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Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler

In 1922, German director Fritz Lang gave Dr. Mabuse — evil genius, hypnotist, and ruler of a criminal empire — his first screen incarnation. In so doing he created a hit movie that advanced Lang's career and gave Europe a villain they hated enough to love again and again. The story pits the dastardly Doctor against State Attorney von Wenk (Bernhard Goetzke). Wenk's driving goal is to rid his city (unnamed but clearly meant to represent Berlin) of the gambling clubs where vices flourish and decadence is both business and entertainment. He discovers that the casinos are infested by a crime ring ruled by a "Great Unknown," an elusive figure who arrives, manipulates the casino's patrons, and, like Keyser Soze, vanishes under clever disguises. The Great Unknown is, of course, Dr. Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge, best known as the megalomaniac Rotwang in Metropolis). Wanted by every police agency on the continent, Mabuse — "mah-BOO-zah" — commands an empire that, among other unlawful acts, counterfeits vast amounts of currency. But Mabuse is more than just a crime lord. He has the power to control people's minds by means of his intense stare. He preys on the wealthy and international set who, bored and weak-minded, are all too willing and able to gamble away fortunes while outside in the bleak streets the populace starves under crippling inflation.

Stretched across two discs, the narrative is just shy of four hours long, so it does require some extra effort from the average 21st century moviegoer. Part 1 begins strong, then slows quite a bit as the pieces start building, so your first time through may require an extra dollop of patience. There is, after all, a lot going on in this story, and the first half is the necessary engine that revs up to full speed in Part 2 (on Disc Two), which is more tightly packed with pulpy thrills.

Image Entertainment gives us a DVD edition of Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler that renders all previous home video editions obsolete. Everything about this edition is an improvement — the picture and sound, the meticulous restoration, its return to a proper running time that brings back the film's narrative integrity after decades of abridged editions, new intertitles that erase the sins of earlier poor translations, and one of the best audio commentary tracks you'll find in the Silent Films aisle. Dual-DVD keep-case.

—Mark Bourne

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