DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: M

Monday, 23 July 2007


M (1931) dir. Fritz Lang
Starring: Peter Lorre, Gustaf Gründgens, Otto Wernicke


Today is procedural crime thriller genre day at Daily Film Dose. With the release of “Zodiac on DVD tomorrow, it’s a good time to revisit the original procedural crime film – “M”. As a culture the Germans are renowned for their organizational and record-keeping skills. So it’s only fitting that the genre was born by a German - Fritz Lang.

The film opens with a suspenseful sequence. A child killer is on the loose and a group of kids are playing a game in the street. A little girl sings a song pointing to each child to determine who is “it”. Like many of the nursery rhymes we were taught this one is particularly creepy. The song goes: “Just you wait, it won't be long. The man in black will soon be here. With his cleaver's blade so true, he'll make mincemeat out of YOU!” We don’t ever see the gruesome killings on screen, but this ominous bit of foreshadowing tells us enough.

The little girl singing the song does disappear at the cruel maniacal hands of our killer. His name is Hans Beckett (Peter Lorre), an innocent-looking baby-faced psycho. He’s clearly demented, but not in a Silence of the Lambs-Buffalo Bill or Manhunter-Francis Dollarhyde way, Beckett is portrayed as a man with an innocent conscience but plagued by his demented desires. The police investigation is run by Inspector Lohman (Gustaf Gründgens). Lang shows the nuts and bolts of the investigation, including now-overused visuals as the radial mapping of the killer’s movements, montage-style scenes of searches and questioning, and psychoanalytic descriptions of the killer’s psyche. Lohman’s search goes far and wide, and eventually they hit the speakeasies and underground gambling layers of the city’s criminals. After a raid on one of the city’s most popular and notorious hangouts the film shifts to the point of view of the criminal underground. The criminals decide to take the matter into their own hands and find the killer themselves. And so begins a parallel but more effective investigation.

The search and capture of Beckett in the city office building is a brilliant sequence which stands up to today’s cat-and-mouse thrillers. Lang makes an interesting editing choice after this scene by shifting back to the police and their interrogation of one of the ‘burglars’ of the building. He doesn’t cut back to Beckett until 10-15mins later. Lang builds suspense during this time by delaying our satisfaction and hiding Beckett from the audience. The final interrogation and underworld trial of Beckett is a classic scene and a virtuoso performance from Lorre.

Fritz Lang was at the top of his game. The introduction of Beckett produces a wonderful shot showing the man’s shadow entering frame over top of his wanted poster on the street pole. This is one just of many fabulous cinematic moments in the film. There’s a fabulous long take in the cigar factory which takes the camera around the room and through a window into a delicatessen and into another room and finishes by introducing us to Shranker the underworld boss. This one shot describes the criminal network of “beggars” which Shranker will use to catch Beckett. It’s interesting to note there are long stretches in the film where no sound is used. “M” was Lang’s first sound film and even with the new toy at his disposal Lang uses silence as effectively as he uses sound. These silences are carefully placed as a way of building suspense.

The most important moment in the film is the finale and Peter Lorre’s dramatic confession. Lang condemns vigilantism and emphasizes the need for lawful justice no matter how desperate the circumstances. Since the film was made in 1931, just before the rise of Nazism, it may or may not have been a metaphor for the infamous Nazi Gestapo tactics. Either way, it continues to be a powerful statement relevant to all societies yesterday and today.

Buy it here: M - Criterion Collection


elkit said...

The "man in black with the cleaver" is a reference to German serial killer Fritz Haarmann. I used to sing that rhyme when I was little; didn't know the background until much later.

One other note - you have a fact wrong: Gustaf Gründgens is not the police inspector. He is the leader of the local criminals who take matters in their own hands because the police are cracking down on every kind of criminal activity. The crime gang figure if they find the child killer, things will calm down again, and they can go about their "business" again without much police interference.

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