M

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A Murderous Masterpiece

Oct 30, 2002 (Updated Oct 30, 2002)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Fritz Lang, Peter Lorre, depiction of murder.

Cons:Problems with old print but that's expected.

The Bottom Line: M - Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder - is a chilling, effective, black and white German picture that has stood the test of time.


Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie's plot.

“Fritz Lang’s vision of the world, as expressed in many of his brilliant films, was a dark and hostile one. To him, man was often little more than a puppet in a malevolent universe determined by chaos, degradation, and violence. And the imagery he used, especially in his German films, reflected that worldview: bold, expressionistic, shadowy, sinister.” - Leonard Maltin.

I begin with that quote from Leonard Maltin simply because for once Maltin has honestly and truly described the life of Fritz Lang, his passion, his restraint, his violence, his life – all seen in perfect form in M – a film that should not be discussed without the very mention of the name Peter Lorre in the same sentence.

M is just as much as a brilliant work of cinematic art from Fritz Lang – as it is a brilliant work of emotional art from Peter Lorre. The two men, hand in hand, created a psychological thriller that has stood the test of time and is still intriguing, still fascinating, still scary – even now, 72 years later.

Boiled down to the bone, M, is a simple movie about a child murderer who so far has escaped capture. The police are helpless – so they turn to the community of criminals in hopes of capturing their foe. To the criminals, this guy is giving them a bad name – since he is killing children and all the criminals agree that such an act is against their moral code.

But Fritz Lang’s M should not be boiled down – to the bone or otherwise – his movie is a classic example of golden aged cinema with brilliant acting by first time actor Peter Lorre (Casablanca) and amazing cinematography that is both amazing and frightening at the same time.

See, in 1931, the time in which M was made, you couldn’t really make a movie about a child murderer. For one, you definitely couldn’t show a murdered child – much like even today it’s a subject that a director tip-toes around. But, we’re talking about the 30’s – and to some Lang’s depiction of a child murderer on surface alone was a path not easily taken.

How did Lang accomplish such a seemingly impossible goal, to create M? For one, no murder is really ever seen. Again, by today’s standards, the murder may be to the point that we see terror in a child’s eye – a close up of a knife – the swinging of a knife in the direction of the child – and piercing scream soon follows (think of Luc Besson’s The Professional minus the piercing scream). That is, for the most part, acceptable by today’s standards. But in the 30’s, Lang accomplishes much the same – perhaps even better than today’s standards – by using various child-like images to represent the child and the subsequent action that unfortunately is bestowed on the innocent.

For example. We see a child with a balloon. We see the murderer approach. Both disappear from view – but soon the balloon rises out of the darkness into the night sky. The balloon soon finds itself caught in telephone wires – where it wrestles to break free – and dies in a sense. Personally, this is far more effective than actually watching a child die – even if it is a movie – and much more effective than the MTV-style editors apply today to try to match wits with what they think frightens audiences.

However, there is another part to M that is missed frequently by viewing the movie by today’s standards even if one likes to look at classic movies. Much like several movies during that period (discussed often in film classes if you ever get the chance to take one) was that this was a period of unrest especially in Germany. Hitler was coming into power – and as such there was a huge discomfort and one could say diseased focus on society. Both Lang and Lorre fled from Germany after making M because they feared that Hitler’s forces would come looking for them – for M (and “M” is actually an abbreviation for an original title which was a direct insult to the Nazi party) was an “in your face” representation of what Lang felt about the Nazi’s and what he wished the good society (represented in the film by criminals) would do to the oncoming oppression.

Besides Lang’s amazing direction – a lot of credit for M goes to Peter Lorre. This was Lorre’s first film, and although he was seen in future films such as Casablanca – it was M where he was most remembered and most effective. That statement however is sad to say – since Lorre was typecast for the most part into that role and never really found any other glory in film for he was always remembered as the child murderer in M.

What Lorre brought to the screen was a man in utter despair. He’s never seen as evil – even though he goes around killing children. Lorre’s eyes offer up a serving of intense lost and his baby face, and stocky frame, set him apart from what one thinks a murderer would be and surprisingly one feels both fear and pity for the character.

This was Fritz Lang’s first sound picture (Metropolis being his most famous silent picture) and as such, dialogue is used in very small doses throughout M. Lang’s terror doesn’t need to come from what characters say because of his artistry of setting up scenes, cameras, and use of light in a black and white world to say far more than his characters could ever describe. There is however, one famous scene in M that comes at the very end. I cannot really discuss it without giving away the ending – but what I will say is that not only is it powerful in terms of a performance – but all telling as to the overall depiction of what and who the movie was meant to represent.

For years M was only available on laserdisc (the original format my film professor showed it in), but several years ago a new print was made available on VHS (and DVD I believe) that restored the film making it easier to watch and included new electronic subtitles. I’ve read that the DVD also has an English track, recorded by Peter Lorre – although I have never seen the DVD version.

Overall, M is a classic movie and maybe not quite Halloween material, but definitely worth watching sometime in one’s life. It’s a strange feeling to feel both pity and fear especially from a man who claims he cannot control his actions to kill children. But that’s the power Peter Lorre had and brought to his character. And, it’s also interesting to watch to see how the film was a smack in the face to the Nazi party – which somehow passed completely over their heads (after watching the film, the Nazi’s even offered Lang a film commission – instead he fled the country).

M is in German with English subtitles, is in black and white, and runs about 1 hour and 51 minutes. Be warned, some old copies may exist that are much shorter and are missing the final famous scene. I’ve read that those versions run around 1 hour and 21 minutes.


Recommend this product? Yes


Viewing Format: VHS

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