What a relief it is when a classic film lives up to its reputation. Fritz Lang's M is a startling picture, simultaneously a terrifying mood poem and an awe-inspiring testimonial to the sheer visceral power of the cinema. For director Lang, following up his acclaimed but financially disappointing sci-fi efforts Metropolis and Woman in the Moon, it marked a vital turning point; we see him developing the style of the film noirs made after his emigration to the United States in the mid-1930s.
The story is pretty straightforward stuff. A child killer is on the loose; a city is paralyzed with fear. Police have no leads, so they conduct random searches in an attempt to find the murderer. The city's criminal element is furious--the heightened police presence threatens to put them out of business, so they hire the city's beggars and homeless to patrol the city and flush out the killer, who is finally identified as Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre), a whistling psychopath. The criminals attempt to capture Beckert before the police can get their hands on him, and mete out the justice that they deem appropriate.
Lang tells the tale with thrilling style and confidence, mating his considerable power for visuals (as exhibited in his silent masterpieces) with artful use of sound--and silence. It was Lang's first sound picture, and while countless other filmmakers were adapting to the new technology by shooting clunky, lead-footed bores that amounted to little more than filmed stageplays, he produces a German equivalent to Citizen Kane--a film that is both a culmination of the technical possibilities of film, and a daring glance forward at what it can do. His compositions are forceful, memorable, and gut-check powerful--as in the elegant sequence when a mother's calls for her missing daughter are illustrated by the girl's empty place setting, the ball we saw her playing with rolling out of the woods, and the balloon the madman purchased for her caught high in the power lines. But we're not allowed to be passive observers; cinematographer Fritz Amo Wagner keeps his camera active, restless, roving among the beggars, looking down at the terrified citizenry, grabbing jarringly close point-of-view shots, catching a framed reflection of a possible victim in the window and then the moment that follows, as Lorre vividly imagines what he'll do to the young girl. What's more, through both the construction of the story and the clever photography, we barely get a good look at Lorre until something like the halfway mark; he's seen first as a shadow on a wanted poster (not subtle, but chillingly effective), then with his back to camera at the balloon vendor. And, of course, there is Lang's iconic use of darkness and shadows, par for the course in German expressionist cinema, but seldom as evocatively rendered as here.
But his inventive use of audio is even more impressive (again, particularly considering the moribund sound designs of so many of his contemporaries). He's not afraid of going dead quiet--there's no sound at all to accompany the striking graphics that begin the picture, and no music to speak of (save Beckert's creepy whistling, which ultimately proves his undoing). The film then punctures that silence with hard, loud effects--the rhythmic tapping of a victim's bouncing ball on the concrete sidewalk, the shrill whistles that break the thick silence of the raid sequence or of the criminals' pursuit of Beckert.
The storytelling is similarly inventive (and mature--the adult subject matter and salty language would surely have been unthinkable in Hollywood films of the period). Ever the silent master, Lang steers clear of clunky exposition and dialogue overload to impart the narrative; it's gathered in images and in flat, matter-of-fact small talk. As mentioned, he also keeps the killer out of focus for the first half of the film; we're just as clueless about him as the police and the citizens are. Instead, our attention is on their creeping paranoia ("Why look at me when you say that?") and the powerful charge of mob rule ("We have to catch him ourselves"), while the complimentary powwows of the police and the criminal element are carefully, inventively intercut. It then moves into a kind of police procedural mode, the noose beginning to tighten as the cops and the crooks hone in on Beckert.
In the leading role, Lorre is phenomenal; the camera hooks in on his smooth baby face, his wide terrified eyes, and he lets us see the twisted terror behind them. Lang's script (written with Thea von Harbou) paints him as more than a simple monster; his tough, painful monologue in the "kangaroo court" near the film's end, in which he explains how he runs from and fears himself ("Don't I have this cursed thing inside of me?") shows the full depth of the characterization--and of Lorre's full-throated interpretation of it.
There are a couple of structural misfires. We linger too long on the aftermath and investigation of the Beckert kidnapping--we're antsy to know what's happening to him, and his absence is surely meant to build suspense and uncertainty, but Lang stays away too long, and the tension goes slack. Once the narrative returns to him, the film snaps back into focus, with the mock trial that's all too real. But the closing scene is a miscalculation; while seemingly intended to be stark and powerful, it comes off as not just inconclusive, but incomplete (and the lack of end credits had me checking the chapter menu to make sure there wasn't a disc glitch). I'm all for open endings, but this one just leaves us hanging--and the final lines are singed by the kind of ham-fisted rhetorical finger-pointing that would be more in place at the close of a 50s exploitation picture. But to ding Lang's masterwork for those momentary lapses of judgment would be a crime; as it stands, M is a first-class piece of work from a master filmmaker at the top of his game.
M is easy to dissect academically, to analyze in terms of not only its aesthetic innovations, but its rich subtextual commentary on Germany in the early 1930s. But too often, great films like this one are thought of as objects under glass in a museum, rather than works of art that live and breathe. Lang's film isn't just an airless "classic"; it's a visceral, disturbing picture that burrows under your skin and settles in.
The new Criterion Collection Blu-ray of "M" hits on May 11; for full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review at DVD Talk.