#55. M (1931)
Directed by: Fritz Lang
Written by: Fritz Lang, Thea von Harbou, Paul Falkenberg, Adolf Jensen, Karl Vash (based on newspaper article by Egon Jacobson)
Starring: Peter Lorre, Otto Wernicke, Gustaf Grundgens
Fritz Lang’s first sound film, simply titled M, is quite possibly one of the most atmospheric films in the history of the medium. Lang had already made a name for himself with his science fiction masterpiece Metropolis, and fantasy epic Die Nibelungen. The story of M is simple – concerned parents and citizens of Berlin hunt for a child killer (Peter Lorre) – identified only by his whistling of “In the Hall of the Mountain King”. After the murder of a young girl named Elsie, the panic and anxiety-stricken people of Berlin enlist the help of the city’s crime lords in order to track down the killer for themselves. What follows is a tense, atmospheric, and morally challenging thriller from one of early film’s greatest directors. Peter Lorre’s performance as Hans Beckert, the child murderer, is without a doubt one of the creepiest, most menacing performances in early film history. His whistling of “In the Hall of the Mountain King” sets the tone for what’s to come, which it’s safe to say is never anything good, and his famous bulging eyes are perfect for the role. Lang’s direction feels frantic once things ramp up, but he never let’s the film’s slow, psychological pace be forgotten by viewers. His use of imagery is incredible, especially when it comes to the reveal of the “M” referred to in the film’s title. The ending of M is one of the most morally ambiguous you’ll find in movies of its time, ending on the perfect note to stick with viewers for days after the credits roll. Lang dares viewers to sympathize with Lorre’s monstrous Hans Beckert, going to several emotional lengths to make you question your own morals and values. M is a very special film in many ways – it’s something of an anomaly for film of the 1930’s for how bleak and thrilling it is. Lang always had a way of challenging his viewers, pushing them to reconsider their once rock solid moral code. If you struggle with older films, I can absolutely say that M is a great place to start.