M


Year 1931

Peter Lorre as  Franz Becker
Gustaf Gründgens as Schräenker
Ernst Stahl-Nachbaur   as Chief of Police
Theodor Loos as Police Commissioner Groeber  
Georg John as Blind Beggar
 
Director - Fritz Lang
Screenwriters - Fritz Lang
  - Paul Falkenberg
  - Adolf Jansen
  - Thea von Harbou

This is a movie by Fritz Lang. Fritz Lang! He probably had cojones made of titanium ingots. He probably spat in Hitler's eye before he left Germany. He probably put shoe polish on Goebbels toilet seat as a prank.

This testosterone fueled genius had the audacity to film Der Niebelungen! To give you some idea of what this means, if the written portion of The Lord of the Rings was three times longer and Peter Jackson had managed to condense it into six or eight hours, then there might be a comparison between Lang and a modern day director.

Maybe you've heard of Fritz Lang? Metropolis? That was his crowning achievement. But it wasn't his only claim to glory.

There was also the, at the time wholly original, twist ending to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari that he wrote and, of course M.

This movie was filmed in 1931. Talking pictures had been around for only a couple of years. The medium was invented for the visionary Lang.

Orson Welles was good, but Lang broke new ground with nearly every freaking thing he did!

One of his American movies, Scarlet Street is so tautly drawn out that I'm having a hard time finishing it. What's new about that one? A guy gets away with murder. In an era of the infamous Hayes Office where bad guys need to be punished by good guys, the killer isn't. In fact, someone else dies in his place!

Oh, Mr. Lang. You maverick!

So what's up with M and what exactly does the letter stand for?

Well, M is a German movie with subtitles. I definitely recommend viewing it like this. Otherwise, you'll miss one of movie history's greatest moments when Peter Lorre... Whoa! Let's not rush things.

"M" is the first letter in the German word for murderer. Either it's a nice coincidence or the English word comes from the same root. Either way, the letter means the same thing in both languages.

Fritz Lang, because of his dark nature, decided to make a film about a serial killer decades before the term "serial killer" was even coined. This sick individual preyed on children and, in the movie, held a city in a grip of fear for eight months.

Here's a bit of backstory. At the time the movie was written, a number of serial killers were loose in Germany. They had names like Haarmann, Grossmann, Kürten, Denke, and Peter Kürten, a.k.a. "The Vampire of Düsseldorf". The killer in this movie is a composite of them.

The Criterion Collection version of the movie came with a little booklet that included a comparison to many current features that are "ripped from today's healines!" Lang did it first.

The killer, Franz Becker (Peter Lorre), doesn't spend a lot of time on camera. Most of the film deals with the societal effect of having a murderer of children on the loose. People are terrified and the tension builds between organizations as well as neighbors.

The police are depicted as being apathetic until they have to do something. Then, they show emotion by being disdainful of the civilian population. Similarly, the crooks, who have their own loose association, consider Becker none of their business until a police crackdown interferes with their personal losses of illicit income.

The cynicism is one of the reasons that I like Lang. No one is good. Everyone is just a varying degree of bad. For this movie to work like it does, the jaded outlook has to be integral.

To preserve their ciminal activities, the crooks decide to find the killer themselves. See that DVD cover up above? They've spotted and tagged the creature with an "M".

Take another look at the picture. It's a still from the movie. See that expression on Peter Lorre's face? Notice that he's looking at his own reflection? It's in a shop window.

Lang does things with windows and reflections that would be amazing today, muchless in 1931. The use of focus to highlight where he wants you to look on the screen is masterful. Lighting and reflections are works of art.

The filming of a chase through a warehouse, although slightly flawed by today's standards, had to have been the 1931 equivalent of blowing up the top floor of Nakatomi Plaza. No director at the time would have probably even tried it except for Fritz "Yippee Ki-Yay" Lang.

There's gallows humor throughout the movie. For example, after the murderer Becker writes a letter to the press
Secretary: "This is simply irresponsible!"
Commissioner: "Mr. Secretary, we cannot stop the murderer from writing to whomever he wishes."

A potential witness is being questioned, starting with the color of a victim's cap which he doesn't know.
A piece of advice offered: "If you rely on a color-blind man for clues, don't be surprised if you get nowhere."

One begger to another: "Hey, stop snoring. You'll wake the lice."

Pickpocket: "There are more police on the street tonight than prostitutes."

Or one that should be a classic
Schränker: "We just want to render you harmless. That's what we want. But you'll only be harmless when you're dead."

Along with all this comes Peter Lorre, a man who had only done comedies to this point. This movie, this role, defined his entire career. Why? Because he delivered his lines so perfectly.

There's no way to make a pedophile a sympathetic character. There's no extenuating circumstance that could in any way allow anyone to forgive such fiendish behavior. Yet, there is a way to dimish the crime if the words are well chosen and if the person presenting them is convincing enough.

Fritz "Duke Nukem who?" Lang's words coming out of Peter Lorre's mouth make for a scene that'll have you questioning your own ability to judge right and wrong. This is a powerful soliloquoy and, ever since I was carried along by it, I've never taken Peter Lorre's presence in a movie for granted.

Only someone like Fritz "I defined 'edgy'" Lang could have ever attempted to present an insanity plea for a child killer in a movie in 1931.

This movie offers very little appeal to the softer gender, especially if she hates reading subtitles. But, even if it is a bit dated, it's definitely worth checking out at least once. Don't do it just for the plot, which is like a raw nerve, but do it also for a glimpse of the roots of current movie techniques.


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