M (1931)

<strong class="MovieTitle">M</strong> (1931)

(On Cable TV, January 2018) It’s easy to dismiss early cinema as somehow less than what is now possible. I suspect that much of this easy dismissal comes from the examples set during the Hays Code, which stunted the emotional development of American cinema for decades. But there are plenty of examples of movies (either pre-Code or non-American production) that show that even early cinema could be as hard-hitting, mature and disturbing as anything else since then. A good case in point would be Fritz Lang’s M, an upsetting crime drama set in Berlin during which a serial killer of children is hunted by both the police and organized crime. Peter Lorre plays the killer, in a performance that is instantly repellent, then pitiful as he finds himself targeted for summary execution by crime syndicates none too happy about his actions and the ensuing police crackdown. A true noir film in which the black-and-white images belie the gray morality of its characters, M remains a captivating piece of work even today. Deftly using primal fears to move its audience (up to a fourth-wall-breaking final shot), M is a well-controlled achievement that certainly gets reactions. The use of sound, not even five years after the introduction of the technology, is quite effective — “In the Halls of the Mountain Kings” is used as a meaningful leitmotif, and even in German, the film does quite a lot with the voices of its actors. It is a bit long, perhaps slightly inefficient in the ways it moves its characters in the middle third, but the overall dreadful atmosphere of the film is striking, and the nightmarish quality of the last sequence makes up for most shortcomings. There is an added dimension to the film for modern audiences knowing that the society depicted here was already in fully Nazification. All of that, and more, combine to make M essential viewing today, not just as a piece of movie history.

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