Monday, September 29, 2008

The Great Movies: "M"

Fritz Lang, 1931

Of the various professions that are overepresented in movies -- attorneys, architects, cattlemen, renegade police detectives with partners in their last month on the force, quirky young artists with strangely enormous apartments -- there's none that can touch the hardworking serial killer. Serial killers are very, very, very rare in real life, fortunately (consider, for example, that you still know who "Jack the Ripper" was), yet from the movies, you would expect Serial Murder to be a leading cause of death, especially in the key "Totally Hot Female, 19 - 28" demographic. There are occasional good movies in the serial-killing genre (Se7en), and there are lots and lots of bad ones. Several years ago, I sat through three (3) consecutive previews for movies about the macabre cat-and-mouse game between police officers and the twisted serial killers who so enjoy baiting them with gnomic hints and clever misdirection. Then I watched a movie about serial killing. And this was not during the Serial Killer Film Festival or anything. This is just business as usual at the movies.

Fritz Lang's "M" is apparently the film that started the genre. Peter Lorre stars as a deeply troubled dude who is compelled to befriend and then kill little girls. It is creepy enough, but not at all a violent movie. Although we are given hints that the murders are pretty nasty, they happen comfortably off-screen. "M" isn't aiming for shock or horror.

What Lang is going for is social satire, so the film is darkly comic in mood. German society in 1931 was lurching towards toward the collective paranoia that would be its horrific undoing, and in retrospect it is hard not to read "M" as a futile plea for national sanity. Fear of the killer in their midst drives the public to a kind of herd madness; in one scene, a kindly man seen talking to a schoolgirl is attacked by a reactionary crowd ready to assume the worst of anyone. The police, although they perform some nice detective work, are also depicted as contemptuous of the public and eager to suspend civil liberties in response to the crisis. Lang juxtaposes the civil authorities against a highly organized criminal "underworld," often intercutting shots of parallel meetings at police headquarters and criminal headquarters. The two groups are so alike in their goals, attitudes, and methods (the criminals want the killer caught for reasons of their own) that it is often difficult to distinguish between them; obviously, Lang had some questions about where civic authority was heading.

The movie essentially ends (although there is a further minute or two of lame denouement) with a speech in which the killer condemns those who have caught him. I do evil because of compulsions I can't control, he says, whereas you commit acts of crime and corruption because you choose to, because it's the path of least resistance. It's a fair point. Lang isn't suggesting a free pass for the pathologically insane, but underlining the moral failure of banal, everyday evildoing. It's a pity his original audience didn't pay more attention.

Plot: Various elements of the population of a German city react to the presence of a pedaphiliac serial killer in their midst. Eventually, the police and the local organized crime outfit both close in on the killer, and he is put on trial by both of them.

Visuals: Lang uses imagery nicely to convey what he sees as the shabbyness of bourgeois society. His graceless characters inhabit a landscape of dim, smoky meeting rooms, bland offices, and crassly commercial shopping streets. The off-screen murders are handled very nicely, too; one especially effective shot shows a balloon that we had seen the victim holding a few minutes earlier, now tangled up in powerlines and being buffetted by the wind.

Dialogue: In German. Little of the dialogue in this fairly early talkie seems especially natural. There are a lot of strictly expository conversations in "M," and a lot of others that seem to exist only to show us how corrupt or cynical a character is. There are also several long stretches when activity on screen is accompanied by total silence on the soundtrack. This probably seemed less strange to an audience that was used to silent movies then it does to a modern viewer.

Prognosis: It's a well-made movie, but it feels a few years older than its 1931 date of release. People who are interested in film history will likely find it interesting and reasonably entertaining. For a more general modern audience, though, its entertainment value alone won't quite cut it.


Anonymous said...

If serial killers were as numbered as the movies and tv representations about em, they would have a voter block going. It would make for a dark funny skit to hear a politician pandering to them. "A deep freeze in every garage and stricter dna testing requirements for all."

I think I've seen this movie. It was a while ago but I recall this. Peter Lorre is a hard one to forget. I did not remember his final commentary though. Interesting.

Anonymous said...

What is the metric in the dorkfest countdown bar?

Michael5000 said...

@Boo: Eeek... that would be some baaaad pandering.

@karma: Um... time?

Anonymous said...

Looks to me more like "blueness". There's no starting time, no scale other than actual distance on one's screen, nothing to relate the blueness to. There could be a clock with an axe hour hand, like in "David and LIsa", chopping off Nerd Heads as the great day nears. Creeping blueness just makes me wonder if some fabric is bleeding in the washing machine.

Unknown said...

@karma: Ah, I see what you're getting at.

The starting time is the moment last Sunday when I activated the widget. But pay no attention to the blue line. Just focus on the countdown.

This was, sad to say, the best countdown widget I could find on Blogger, after far, far too many minutes of looking. I apologize for its inadequacies.

On the other hand, karma, don't think I don't suspect you of trying to sneak into DorkFest pole position. And well played.

p.s. Creeping blueness can be treated. Talk to your doctor about the options.

Anonymous said...

Checked with my doctor...he said "Chew every bite 40 times".