on August 29, 2005
So how is it that one who enjoys movies, good and bad, as much as I do, has never seen Fritz Lang's M (1931) until last night? I've certainly heard about it, I've seen clips from it, I've read John J. Muth's beautifully rendered four issue comic/graphic novel adaptation of it, heck, I even bought the film at the end of last year, and it's been sitting on my `to be watched' shelf ever since...perhaps there was a sense of intimidation on my part, or fear...fear that I may not have liked the film that many acknowledge as a classic work of cinema, and one of the best examples of early German expressionist films (it's also one of the first, big German talkie films), from which so many others have since drawn upon for inspiration. After finally buckling down and watching it last night, I have to say, I really didn't know what I was missing, especially given how much I enjoy the noir films released by Hollywood in its heyday. Co-written and directed by Fritz Lang (Metropolis, The Blue Gardenia), the film stars Peter Lorre (The Man Who Knew Too Much, Mad Love), whom I first became familiar with, unknowingly, when I was a child, watching the Warner Brothers cartoons, shown on Saturday morning. It wasn't until later when I actually saw Lorre in Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) that I made the connection and realized his distinctive manner and appearance (bedroom voice, bug eyes, and moon face) was the one characterized within the various cartoons.
I have to say, this is probably the best film I've seen in an awhile. The one aspect that really stood out was the exquisite beauty within the cinematography, the usage of shadows along with an incredibly wide array of shots used to tell the story and develop tension throughout. Normally when someone uses that many different kinds of shots, it tends to draw unwanted attention, but here they seemed to have been chosen and ordered in such as ways as to feel seamless, hardly ever disrupting the flow. There was one shot, in particular, that comes to mind and it's when Lorre, who plays the killer, is being chased by emissaries of the underworld, through darkened streets. There's a high angled long shot, featuring an expansive view of a wide street, and we can see Lorre's character down below looking like a cornered animal, his escape routes cut off as various individuals appear, blocking off the exits. There are also many scenes featuring dialog being spoken by a character not on the screen, describing to another in detail what we're seeing as an example on the screen. One example of this was after the police raids on the criminal districts, we hear voice of one of the authorities speaking to another about the raids, while seeing a slow pan across a long table featuring all the contraband confiscated, including guns, knifes, brass knuckles, burglary tools, stolen booty, etc. Lorre's performance was amazing, even more so considering he wasn't even really featured in the first half of the film. The scenes were he's leading a potential victim around, buying candy and such, were particularly creepy, whistling that tune, but his real talent comes through near the end, as he tries to explain his despicable actions to an audience bent on seeing him destroyed. Despite the ugly nature of the character, Lorre almost makes you feel sympathetic towards his monstrous character...almost. One element that surprised me was the very subtle comedic touches included in the film dealing with such serious material. An example of this can be seen during the meeting of the criminals to discuss the effect the investigation of the killer is having on their business ventures. One individual asks another for the time, to which the one calls and asks the operator, and then proceeds to remove watch after watch from his garments to set the time...obviously he's a pickpocket by trade, and there was something comical about him taking out all these stolen watches to set the time. I've read that, with regards to some elements of the film, Lang intended to surreptitiously comment on his distaste for the prevalent Fascist regime within Germany at the time, and I can see collaborative material within the film to justify such a claim, specifically in terms of the public's reactions (accusations, finger pointing, apathy), and the authorities general sense of contempt for those it is trying to protect...whether this is true or not, I do not know, as I'm not one of historical knowledge, especially of a political sense...regardless, this is an excellent film, with a definite contemporary relevancy even after nearly 70 some odd years, and worth watching, if, for nothing else, to gain an appreciation for its influence on films that followed.
The film on this Criterion Collection DVD release runs 110 minutes, and looks beautiful in its original aspect ratio of 1.19:1. The picture is very clear and clean, as is the Dolby Digital monaural audio. This release also features a `new and improved' English subtitle translation. This is a two disc set, the first featuring a new, restored in high definition digital print, along with an audio commentary by German film scholars Anton Kaes and Eric Rentschler. The second disc contains a conversation with Fritz Lang (50 minutes), a short film titled "M le Maudet", by Claude Chabrol, classroom tapes of M editor Paul Falkenberg discussing the film and its history, an interview with Harold Nebenzal, son of the producer, a physical history of M, and a still gallery with behind the scenes photos and production sketches. Also included is a 32-page booklet with essays, interviews, and a script for a missing scene.
By the way, as far as the meaning of the one letter title, it's pretty simple, one that's made perfectly clear within the film, so there's no sense in my spoiling it here...