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Fritz Lang's endlessly creative thriller "M" is often cited as his greatest work and one of the best films ever made. Lang's first effort with synchronized sound, it uses audio more ingeniously than most pictures do now. Often misinterpreted as offering a defense for its monstrous child murderer, "M" sheds 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 confronted 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 Kino's release of the partially restored 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 filmed on custom sets carefully lit for certain effects, and this disc brings back that feel for the first time. The full height of the original frame has also been restored, and compositions are no longer tightly cropped. 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 star but it's really a director's picture all the way. Lang cleverly interlocks scenes with overlapped dialogue and uses verbal cues to motivate scene changes. Sound begins over darkness and often introduces 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 new and creative ways.
Lang claimed that his portrait of an organized underworld was real and not a fanciful lift from Die Dreigroshenoper. Making the criminal element as morally outraged over a child murderer as are the police does seem wickedly satirical; I wish modern crooks were so scrupulous. But Lang doesn't condemn or ridicule the German police. 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. Lorre plays Hans Beckert as a malignant toad. 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.
Many American talkies of 1931 seem slow and uncertain of what to do with sound beyond recording dialogue. Even nicely restored pictures have a pronounced 'creak' factor. "M" crackles with pace and detail. After the tragic Elsie Beckmann prologue sets up the reality of horror for a victimized mother, the movie becomes 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, and Beckert's undoing through the sharp ears of a 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 has the noir look of shadowy wet streets and dark figures going about their sinister business.
Criterion's Blu-ray of Fritz Lang's "M" not only bumps this classic up to Hi-Definition, it adds a newly discovered English language version. The title was earlier re-issued when a superior restoration became available, but the Hi-Res image looks even better here.
All of producer Issa Clubb's extras from Criterion's earlier DVD addition have been reassembled. 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 interview match. Lang spends a lot of time on his tale of fleeing Germany and Josef Goebbels' 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.
The special new extra was found only a few years ago -- a full copy of the English version of "M" filmed simultaneously. Many scenes are simply shots from the German version over-dubbed, but other dialogue scenes have been re-filmed with English-speaking actors. Peter Lorre performs the entire ending scene in English, which makes "M" also his first English-language movie. The print on view is okay, but of course not as attractive looking as the restored German version.
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 re-title "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 in which the public inundates the police with false clues and false confessions. Had it been kept, it would have given Lang another thriller "first".
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
"M" Blu-ray rates:
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