M

"Essential"

M Review


Critic David Thomson called him "the squat, wild-eyed spirit of ruined Europe, shyly prowling in and out of Warner Brothers shadows, muttering fiercely to himself." The Peter Lorre thus described was the Hollywood character actor familiar to Americans for his buggy looks of astonishment and his singular, rasping speech. But the wild-eyed spirit Thomson writes of first exhibited itself in Germany, before Lorre and director Fritz Lang fled that country's Nazis, in the 1931 Lang masterpiece M.

The "M" stands for "murderer" in either language, and the film is loosely based on the actual case of a Düsseldorf child killer named Peter Kurten. (His name was later borrowed for Copycat.) The plot of M echoes the fascination with shadowy syndicates and underworld figures that Lang exhibited in earlier films such as the Dr. Mabuse pieces and Spies: When a police dragnet for the child murderer upsets normal criminal activities, the criminals themselves organize and track the suspect down, labeling him, without his being aware of it, with a chalk "M" on the back of his coat.

One imagines that being in the company of the actual Kurten would be a creepy experience, but could it somehow be creepier than spending time with the murderer Lorre and Lang create? This man is alternately chilling in his nonchalance and horrifying in his desperation, and, when captured, he makes a terrifyingly credible case that his crimes are beyond his control. "I can't stop myself!" he shrieks at the ad hoc court of thieves arraigning him, sweat pouring off him in buckets, his eyes maniacally glassy and wide. And it's part of the film's genius that this vigilante court is potentially as frightening as the killer.

M was a victory for Lorre, but it was Lang's victory even more, very likely the greatest film of one of cinema's greatest directors. Consider the film's exquisitely crafted opening scenes: Lorre's shadow moving across a poster announcing his crimes as children sing a sinister song about murder at a nearby playground, the little girl for whom he buys a balloon, her mother's growing alarm at her absence, and, finally, an unnerving shot of the forgotten balloon tangled in power lines overhead. The visuals are haunting, deadly. But here and elsewhere Lang, who made his reputation in silent film with such works as Metropolis, incorporates sound to sublimely eerie effect, as well: the children's song, the mother's cries echoing through the empty hallways of her building, the menacing whistling that haunts the film.

The Criterion Collection has re-released M, (it was #30 in their nearly-300 movie lineup, the old edition had gone out of print), with commentary from a pair of Lang scholars and a pile of extras, including a 50-minute documentary about Lang from William Friedkin and a Chabrol shot inspired by M. Don't miss it this time around.



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