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Our review of M: Criterion Collection, published December 20th, 2004, is also available.
The blueprint for the psychological thriller.
"I can't help what I do! I can't help it!"
Facts of the Case
A serial killer named Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre, Casablanca) is on the loose. So far, he has murdered eight German children. People are quickly going into full-blown panic mode as the police continually fail to find the killer. As time passes, private citizens and even local criminals devote their time and resources to tracking down this evil man. Will Beckert be captured and brought to justice?
When I tell you that M is a foreign film that was released in 1931, there's a good chance you may jump to the conclusion that the film is slow, dull, and crafted in a manner reflecting the limitations of the medium at the time. It's okay; I'm not always super-enthusiastic about jumping into some of those films from the early days of cinema that are more "important" than they are actually engaging. However, let it be said that M is no stale piece of cinema history. It is a remarkable piece of filmmaking from a man fully in control of some relatively new tools and ideas, creating a movie that crackles with energy and tension thanks to its surprisingly sophisticated use of cinematography, sound, and editing. It's also a powerful character study, an excellent social commentary, and a sneaky satire.
The film was directed by Fritz Lang, who was clearly using the film as an opportunity to respond to some of the things that were happening around him in Nazi Germany. Lang fled the country a couple of years after making M, going on to have a long and fruitful career in Hollywood and making such fine films as Fury and The Big Heat. Even so, his career in the United States never quite reached the creative heights of his work in Germany, where the eggshells he had to tread artistically seemed to refine his abilities as a filmmaker. M pulls off the considerable task of ferociously criticizing German society without making censors aware of the fact that the film was doing such a thing.
A serial killer may very well be at the center of the plot, but Lang gives us a Germany that can be as ugly and repulsive as Beckert himself. There isn't too much sympathy to be found for those who are disturbed by these murders; Lang is more interested in exploring how such a horrible situation has a way of bringing out the very worst in humanity. People begin to suspect one another of crimes, turning small trivialities into damning evidence and leaping all too easily into a lynch mob mentality. What's unusual about the film is how much compassion it demonstrates towards the killer and how little it demonstrates towards those seeking the murderer. Lang is not saying that the murderer is not dangerous, but he's sternly suggesting that people ought to be examining their own actions and motivations with as much scrutiny as they are examining those of the killer.
The casting of Peter Lorre is essential, as there's perhaps no other actor who could have managed to accomplish so much while saying so little. He doesn't have much screen time, but his presence lingers over our memories of the film in the same way that Anthony Hopkins' presence lingers over our memories of The Silence of the Lambs. Lorre has numerous scenes in which he is given no dialogue, but his face masterfully indicates his personal terror: rarely has a predator seemed so much like the prey. Lorre nails an impassioned monologue at the film's conclusion which attempts to explain his troubled mentality to his accusers. This scene does not ask us to feel sorry for the killer, but it does allow us to understand him (though those listening to Beckert are less understanding than most viewers will be).
Social commentary and character exploration aside, M works because it's a genuinely terrific thriller. Lang uses sound in a very compelling way, employing the haunting strains of the murderer whistling a few bars of Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King." The sound is very sparing; many sequences are entirely silent save for a solitary sound effect or two. Lang's use of shadow and smoke hints at some of the trends that would later dominate the noir genre, and the crisp editing and leering camera angles give the movie a nervous energy that makes it irresistibly compelling.
The film is nearly 80 years old, so it's no surprise that the image is a bit beaten and battered. There are plenty of scratches and flecks, lots of grain, some scenes that become too soft, others that flicker a lot and so on, but the movie looks about as good as one can expect it to considering its age. Aside from the aforementioned handful of softer moments, detail is very good and shadow delineation is excellent. For a long time, available prints of M were very grimy and almost unwatchable; now the image is appropriately bright and clear throughout. The image isn't a huge improvement from the previous Criterion DVD release (which was already impressive), but I'm glad to have this visually involving movie available in hi-def. Audio is clean and clear, though this track is about as spare and simple as they come (as I said, many sequences contain no sound at all).
All of the supplements from the previous DVD release are reprised on this set (though everything is now contained on a single disc). You get an audio commentary with scholars Anton Kaes and Eric Rentschler, a 50-minute interview with Lang conducted by William Friedkin, a short film inspired by M entitled "M le Maudit" (10 minutes) and an interview with it's maker, Claude Chabrol (7 minutes). There's a 14-minute interview with Harold Nebenzal, son of producer Seymour Nebenzal, plus 36 minutes of audio interviews with editor Paul Falkenberg. "A Physical History of M" (25 minutes) examines the film's colorful journey from the time of its release to the present day. Finally, you get a theatrical trailer and a booklet containing an essay by Stanley Kauffman plus interviews with Lang and others.
M is both an important film and a terrific one. It deserves a place on any true cinephile's shelf. The Blu-ray release isn't entirely essential for those who have the DVD set, but it's the best option for those who haven't purchased the film yet. Highly recommended.
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