Monday, June 15, 2009
M is a German drama-thriller directed by Fritz Lang and written by Lang and his wife Thea von Harbou. It was Lang's first sound film, although he had directed over a dozen films previously. The film has become a classic which Lang himself considered his finest work. The roots of noir go back to German Expressionism, and there’s no movie that’s more German, Expressionist, or noir than Fritz Lang’s masterful — and finally restored — M (1931). While this story of the pursuit of a child-killer lacks one of the crucial elements of the genre, the femme fatale, the other components of noir are here in force. There’s the dark cityscape, an unstable environment in which children play in the street singing chants about "black bogeymen" and murderers. There’s the paranoid pathology of the individual in the person of the twisted Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre), who courts and kills his young victims for reasons he can’t express or fathom, and a frenzied mob that brings its own brand of justice against him. Many of the classic noirs of the 1940s and later owe a debt to M’s obsessive attention to the details of the manhunt, with the most minute aspects of police procedure rendered. Most important, though, is the sense of doom that colors the film, a fatalism Lang renders through chiaroscuro lighting effects and enormous high-angle shots that suggest a malevolent spiritual presence hovering above the city and guiding its denizens to their doom.
M is supposedly based on the real-life case of serial killer Peter Kürten, the 'Vampire of Düsseldorf', whose crimes took place in the 1920s, not long before the film was made and released, although Lang fervently denied that he drew from this case.
Lorre's character whistles the tune "In the Hall of the Mountain King" from Edvard Grieg's Peer Gynt Suite No. 1. However, Peter Lorre himself could not whistle – it is actually Director Fritz Lang who is heard. The film was one of the first to use a leitmotif, associating "In the Hall of the Mountain King" with the Lorre character. Late in the film, the mere sound of the song lets the audience know that he must be nearby, off-screen. This association of a musical theme with a particular character or situation, a technique borrowed from opera, is now a film staple.
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