“M” (1931): a Necessary (and easily accessible) Watch

This is a movie that remains one of my favorites, and has influenced numerous filmmakers over the ages, including William Friedkin (director of The French Connection and The Exorcist), sits on IMDb’s Top 250 Movies chart at no. 84, is available through the Criterion Collection, and yet almost nobody I know has heard of it. (Okay, most people aren’t familiar with the Criterion Collection, I just threw that in there to add another accolade. But by the time you’ve started reading my blogs, I hope you will become of fan of Criterion)

Consider your ignorance over as I share this masterpiece of a thriller with you: M (yes, just the letter “M”), dated from 1931 Germany in the years leading to the rise of the Nazis. Its director was Fritz Lang, who created the iconic and groundbreaking silent sci-fi, Metropolis. It also helped launch the international career of Peter Lorre, who at that time was known as a comedic figure for German cinema.

What drew me to this movie were three separate aspects:

  1. The title- I scrolled through IMDb’s Top 250 and found it listed as a single letter of the alphabet. It was unique in that it stuck out from the others on the list that contained traditional poetic or literary figures of speech.
  2. The poster- The image I have attached is the original poster from its theatrical release, which depicts the letter “M” printed on the palm of a hand. Like the title, this had a mysterious element to it, and made it all the more fascinating. And finally…
  3. The plot description- I was immediately sold after reading the brief description of the events that transpired throughout the movie. That served as the final incentive to eventually find the movie and watch it.

Perhaps I should stop going on and on about my discovery of this obscure but important movie and finally share its plot with you: a serial killer who preys on children is on the loose, and the police are unable to catch him. Suffering from the immense crackdowns that are interfering with their way of life, the career criminals and gangsters decide to join in on the manhunt and rid the streets of the monster.

What made the movie so powerful for me were the techniques that are used throughout its run, constantly using suggestive themes. Val Lewton really pioneered the thought that it was not what you saw that made something terrifying, it was what you didn’t see. Though I am not a fan of Lewton’s films and consider them overrated, I believe he hit the nail on the head with this one.

The opening scene perfectly sets up the environment of its setting: a city’s population is on its edge due to the mysterious killer’s deeds. A mother brushes it off and waits for her daughter, Elsie, to come home from school. Elsie is seen walking down the streets dribbling a ball, and proceeds to throw it against a newsstand that has a sign on it advertising for any information people may have on who the killer’s identity is. Suddenly the shadow of a man covers the ad, and asks the girl her name. The scene cuts back and forth from Elsie and her mother, as the stranger buys her a balloon and her mother anxiously awaits her daughter, who is now hours late. Finally she desperately calls for her from the window, and we then see Elsie’s ball rolling through an empty field and her balloon caught in telephone wires.

“DAMN!!!!” I thought as I watched this for the first time. What a way to terrify somebody! It had me imagining myself in such a horrific scenario. This immediately sets the tone of fear and anger for the rest of the movie.

But on top of the fantastic depiction of a manhunt, the movie also delves into the legal and moral concept of culpability, as Lorre’s character, the killer Hans Beckert, passionately pleas that he is compelled to commit his crimes that he is ashamed of. There is also a play on how passion clouds one’s judgement, and what are we really seeking: justice or revenge?

Apart from the fantastic story and performances, one has to also appreciate the technical accomplishments of M, which was released in 1931 as sound was gradually entering the mainstream movie industry. Many techniques are sound-oriented, such as a car honking its horn or a telephone ringing, as the main way to direct everything prior to the introduction of sound was through visual means. The director would no longer have to use a visually creative manner to depict characters being spooked by somebody yelling in a separate room, the director can just insert the audio recording of the yelling actor in the editing room, or simply record the actor there on the set. In fact, Hans Beckert’s theme for his presence, even when we don’t see him or recognize him, is his whistling of In the Hall of the Mountain King, a technique that had traditionally been used in operas.

If I’ve succeeded in winning your fascination of this movie, and if you have two free hours on your hands, then I suggest you find a way to watch it. Due to certain clauses in copyright law, you can easily access it through YouTube. Not pay for viewing on YouTube, I’m talking about a traditional user uploading it as if it were their own video.

So what are you waiting for? You don’t have any more excuses! Find some time to sit down and watch M! You’ll definitely thank me for it, later.

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