What a relief it is when a classic film lives up to its reputation. Fritz Lang's M is a startling picture, simultaneously a terrifying mood poem and an awe-inspiring testimonial to the sheer visceral power of the cinema. For director Lang, following up his acclaimed but financially disappointing sci-fi efforts Metropolis and Woman in the Moon, it marked a vital turning point; we see him developing the style of the film noirs made after his emigration to the United States in the mid-1930s.
The story is pretty straightforward stuff. A child killer is on the loose; a city is paralyzed with fear. Police have no leads, so they conduct random searches in an attempt to find the murderer. The city's criminal element is furious--the heightened police presence threatens to put them out of business, so they hire the city's beggars and homeless to patrol the city and flush out the killer, who is finally identified as Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre), a whistling psychopath. The criminals attempt to capture Beckert before the police can get their hands on him, and mete out the justice that they deem appropriate.
Lang tells the tale with thrilling style and confidence, mating his considerable power for visuals (as exhibited in his silent masterpieces) with artful use of sound--and silence. It was Lang's first sound picture, and while countless other filmmakers were adapting to the new technology by shooting clunky, lead-footed bores that amounted to little more than filmed stageplays, he produces a German equivalent to Citizen Kane--a film that is both a culmination of the technical possibilities of film, and a daring glance forward at what it can do. His compositions are forceful, memorable, and gut-check powerful--as in the elegant sequence when a mother's calls for her missing daughter are illustrated by the girl's empty place setting, the ball we saw her playing with rolling out of the woods, and the balloon the madman purchased for her caught high in the power lines. But we're not allowed to be passive observers; cinematographer Fritz Amo Wagner keeps his camera active, restless, roving among the beggars, looking down at the terrified citizenry, grabbing jarringly close point-of-view shots, catching a framed reflection of a possible victim in the window and then the moment that follows, as Lorre vividly imagines what he'll do to the young girl. What's more, through both the construction of the story and the clever photography, we barely get a good look at Lorre until something like the halfway mark; he's seen first as a shadow on a wanted poster (not subtle, but chillingly effective), then with his back to camera at the balloon vendor. And, of course, there is Lang's iconic use of darkness and shadows, par for the course in German expressionist cinema, but seldom as evocatively rendered as here.
But his inventive use of audio is even more impressive (again, particularly considering the moribund sound designs of so many of his contemporaries). He's not afraid of going dead quiet--there's no sound at all to accompany the striking graphics that begin the picture, and no music to speak of (save Beckert's creepy whistling, which ultimately proves his undoing). The film then punctures that silence with hard, loud effects--the rhythmic tapping of a victim's bouncing ball on the concrete sidewalk, the shrill whistles that break the thick silence of the raid sequence or of the criminals' pursuit of Beckert.
The storytelling is similarly inventive (and mature--the adult subject matter and salty language would surely have been unthinkable in Hollywood films of the period). Ever the silent master, Lang steers clear of clunky exposition and dialogue overload to impart the narrative; it's gathered in images and in flat, matter-of-fact small talk. As mentioned, he also keeps the killer out of focus for the first half of the film; we're just as clueless about him as the police and the citizens are. Instead, our attention is on their creeping paranoia ("Why look at me when you say that?") and the powerful charge of mob rule ("We have to catch him ourselves"), while the complimentary powwows of the police and the criminal element are carefully, inventively intercut. It then moves into a kind of police procedural mode, the noose beginning to tighten as the cops and the crooks hone in on Beckert.
In the leading role, Lorre is phenomenal; the camera hooks in on his smooth baby face, his wide terrified eyes, and he lets us see the twisted terror behind them. Lang's script (written with Thea von Harbou) paints him as more than a simple monster; his tough, painful monologue in the "kangaroo court" near the film's end, in which he explains how he runs from and fears himself ("Don't I have this cursed thing inside of me?") shows the full depth of the characterization--and of Lorre's full-throated interpretation of it.
There are a couple of structural misfires. We linger too long on the aftermath and investigation of the Beckert kidnapping--we're antsy to know what's happening to him, and his absence is surely meant to build suspense and uncertainty, but Lang stays away too long, and the tension goes slack. Once the narrative returns to him, the film snaps back into focus, with the mock trial that's all too real. But the closing scene is a miscalculation; while seemingly intended to be stark and powerful, it comes off as not just inconclusive, but incomplete (and the lack of end credits had me checking the chapter menu to make sure there wasn't a disc glitch). I'm all for open endings, but this one just leaves us hanging--and the final lines are singed by the kind of ham-fisted rhetorical finger-pointing that would be more in place at the close of a 50s exploitation picture. But to ding Lang's masterwork for those momentary lapses of judgment would be a crime; as it stands, M is a first-class piece of work from a master filmmaker at the top of his game.
THE BLU-RAY DISC:
M lurked for quite some time in the murky waters of cheapie public domain dupes, so Criterion's earlier DVD releases were a refreshing upgrade. While this MPEG-4 AVC 1080p transfer is certainly the best the film has looked, the video quality is somewhat inconsistent. The pillar-boxed 1.19:1 image has plenty of rough spots, with visible lines, some dirt, and heavy grain; the meeting of the criminals around the 33-minute mark is particularly beat-up. But the second half looks much sharper and cleaner than the first--the grays and silvers of the rich black and white cinematography looks just marvelous in the extended pursuit sequence and beyond. In those scenes, the image is nearly flawless (save for some very minor speckling), with close-ups vividly rendered and grain nicely textured. Overall, the film doesn't take to HD quite as cleanly as some of Criterion's previous Blu-ray releases of older films, but it's a satisfying transfer nonetheless.
The disc comes with only one audio option, a fairly sparse but still effective German PCM mono track. It's crisp and well-modulated, free of the hissing, pops, and crackles we're too used to hearing in early sound pictures, and the inventive sound design is impressively reproduced.
English subtitles are also included.
Criterion's Blu-ray edition of M thankfully ports over all of the exquisite bonus features from their 2004 standard-def release. Chief among them is an Audio Commentary by UC-Berkely professor Anton Kaes and Harvard professor Eric Rentchler. It's a smart and informative track, if expectedly on the dryly academic side.
Next up is a "Conversation with Fritz Lang" (49:27) a lengthy interview from 1975, conducted by director William Friedkin (The French Connection). Some doubt has been cast in recent years on certain element's of Lang's self-proclaimed legend (particularly his tale of his escape from Germany), but there's no doubt that he cuts quite an entertaining figure--thick German accent, aged, sporting an eyepatch--and is an enthralling storyteller. The black-and-white print is in awfully rough shape, but that somehow only adds to the mystique.
"A Physical History of M" (25:09) is an intelligent, fascinating documentary detailing the picture's complicated post-production history, restorations, and various cuts, including cuts (and excerpts) taken by the Nazis, the French version (in which some scenes were dubbed and scenes were re-shot with French actors, or with Lorre speaking French), the American remake, and later re-releases with additional cuts (and additions). "Claude Chabrol's M Le Maudit" (10:44) is an intriguing if somewhat uninspired homage by the French filmmaker to Lang's classic, followed by an interview with the director about Lang (6:47).
Next up is the "Harold Nebenzal Interview" (14:32), in which the son of producer Seymour Nebenzal discusses Lang and his father's work on M and several other important German pictures. "Paul Falkenberg's Classroom Tapes" (36:06) is a selection of excerpts from lectures given by the film's editor to students at the New School in New York in the late 1970s. They were recorded as he showed the film to students, so it functions as a kind of stop-and-go audio commentary, and a valuable one at that. A large Stills Gallery of production pics, sketches, and publicity materials closes out the 2004 material.
For the Blu-ray, there is one exciting new addition: the long-thought-lost English Version (1:32:43). As explained in the "Physical History" featurette, early sound films were frequently reshot with new actors for foreign markets. This version, like the French one, mixed dubbed scenes with reshoots; it was finally located in 2005 and is presented here in its entirety. While no match for the original, it is an intriguing footnote (and has, in this reviewer's opinion, a stronger ending).
M is easy to dissect academically, to analyze in terms of not only its aesthetic innovations, but its rich subtextual commentary on Germany in the early 1930s. But too often, great films like this one are thought of as objects under glass in a museum, rather than works of art that live and breathe. Lang's film isn't just an airless "classic"; it's a visceral, disturbing picture that burrows under your skin and settles in.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.