Friday, January 06, 2006


Title: M (1931)
Dir: Fritz Lang
Rating: **** out of 5 stars

Wow. I love watching old movies that make me say that: wow. More specifically, "Wow, this is really ahead of its time."

M is one of those old movies. I decided I need to see more Fritz Lang films, and I'm glad I chose this movie as an introduction.

Firstly, I love Peter Lorre. He was my favorite part of The Maltese Falcon (an otherwise overrated film. Yeah, I said it!) but his performance in M blew that away. He can be so goddamn creepy and yet I always feel sympathy for him. I fluctuated between "Catch the bastard!" and "Aww, leave him alone." He has that effect.

I love the story. You have the leading actor playing a child murderer (possibly a pedophile?) and a town of people who take the law into their own hands. Lang makes little mystery of the main character's guilt - there is no need for surprise twists. This is a morality tale. There are gangs of criminals teaming up to bring down the murderer as if that righteous act exonerates them. Do criminals have any right to decide to fate of a"worse" criminal? Is he really worse? Who decides?

Lang also addresses the idea of a criminal as mentally "sick", adding a surprising level of moral depth to the film. Just when you find yourself buying into mob mentality ("Kill the monster!"), you are forced to consider criminality as a mental handicap. Does mental illness release a killer from guilt? Is the court system corrupt in allowing the "insane" to go free? If so, would it be immoral for a criminal to be put on trial by the people rather than the government? Where do you draw the line between justice and revenge?

Clearly, this movie asks more questions than it answers (as the ending makes abundantly clear). But I like that. I'd rather a movie ask me to think than simply tell me what is right or wrong. I am endlessly impressed that these sort of pressing questions, pertinent as they are to today's soceity, were being asked by a 1931 film.

As for Lang's use of suspense, I really liked something I read in a review on IMDB, so I'm gonna steal it and quote it here:

"Psycho reeked with blood and horror, whereas the suspense of M is subtle... A child's balloon without an owner, a rolling ball, are enough to tell us that another murder had been committed."

Well said, random IMDB user! That is very true of this movie, and I totally love it. It is well-known that I am a fan of gore, but I also love subtle horror - it tends to be much more effective. There is no visual murder in M but all the WANTED posters and parents frantically gathering their children scare the audience as much as the killer scares the townfolk.

Once the murderer is being hunted down, the suspense is top-notch. It's a nice change to follow the killer as he hides from the law or an angry mob, as opposed to some sorority girl hiding in the closet from a deranged psychopath.

M has encouraged me to add Metropolis to my Netflix queue. Fritz Lang is an interesting filmmaker and I look forward to seeing what else he was dishing out 50 years before I was born.