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Classic thriller ‘M’ pioneered sound, noir film

Brian Doxtader | Wednesday, September 27, 2006

When Fritz Lang’s “M” first hit German theaters in 1931, the “talkies” were still relatively new. “The Jazz Singer” was only four years old and Charlie Chaplin’s “The City Lights,” released the same year as “M,” was a silent picture. Yet Lang’s film was a milestone that showed how sound design could be an important part of the cinema, becoming (along with Hitchcock’s 1929 film “Blackmail”) one of the most important early marriages of picture and synchronized sound.

Partially based on a true story and written by Lang’s wife Thea von Habou, “M” is an involving crime melodrama set in Berlin about the search for a child murderer (Peter Lorre, “The Maltese Falcon”, “Casablanca”). It essentially involves two distinct searches, one by the police and one by the criminal underground.

Once the killer is caught, however, the film becomes introspective, as Lang’s true ideology becomes increasingly clear. Like many films of this type, “M” explores the relationship between cop, killer and criminal, but does so in a more subtle and satisfying way than might be expected from a film of the 1930s.

What may be lost in a modern viewing of “M” is just how technically accomplished the film really is – most transitions to sound necessitated a compromise in mise-en-scene (like “Applause” or “The Broadway Melody”), but “M” is beautifully filmed, with Fritz Arno Wagner’s moody cinematography and surprisingly smooth camerawork. The use of sound is spooky and effective, most notably with the killer’s trademark whistling.

In many ways, Lang (along with Hitchcock, among others) helped birth film noir, and “M” is an example of dynamic use of shadow in order to create a dark mood. “M” is as stark as they come, with fearful paranoia dripping from every frame. That the film stands up over 70 years later is a testament to its longevity and the vision of its director – “M” is still an engrossing and disturbing experience.

Unlike many pictures, especially early talkies (“The Jazz Singer” in particular), “M” is more than just a proverbial postcard of its time, though it is one of the best cinematic indictments of pre-Nazi Germany.

The film is anchored by Peter Lorre’s remarkable performance, which launched him to stardom. As the eerie whistling murderer, Lorre’s character is easily the most complex in the film, and the actor handles it with def gravitas for which he became famous. While Lorre is probably most recognizable to American audiences for his brief role in “Casablanca,” he shows his true range as an actor in this film.

“M” was a major artistic success for its director, arriving four years after his other timeless classic “Metropolis,” one of the all-time great silent pictures. A loaded film and a damaging critique of pre-Nazi Germany, “M” positioned Lang as the foremost German filmmaker. Offered the chance to direct films for Hitler, Lang rejected Nazism and fled to Hollywood in 1933, though he went without his wife, who was pro-Nazi.

Though Lang never truly equaled his earlier success and his visual style become simpler and more pessimistic after moving to America – in part thanks to the constraints of the Hollywood studio system – his output nevertheless resulted in a handful of truly great films, among them 1953’s “The Big Heat.” Yet when all is said and done, Lang is ultimately remembered for his two masterpieces – “Metropolis” and “M.”

“M” will be screened on Sunday, October 1 at 4 p.m. as part of the PAC Classic 100.