Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: Evil geniuses and criminal masterminds

Among the many things missing from modern film—and for all the good in modern film, there are many things missing —I believe we are suffering from a singular lack of Evil Geniuses and Criminal Masterminds. Oh, I can hear the grumblings now and the question, “What about Heath Ledger’s Joker?” Well, whatever else Ledger’s Joker is, he really doesn’t strike me as quite belonging to either category. He’s basically just crazy and clever. He’s evil, but he has no apparent goal besides anarchy and destruction for its own sake. For me, an Evil Genius and/or Criminal Mastermind needs to have a purpose to his fiendish plans—no matter how loopy those plans are, nor how flamboyant heels the need to be in carrying them out.

The movies used to thrive on Evil Geniuses and Criminal Masterminds, but today the only remaining vestiges are either rather drab fellows—such as one finds in the more “realistic” turn of the James Bond pictures—or they’re holdovers from comic books and were created years ago. No one seems to be coming up with new ones. So let’s pause for a bit and take a look at some of the older panache-obsessed villains.

I deliberately left off Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis Prof. Moriarty for the simple reason that the movies never seemed to make him quite as fantastic as the stories suggest. Despite the worthy efforts of Gustav von Seyffertitz, Ernest Torrence, George Zucco, Lionel Atwill and Henry Daniell in the role, the only Moriarty that ever seemed everything he was supposed to be was the one we never saw—the metaphorical Moriarty of Anthony Harvey’s They Might Be Giants (1971)>.

What follows is a very personal list, so if I’ve left out a favorite, feel free to add to it.

Dr. Mabuse. There are earlier criminal masterminds than Dr. Mabuse, but none so fascinating. Mabuse first appeared in a pulp novel, Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, by Norbert Jacques, and was a deliberate composite of then popular arch villains Fu Manchu (more on him later) and Fantomas. The great German filmmaker Fritz Lang—whose greatness embraced a penchant for lurid melodrama—brought Mabuse to the screen in 1922 in a very long adaptation of the novel (depending on the version, it can run up to 297 minutes, though the current Kino DVD is 270 minutes). The film actually was intended to be shown in two parts and is generally divided into Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler and Dr. Mabuse, Inferno des Verbrechens.

Mabuse was played by Lang regular (and ex-husband of Lang’s wife, Thea von Harbou, who co-wrote the film with Lang) Rudolf Klein-Rogge. Mabuse is the arch-criminal par excellence. He’s not merely a crime lord (bent on controlling Berlin this round), but he’s a master of disguise and a skilled hypnotist. If Mabuse can’t blackmail a victim into doing his bidding, hypnosis will do just fine. In many respects, Mabuse is utterly preposterous, but as played by Klein-Rogge and presented by Lang, he’s more chilling than just about any other arch criminal. Some of this is due to the film’s setting in post-war, inflation-ridden decadent Berlin—as nightmarish a setting as may be imagined. (Want a real look at the world of Cabaret (1972), take a squint at Dr. Mabuse.)

The one film wasn’t the end of the evil doctor. Eleven years later, Lang and von Harbou gave the world The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, which, in many ways, is an even better film—and a more disconcerting one. Mabuse (still played by Klein-Rogge) is imprisoned in an asylum for the insane. He never speaks and his mind is apparently in a state of total collapse—except that he makes endless notes that appear to be a meaningless jumble of words and strange symbols. It turns out that Mabuse’s power is so strong that he transcends death and enters the body of the head of the asylum, Dr. Baum (Oscar Beregi, Sr.), who sets himself up as Mabuse and puts the plans contained in the mad doctor’s scribblings.

What makes the film so remarkable—apart from the sheer breathtaking quality of Lang’s use of film—lies in a combination of its atmosphere and the nature of Mabuse’s scheme. The atmosphere is undeniably powerful. I ran this 75 year old movie a while back for fellow critic Justin Souther, who shuddered at the (really rather simply done) scene where Mabuse’s spirit enters Baum’s body, commenting, “No, that wasn’t at all creepy.” It’s the straightforward depiction of such a fantastic occurence that makes it so. And then there’s the plan itself. Mabuse no longer wants to control Berlin. He wants to plunge the whole of Germany into chaos so that he can take it over—and from there? Today Germany, tomorrow the world?

That was certainly the impression left on Nazi propaganda minister Dr. Goebbels, who saw that there was a little too much in the way of similarities between Mabuse’s plans and those of Adolph Hitler. He recognized that this was no simple pulp thriller—though it’s that as well—but a potentially dangerous work where the party was concerned. So what did he do? Why, he offered Lang a job making Nazi propaganda films. Lang wisely high-tailed it to France, but his wife, who was sympathetic to the Nazis, stayed behind and became a party member.

This wasn’t the last of Dr. Mabuse. Lang himself revived him for The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse in 1960, which in turn led to a series of Mabuse films starring Wolfgang Preiss as Mabuse and Gert Frobe (best known as another arch-criminal, Auric Goldfinger in a certain James Bond picture) as his nemesis. The Lang film isn’t without intrerest and the others can be enjoyable in the fashion of the then thriving German “krimis.” (In fact, Harald Reinl, who made his share of “krimis” made a couple of them.) But they’re just not the chilling works of the real McMabuse.

Rotwang. Sandwiched in between Rudolf Klein-Rogge’s turns at Dr. Mabuse was his Rotwang, the mad scientist villain of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Rotwang is, if anything, more colorful than Mabuse, but colorful doesn’t necessarily make him more disturbing. That’s possibly more true today—as more complete versions of Lang’s film have surfaced, which make Rotwang’s villainy more explicable, if far from admirable.

What once seemed like a taste for destruction for its own sake can now clearly be seen as the unhinged workings of a man suffering—however drastically—from a bad case of revenge over unrequieted love. Making it more apparent that Rotwang’s plans to bring down the futuristic world of Metropolis is motivated on losing the love of his life to Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), the master of Metropolis, causes him to be more sympathetic. It doesn’t keep him from being four-square nuts, however.

There’s not a lot of subtlety to Klein-Rogge’s Rotwang, but then there’s not a lot of subtlety to Metropolis in general. Someone once opined that the acting in the film—with the exception of that from Alfred Abel—was as if someone had yelled, “Fire!” And there’s no denying that the performances are pitched a bit on the hysterical side. Rotwang is no exception. At the same time, it’s fair to ask how one would portray an Evil Genius who seems part mad scientist, part magician, wholly crazy in a subtle manner? If there is such a way, it escaped Klein-Rogge, which is part of what makes the character so deliciously high on the Evil Genius scale. He certainly entered pop culture consciousness more than many of his brethren—as witness Joseph Wiseman’s much less colorful Dr. No with his similarly black-gloved prosthetic arm in Dr. No (1962). And anyway, cut the old boy some slack—he produced the best robot the movies ever saw.

The Bat. The character of the Bat is a fascinating one. He originated in a clever stage play called The Bat by Avery Hopwood and Mary Roberts Rinehart (whose earlier novel The Circular Staircase contains all the elements of the story—except for the Bat). The Bat provided the play and its two (worth discussing) film versions—The Bat (1926) and The Bat Whispers (1930)—with its surprise gimmick. And it’s a good one—the identity of the Bat—that still works pretty well today, so long as you don’t know too much about the play or the movies.

In essence, the Bat is a master criminal of the “hooded killer” school so beloved of melodramas and serial films. And he’s basically out for monetary gain, which isn’t in itself all that colorful or interesting, but the Bat’s a different animal in that he’s a ruthless killer who offs people just for the hell of it and his big game in life lies in outwitting the police—and anyone you care to name. In a way, he’s the closest thing from an earlier era to Heath Ledger’s Joker, though in point of fact—and not accidentally—he resembles Batman far more. The character of the Bat was Bob Kane’s inspiration for Batman (but that’s another story for another column). Moreover, in The Bat Whispers the Bat disguises his voice as a gruff whisper so that his unmasked voice won’t give him away. It’s actually remarkably similar to Christian Bale’s approach in The Dark Knight. Of course, Bale doesn’t say things like, “Stand still until I put my hands around your lily white throat and squeeze and squeeze until your dead.” Kind of a pity, actually.

Roxor. Roxor is Bela Lugosi—who, in various incarnations, could qualify on my list three times—and he appears in the William Cameron Menzies-Marcel Varnel thriller Chandu the Magician (1932). Chandu the Magician was a radio series and the first adventure of the show appears to have formed the basis for the Fox film version—except that it boasted then popular Edmund Lowe as Chandu and Bela Lugosi as Roxor. (A couple years later, Lugosi would play Chandu in the serial, The Return of Chandu, which suffered from a lacklustre villain.) Chandu was in fact Frank Chandler, who had learned all sorts of magical hocus-pocus from “the Yogi” in the mystic east. No sooner has Chandler been Chandued than it falls to him to defeat Roxor, a madman bent on world domination—as madmen are wont to do.

The story is pulpy nonsense and the film itself is a lot like a serial—only played out in a single 71 minute sitting. It all centers on the idea that Chandu’s brother-in-law, the great scientist and humanitarian Robert Regent (Henry B. Walthall), has built a death ray that Roxor is determined to possess. According to Chandu, Regent has spent years working “to perfect a death ray strong enough to destroy whole cities.” (Just why a humanitarian would do this is never addressed.)

Roxor has some pretty grandiose notions about this ray, starting with his plans for Egyptian Princess Nadji’s (Irene Ware) happy peasants who live in the shadow of a great series of dams. “What if I destroy those dams? And I can do it with one blast of my death ray! Then where will your people be? More than a billion tons of water will sweep down on them, drowning them like rats—the greatest flood since the Biblical deluge!” he claims. And that’s only the start—“Civilization and all its work shall be destroyed! Men shall return to savagery, knowing only one supreme intelligence—me!”

Like many a megalomaniac before and since, Roxor might be viewed more as an Evil Opportunist than a genius. After all, he didn’t create the death ray, he merely appropriated it to his own ends. Whatever the case, he’s one flashy loon—and his big “mad scene” at the end (“Cities of the world shall perish! All that lives will know me as master—and tremble at my word!Roxor the god whose hand deals death!”) is essential Bela Lugosi perfidy at its most perfidious.

The film itself is a mixed bag. Though a handsome production with very nice special effects and some splendid model work, there’s too much comic relief, too much business with Chandu’s niece and nephew, and just too much Chandu, who isn’t nearly as interesting as Roxor. Some of the writing is stupefying. At one point the action is sufficiently muddled that Chandu moves things along by announcing, “It means that Roxor can do nothing by threatening Robert so he’s kidnapped Betty Lou! Come!” How he arrived at this conclusion is sketchy at best, but it brings the viewer up to speed.

Still, as Evil Geniuses go, Lugosi’s Roxor is hard to beat. For years Chandu the Magician was a hard film to see (something that’s been true of most of the Fox Film product prior to the 1936 merger with Darryl F. Zanuck’s 20th Century Films). The good news now is that the film will be available on DVD on September 9—a mere nine days shy of the 76th anniversary of its original release.

Dr. Fu Manchu Sax Rohmer’s literary creation, the insidious Dr. Fu Manchu has a long history in print. Rohmer’s arch villain was both an Evil Genius and a Criminal Mastermind and, despite being a very politically incorrect product from the days of the “yellow peril,” is still the yardstick by which super villains are measured. In the realm of film, the Doctor’s presence is surprisingly checkered. Fu first came to the movies in a series of British short films made between 1923 and 1924, none of which seem to have made much of an impact—except perhaps on their star H. Agar Lyons. He must have liked Asian villain a great deal, since he went from Dr. Fu Manchu to playing an apparent Fu knock-off, Dr. Sin Fang, for the rest of his unspectacular career.

When Hollywood first took up the Doctor, they re-wrote the old boy almost out of recognition. The Fu Manchu (Warner Oland, soon to become Charlie Chan) of The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu (1929) and its sequels—The Return of Dr. Fu Manchu (1930) and Daughter of the Dragon (1931)—isn’t so much a Criminal Mastermind as he’s a nice guy (and the film assures us a great friend of the white man) until his family are killed by British shells during the Boxer Rebellion, whereupon he becomes vengeance crazed. The movies are fun and have a terrific sense of humor about themselves and their improbabilities, but—despite elaborate plans that would do Rohmer proud—they don’t really represent Fu Manchu.

The ultimate Fu Manchu came in 1932 with Charles Brabin’s The Mask of Fu Manchu starring Boris Karloff as the Doctor, who for once is all that one might wish. “I am a doctor of philosophy from Edinburgh, I’m a doctor of law from Christ College, I’m a doctor of medicine from Harvard. My friends, out of courtesy, call me ‘Doctor,’” he sarcastically informs one of the (typically) rude Brits he does battle with in the course of the film. The movie does its best to showcase the extent of his evil and his genius—as well as his theatricality. (For atmospheric reasons, Fu never undertakes any of his works with electrical mad scientist gear without lowering the lights for a better effect—and it also helps to obscure the fact that that ain’t Karloff who’s moving an arc of electricity with his finger.)

Karloff’s Fu isn’t out for revenge—except in a generally anti-white manner—he’s out for, you guessed it, world domination. His fiendish plan (all of Fu’s plans are fiendish; it’s sort of a given) is to get his claws on the mask and sword of Genghis Khan in order to convince all China that he is ol’ Genghis come back to life to lead them in their task of taking over the world. (“British government! I’ll wipe them and the rest of acursed white race off the face of the earth when I get the sword and mask that will call the teeming millions of Asia to the uprising!”)

All manner of things are brought into play to achieve this end—including a weirdly homoerotic scene with beefcake leading man Charles Starrett in nothing but a very lowcut diaper being turned into a minion of Fu’s via a “serum distilled from dragon’s blood, my own blood, the organs of different reptiles, and mixed with the magic brew of the sacred seven herbs will temporarily change you into the living instrument of my will.” (Yes, it sounds a little like the recipe of a deranged Colonel Sanders.) This kind of excess—along with the film’s unvarnished racism (reaching a peak when Fu exhorts the “teeming millions” to “conquer and breed—kill the white man and take his women”)—have made The Mask of Fu Manchu a difficult film for modern audiences. It remains, however, the best incarnation of the insidious Doctor ever to grace the screen, despite later efforts by Christopher Lee in the 1960s. Possibly, this merely proves that there’s no Fu like an old Fu. (Oh, I wasn’t passing that up.)

Dr. Moreau. While Roxor wanted to take over—and largely destroy—the world, Dr. Moreau, the Evil Genius of Erle C. Kenton’s Island of Lost Souls (1932), had slightly less ambitious, but no less dubious, plans. The film marked the first of several attempts to bring H.G. Wells’ novel The Island of Dr. Moreau to the screen. In this case, the first attempt is very much the best, despite the fact that Wells himself hated the film and was delighted when the British censor banned it outright in the U.K. That banning was hardly surprising, since Island of Lost Souls remains the grimmest and most grisly of all 1930s horror pictures. Its tone is nasty and its horrors are of the “in your face” variety.

There’s a story about Charles Laughton—who plays Dr. Moreau—on the set of Leo McCarey’s Ruggles of Red Gap (1935) where shooting had dragged on into the evening. As things progressed, Laughton got increasingly campy in his performance until a frazzled McCarey yelled at him, “Charles, do you have to be so goddamned nancy?” Laughton stopped, looked at the director and announced, “Sorry, old boy, but if you keep me here this late it’s bound to show through.” With this in mind, it’s hard not to believe that Lost Souls director Kenton kept Laughton late every day of the shoot. Laughton’s Moreau is one of the gayest performances your eyes have ever beheld. It’s also remarkably sinister.

Dr. Moreau’s island is the jungle hell (actually Catalina Island) to which our Evil Genius has retreated after one of his vivisection/evolution experiments escaped from his London laboratory—an event that not surprisingly riled the British public. (Wells’ point in writing the novel was largely to put forth an anti-vivisection tract.) Moreau has somehow combined vivisection with blood transfusions and ray baths to “strip away a million years of evolution,” creating something like human beings out of animals. The results are generally grotesque naturally, except for Lota the Panther Woman (played by Kathleen Burke, winner of the Panther Woman of America contest).

Moreau’s God complex (“Do you know it is to feel like God?”) takes a turn when shipwrecked sailor Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) shows up, i.e., maybe he could breed Lota with Parker. (The British censor probably fainted dead away at this point.) Throughout it all, Moreau is a study in bemused evil. He’s like a particularly nasty schoolboy tearing the wings off insects just to watch the results—and everything is bitterly amusing to him. “Mr. Parker, spare me these youthful horrors,” he remarks when the young man is appalled at the cruelty of his experiments. Laughton plays it for all it’s worth—deliberately laying on the camp and the ham, lounging coyly on his own operating table and giggling (there’s no other word for it) at how one day he’ll create a woman (nevermind that he already has) and it’ll be easier to teach her to talk. Why the man even gets to let loose on that most venerable of jungle movie lines, remaring that the natives “are more than usually restless tonight.”

It’s hard to imagine—considering the array of monstrosities on his island—but there’s never any question that the real monster in Moreau, who not only created these things (“You made us things! Not man, not beast—things” cries Sayer of the Law Bela Lugosi near the climax), but forces them to worship him like a chubby, tropical-suited god. The penalty for not doing so is the threat of a trip back to “the house of pain,” the laboratory where the creatures were created.  No prizes will be awarded for guessing who eventually ends up in the house of pain, but prepare to be a little surprised by the grimness of the event when it manifests itself.

Ming the Merciless. Ming the Merciless comes from Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon comic strip and—for any serious purposes—came to the screen in three Universal serials from 1936 through 1940. In all three films, Ming was played with no little panache by character actor Charles Middleton. It is, in fact, the role for which Middleton is most remembered, despite being in nearly 200 movies. That’s not so hard to understand since Ming is the ne plus ultra in the realm of Evil Geniuses and Criminal Masterminds. This guy doesn’t want to take over a country or even the world (though he tries to destroy the latter on more than one occasion). No, Ming’s ambitions are nothing less than mastery of the universe. That such grandiose notions should have been played out relatively cheesy serials is one of the ironies of life.

For all their cheese factor, the Flash Gordon serials were elaborate affairs—for serials. They benefited from being made at Universal, meaning that a lot of elaborate sets and props from the studio’s horror pictures were re-dressed (sometimes only slightly) and pressed into service. These definitely helped make the productions look more impressive than the curtain-festooned sets that were made for the serials themselves. Access to the Universal music library helped, too. Existing tracks from The Invisible Man (1933), The Black Cat (1934), Werewolf of London (1935), Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Dracula’s Daughter (1936), Son of Frankenstein (1939) and even the end credit music from Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) were dropped into the serials. They often sounded better than they looked.

Stock footage also played a part—not all of it from Universal. To judge by the constant intercutting to a musical number from Fox’s Just Imagine (1930) as the entertainment of choice in Ming’s throne room, it would seem that the would-be ruler of the universe had appalling taste in bad early talkies. But for all that, the films have a charm—and part of that charm lies in their almost surrealistic sense of imagination. Depending on where you land in any given serial, they look like a tacky Wagner opera, a low-rent Robin Hood knock-off, a western, a Ruritanian musical, or just about anything you care to name.

Ming himself owes something to Fu Manchu—not just in looks, but in the fact that he’s given an oversexed and not entirely unlikeable daughter, Princess Aura. Unlike Fu, Ming isn’t much of a genius in his own right. He’s more in the Roxor line of the evil opportunist. When he wants something, he merely makes someone else do the heavy lifting. Clearly, the man subscribes to the school of “If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth forcing somebody else to do it.” And he’s a bit of a coward (Ming spends a lot of time running away, which is no easy feat in that long robe) and a little inept. After all, the fellow constantly has Flash Gordon (Buster Crabbe) in his hands for 37 chapters all told, and yet he never learns that killing him quickly would be a good move.

That said, he’s wonderfully colorful, deliciously nasty and he does—however briefly—conquer the universe in Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940), the title of which leaves no doubt as to what’s going to happen. But I think it’s also this that signalled the end of the line for this particular kind of villain, It’s not just a question of where one goes after conquering the universe. It’s more a question of the world changing.

There are intimations of this in the serial itself with references to Ming’s “concentration camps” and his plans to eradicate all who oppose him. Scenes of him trying out new methods of lethal warfare on the universe are strangely similar to those in Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940), but without the black comedy of Chaplin’s take on Hitler. When one of his scientists comes up with the idea of modifying Ming’s germ warfare, “the Purple Death,” because “wouldn’t it be better if it spared those millions of slaves to labor for you and killed only those with intelligence enough to oppose you,” it’s less amusing than chilling in the context of the time. It’s too close to home. The Evil Genius and Criminal Mastermind had, in essence, been rendered obsolete by reality.

And really, what do we have by way of such characters in the post-Ming universe? There’s nothing exactly comparable. The closest are the James Bond villains, but they’re comparatively mundane and lack the colorful style of their predecessor. Post-modern super villains tend more to work as figures of fun than actual menace. Look at Dr. Foot (Victor Spinetti) in Richard Lester’s second Beatle movie, Help! (1965). Here is the Evil Genius of the future—one so mired in red tape and bureaucracy that his assistant, Algernon (Roy Kinnear), is able to inform us that Foot is “out to rule the word—if he can get a government grant.” Welcome to the world of the arch criminal as deranged civil servant.

In a similar vein, there’s the parody of James Bond’s Dr. No in Woody Allen’s Dr. Noah in Casino Royale (1967). He’s not merely a mass of neuroses and complexes, but his notions of world domination come down to “being able to score with a top broad.” Beyond that, Dr. Noah’s big scheme turns out to be a libidinous variant on old Ming’s “Purple Death”—a baccilus that when released in the air will “make all women beautiful and destroy all men over four-foot-six.” As James Bond (David Niven) notes, “So that’s your plan is it? A world full of beautiful women and all men shorter than yourself.” It’s a bit of a comedown from the giddy heights of destruction envisioned by Messrs. Mabuse, Roxor, Ming, etc. And perhaps that’s the truth of it—there’s just no place for Evil Geniuses and Criminal Masterminds in the world today. It’s a bit of a pity.


About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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3 thoughts on “Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: Evil geniuses and criminal masterminds

  1. Tonberry

    Pretty cool reading this article after watching Dr. Strangelove. Not by any means the prime example of an evil genius/criminal mastermind, but Dr. Strangelove makes me laugh by echoing them.

  2. Ken Hanke

    Actually, though I didn’t think about it, Strangelove might well qualify as a post-WWII evil genius — combining the pre-war variety of fantastication (doesn’t that naughty sieg-heiling arm owe something to Rotwang?) with the more mundane modern variety.

  3. Jim Donato

    Just this weekend in Chapel Hill, I was watching Mabuse Der Speiler at a friend’s house and he lamented the dearth of evil geniuses in today’s entertainment sphere. So I e-mailed him the link to this essay to let him know that he was not alone in the world. We were first exposed to the dark glory of Dr. Mabuse by the brilliant song the Germany group Propaganda, “Das Testaments Des Mabuse.” A track that fully encompasses the decadence, sin and degradation of the master criminal.

    As for me, at work, it is my wont to leap fully on occasion into the throes of cackling, pure evil – much to the incomprehension and dull-witted incoherence of my so-called fellow workers!

    BAH!! Inchoate philistines!!! One day I’ll crush them all like bugs… like BUGS, I tell you!!!!*

    Be seeing you

    – Jim Donato

    * Taking care not to damage the tissue, I assure you.

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