Peter Lorre stars in M, directed by Fritz Lang for Vereinigte Star-Film GmbH.

M (1931, Fritz Lang)

I don’t think I’d ever realized M‘s technical importance. Lang creates quite a few filmmaking standards here, still in use today. Non-specific to genre, M features some brilliant off-screen dialogue work. It’s the earliest example (I’ve ever seen) of hearing a scene’s action while looking at something else. There’s also Lang’s approach to the sound. Lang uses the silence for the emphasis, shocking the viewer with loud noises every once in a while. There are, I’m sure, a few other ones, but those are most obvious.

Except for the genre specific norms. Watching M, one can see a lot of genre norms–the modern criminal investigation narrative, going back years, owes it all to me. There’s the suspect disappearing behind a moving car shot, but there’s also the detective who uncovers the long-hidden clue and has his eureka moment. Watching M is, at these moments, stunning. It’s seeing Lang create these familiar filmic mechanisms.

That use of sound, something I only mentioned in passing, is all the more amazing because of its place in film history. Talkies were very new when Lang made M and his masterful use of sound in film is something Hollywood wouldn’t begin to match for another ten years, until Welles and Citizen Kane.

But M isn’t just staggering because of its significance as a historical artifact. Lang and wife Thea von Harbou’s script is fantastic. The film’s without a central protagonist, just a handful of primary characters. There’s the police inspector, played by Otto Wernicke, and the criminal mastermind, played by Gustaf Gründgens, and then, of course, there’s Peter Lorre as the child murderer. Lorre appears early on, but isn’t really a big character until the second half.

The split of M is interesting. The film has a somewhat modern gimmick–the criminals go after the criminal the cops can’t catch. One could just see it as Ashton Kutcher’s breakout, “tough” role. Except the gimmick isn’t even a part of the film for the first hour. Instead, Lang concentrates on establishing the mood of a city in constant fear. He uses crane shots to both bring the city’s inhabitants together and to highlight their isolation. M is very much about the urban experience. But then he moves on to a lengthy review of the police’s attempts at solving the crime, followed, near the halfway mark, by the underworld getting involved.

The hunt for Lorre is split as well–there’s a lengthy break from it, as Wernicke questions one of Lorre’s pursuers.

Much of the film, in that first half, is exposition. But Lang opens the film with a measured sequence of a woman realizing her daughter is missing. This opening makes the second part, the lengthy exposition, involve and affect the viewer–it otherwise would not. The introduction to the underworld characters brings the human element back in and their decision to hunt Lorre keeps it in the rest of the film.

Only at the end, after M gives Lorre the chance to shine in a revolting role, do Lang and von Harbou stumble, bringing back the didacticism from their earlier efforts. But it’s too late for it to hurt M.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Fritz Lang; written by Lang and Thea von Harbou; director of photography, Fritz Arno Wagner; edited by Paul Falkenberg; produced by Seymour Nebenzal; released by Vereinigte Star-Film GmbH.

Starring Peter Lorre (Hans Beckert), Ellen Widmann (Frau Beckmann), Inge Landgut (Elsie Beckmann), Otto Wernicke (Inspector Karl Lohmann), Theodor Loos (Inspector Groeber), Gustaf Gründgens (Schränker), Friedrich Gnaß (Franz, the burglar), Fritz Odemar (The cheater), Paul Kemp (Pickpocket with six watches), Theo Lingen (Bauernfänger), Rudolf Blümner (Beckert’s defender), Georg John (Blind panhandler), Franz Stein (Minister), Ernst Stahl-Nachbaur (Police chief), Gerhard Bienert (Criminal secretary), Karl Platen (Damowitz, night watchman), Rosa Valetti (Elisabeth Winkler, Beckert’s landlady) and Hertha von Walther (Prostitute).

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