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M

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Peter Lorre
Director:  Fritz Lang
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Window-boxed 1.19:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  110 Minutes
Release Date:  December 7, 2004

WHO IS THE MURDERER?

Film ****

Many critics argue that M, Fritz Lang's first talking picture released in 1931, is more contemporary today than when first released, because of it's subject matter. I find it hard to argue that point. 

DMC is based in Jacksonville, Florida, and many of you may remember the sad story of little Maddie Clifton that happened here some years ago. Maddie disappeared one day after playing in a neighbor's yard. There were posters up everywhere for her, news coverage practically around the clock, and frantic searches by the police. The cops, the family, and all the citizens of our town spent day after day hoping for the best, but fearing the worst. Until the day finally came that it was discovered she had been murdered by another child in the neighborhood, and her body had been stored inside the boy's mattress. It was a confusing, painful day that left all of us in tears, shaking our heads, and asking, "Why?"

In the midst of such sorrowful times like these everywhere in our country, it is true that M plays out like something straight from modern headlines instead of being a movie over 70 years old. The subject matter of a child murderer was stark and daring then, but seems topical now.

This is not a "whodunit" picture. We see very early on that Hans Becker (Peter Lorre) is the pedophile who has a small German town gripped in fear. The establishing shots are unforgettable: a group of children playing in the street, singing a song about the man in black coming for you to chop you up. A mother upstairs is setting the table with care for dinner. A little girl bounces a ball down the street, eventually bouncing it off the reward poster for the child killer. A shadow appears over the poster. The mother back in her apartment is getting worried. Other kids have come home, her daughter has not. The strange man is seen buying the little girl a balloon man, while whistling the theme from Peer Gynt. The frantic mother begins calling out for her child. The ball is seen rolling slowly out of some woods. The balloon man has floated away and is tangled in some power lines. The camera zooms in on the empty place setting at the table. We know it will never be filled again.

The people are in a panic, even to the point of accusing one another of being the murderer. Meanwhile, the police have set up officers everywhere to try and find the killer. This causes dismay in the criminal underworld, who find the extra police detrimental to their business. In an ingenious bit of editing, we cut back and forth between "round table" discussions by the cops and criminals, where both sides talk about ridding themselves of this menace.

Turns out, the criminals have no love for this pedophile, which is true enough in modern life as well. Ironically, most convicted pedophiles are kept separate from other prisoners for their own safety. The criminals in this film decide their course of action is to find the man themselves, and kill him.

Overall, what you have here is a masterful, haunting piece of cinema that you won't be able to forget. There are plenty of masterful touches in the film, including the ones I've mentioned, but I also found it fascinating that there is no musical accompaniment at all in the movie. This makes the killer's whistling Peer Gynt that much more piercing and ominous, as you often hear the killer before you see him.

This movie also seems to reflect Lang's growing distaste for his own homeland of Germany, during the time the Nazis were rising to power. He even portrays cop and criminal alike in shadowy, smoke filled rooms, and selected mostly actors with somewhat grotesque features to play the roles. Historically, Lang eventually fled Nazi Germany and came to America, even leaving behind his wife and collaborator von Harbou, who herself was a member of the Nazi party.

The most striking aspect of the movie to me has always been Peter Lorre's performance, which helped turn him from a theatre actor to a legitimate worldwide film star.  His final scene, before a "kangaroo court" of the underworld, is mesmerizing, as he delivers a monologue that at last lays bare all the inner demons of Becker.  

But Fritz Lang's attention to detail and obsession with getting every frame of his film right are really what helped cement M as a classic for all time.  Some polls still place it atop the list of greatest German pictures ever made.  The fact that it seems more, not less relevant with age is a testament to his vision.

Video ***

For the double disc re-release of this movie, Criterion has opted to strike a new print in the correct but rare 1.19:1 film ratio, an aspect created by the need to leave space on the filmstrip for the soundtrack in the early days of sound cinema.  For an old film, this movie looks shockingly good. There are a few tiny vertical lines, the kind caused by film not rolling smoothly over the wheels in a projector, but overall, the images are sharp, clear, and very clean.

Audio **

As far as the soundtrack, it's hard to judge because of no music and the dialogue being in German, but it seems fine.  I noticed occasional bits of soft noise during silent segments, but no more than to be expected for a film of this age.

Features ****

The original release of M had no extras, but Criterion has more than made up for it with a treasure trove of features that will enthrall the serious film student.  Disc One features a commentary by German film scholars Anton Kaes and Eric Rentschler, who offer plenty of history and insight into the film both as it played then and as it works now.

Disc Two contains the rest of the goods.  There is a 50 minute interview film conducted by American director William Friedkin that showcases Fritz Lang a year before his death discussing his life and career.  An interesting short film version of M made by Claude Chabrol is included, which was part of a French film experiment whereby modern directors remade their favorite films as ten minute shorts.  Part and parcel with this short movie is an interview with Chabrol discussing Lang.

Most impressive are classroom tapes featuring editor Paul Falkenberg, whose voice is heard over clips from M as he discusses the making of the movie and fields questions from cinema students...absolutely invaluable, especially since he describes one scene that was shot but not included in the final print (M originally passed the censorship board at 117 minutes, but no version longer than 110 minutes is known to exist).

"A Physical History" is a fascinating documentary about the way M has looked over the years, including the recent restoration.  We see, for example, that in France scenes with German writing had to be redone, but also that some scenes were remade with French actors.  Even Peter Lorre recreated his famous finale speaking French instead of German!

Rounding out is a stills gallery and a 32 page booklet containing a Lang interview, a new essay from critic Stanley Kauffmann, and a script excerpt for a missing scene.

Summary:

M is clearly a classic and landmark film, one that is both hypnotic and haunting. It's definitely one you won't forget soon once you've seen it.  Kudos to Criterion for revisiting this indelible classic and presenting it with a proper screen ratio and a wealth of extras that will be invaluable to the modern student of cinema.

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