Saturday, December 11, 2010

M (1931)

For a while, I have been putting off watching M because I viewed it as a historical film, and little more.  This was director Fritz Lang's first "talkie," it was Peter Lorre's big break, it was the first police procedural, and it was the first serial killer movie.  There are other historical aspects to this 1931 film (the first time a character has been associated with music, or a leitmotif), but those are generally the ones that people talk about.  And by "people," I mean "film critics."  I've had access to the movie for a while, but after my last historical viewing (Nosferatu) failed to entertain me, I was hesitant to give this one a go.  Once again, the joke is on me; while it is certainly an old (and German!) movie, it still stands up.

In an unnamed German city, a child murderer is on the loose.  At least four children have been found murdered in the past year, with an implication that more have gone missing.  As some working class mothers discuss the murders and prepare for their children to come home from school, we see the back of a man's head and hear him whistle a song from Edvard Grieg's music for the play Peer Gynt:

The man then follows a little girl.  We see the mother get annoyed, and increasingly frantic, when her daughter doesn't arrive home with the other children; meanwhile, we see shots of the man giving the girl some candy and buying a balloon for her from a blind street vendor.  The mother instinctively knows that something is wrong, and her cries for her child echo in all the innocent places she could be; the whistling stops and the camera follows her balloon drifting to the sky and getting tangled in some phone wires.

Right off the bat, we know who the killer is.  We have not seen his face yet or heard the name Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre) yet, but there is no mistaking that the whistling man, and that he killed that girl.  The public is justifiably upset over the murder and gets more so when the killer writes a letter to a newspaper, implying that the police have been holding out on the press on this case.  The public get hysterical; one scene shows a man being kind to a child and getting attacked by a mob and being accused of murder.  The obvious next step for the police is to crack down on all criminals and see if they can find any leads on the murderer.  This ruins business for the criminals, so the heads of the various semi-unionized criminal career paths (safecrackers, thieves, beggars, etc.) decide that they will comb the city for the killer, too, if only to get the police off their backs.  Eventually, through the use of psychology, the police stumble upon Beckert's apartment and find some telling clues that he wrote the letter to the newspaper.  Meanwhile, as Beckert prepares to entice and murder another child, he passes by the same blind balloon vendor from before, whistling again; being a semi-unionized beggar, he and his friends are on the lookout for the killer and the blind man pieces together the timing of the last girl's death with the whistling he hears now.  The blind man gets another to trail Beckert; to do this better, the man writes "M" (for morder, or murder) on his hand in chalk and makes up an excuse to put his hand on Beckert's jacket.  So now, both the police and the criminal element know that Beckert is the killer.  The question is who will find him first, and what will they do?

In his first leading role, Peter Lorre doesn't really get a whole lot of screen time in M.  The movie is clearly about him, but even when he is on screen, he is often silent or has his back turned toward the camera.  Once he realizes that he has been marked and is being followed, Lorre does a good job playing a desperate man.  With his normally hooded eyes, when Lorre opens them wide, he really looks terrified.  He only has one opportunity to explain his character, and he does so in a (surprisingly good, for the times) monologue near the film's close.  And yet, the film is not sympathetic to his character.  It's an interesting balance, and you can argue that this film is without a protagonist.  Lang uses visual cues (smoke, anonymous meeting rooms, insincere smiles) to draw parallels between the police officials and the criminal leaders.  Neither the police leader, Inspector Lohman (Otto Wernicke), nor the criminal leader, The Safecracker (Gustaf Grundgens), are particularly likable.  M kind of feels like an episode of Law and (Dis)Order, with the police doing their part and the criminals doing theirs; the story is not about either of them, so much as it is about the case itself.  I guess that makes sense, then, that this film gave birth to the police procedural genre.

Fritz Lang's direction is probably what sticks out to me most about this film.  In some ways, what he was doing was clearly very innovative, like his frequent use of windows and mirrors to show Beckert's emotions.  Giving the killer his own musical theme, which is common now, was a first back then, too.  What stuck out most to me were the moments that had no soundtrack at all.  There weren't many of these, maybe two or three stretches of a few minutes of silence, that just felt odd to me.  There were also some unusual camera angles that were clearly making a point (like the extreme low angle, looking up at Inspector Lohman's crotch), but I have absolutely no idea what.  This was 1931 Germany, so I suppose it could have something to do with Nazis, but I couldn't begin to guess what exactly a policeman's crotch has to do with Hitler.

This definitely feels like an old movie.  Many of the shots look like they could be accompanied by ragtime piano, like silent films, and there are other action shots that might have been played back in fast-forward.  Many of the supporting characters are bland and their performances are usually just one-note.  This movie does show flashes of inspired filmmaking and Peter Lorre's desperate monologue is very good.  The use of Freudian psychology in the film is interesting, as it on the one hand helps condemn him (a handwriting analysis shows the killer to be a "sexual deviant," which implies pedophilia --- edgy now, but in 1931?  Fuggedaboutit!) but on the other hand helps excuse him (should a compulsion be punished?); these are both surprisingly complex ideas, ones that I don't think Hollywood tackled for another fifteen or twenty years.

I suppose the question that a viewing of M brings up is, "Is it worth seeing?"  Definitely.  I always enjoy Peter Lorre and his disturbed performance is interesting to watch.  I don't know how good the English dubbed version is (I know the actors did dub dialogue, but I also know that Lorre couldn't speak English fluently until after 1934), but the cleaned up Criterion edition of the film has good picture quality and (from my limited grasp of German) good subtitles, so I would recommend that one.  This is the oldest film I have watched that actually felt like a modern movie, and it's interesting to see film history unfolding before you.  Yes, it has aged, and a lot of the story elements are predictable, now that they've been rehashed a few dozen times, but that's not the point.  If it wasn't engaging, it would still be educational, and Lorre's performance is worth checking out. can find other opinions on M at the Noir-a-Thon page


  1. a nice review brian, glad you got over your fear of old foreign films! i loved this movie from a purely entertainment perspective but also was amazed at the technical and film making developments on display.

    am posting a review as part of our noirathon, if you want to submit a capsule feel free if not i'll post a link to your review.

  2. That sounds awesome. I can't find the link on the LAMB site. Can you send it to me?


    this is the main link for our noir-a-thon series but feel free to email us whatever you'd like to include to ohmygabe[at]hotmail[dot]com