Tuesday, July 6, 2010


Grade: F
Title: M (1931)
Director: Fritz Lang
Notable Actors: Peter Lorre

I stumbled across M quite on accident one day as I was looking at the legendary director Fritz Lang. I had recently seen his phenomenal silent film Metropolis (which if you have yet to see, please make the effort - you will not be disappointed) again and was stunned. Having watched it years previously on TCM, I had somehow forgotten how gripping a silent film, when done well, could be. Thus, I was re-inspired to look back into Lang.

He is well known for more than just his enduring movies. In fact, he has been said to fit the classic German stereotype - right down to the monocle.

It is obvious that he is not the most approachable of men, but his work was almost always exceptional. Metropolis represents his work in the silent films, which were just dying as he was directing. M was one of his first talkies and an aesthetic success, using sound to grip and warn the audience. There are several scenes in M where there is pure silence: no music, no background noises, no skidding feet as he runs - just quiet, which at many times works to make the audience even more fearful as it reflects the unnatural subject of the film: a child murderer. In fact, M is the first movie to ever represent a serial killer of any kind, let alone a serial killer who preys on children. It is unclear whether or not he sexually abuses them (the officers just leave it as "the child vanishes . . . when they reappear . . . well, we all know what has happened to them"), and much of the material dealt with surprised me for a film of the 30s. However, the fact that it was made so early in the film industry works to its advantage. Instead of shrill screams from the children or a bloody murder scene, Lang deftly alludes to what happens. The subtlety of his cinematography is quite beautiful. For example, after the introduction of the town that is being terrorized (the movie begins with a chilling scene of children happily playing a game on the street where they sing about the man in black who will take one of them away to make mincemeat out of them) a little girl is found to be walking home from school. She stops to bounce her ball on a post, which has the information about the murderer pasted to it. A shadow appears on the post while the little girl turns to meet the stranger.

This image is gripping, even though the shadow may be too concrete to really seem natural. Once again, the whole movie is about the unnatural. I rated this movie an "F," which means here the highest grade rather than the lowest, because of these startling moments in the film that really works to get the viewer on edge. Lang had his audience in suspense, even though he told them who the killer was early on.

Peter Lorre is able to shine forth breathtakingly in this film. I grew up watching Arsenic and Old Lace (where he played the somehow endearing doctor who seemed forced to carve up a murderers face to keep him hidden) and The Brave Little Toaster (which has a ceiling lamp caricature of Lorre), so it was surprising to see Lorre in such a unique role. I had seen him play villains before (like in My Favorite Brunnette and The Man Who Knew Too Much) and knew he could be sinister and frightening, but in M he is something altogether different. He is at once repugnant and pitiful. The picture above shows Lorre as he contemplates himself in the mirror while a psychiatrist lists the attributes this kind of murder would have. It creates a disturbingly intriguing atmosphere, which makes it hard to pull away from this film even upon a second viewing.
Other than M's ability to keep me in my seat the entire time (although I should put in a brief warning that all may not be of this opinion - clearly they need to work on maturing their taste - because, I have been told by someone I tried to make watch M that it could be considered slow. I think it is beautiful, and takes its time as it builds both the disturbing character of the murderer and the frenzied nature of a town on edge, making a truly gripping film), I really enjoyed the second half of the film. This is the part where Lorre is being sought by all of the criminals in the town rather than just the police. One of the most iconic scenes from the movie appears after the blind man has heard the fateful whistle (something that Lorre does often throughout the film, usually when he is about to kill a child, which I have to admit means that I will never be able to hear "In the Hall of the Mountain King" again without becoming at lest a little uneasy) and reports it to a criminal on the street. The murderer is labeled in an almost Scarlet Letter kind of way as a street thug is able to pat a chalk "M" on his back. He does not see it until the little girl, his prey, points it out to him. What ensues next is an intense chase and search for M. Interestingly in this hectic search, Lang is able to make his viewer pity the murderer, even while he is shown to be abhorrent. You find yourself thinking about how dreadful and frightening it would be to be M as all the criminals of the city trap and hunt you.

They finally work to catch him, and in a chilling scene put him on "trial."

He fights for what he does and attempts to explain it, even having a "lawyer." However, the criminals are out for blood. All in all, M is a classic movie that goes beyond its gripping plot and intriguing characters. The simple beauty present in many of the scenes makes this movie worth more than just one watch. I have been looking to buy this movie the past couple of months, but have only been able to find it on amazon to buy (http://www.amazon.com/Disc-Special-Criterion-Collection/dp/B00065GX64/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=dvd&qid=1278479532&sr=1-1), but it is available on Netflix to watch instantly, which I have made great use of!

Just to keep you aware, I will be selecting my movies from 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. I will be hopscotching all around that book, mostly because some of the movies (i.e. Birth of a Nation) might prove hard to find. Until next time; go enjoy some art!

1 comment:

  1. Well, I didn't get to see the movie - but I am intrigued. Who doesn't love a little Peter Lorre insanity? Smooch