. He is in a sense a sort of ideal, in that he is genuinely classless.

And finally, there's the question, "What does Mabuse want?" We never do find out, ever, really, in any of the three films. Money? Yes, of course, who doesn't. Control? Absolutely. But to what end? What's his program? What's his motivation? He doesn't really seem to have one, just as he seems not to have a past, to have apparently sprung from the unconsciousness of human rot. With respect to motivation, he anticipates Martin Amis' pronouncement in the novel Money: "I sometimes think that, as a controlling force in human affairs, motivation is pretty well shagged out by now. It hasn't got what it takes to motivate people any more. Go for a walk in the streets. How much motivation do you see?"

And then there's the fact that the schemes and traps envisioned by Jacques, von Harbou, and Lang still find purchase in contemporary thrillers. This bit of business with the gas cylinders knocking out State's Attorney Wenk in the back of his ride...

...was revived almost entirely intact for John Woo's 2000 Mission: Impossible II, with Brendan Gleeson in the role of victim. And we'll likely see it at least one more time before the decade is out.

Now back to our regularly scheduled snark...

Don't Look At Me, I Just Work Here: It's a good thing Jeffrey Wells is only charged with, say, making Oscar predictions rather than conquering apartheid, as he himself seems a bit equivocal about motivation, as expressed in his thoughts concerning the upcoming Clint Eastwood film Invictus: "I'm glad that Nelson Mandela believed he was the master of his fate. He needed to, and I suppose he finally was, I believe this also, sort of. I am the master, yes, but fate and flaw and circumstance are always stepping into the ring with their persistent checks and balances. I am the captain of my soul, though -- I do believe that. Whatever that means."

Armond White-ism Of The Week: "His vocal affectations suggest high-toned virtuosity to untutored audiences—the culture vultures who think Aussie Cate Blanchett is a great actress. (Spielberg’s intuition rightly cast Blanchett as a [Vincent-] Price-like villain in last year’s Indy Jones film). These hoi polloi are depicted as Lionheart’s minions—street bums and boozehounds—his only remaining fans who carry out his murderous plans." From a review of a revival of Douglas Hickox's Theater Of Blood, playing at Film Forum. So I guess we can presume the New York Film Critics Circle will give Blanchett an award over White's dead body.

But you wanna hear something funny? That parenthetical about Spielberg? It's not in the print version, only the online version. I suspect that after White filed, or rather, inputted, his copy for the print edition, he toodled off to bed, having slammed a renowned actress and the critics who admire her, and maybe even used the phrase "hoi polloi" correctly, content that he had done right. But then his sleep was racked by uneasy dreams. Sure, Blanchett sucks, and her admirers are untutored, unlike Eton-educated White, so screw her, and them. "Still...I seem to remember...was she not cast by my personal golden calf...the Mozart of Cinema...Steven Spielberg...? By G-d, she was!" I imagine White sitting up in his bed like a bolt, caked in cold sweat. (Mercy on me!) Collecting himself, he goes to the computer keyboard. The print piece is already at the presses. White thinks. "She was cast by Spielberg...and yet she sucks. A conundrum, truly...? Or, knowing the Mozart of Cinema, a canny, deliberate strategy to associate Blanchett with Vincent Price? Yes!" Thus, a parenthetical containing a thoroughly dubious argument is born. Whew.


Please login to add a new comment.


Notebook is a daily, international film publication. Our mission is to guide film lovers searching, lost or adrift in an overwhelming sea of content. We offer text, images, sounds and video as critical maps, passways and illuminations to the worlds of contemporary and classic film. Notebook is a MUBI publication.


If you're interested in contributing to Notebook send us a sample of your work. For all other enquiries, contact Daniel Kasman.