As I think about director Fritz Lang’s classic M, I am reminded of the review I wrote for a film that was released a mere four years prior. That film, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, is notable today because it was the first film to use the camera in a way that it remained apart from the action on-screen – editing allowed images to be layered over one another and it gave the impression for the first time that in film, you could go literally anywhere. Lang’s film is equally influential, allegedly the film that inspired both the serial killer and police procedural genres. As an added bonus, it includes camera movement that is still intriguing and as one of the first “talkie” pictures, it incorporates the new tool sparingly, to really accentuate the tension of particular sequences.
“But it’s hard to watch a movie with quotation marks, if you know what I mean. It’s difficult to always think about the film in context.”
I viewed Citizen Kane for the first time recently and was blown away by it. Certainly there are specific stylistic flourishes in that film which make it one-of-a-kind for its era, such as the extensive flashback opening sequence, but it isn’t by virtue of these innovations that the movie remains powerful, or at least not on this alone. It’s propelled by a tightly wound story, stunning acting, beautiful set design, and the list goes on. Despite that the movie was released seventy years ago, the excitement that the film carries is hardly lessened. Or if you want to go further back, look at Buster Keaton’s The General, which has audiences rolling in the aisles eighty-five years later. All of which is to say that a really great movie has the power to transcend its time and place, to be more than 3-D or the first movie to do [whatever]. A really great movie can stand out in a crowd of thousands.
I’m not convinced that M is that sort of movie. Don’t misunderstand me, it is a very good film and the context does inform that. It was made by two Jewish men in Germany as the Nazis were ascending to power, and the central theme about the grotesque path beaten by group-think seems an unsubtle comparison for the political atmosphere at the time. Further, there are some kind of incredible camera movements, including one seemingly single-take that pans through a diner, up over the roof and into an apartment through the window. Sure, the camera jostles about like it’s on a wooden train track and yes you can see the window being furtively opened before the camera collides with it, but this is still a remarkable bit of technical prowess for its time.
And the sound design definitely does reach above and beyond its context, so much that it would be chilling even for a film that were released today. The plot of the film concerns a child-killer called Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre) whose run of murders has driven a town into a panic, so much that any man seen near a child is considered suspicious. When a girl asks one man for the time, a gang descends upon him as they’re sure that he must be the one terrorizing the town – why else would he even speak to a child? We see Beckert only occasionally, looking at himself in the mirror and meeting children with candy and gifts. I couldn’t help but wonder how Beckert is able to go around buying balloons for little girls if townspeople will harass a man for giving a child the time, but I guess we’ll just roll with it. I say that we only see the man occasionally because the vast majority of the film regards the manhunt that the police have undertaken, paralleled with the scouring that the city’s crime syndicate is doing. With the police out in records numbers, it’s hard for a decent criminal to get down to illegal business, and it’s all because of that amoral sicko who’s going around killing kids. How much of their anger is about the string of killings versus their lost business isn’t quite clear.
To return to the sound design, though, the audio is sparing. In scenes of the city, there are often few sounds except for that of people walking or perhaps one car as it whizzes past on-screen. We hear the actors’ voices frequently, and in crowd scenes the cacaphony is deafening – making for a shocking contrast when other scenes are devoid of audio altogether. Both a scene of police officers searching the streets en masse, as well as a crane shot of Beckert running through the streets later, utilize the sudden jump to total silence in a spectacular way. It’s the same reason that television advertisements sometimes use silence: in a world that has a constant barrage of sound, the sudden lack can be jarring and leave you feeling uneasy. Though Beckert is the killer, this silence is used to underline intense moments of group pressure closing in. The genuine fright on Lorre’s face as he hides from his pursuers might make us begin to wonder: do they have the right man?
There are but a few iconic moments such as these, however. The midsection drags as the crime mob tracks Beckert to an empty office building and try to force him out. A back-and-forth between the two factions gathered in smoke-filled rooms is interesting, but the narrative is a little hard to follow and I find it hard to believe that the easy juxtaposition of the cops vs. “robbers” was anything but obvious even in 1931. Then there’s the conclusion, which changes pace suddenly from a tense showdown to a toothless final shot complete with matter-of-fact moralizing statement. For every amazing image, such as a horrified Beckert finding the ‘M’ (for ‘murderer’!) left on his back or the split-second where he begins to tip his hat to a stranger whose intentions are dubious, there’s another stretch where my interest waned. That, and final moments which struck far too softly when the conclusion needed to be epic, are reasons I can’t get behind the film fully. I really want to be a gung-ho supporter, because the concept of the killer as victim is genius.
I don’t think that M is a really great movie, but it is a very good movie. Maybe I’m the only one who sees a distinction there. Its aim is true and the arrow cuts cleanly through the air, but it hits just left of the bullseye. Maybe 80 years ago the targets were larger.