It is four and a half hours long and divided into two parts, originally released a month apart: Der große Spieler: Ein Bild der Zeit and Inferno: Ein Spiel von Menschen unserer Zeit. The title, Dr. Mabuse der Spieler, makes use of three meanings of the German Der Spieler which can mean gambler, puppeteer, or actor. The character Dr. Mabuse, who disguises himself, manipulates people, and is a notorious gambler, embodies all senses of the word. Therefore, the Player might be a more appropriate translation of the title.
Part I — The Great Gambler: A Picture of the Time (Part I - Der große Spieler: Ein Bild der Zeit)
Dr. Mabuse is a criminal mastermind, doctor of psychology, and master of disguise, armed with the powers of hypnosis and mind control, who oversees the counterfeiting and gambling rackets of the Berlin underworld. He visits gambling dens by night under various guises and aliases, using the power of suggestion to win at cards and finance his plans. Among his many henchmen are: Spoerri, his cocaine-addicted manservant; Georg, his chauffeur and sometime assassin; Pesch, an inept goon; Hawasch, who employs a gang of blind men in a counterfeiting operation; Fine, a woman who serves as a lookout; and Folies Bergère dancer Cara Carozza, who loves him.
As the film opens, Mabuse orchestrates the theft of a commercial contract in order to create a temporary panic in the stock market, which he exploits to make huge profits.
Edgar Hull, the son of a millionaire industrialist, becomes Mabuse's next victim. As "Hugo Balling", Mabuse gains access to Hull's gentlemen's club and wins a small fortune at cards from the hypnotized Hull, who is made to play badly and recklessly. Afterwards, Hull is unable to account for his behavior.
State prosecutor Norbert von Wenk takes an interest in Hull, believing he is the latest in a string of victims similarly tricked by the elusive "Great Unknown". Von Wenk goes undercover at a gambling den, where he encounters a disguised Dr. Mabuse. Mabuse attempts to hypnotize von Wenk, but he effectively resists. Mabuse flees. Von Wenk, quickly regaining his faculties, gives chase through the city, but the doctor escapes. Boarding a taxicab driven by Georg, von Wenk is gassed, robbed, and set adrift in a rowboat.
Dr. Mabuse realizes that Hull is assisting the state prosecutor, and resolves to eliminate both men. Carozza, who has been romancing Hull on Mabuse's orders, lures the young man to a new illegal casino; when von Wenk calls in the police to raid the place, Carozza, Hull and a police bodyguard exit through the back door, where Georg awaits. He kills Hull, but Carozza is caught and jailed. Von Wenk questions her for information about the "Great Unknown", but she refuses to speak. Von Wenk enlists the aid of Countess Told (nicknamed the "Passive Lady"), an aristocrat bored by her dull husband and seeking thrills wherever she can find them, to try to get the information by trickery. The Countess is placed in the same cell, an apparent victim of another raid, but Carozza is not fooled. Carozza reveals only her great love for Mabuse, ensuring her silence. The Countess, moved by Carozza's passion, tells von Wenk that she cannot continue to assist him.
Dr. Mabuse does nothing to extricate Carozza from jail. He instead attends a séance where he meets Countess Told, who (while under his hypnotic influence) invites him to her house. Once there, Mabuse, taken by the Countess's beauty, decides to display his power by telepathically inducing her husband, Count Told, to cheat at poker. His guests are outraged when they detect it, and the Countess faints. Dr. Mabuse uses the distraction to abduct her and imprison her in his lair.
Part II — Inferno: A Game for the People of our Age (Part II - Inferno: Ein Spiel von Menschen unserer Zeit)
A sick and disgraced Count Told seeks the help of Dr. Mabuse to treat his depression; Mabuse uses this chance to isolate the Count in his manor and cut off any inquiries about the Countess's whereabouts. The Count's condition worsens, and he is tormented by hallucinations.
Meanwhile, Carozza is moved to a women's prison and again interrogated by von Wenk. Fearing betrayal, Mabuse sanctions Carozza's death. Georg smuggles poison to her cell, which she takes out of loyalty. Another of Mabuse's henchmen, Pesch, bombs von Wenk's office while posing as an electrician, but von Wenk is unharmed and Pesch detained. Mabuse – again fearing betrayal – arranges for Pesch to be killed by a sniper while being transported in a police wagon.
Intent on leaving town, Mabuse gives the captive Countess the choice of going with him voluntarily. Her refusal angers him, and Mabuse vows that he will kill the Count. Through his powers of suggestion, he induces the Count to commit suicide with a razor blade. When von Wenk investigates his death, he questions Dr. Mabuse as the Count's psychoanalyst. Dr. Mabuse speculates that the Count had fallen under the control of a hostile will, and asks von Wenk if he is familiar with the experiments of one "Sandor Weltemann", who will be performing a public demonstration of telepathy and mass hypnosis at a local theater.
Von Wenk and his men attend Weltemann's show. Weltemann is none other than Mabuse in disguise, and his magic show provides him an opportunity to hypnotize von Wenk, who falls into a trance. Mabuse's secret command to von Wenk is to leave the auditorium, get in his car, and drive off a cliff, but von Wenk's men intercede just in time. Coming to his senses, von Wenk orders a siege of Mabuse's house.
Dr. Mabuse and his men make a final stand. In the ensuing gunfight, Hawasch and Fine are killed, Spoerri and Georg are taken into custody, and the Countess is rescued. Dr. Mabuse flees through an underground sewer to Hawasch's counterfeiting workshop, where he becomes trapped, as the doors cannot be opened from the inside. There, Mabuse is confronted by the ghosts of his victims and various demonic illusions.
Spoerri, under interrogation, identifies a key found at Mabuse's mansion as being for the workshop. Von Wenk and the police break in and take the now-insane Dr. Mabuse away. In Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse (The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, known also as The Last Will of Dr. Mabuse) it is revealed that he is confined to an insane asylum.Rudolf Klein-Rogge – Dr. MabuseAud Egede-Nissen – Cara CarozzaGertrude Welcker – Gräfin Dusy ToldAlfred Abel – Graf Told / Richard Fleury (US version)Bernhard Goetzke – State prosecutor Norbert von Wenk / Chief-Inspector De Witt (US version)Paul Richter – Edgar HullRobert Forster-Larrinaga – SpoerriHans Adalbert Schlettow – Georg, the ChauffeurGeorg John – PeschCharles Puffy – HawaschGrete Berger – Fine, a servantJulius Falkenstein – KarstenLydia Potechina – Die Russin / Russian womanJulius E. Herrmann – Emil SchrammJulietta Brandt (uncredited)Max Adalbert (uncredited)Anita Berber (uncredited)Paul Biensfeldt (uncredited)Gustav Botz (uncredited)Lil Dagover (uncredited)Heinrich Gotho (uncredited)
Production of the first part of Dr. Mabuse the Gambler began while the novel on which it is based, Norbert Jacques' Dr. Mabuse der Spieler was still being serialized. The film made a number of important changes from the book version. In the book the characters engage in constant soliloquies which would not have adapted well to film, particularly a silent film which would have required many intertitles to make that work. The film also eliminated a subplot in which Mabuse's actions are shown to be motivated by a desire to create his own country within South America. Film historian David Kalat points out that by eliminating reference to Mabuse's motivation Lang starts to dehumanize the character, which helped lead to the character becoming a franchise. But Kalat also notes that this eliminates the irony of the fact that Mabuse was seen by many viewers as a representation of aspects of Adolf Hitler, and many Nazis actually fled to South America after World War II.
Lang and von Harbou also added some elements to the film that were not in the novel. One of Mabuse's key skills in the film is as a counterfeiter, but in the novel he never engaged in this. Mabuse's role in counterfeiting money adds to the social subtext and to the themes of the film. The film's opening, a 20 minute tour de force introducing the myth of Mabuse, was also not in the novel. The introduction starts with Mabuse shuffling a deck of photos like playing cards which will determine which disguise he will use that day and culminates with Mabuse manipulating a stock market crash. Kalat traces the inspiration for this sequence to Louis Feuillade's 1913 Fantômas II: Juve contre Fantômas (Juve vs. Fantômas). The ending to the second part of Dr. Mabuse is also unique to the film.
The film incorporates a number of special effects such as animations and superimpositions. One aspect that was cheered upon the film's original release was the nighttime scene of the automobile chase in which Wenk chases Mabuse, which David Kalat called the most successful execution of such nighttime photography to that time.
It was during the production of this film that Lang and von Harbou began their affair which would ultimately result in their marriage. Although von Harbou was married to Klein-Rogge at the time, their separation was amicable and did not create a problem for the film.
A key theme of the film is the dissolution of German society after World War I. The film portrays but exaggerates the difficult conditions during the period making the film's world a dystopia. The worthless counterfeit money created by Mabuse reflects the nearly worthless Deutsche Mark during the hyperinflation resulting from the Weimar Republic printing excessive money to pay war reparations. The stock market swings, gambling parlors and miserable living conditions for poor people depicted in the film were also reflections of conditions in Germany at the time.
The character of Dr. Mabuse can also be seen as depiction of "the power of evil or a distorted inner psyche". Lang scholar Paul Jensen interpreted Mabuse as "a symbol to unite all the negative factors in Germany at the time". The film depicts difficult problems such as rampant crime, worthless money and a volatile stock market as thus being under the control of a single man. Bernd Widdig points out that while Dr. Mabuse is not an anti-Semitic film, aspects of Mabuse's character may have reflected contemporary stereotypes of Jews, especially since he acts in stereotypically Jewish roles such as psychoanalyst, banker, peddler and revolutionary, and consistent with the views on Jews of some contemporary Germans his manipulations were responsible for problems in society. A contemporary Nazi critic wrote that Mabuse is "a quintessential Jewish figure" who goes through time with the singular goal of "mastery of the world" regardless of the consequences to others and whose descent into insanity caused his crimes to go unpunished in what the Nazi critic described as "the typical case of the Jewish criminal". On the other hand, Mabuse with his hypnotic power over the masses in pursuit of evil has also been seen as a foreshadowing of Adolf Hitler. In the sequel The Testament of Dr. Mabuse the link between the Mabuse character and the Nazis is made stronger. Lang stated that he viewed Mabuse as a Nietzschean Übermensch. Lang also saw Mabuse's character as emblematic of a certain kind of money-accumulator in Weimar Germany referred to as a "Raffke". The producer of Dr. Mabuse, Erich Pommer, saw the film as a depiction of the contemporary conflict between the liberal conservatives and the Marxist Spartacists in which the Mabuse character represented the Spartacists.
Another theme in the film is surveillance and seeing without being seen. Yet another theme is that of being versus seeming, portrayed through Mabuse's disguises and through buildings whose interiors seem inconsistent with their exteriors.
Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung called the first part "the attempt to create an image of our chaotic times" in its April 30, 1922 issue. It went on to state that it "will give people fifty or one hundred years from now an idea of an age that they could hardly comprehend without such a document." Film-Kurier praised Klein-Rogge's "brilliant performance" and Lang's "sensitive yet experienced" direction.
When the film was released in the United States in 1927 in a single film that was less than half the length of the original 2-part version, the New York Times criticized it for being too long and for the "hyperbolic overacting". But when the full length version finally was released in the United States at the 1973 New York Film Festival, Times criitc Nora Sayre praised it as being "something very good" and "possibly the hit of the festival".
Variety praised the film's plot for its "speed and life" while acknowledging that it can be confusing. Variety felt the best parts of the movie were the scenes between Mabuse and Von Wenk. Variety praised several of the acting performances but felt Klein-Rogge was too small to be fully effective in the role, and praised some of Lang's technical effects while criticizing the overlong intertitles. Time Out criticized the film for its "disorganised and erratically paced" narrative and "shaky" grasp of social reality but praised its "flashes of inspiration". Entertainment Weekly reviewer Tim Purtell rated the film an A-, comparing the titular villain to those in the James Bond and Mission Impossible movies. Purtell particularly praised the "sharp" plot turns, "stunning visuals" and Klein-Rogge's performance. Film review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reported an approval rating of 93%, based on 14 reviews, with a rating average of 7.5/10.