29 July 2005 | MisterWhiplash
Fritz Lang's (sound) masterpiece- a taut and quintessentially suspenseful story, and Lorre
The first time I saw M, by Fritz Lang, I almost didn't know what to make of it. I was overwhelmed by the power of the performances, the staging of the scenes, the locations, and the power that the simple story had with such complex circumstances. Then I saw it again, and a third time, and I know that this is one of the best films ever to come out of Germany- it's a powerful statement about protecting our children (if you're looking at it as a "message" movie), but in reality it is just a piece of cinema heaven. Thrillers today only wish they could draw a viewer into the mystery elements, and have such unconventionality of the times. Boiling down to this, M is about a child Killer - the legendary character actor Peter Lorre in his first major role - who snatches children when their parents don't watch, and continues on until an investigation goes underway. But as the police investigate overly thoroughly into the real criminal underworld, they know something is up, that this is someone far more gone than they could ever be, so they join in the hunt. This all leads to one of the supreme dramatic climaxes in any thriller.
On the first viewing I just went straight for the story, which is able to suck one in enough to make you feel dizzy. But on the multiple viewings it becomes even more interesting as one can study the intricacy, and indeed full-on artistry, of Lang's camera. He puts it in unusual places at times, and adds for good measure shades of dark and gray in many of the night scene (this is, by the way, a precursor to 'film-noir', which Lang later became an important director in the 40's and 50's). On top of this, there is a very modern sense of style in the editing- I remember a couple of scenes that surprised me editing wise. One is where the cops (I think it was the cops) have an argument about the investigation- two of them get into a shouting match, and we get medium close-ups of them going back and forth. This is done quickly, with a kind of intensity that isn't even captured in today's thrillers. There is also the hunt for Lorre in the digging of the house, where Lang cuts around constantly, heightening the tension between the predators (the criminals) and the prey (Lorre), until it's almost too much to take.
The disturbing aspects of the story, of child abduction and murder, have become benchmarks of a number of today's thrillers, where the cop is usually the subject and the killer left more in the shadows, in cat & mouse style. This doesn't happen here, and because of it by the time we get to the final scene, with Lorre being interrogated and giving his "I can't help it" speech, it becomes something poetic, tragic, frightening. Lang doesn't leave his "message" so simplistically, he makes sure we know Lorre's side too, however twisted it has become, and the antagonist is shown as human as opposed to these present-day thriller where the killers are barely given one dimension let alone two. There were reports that during filming Lang put Lorre through torture, ultimately causing the two to never work together again. But nevertheless, out of this comes a towering performance of a small, wild-eyed criminal in the midst of an extremely well-told and unpredictable mystery story. In short, if you don't know what you're in for when you hear that whistle, those several infamous notes, you may not at all.