Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Movie Review: M

The number of films that have been composed concerning the notorious exploits of serial murderers has been pretty substantial since the inception of the art form. Some of the films, such as Silence of the Lambs, have been absolutely sublime; others, in fact many others, have been forgettable and dull. The ones that do succeed usually do so because they try to achieve some form of human element with the topic at hand, rather than simply exploit the surface trappings of the horror inherent in the situation. This has been true since the beginning of this sub-genre.

This fact is further supported by one of the earliest films in the genre, the 1931 German classic M. The film, which was directed by German film legend Fritz Lang and starred famed character actor Peter Lorre as a child murderer (predating his Casablanca and Arsenic and Old Lace fame for a number of years), tells the story of a pedophile who is terrorizing the streets of German town. When the whole town becomes terrorized by the actions of the criminal, law enforcement begins to infiltrate every element of life to pursue him. This causes the criminal underground of the town to feel threatened, and they too stage their own attempts to hunt the wanted man down. This creates a very intriguing shift in the film, for when the criminal element of the city joins the search, the terrorized denizens of the town no longer seem to be the threatened entity. Instead the child murderer that paralyzed the city with fear is no perceived as a hunted animal, and in a stroke of moral ambiguity, a more sympathetic figure.

The concept of the film, especially the idea of the criminal world staging their own efforts to solve the crime, were unique and original for the time, and a strong film with the same theme has yet to be made since; of all the horror films that seem ripe for a remake, this one is it. The film boasts a strong level of emotional power, despite the black and white appearance and the flaws in the sound (this was filmed during the early day of sound mastering, and therefore a mono recording track is used for the majority of the film, and many of the scenes are actually silent). Director Fritz Lang also proves why he was one of the greatest cinematic voices of Germany; many of the overhead shots were pretty daring for the time, as well as the ominous lighting for a number of the scenes. The sequence where Lorre is being pursued by the criminals and police of the city in particular was very impressive; the chase begins in an open environment, and as the chase continues, the scenery becomes smaller and more enclosed. It is as if the very city walls themselves are conspiring to trap this murderer like a caged animal.

Very special recognition must be given to Lorre for a tour-de-force performance as the murderer; the final scene where he pleads his insanity before the townspeople and the criminal underbelly of the town is still mesmerizing to this day. It is also slightly embarrassing when you reflect on the number of films portraying murderers and child molesters today. So many of these films portray these figures as nothing more than another hackneyed stock character, and here in its infancy is one of the most amazing portrayals of a murderer ever committed to film. He succeeds in the early stages of the film in really being an unnerving and sinister figure (and his whistling of Peer Gynt Suite No. 1 predates the ominous breathing sounds in Friday the 13th by over 45 years). At the conclusion of the film, it is hard to comprehend whether or not the petty criminals or the child murderer are the more honorable figures of society. Such dualities only enhance the brilliance of this film.

The ever-popular "serial killer" genre in film had much of its origins in this film, which is pretty amazing. What is even more amazing is how much better this film continues to be than most of the films in the genre that have been released since. Many will likely be turned off from the film because of the subtitling and German language, and that is a shame. Despite these differences, this is an amazing film that continues to be an entertaining watch even 70 years later.

5 out of 5 stars

No comments: