Thursday, October 18, 2007

M (1931)

Fritz Lang's classic early talkie crime melodrama is set in 1931 Berlin. The police are anxious to capture an elusive child murderer (Peter Lorre), and they begin rounding up every criminal in town. The underworld leaders decide to take the heat off their activities by catching the child killer themselves. Once the killer is fingered, he is marked with the letter "M" chalked on his back. He is tracked down and captured by the combined forces of the Berlin criminal community, who put him on trial for his life in a kangaroo court. The killer pleads for mercy, whining that he can't control his homicidal instincts. The police close in and rescue the killer from the underworld so that he can stand trial again in "respectable" circumstances. Some prints of the film end with a caution to the audience to watch after their children more carefully. Filmed in Germany, M was the film that solidified Fritz Lang's reputation with American audiences, and it also made a star out of Peter Lorre (previously a specialist in comedy roles!). M was remade by Hollywood in 1951, with David Wayne giving a serviceable performance as the killer. ~ Hal Erickson, All Movie Guide
Running Time: 110 mins
M (1931)
The movie has a narrative dialogue that is well worth watching it. I kept thinking that there was a twist on the plot, but it all was pretty straight forward plot. Even the commentators note that the murderer is known to the viewer and we have the clues already. We in essence are looking at how the police and the criminal elements gather the clues in a slow meticulous way. With time slipping by every character seems to be obsessed with time and what time it is even to the second. It seems obvious some meaning to the constant clock watching but when watching it I so no correlation with the script per se.

Even for being an older film the story still has resonance and has much of the same issues as we still face now-child abduction and mass murderers with asymmetrically information. The one major twist was that the criminal elements (petty thieves, pickpockets, bookies etc) tied together with beggars were actually trying to do the work of the Police. That another element of society (mass murderer) was causing an escalated strife between police and the unsavory but petty elements of society.

In many ways this film has elements repeated in many other films, of course the basic psychology underlying these criminals seems to be the same no matter what time or culture they may have come from. This included the writing of letters by the killer to both the police and then to the press.

Joseph Goebbels had felt the film was pro-death penalty and stated that Lang was going to be a good German film director for the Nazis. This of course did not work out. From the commentators they seem to imply that Lang was not pro-death penalty, but I find it pro-death as it shows the depravity of man and that at least for one man-he can not control his own actions so society has to make those decisions for him.

The funniest part of the film for me was when Inspector Karl Lohmann learns from petty thief that the criminal gang was looking for the Child Murderer in the building. He has the back against the criminal and his expression is funny but he manages to recovery his astonishment.

The commentators felt the trial a kangaroo trial. While technically correct, after the mass murderer confessed, then all counter arguments for the defense are clearly weak and lacking any substance. The defense only point they try to make is that the group of criminals and elements of the lower society should not be allowed to judge the murderer. But when I watched it I was thinking that this was not a case of Anarchy/Vigilantes but more of a case of a government formed by "his peers" for the purpose of administering justice. While the other short trial scene was the state that may or not be as efficiently administered as the informal government. I do not say the informal was better but clearly it had the elements of producing a just verdict as easily as the Police State (IMHO).

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