Thursday, March 24, 2011

M Kills the Rest of the Alphabet

M

Recently I decided to breakdown and sign up for the Netflix Canada free trial. Upon first glance I was excited to see films like In the Mood For Love, and Requiem for a Dream staring back at me. Yet as I delved deeper into Netflix I became perturbed by the randomness of the selection of films offered. While it was great that I can now catch up on films made by Miike (e.g. Audition, Ichi the Killer), I found it odd that none of the classic Clint Eastwood westerns were available. Regardless, one thing that peaked my interest was the small selection of Criterion films available (i.e. Jules et Jim, Cronos, Hidden Fortress, etc.).

To christen my Netflix account, I decided to revisit the classic Fritz Lang film, M, which was featured in the Criterion section. As the film began I suddenly came to the realization that I never got past the first ten minute in my original viewing. Although I have fond memories of my university roommates and I renting both Lang’s Metropolis and M, I somehow managed to block out the fact that I had fallen asleep during the second movie of our Fritz Lang double-bill.

Fortunately I was wide awake this time around and the film ended up being quite a treat. Made in 1931, M has often been cited as one of the first films to feature a serial killer prominently in its plot. Set in a German town the film documents the mounting paranoia and hysteria that arises when someone starts abducting and murdering the local children. With the only clue being a handwritten note, the police are unable to locate any other information that would lead them to the killer. As a result, they are forced to expand their relentless search into the areas were most of the criminals dwell. The increase police presence starts to hinder criminal activity to the point where the criminals decided to conduct their own manhunt for the killer so they can get back to business.


The thing I absolutely loved about M is how it alters my view of the killer, Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre), constantly throughout the film. While Lang clearly states that Beckert is a sick man, there are moments in the second half of the film where I could not help but root for Beckert. Although he is a disgusting man in his own right, I could not help but feel sorry for him in the moments when the criminals were closing in on him. I am not saying that I did not want him to answer for his many crimes, but I merely wanted it to be at the hands of the law opposed to men who were villains themselves.

This reaction is clearly a result of Peter Lorre’s wonderful performance as Hans Beckert. Lorre manages to make Beckert both a sniveling childlike man and a creepy monster all at the same time. This is most evident in the mock trial scene where Beckert tries to pawn himself off as an innocent bystander who has been mistaken for the killer, only to turn around moments later and deliver an eerie speech in which he tries to explain what motivates him to kill.

Despite being made in the 1930’s M holds up surprising well. In fact it looks better, and is far more convincing, than many of the serial killer flicks released today. The debate that Lang raises the film regarding whether or not people who have skeletons in their own closets, in this case the criminals, should decide what is acceptable is still very relevant today. M does not need gore and fast edits to make Beckert menacing, just a simple but effective story that stays with you long after the film ends.

16 comments:

  1. Got the Criterion blu-ray of this for Christmas, so I watched it pretty recently myself. God does this movie still land it's punches!

    I'm pressed to think of any better cinematic reminders of what seperates upstanding citizens from the criminals they despise.

    Great post man!

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  2. I can never decided which is Lang's best, this film or Metropolis.
    Both amazing works. Fritz Lang was a genius, such a shame he had to go to Hollywood due to the war...
    Great review CS!

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  3. Jesus, I really need to see this and Metropolis already. What the hell is taking me?

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  4. This is the movie that got me into Lang--aside from Caligari, I never really got into his silent stuff--and the whole story behind and after it is fascinating.

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  5. @Hatter – Now that you mention it, I am unable to come up with any other cinematic reminder either. I could only think of films that dealt with the fall of society, but even those are not good examples. M is really tough to beat in that regards.

    @Jack – I use to think Metropolis was the best but, after watching M, I have changed my vote.

    @Aiden – I am actually shocked that you have not seen either one. I would have thought both films would be right up your alley.

    @Simon – There is a large chunk of the Lang’s silent films that I still need to see. Hopefully I will get around to them at some point.

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  6. They are, man. I just have some stupid phobia of silent movies for some reason. I feel shame, but I'll take care of this situation asap.

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  7. @Aiden - M is a good place to start. It has some silent moments but for the most part is dialogue driven.

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  8. Interesting but naive film!

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  9. @S.M. Rana - Naive in what way? Are you taking in regards to plot? Or overall execution?

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  10. A fantastic movie that was decades ahead of its time. I also felt a little sorry for Lorre's character when he was "put on trial" and he comes to realize that his own actions, which he can't help, are what have doomed him.

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  11. @Chip – Lorre’s performance was brilliant. You hate him for most of the movie but in that one scene you really start to feel some compassion towards the character.

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  12. we just saw this as part of the noir-a-thon, interesting how many of us bloggers loved the movie. for some reason i was expecting a german black & white movie from 1931 to have been missed.

    i loved it. as chip said it was decades ahead of it's time. lang was a true master.

    posting the review next week, if you want to add a small capsule i can include it or i'll just post a link over here.

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  13. @Toby – I think M is one of those films that bloggers hear a lot about and go out of there way to seek out. I just could not pass up the chance to see the when it was on Netflix briefly. Feel free to use this link if you want. Look forward to reading your reviews.

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  14. Man, I love that closing monologue from Lorre! I haven't seen an earlier "talkie" with such a complex and passionate speech in it. Good review.

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  15. @sirbriang2 - There are so many outstanding moments in the film. It actually made me want to seek out other films that were released in the era.

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  16. @CS: I've seen a handful of films from the 30s, and many of them are quite good. I haven't seen anything in this period that matches the tone of M, though.

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