Fritz Lang's endlessly creative thriller "M" is often named as his greatest work and one of the best films ever made. It's only Lang's first effort with synchronized sound, yet it uses audio more ingeniously than any picture up to that time. Often misinterpreted as offering a defense for its monstrous child murderer, "M" simply tries to shed some honest light on the psychology involved in terrible crimes. It may be the first movie about atrocious crime to assert the idea that the villain is still essentially human.
Most film histories cite "M" as Peter Lorre's star-making vehicle and stop there; Criterion's well-conceived disc set places the movie in a more compelling social and historical context. In making the film, Fritz Lang had to face the same problems faced by modern filmmakers working with sensational material - how to approach the subject in a responsible and tasteful way.
Seen in this terrific restoration, "M" looks great. It reminds me a bit of the Kino work on Metropolis - German films of this period always had this interesting dusty gray look in stills, a look that over-duplicated movie prints lost a long time ago. Almost all of "M" was shot on custom sets carefully lit for certain effects, and this disc brings back that feel for the first time.
The disc also gives us a better appreciation of the film itself, as it's sharper and more detailed than ever. The full height of the original frame is here, and compositions are no longer overly tight. With the contrast back to correct levels, subtle reflections in storefronts and the glints in characters' eyes suddenly become part of the texture of the movie.
Peter Lorre is the supposed star but it's really a director's picture all the way. Lang's cleverly interlocks scenes with overlapped dialogue and uses verbal cues to motivate scene changes. Sound begins over darkness and is often used to introduce new elements in the picture. It's not an overstatement to say that the actual cinematic use of audio has never been bettered; for pure creativity and innovation, "M" is the Citizen Kane of the transition to talkies. Lang claimed that he had to be forced to make a talkie and had already refused to add sound to Woman in the Moon. But "M" would have to be completely re-organized to work as a silent picture - in every scene the picture and track work together in some new way.
Lang claimed that his portrait of an organized underworld was real, and not some fanciful lift from Die Dreigroshenoper. It does seem like a wicked satire to make the criminal element as morally outraged by a child-killer as the police; I wish modern crooks were so discriminating. But Lang doesn't condemn the German police or make fun of them. He reserves his criticism for the mob mentality of society at large, in keeping with the murderous crowds of Metropolis and Fury. He also doesn't glamorize the killer, as has been accused. Lorre plays Hans Beckert as a malignant toad of a man. The final mob court is a great scene because even the lowest dregs of society are unsure of the proper way to deal with such a despicable killer. Mothers weep, but who can be sure Beckert doesn't have a mother somewhere, suffering over him? Society hasn't yet solved the problem of capital punishment and Lang shows our normal response to be nothing more than bureaucratized vigilantism.
Look at most American talkies of 1931 now, and they seem slow and unsure of how to handle sound. Even nicely restored pictures have a pronounced 'creak' factor. "M" crackles with pace and detail. The tragic Elsie Beckmann prologue sets up the reality of horror for a victimized mother, and the rest of the movie is a quick-moving cavalcade of incident, colorful characters and sharp dialogue. The break-in at the bank is an extended caper scene showing the coordinated skills of safecrackers and burglars at their best, and Beckert's undoing through the sharp ears of blind balloon salesman (who seems to have moved to Vienna for a clever detail in the later The Third Man) has us rooting for the crooks to corner their prey. "M" is of course not a real film noir - its preoccupations are closer to the classic German expressionism of the twenties - but it certainly seems to embody the basic look of a noir, from the shadowy wet streets to the dark figures going about their sinister business.
Criterion's double-disc set of Fritz Lang's "M" is yet another example of the company's fidelity to their product. As with Beauty and the Beast, they've retraced their steps and issued an improved disc to replace an earlier one from 1998. Hence the low spine number. The first disc had severe problems in the conversion from the PAL system. Frames were poorly distributed between video fields, with many fields having two film frames superimposed. The disc was watchable only after making a mental adjustment to tune out this flaw.
As explained in a docu disc extra, this new version is transferred from much better elements and at the correct narrow screen ratio of 1.19, the German equivalent of the American 'Movietone' ratio that resulted when picture area was sacrificed for the soundtrack. Note: Gil Jawetz's DVDTalk Review of "M" has screen grab comparisons of the 1998 and 2004 discs.
Producer Issa Clubb assembles a group of extras that once again include several terrific 'prime source' items. William Friedkin's lengthy 1975 interview with Lang shows the director of The Exorcist playing Peter Bogdanovich and trying to steer Lang's comments on his career. As both directors share a fascination with blurring the line between police and criminals, it's actually a good match. Lang spends a lot of time on his tale of fleeing Germany and Josef Goebbel's invitation to lead the Nazi film industry, which has since been proven to be at least partially a tall tale; a look at interviews with Douglas Sirk yields almost the exact same story.
An interview with Harold Nebenzal, the son of producer Seymour Nebenzal shows Lang from the other side, with claims that Lang led the producer to believe that the Nazis wouldn't object to The Testament of Dr. Mabuse even though the film had overt anti-Nazi passages. Nebenzal's claims that Lang fabricated an anti-Nazi history for himself become somewhat questionable when he later condemns Joe Losey for 'sabotaging' the "M" remake with a 'Communist cell.' The Nebenzals appeared to have been perfectly happy to do business in Nazi Germany, until Testament made the waters too chilly for them.
Claude Chabrol's 'digest' remake of "M" for French television isn't very impressive, but a docu about the history of Lang's film is. Besides tracing the many versions and chop-downs (the worst by Nebenzal for a 1950s reissue), the short subject shows alternate French-version scenes with Lorre acting the finale in French, and includes a frighteningly vile excerpt from the Nazi propaganda film The Eternal Jew blaming Jews for trashing the culture with degenerate art. After showing black entertainers to exemplify the lowest in cultural obscenity, the film uses Peter Lorre's "M" finale to claim that Jews favor child-murderers and criminal scum over justice and morality.
For the particularly curious, the disc also has some classroom tapes of "M"'s original editor discussing the movie. The galleries of stills and art are interesting (the Spanish posters retitle "M" as "The Black Vampire"). The fat booklet has articles that highlight "M"'s notoriety in 1931, with one writer calling it trash exploiting the sorrow of mothers who have lost their children. These reactions clearly inspired Lang to write an upbeat rebuttal explaining how his 'cautionary' film could actually save lives.
The booklet also includes the text for a missing scene. Had it been included, it would have given Lang another thriller "first": The public inundate the police with false clues and false confessions.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,