Directed by Fritz Lang
Aspect Ratio: 1.19:1 1080p AVC codec
Running Time: 110 minutes
Audio: PCM 1.0 German
MSRP: $ 39.99
Release Date: May 11, 2010
Review Date: April 19, 2010
Fritz Lang’s ‘M’ is as spellbinding now as it must have been almost eighty years ago when it was first released. As his first sound film, Lang isn’t interested in bombarding the audience with the sounds of the time. Instead he works the dialogue and audio effects into the story judiciously so that when they occur, it’s positively riveting further intensifying the grip the film has had on the emotions. A classic in every respect and a film which because it puts an unbalanced psyche under the cinematic microscope for us to examine then makes the audience a part of the crimes being judged, ‘M’ is not a film one will soon forget, especially if he has never seen it before.
Eight young girls in the city of Dusseldorf, Germany, have been discovered dead, molested and then murdered by the psychotic killer Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre). Despite a citywide manhunt by the police, there has been no progress toward his capture and arrest. The criminal element of Dusseldorf, distressed that their criminal operations are being curtailed by the constant presence of the police hassling them on the streets and raiding their clubs, decide to take matters into their own hands. They begin their own manhunt for the killer, a person unknown to them also, but through their own network of beggars who crisscross the city, the man is finally identified, marked with a chalk “M” on his shoulder, and eventually trapped in an office building where it’s a race with the police to see who can get to him first and deliver their own brand of justice.
Watching ‘M’ today, one is struck most especially by its sophisticated structure: it’s part thriller, part police procedural, and part psychological docudrama. Each of these aspects receives thorough development, not because co-writer/director Lang doesn’t quite know what he wants his film to be but because the story is so complex that it requires all of these elements to get a comprehensive assessment. There are so many memorable moments from the ironic, heart-breaking crosscutting between the mother getting lunch ready for her beloved daughter who is at that very moment in the clutches of the killer who’s wooing her with a fancy balloon to the climactic kangaroo court sequence in which each side states its case for the killer’s guilt and innocence. Thrillers today use fast editing and complex photography to layer suspense into a chase scene, but you’d be hard pressed to find anything more suspenseful than the frenzied search by the underworld figures through the multi-storied office building for the hunted man knowing that the police are on the way. In fact, Lang uses cross cutting throughout the film to further emphasize the dichotomy between the police and the crooks, between the innocent and the guilty, and in portraying the two sides of his psychotic pedophile, a scared weasel of a man who whimpers like a trapped animal when he’s eventually cornered and his description of what comes over him when he feels the urge to kill, the weasel turning into a panther almost snarling with bloodlust when in the throes of his compulsion.
Peter Lorre was catapulted into international stardom with his astonishing performance in this movie. When Lang allows him to hold center stage as he pleads his inability to control his thirst for killing, you know you’re seeing one of the cinema’s greatest-ever performances unfolding before your eyes. But Lorre even before this bravura sequence has been mesmerizing: fleeing blindly from his pursuers and cowering in the shadows hoping to escape detection, you can’t take your eyes off of him. Alternately creepy and pathetic, his Hans Beckert is one of the movie’s great and complex villainous creations. Making a powerful impression as the domineering leader of the underworld is Gustaf Gründgens while Fritz Odemar, Theo Lingen, and especially Georg John as the blind street vendor who identifies the murderer from his whistling (you’ll never hear Peer Gynt again without thinking of this movie) make an indelible impact with their fine performances.
Like Criterion’s earlier releases of early German talkies The Three Penny Opera and Vampyr, this film has been framed at the very narrow 1.19:1 theatrical aspect ratio and presented in 1080p using the AVC codec. This is about the best looking 1931 film you’re ever likely to see with a beautifully balanced grayscale that features some excellent blacks (though black levels do vary) and true whites. Sharpness and detail will really surprise you through most of the film with only a couple of sequences which appear taken from other, less viable sources. There are a few thin white and black scratches, too, but they don’t linger and much of the image is astonishingly pristine, incredible as that may be to believe. The pale white subtitles are usually easy to read though there is a time or two when placed against light backgrounds, they’re less viewer friendly. The film has been divided into 15 chapters.
The PCM (1.1 Mbps) 1.0 audio track represents the early talkie era in Germany as well as any. There is some low level hiss which can be heard in the quieter moments when sound is present (there are some completely silent sequences), and there’s a little crackle here and there that doesn’t detract from the film. Most of the dialogue has been well recorded though some of the yelling does distort some, and the low end is fairly nonexistent.
The audio commentary by film historians Anton Kaes and Eric Rentschler was recorded in 2004 for Criterion’s previous DVD release. Though there is a bit too much scene description, the two scholars do provide worthwhile analysis of the movie and its place in Lang’s filmography.
All of the video featurettes are presented in 1080i.
“Conversations with Fritz Lang” is the 1975 film interview conducted with the legendary director by Oscar-winning director William Friedkin. He talks about his early career of breaking into acting and directing along with an interesting discussion of such films as Metropolis, ‘M,’ and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, and his eventual flight from Germany. The 1080i interview feature lasts 49 ½ minutes.
The English-language version of ‘M’ which was uncovered in 2005 runs for 93 minutes. Though it’s presented in high definition here, the picture has undergone no restoration or remastering, so the video and audio are of poor quality.
“The Physical History of ‘M’ is a fascinating discussion of the various versions of the film which have been seen since its premiere in 1931. Comparison split-screen sequences along with representations of previous home video versions make for a most interesting bonus feature that runs 25 ¼ minutes.
Claude Chabrol’s ‘M’ Le Maudit is the French filmmaker’s “Cliff’s Notes” 1982 version of the movie which runs 10 ¾ minutes. An additional interview with the director about this version and his impressions of the original film runs 6 ¾ minutes.
The son of the movie’s producer gives an interview recorded in 2004 about his father’s career and his establishment of Nero Films. Harold Nebeazal’s interview lasts 14 ½ minutes.
The movie’s film editor Paul Falkenberg presents excerpts from some audio tapes recorded during university lectures about his work with film clips from ‘M’ playing as background. The lectures last for 36 minutes and are punctuated with questions from his students about his work.
A stills gallery presents a series of black and white photos and color plates featuring stills from the movie, behind-the-scenes shots for the film, a series of production sketches, movie posters, and theatrical programs which may be stepped through by the viewer.
The enclosed 33-page booklet contains the chapter listing, the cast and crew lists, some excellent black and white stills from the film, and essays on the movie by Stanley Kauffmann, Gabriele Tergit, and essays and interviews with Fritz Lang himself.
The Criterion Blu-rays include a maneuvering tool called “Timeline” which can be pulled up from the menu or by pushing the red button on the remote. It shows you your progress on the disc, the title of the chapter you’re now in, and index markers for the commentary that goes along with the film, all of which can be switched on the fly. Additionally, two other buttons on the remote can place or remove bookmarks if you decide to stop viewing before reaching the end of the film or want to mark specific places for later reference.
4.5/5 (not an average)
Another great international screen classic comes to Blu-ray courtesy of the Criterion Collection with Fritz Lang’s ‘M.’ Superb bonus features and a video and audio encode that is by far the best that the movie as ever looked or sounded makes this a must buy for all cinema enthusiasts. Highest recommendation!