In 1927 the first feature-length film that used a synchronized soundtrack was released, Alan Crosland’s The Jazz Singer. It thrilled audiences and changed the course of cinema forever. It’s place in the history was cemented forever. It’s also a pretty terrible movie. Unfortunately for The Jazz Singer, it has become simultaneously famous for its use of blackface in a terribly outdated sequence where star Al Jolson performs a ditty called “Mother of Mine, I Still Have You.” Like many other culturally significant and technically influential films throughout the history of cinema, The Jazz Singer can live in the stuffy textbooks but doesn’t need to be watched.
But if you are looking for a film that showcases the early use of sound in motion pictures, don’t fear, because the film we are highlighting this week should do the trick. Fritz Lang’s M, released roughly four years after The Jazz Singer, is one of the first complete masterpieces of the sound era. But it’s also much more than that.
M stars Peter Lorre in an all-time great performance as Hans Beckert, a serial killer of children in contemporary Berlin. As his terror spreads through the city, all of its communities and institutions [including both the police and the organized crime syndicates] go on an all-out manhunt to find the human monster. It is an intense thriller that turns into a morality play in its final act, asking difficult questions on justice and vigilantism. Should a murderer go through proper legal channels that are bound to be manipulated and distorted by a cunning criminal or be dealt with swiftly and as violently as his own disturbing crimes?
The film’s emphasis on sound design is made immediately, with dialogue [in this case, a children’s song, a German version of “eenie-meenie-minee-mo”] coming just a few seconds before the image. Directly after, a mother of one of these children comes from out-of-frame, basically to tell the children to shut up and come inside—perhaps a fun little joke for the cinemagoers who were desperately holding on to silent cinema. As the film then begins to cross-cut between a mother preparing his child’s after-school meal and the little girl who ultimately becomes the film’s first victim, a number of other sound cues and jokes are used—as the girl walks out into the street, we hearing a blaring horn before a car narrowly misses a collision; as she’s throwing a ball up against a public statement on the child murders, the shadow of Beckert comes into view and the two hold a conversation without seeing either; concerned citizens read the latest death notice with the unfortunate in the back of the crowd yell for someone to read it out loud; finally, we hear Beckert whistling Evard Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” a sound cue that becomes vitally important by the end of the film [seriously, the villain being taken down precisely *because of* sound is the greatest of cinematic jokes].
All of cinematic touches couldn’t have been achieved a matter of years before M. Lang uses sound throughout the film and directly in his editing with the same vigor as Georges Méliès creating the cinema’s first special effects. The first time I saw M while in film school, I was wowed by the technical craft—like seeing The Birth of a Nation or Citizen Kane, the quality of filmmaking shows itself even as the art has progressed for more than 80 years.
But I was also immediately struck by one of my favorite performances, Peter Lorre’s creation of one of cinema’s most despicable characters. Lorre used his unusual, almost weasley, appearance to a long and prosperous career as one of the great character actors of all time—his performances in films like The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca help make those all-time classics, while his late career led to fun little roles in Roger Corman horror flicks The Raven and Tales of Terror [perhaps those aren’t pillars of cinema, but they are personal favorites]. The traits that forced Lorre into bit roles and side villains for Humphrey Bogart to conquer are perfectly suited in the lead role of M, and the actor leaves his mark. His bulgy eyes, round little face, pudgy fingers give off a strange quality, like an overgrown baby. It also, quite honestly, makes him look like a deranged and sexually deviant psychopath, which is perhaps cruel to say but Lorre plays it fully. To me, Hans Beckert is as magnetic as Hannibal Lecter, Freddy Krueger, and the rest of cinema’s greatest creeps.
Lorre especially shines in the film’s final scene, the kangaroo court that tries him for his crimes. Lang does something interesting with this scene, making the audience truly face the monster for the first time—throughout the rest of the film, Beckert is a curiosity at an arm’s distance. He rarely speaks, often is shown without a full view of his face. We don’t really get any sense why he commits his heinous crimes. But in the last scene, we not only hear his true thoughts, but are asked to sympathize. Lorre is let loose for an impassioned speech on criminal nature, mental illness, guilt, and madness.
When we aren’t wallowing in the psychology of the central criminal [which is quite a lot of the film, especially in the second act], M builds an interesting narrative around a quite different group of criminals. As the police begin rounding up gangsters when searching for the killer, the crime bosses get fed up and begin their own grand investigation. They employ the city’s homeless population to become the literal eyes and ears on the streets, the ultimate neighborhood watch. How the film views these three institutions, how they are separated in society and what can bring them together, is fascinating. Even as the criminal vigilantes are more adept at tackling a community problem, the police aren’t made completely incompetent—they come to recognize Beckert as the prime suspect just as he’s being found on the streets. This ecosystem is important to 1930’s Germany and the rising nationalism of the Nazi party. Without feeling heavy handed, M showcases the boiling convergence of a police state, large and influential criminal organizations, a scared and vulnerable public, and human monsters.
There is so much more to discuss and dissect when it comes to M, so I’m happy to be highlighting the film this week. If you haven’t seen it before, I hope my praise helps, whether you’re looking for a technical masterpiece or a down-and-dirty crime thriller. Here’s what we’ll be covering this week:
- The Cinessential Podcast, Episode 11
- Scenessential on the final courtroom setpiece
- In Context on the political underpinnings of 1930s Germany
- Related Review of Fritz Lang noir Hangmen Also Die!
- And more!