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From Under A Rock: M

February 20, 2018 | Posted by Michael Ornelas
M Peter Lorre Fritz Lang
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From Under A Rock: M  


Some films really do transcend time and language. This week’s pick is from 1931 and still holds up as one of the best in cinema history.

You only get one first time, and for some people, it comes later than it does for others. This particular column is about documenting the first viewing of a “classic” movie or TV show determined at the discretion of Aaron Hubbard and Michael Ornelas in alternation.

Last week Michael chose Boogie Nights. This week Aaron takes Michael out from under the proverbial rock to show him Fritz Lang’s M.

Released: May 11th, 1931
Directed by: Fritz Lang
Written by: Fritz Lang & Thea von Harbou
Peter Lorre as Hans Beckert
Otto Wernicke as Inspector Karl Lohmann
Gustaf Gründgens as Der Schränker (The Safecracker)

Aaron Hubbard: I picked M because it’s one of the best films ever made and still holds up almost ninety years later.

Michael Ornelas: It was a slow crawl of a start, but it managed to hook me and by the end I was riveted. Fantastic film.
Mass Paranoia
Aaron: Unlike most crime movies, M doesn’t follow one person or a small group of people. The child killer has the attention of the whole town; the police are looking for him, the organized crime is looking for him, and everyone is in a panic. Seeing the broad range of impact really struck me; M is not a feel good movie about one hero on a mission to solve a crime. It’s about a society blaming everyone before lucking into the solution.

Michael: I could definitely feel it. There was a scene where a girl wanted to meet her mother halfway on her walk home, and we see her lingering outside of a storefront by herself. I had knots in my stomach. Then she runs off and meets her mother and when they pass the store again, the killer is there pretending to read the paper on the door. The town’s mass paranoia translated to my viewing experience and kept me on-edge in the best way possible.

Aaron: Speaking of paranoia, this film had trouble getting released in its home country. Originally called Murderer Among Us, several Nazis believed it was anti-Nazi propaganda. Fritz was just trying to warn parents to protect their kids, drawing from real-life killers. But if the shoe fits…
Whistling the Tune of Death
Michael: Above, Aaron noted that the town “lucked into the solution” and he’s not wrong. We’ve come to expect every killer to have a tell, or a calling card, or some sort of distinct thing about them that gives them away. In M, it was actually a blind balloon salesman who pieces together a familiar tune that he hears the killer whistling, that he hasn’t heard since the last time a girl went missing. This led to an almost 40-minute chase of trying to locate and apprehend the guilty party. Seeing the way it all played out made me appreciate the attention to detail that the blind man had (they say if you lose one sense, the others heighten, so it makes sense), and from that point on, I was fully on board.

Aaron: It’s also taking advantage of something new for Fritz Lang: sound. This is his first movie done with sound, and he borrowed a classic technique from opera with the leitmotif. It’s masterfully used to ramp up the tension here. Fritz Lang made a pretty flawless transition from one era to the next.

Michael: It’s crazy — I just assumed that this film came before Metropolis because that movie was silent and I knew talkies came out not long after. I didn’t expect someone to have a masterpiece of both kinds. The sound execution was a little shoddy, but it was 1931 so I don’t think they had too much at their disposal. It still all worked to great effect (just very basic, and the cut that I saw had full scenes with little-to-no sound whatsoever).
The Third Act Turn
Aaron: M was already a great film by the end of the second act. But what happens in the film’s final scene elevates it to classic status. Spoiler Warning: When Peter Lorre’s character Hans Beckert is caught in the mock trial, Fritz Lang chooses to do something unique. Beckert pleads his case, saying that he cannot stop himself from killing. The performance here is a true masterclass in the art, and I think we can see its impact in many future films.

Michael: The film actually hooked me into the mob justice. With everyone shouting that they wanted him dead, I realized I did too. I knew it wasn’t the right thing to do (with the alternative being turn him over to the law), especially because the mock trial laid out exactly what was likely to happen to Beckert (he’d plead insanity and either escape or be released somewhere down the line and the cycle would start anew). That said, the final moment of the movie where law enforcement gets their hands on him…I breathed a sigh of relief, seeing that nobody had to be a martyr in bringing those kids to justice. What a complex dynamic…

Aaron: It’s a compelling moral quandary. Revenge sometimes feels like justice, and justice sometimes seems inadequate. Beckert is not in his right mind and can’t be held accountable, but that doesn’t take away the death or the hurt of the families. Fritz set a standard for courtroom drama here. And Peter Lorre made a career for himself, fleeing the Nazis and having key roles in classics like The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca.

Michael: Just between this and Metropolis, Lang has proven to me that even back in the 1920s and 30s, it was possible to create a masterwork of a story. The camerawork in this film even manages to do several things that hold up as “modern”, and of course his frame composition is still masterful. The performances in this brought it to the next level and I understand why this is often towards the top of many “greatest of all-time” lists.


Aaron: This film is pretty much perfect as far as I’m concerned. It sets the bar for murder mysteries, courtroom drama and villains, all in 1931.


Michael: I think I still prefer Metropolis just because it’s a bit “bigger”, but man what a fantastic work of art. I need to see if there are any more notable Lang films.

Aaron: They’re both incredible, but Peter Lorre’s performance helps this eke out the win for me.

Which Fritz Lang film holds up the best?

Next week:

Michael: My roommate showed me this one last year and I’ve been waiting to share it with you all.
Ip Man
Aaron: Hey, that’s a genre we could do more of.

Michael: I’ve got a few on tap for you this year.

Who’s your favorite martial artist action star?

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The final score: review Virtually Perfect
The 411
Fritz Lang was a master filmmaker. Smoothly transitioning into the sound era, he delivers a film that is an amazing murder mystery with a paranoid vibe. Then it switches gears for the final act and features an amazing performance from the great Peter Lorre. If you're a fan of crime drama or movies in general, there's plenty to recommend about M.