Tuesday, February 9, 2010

1933: Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse (Fritz Lang)

1933: Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse (Fritz Lang)

I'll start by saying that of all my top picks, this is absolutely one of the most tenuous.  I like this Lang film, but there are probably another seven or eight by him that I like even better (The Big Heat, Metropolis, M, Beyond a Reasonable DoubtMoonfleet, The Woman in the Window, You Only Live Once, and Destiny).  And I still have some Lang films to see.

My pick has a lot to do with 1933 being a slightly less stellar year, and admittedly I still have some major gaps to fill.

I first saw Mabuse at a great place that used to be in Paris called the "Videotheque de Paris".  It was a film library that also had one fantastic theater.  I'm not sure why it closed, but I had several very memorable nights there.  I saw Claire Denis present a screening of her film J'ai pas sommeil, and it was there that I saw a favorite of mine, Rossellini's Germany Year Zero, for the first time.  

Anyway, as I remember it, the thing that most impressed me with this film was Lang's extraordinary inventiveness.  I remember watching it and being in awe of all that he was doing for such an early film.  It has a fairly complex narrative for a film of this era and just felt formally years ahead of other films I had seen from this period.  I believe I've only seen it once so it is a bit vague in my memory.  But I remember it having a terrific finale, as well, if I'm not mistaken.

Other contenders for 1933:  My  inspiration for doing these posts, Dave Hicks, has a film at the top of his list for this year that I've never seen.  That film, The Bitter Tea of General Yen, is something I want to see as soon as possible.  Other films I still need to see from this year are:  Howard Hawks' Today We Live, Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack's King Kong (embarrassed but I've never seen it in its entirety), Alfred Green's Baby Face, Mervyn LeRoy's Gold Diggers of 1933, and Frank Borzage's A Man's Castle.  Of the films I've seen from this year, I remember Max Ophuls' Liebelei having some of the greatest woods and snow cinematography in the history of film.  And, I love Duck Soup.  It's one of the funniest films I've ever seen.  I ultimately though decided to give the edge to the Lang film for its sheer formal innovation.

5/15/10 I watched Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack's King Kong. There are some tremendous moments, particularly the unveiling of Kong at the New York theater.  But some of the action scenes in the jungle went on too long for me and didn't really maximize the suspense. An incredibly impressive accomplishment though for its time.

5/24/10 I watched Mervyn LeRoy's Gold Diggers of 1933.  Some of the dance sequences are absolutely mind-blowing.  But much of the story in between felt a little heavy-handed to me and didn't move me as much as I would like.  Busby Berkeley's work though is really something to see.  

9/13/10 I watched Howard Hawks' Air Force.  Hawks definitely demonstrates a love and knowledge for the material, but I find this to be one of his more overlong pieces.  Some wonderful moments, and an extraordinary performance from Harry Carey, but still a little underwhelming, relative to some of his better work.

2/25/12 I watched Ernst Lubitsch's Design for Living.  One of the very strongest of all the Lubitsch films that I've seen and probably the clearest display of the famous "Lubitsch touch".  Lubitsch had this ability to go from mania to pathos almost within the same shot.  Bold, sexy, and probably a major influence on Jules and Jim, as well as the entire French New Wave.

2/26/12 I watched Lloyd Bacon's 42nd Street.  A loose, free-form musical with loads of energy and insight into the behind-the-scenes world of theater.  Most memorable for its passion.  The grace and personality of the best Astaire pics though resonate more with me.  

5/19/12 I watched Rouben Mamoulian's Queen Christina.  A strong Garbo performance although I'm partial to her work in The Mysterious Lady and Camille.  The final shot though makes it all worthwhile.

9/3/12 I watched Archie Mayo's The Mayor of Hell.  Some strong performances, particularly from a few of the kids, but screwy and often feels like it's throwing its plot implausibilities quickly into the closet before anyone notices.  Mostly forgettable for me.  

9/22/12 I watched Alfred E Green's Baby Face.  A little too neat for me most of the time, but features yet another excellent Stanwyck performance and is interesting as a pre-code artifact.  

9/23/12 I watched William Wellman's Wild Boys of the Road.  It has heart, I'll give it that, but I'm not sure the acting always pulls it through, and it ends up feeling more well-intentioned than affecting.

9/30/12 I watched A Edward Sutherland's International House.  A sort of messy, slapstick pre-code trifle that gains great import those few times when WC Fields hits the screen.  

10/27/12 I watched Lloyd Bacon's Picture Snatcher.  Interesting for yet another great Cagney performance and a surprisingly violent shoot-out near the end.  Otherwise though not terribly inventive or vital.

11/4/12 I watched Frank Capra's The Bitter Tea of General Yen.  An extremely interesting film, one where Capra couches some of his heftiest thoughts and most exquisite aesthetic flourishes into what might appear on the surface as something completely impersonal.  Although less a moving experience for me than one of admiration, I can understand why this one has so many supporters.  

11/11/12 I watched James Whale's The Invisible Man.  Loony and locked in a perpetual hysteria, Whale never shies away from the material.  And the movie is strongest because of Whale's commitment.  Not really my thing though but glad I have now seen it.

8/4/13 I watched Frank Borzage's Man's Castle.  Borzage proves once again he is one of cinema's rare great practitioners of melodrama.  He is very comfortable toiling in the lower class, piling on detail upon detail about how those struggling must feel about money, freedom, and simple, daily survival.  There is something very particular about Borzage's sensibility.  It is unsettling, even creepy while always managing to maintain a connection to real, recognizable situations and emotions.  He was an auteur (one feels a consistent, unique voice from film to film) and this is among the strongest of his w0rks I have seen so far.  

10/6/13 I watched Jean Vigo's Zero for Conduct.  Very possibly the most visually gifted of all the French filmmakers, he was France's Welles, a genius of cinematic language who left the cinema far too early.  Although I am a far bigger fan of his one feature, this film features some remarkable moments like the drawing that comes alive or the famous pillow fight.  Vigo was a surrealist with a playful streak that influenced Carax, Lynch, and so many others.  

7/31/14 I watched D'Abbadie D'Arrast's Topaze.  A film that is at times slightly lethargic from a narrative standpoint more than redeems itself through visual inventiveness and an all-in performance by Barrymore.  I have never seen Pagnol's version so cannot comment on how it stacks up.  D'Arrast proves himself though a very strong director with a keen sense of camera movement and emotive framing.  I was particularly struck by how he slowly pulled back the camera during Topaze's farewell speech to his classroom in the middle of the film.

11/5/17 I watched Lewis Milestone's Hallelujah, I'm a Bum.  Having read that one of my favorite critics, Jonathan Rosenbaum, rated it in his best 100 films of all time, I was extremely curious to see it.  It is exactly the type of film Rosenbaum tends to champion.  It is not stylistically flashy nor even terribly entertaining; however, it tackles complex subject matter and it does so with an intelligence and narrative skill of a very high order.  I may not always agree with Rosenbaum, but it is hard for me to argue with this film deserving attention and great respect.

11/24/17 I watched Raoul Walsh's The Bowery.  I can see why Scorsese would be a fan but a little creaky and not as affecting for me as some of the other Walsh films from the 30s and 40s.  

1/29/18 I watched Clyde Bruckman's The Fatal Glass of Beer.  An early Fields short that has some intermittently funny moments.  

7/14/18 I watched George Cukor's Dinner at Eight.  Most extraordinary is not the drama but the acting and the multitude of characters and social situations we can recognize and have probably experienced.  Not completely sure if it should all be viewed as a critique and/or satire, but it sure seems like it even though Cukor was such a fixture in the world he is depicting.  

7/19/18 I watched George Cukor's Little Women.  FilmStruck celebrates Cukor this week as its featured director, making it as good of a time as any to dig deeper into his work.  He never was a flashy stylist and many of his films seem comfortable taking their time even at the risk of running off some of the audience.  What makes Cukor so special is how deep he goes with his characters.  He trusts their freewheeling spirits, loves them, knowing it is possible both for them to entertain us and allow us into their souls.  As a result, we care an unusual amount about the characters in his films.  Cukor also was a master at restraint.  Just look at how long he withholds things from Hepburn, a practice run for his finest hour a few years later in Holiday.  Less entertaining than Hawks, less visual than Ford, less buoyant than Lubitsch and less clever than Wilder but just as great as them all.  

11/8/18 I watched Howard Hawks' Today We Live.  Not very interesting, with the exception of how weak of a film it is within Hawks' filmography and how much time he gives several action sequences.  

9/18/19 I rewatched Leo McCarey's Duck Soup.  I had forgotten how relentlessly funny much of it is.  It has such a  wonderful child's sense of play and humor and made me, for most of the film, feel like I was on the winning side of some great prank call.  I haven't seen all of The Marx Brothers' films but I would be surprised if they ever topped it.


  1. Jeffrey: Months back I noted at Dave's blog that TESTAMENT OF DR. MABUSE was NOT the Lang to go with when assessing his very best films. I saw it on the recently-acquired Masters of Cinema Region 2 set and my opinion rose, though still there are several ahead of it. In any case, you may have noticed I already included it among the runners-up for 1932, so I'll leave it at that. Still, it's a worthy choice. My own top film for 1933 is again a time overlap for you, as you counted it among the 1932 releases. The anarchic ZERO FOR CONDUCT is one of two Vigo masterworks - I see the other one will be upcoming for you - and it's my top film for this year. But the Chinese LITTLE TOYS, Capra's THE BITTER TEA OF GERNERAL YEN, LeRoy's GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 and Schoedsack and Cooper's KING KONG would also rank as absolute masterworks, as would McCarey's Marx brothers gem, DUCK SOUP.

    My Own #1 Film of 1933:

    Zero For Conduct (Vigo)


    Little Toys (Sun Yu)
    The Bitter Tea of General Yen (Capra)
    Gold Diggers of 1933 (Le Roy)
    Duck Soup (McCarey)
    King Kong (Schoedsack/Cooper)
    Dinner For Eight (Cukor)
    The Story of Temple Drake (Roberts)
    The Invisible Man (Whale)
    42nd Street (Bacon)
    The Private Life of Henry VIII (Korda)
    Zoo in Budapest (Lee)

  2. Sam, thanks so much for the excellent post! I'm really enjoying these yearly lists, but it's also more humbling than I expected. it's becoming very clear that I still have some serious gaps.

    I look forward to seeing many of these films soon though and commenting on them as we move forward. Thanks for all the support and guidance, Sam! It's awesome to have.

  3. I'll stick with my original pick (which will not always be the case as you move on) and go with Capra's The Bitter Tea of General Yen. It's a different film from the rest of Capra's work so it it's interesting to watch just for that alone. I'll also agree with you that this is a rather weak year when compared to some of the years around it.

    Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse I liked it, but as you note there are a number of other Langs that trump it.

  4. Dave, great to have your comments! I hate I haven't seen that Capra, but I'm working on rectifying that.

    I'll be interested to hear which of your choices have changed. I imagine I will have several, too, before all is said and done. Thanks so much, Dave!