BP’s Top 100 Challenge #25: M, by Sarah Brinks
I decided to undertake a movie challenge in 2017. This seemed like a good way to see some classic movies that I have unfortunately never seen. The Battleship Pretension Top 100 list provided such a challenge.
Fritz Lang’s first “talking picture” M is an incredibly tense film. It was impressive to see how Lang made use of sound but also the parts of the film when he chose not to use sound and how he made it a key plot point with the murderers whistling. The early 1930’s is such an interesting time in filmmaking as the entire industry underwent a huge transition and experienced filmmakers had to learn a whole new aspect of filmmaking.
If I had to describe M in a single word, I would choose “tense.” From the opening scene of the children singing a horrible folk song which leads to the reveal that children are being abducted to the final trial scenes, the film is filled with tension. It is extremely effective to see the juxtaposition of Peter Lorre’s Hans Beckert leading little Elsie Beckmann around town buying her sweets and balloons while her mother impatiently waits for her to come home. Then there are the tense scenes of the police and the public looking for her or her remains.
The use of sound is important in the film. This was director Fritz Lang’s first talkie and he made sound a key part of the film. The murderer’s whistling gives him away to a blind witness and ultimately causes him to be trailed and caught by the public. There were also times when sound was almost completely absent from the film. When we saw the police are cracking down on the public and during the chase of the murderer the sound drops out of the picture and those scenes are silent. It was so surprising I found myself checking my volume level on my television both times. But to Lang’s credit, it did make me pay closer attention during those scenes.
I was also impressed by some the creative camerawork in the film. There was an interesting shot where the camera panned up from the police station to outside the window of a building where the criminal element in town were paying vagrants to search for the killer and the camera moves into the room through the window. You can actually see a pane of glass slide out of the way of the lens. The pan is a little jerky and the transition isn’t smooth by modern standards but it was a showy camera move and it was an effective scene transition. There was another shot from underneath a man’s desk as he is on the phone. It was an odd angle but it worked for the scene.
There are many strong performances in the film but it is Peter Lorre’s movie. His naturally creepy appearance does some of the heavy lifting but he can really turn up when he needed to. When he was trapped in the attic of a building that was full of men trying to find him he ramps up the mania but never goes too far. His speech at the end when he explains about not being able to stop himself was impassioned and moving. All I wanted was to get him committed to a mental health facility so he could get the help he needed. While one person in the crowd agrees the rest of the crowd wants to kill him. I can see that being a very difficult monologue to perform but Lorre did it perfectly and moved his character from a villain to a sympathetic character with one speech.
I’m glad the Battleship Pretension Top 100 has given me the opportunity to see more of Fritz Lang’s work.
I’ve decided to rate each film using an arbitrary scale based on the board game Battleship (lowest: Destroyer, Submarine, Cruiser, Battleship, highest: Carrier)
M ranking: Carrier