Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Classic Throwback: M (Fritz Lang, 1931)

I am endeavouring to make the Classic Throwback a regular weekly installment on the Emporium. I am thinking every Monday. I do love to sit back and watch an old classic on a Friday night. But yesterday was of course, Oscar Day, so I was busy hosting a gathering at my house and reporting my jubilation and displeasure (mostly) at the course of the proceedings. So, it's a day later this week.

Here is a short review of Fritz Lang's classic masterpiece, M (1931).

Fritz Lang, the director of Metropolis (1927) and one of Germany's most acclaimed early directors, created his first sound film in 1931. This film, starring Peter Lorre, is M. Fritz Lang, along with his wife, Thea Von Harbou, wrote the screenplay that chronicles the tale of a serial killer and paedophile, Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre), who preys on young children. It is one of the best and earliest examples of the police procedural and effectively portrays society's transformation of the criminal into a celebrity, who manages to impact the daily lives of all of the city's citizens. M tackles some pretty strong themes for such an old film.
The film follows the city's (presumably Berlin) descent into panic mode when a number of children fall victim to the child killer, where at first, there are no conceivable leads to direct the full-scale investigation. The film opens following a man, presumably Beckert, as he buys a balloon from a blind street vendor. We do not see his face at this point, just shots of his body, and his projected shadow. He whistles Grieg's  'In the Hall of the Mountain King', and uses the balloons as a way to attract the children to him. Superimposed together we see the parallel stories of a young girl, named Elsie Beckmann, as she leaves her school and walks toward her home, and her mother, who is tending to household duties and eagerly expecting her daughter home at the usual time. We see Elsie happily bouncing a ball and laughing, before she is approached by Beckert and given the balloon. Meanwhile her mother becomes distraught when she hasn't yet returned, and frantically starts calling her name out the window. The tension mounts as we suspect that Elsie has been abducted, and then we are revealed to two shots, of the small ball rolling unattended into the grass, and of the balloon now ensnared in telephone lines, and our suspicions are rendered true.

Following her disappearance the police begin a full-scale investigation, using state-of-the-art techniques of fingerprint and handwriting analysis. They comb the entire city for clues and evidence; they stage raids and interview known members of the criminal underworld. They even look into all the psychiatric patients and draw up a list of recently released patients with a history of offenses against children. While the Police are investigating as best they can, the members of the city's underworld stage a meeting and decide to find the man themselves, to end the recent lock down of their business interests. It becomes a race for desired justice, whether lawful or civil. Beckert mistakenly reveals himself by whistling the same charismatic tune in the presence of the street vendor, who remembers selling a balloon to the same man on the day of Elsie's disappearance. A surveillance team of beggars, who mark him with chalk, and eventually secure him after he takes refuge in an office building, pursues him.

It's a compelling feat of cinema, and the final sequences at the underworld court hearing are unforgettable. Peter Lorre, who would later find his way into American films, gives a brilliant performance. He displays an incredible array of emotions as he reveals, in a wonderful monologue, the psychotic urges he is incapable of controlling, and confesses to his compulsive murderous streak. The black-and-white cinematography is quite stunning, considering the era, and Lang does a great job incorporating mirrors and glass to reflect Beckert back on himself, to cleverly reveal expression. Beckert views himself as a normal human being, plagued by an illness, but Lang questions civil judgment, and whether even someone of his misdeed is worthy of a fair trial, or whether he should be executed for his sins. Censorship may have impacted Lang's desired conclusion here, though.

My Rating: 5 Stars

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