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DVD Review: "M"

by Ealasaid Haas

There are definite seasons in movie-going. Summer is the time of action movies. Thanksgiving and Yuletide bring us the warm-and-fuzzy family films. Sadly, September and October tend to be the doldrums. Lucky for the film-loving public, there has been a veritable blizzard of films coming out on DVD. Among the classic films newly available is the Fritz Lang classic, "M." Your humble reviewer managed to snag a copy, and was thoroughly impressed by it.

This restored edition includes all the scenes often missing from VHS releases, bringing the running time up to 110 minutes. The optional English subtitles are a bit loosely translated but still make perfect sense, and the picture and sound are startlingly clear.

"M" tells the story of a city terrorized by that most horrifying of serial killers - the murderer of children. The police are doing everything in their power, working themselves nearly to death, and having no luck. In fact, they are upsetting the "good" criminals - the burglars, cardsharps, con men, and pickpockets. The constant police raids are terrible for business. So, the underworld bands together and sends out the Beggars' Union to watch every child in the city until the murderer is found. But when they do find him, he turns out to be almost as much a victim as the children he takes.

The entire cast is excellent, but it is Peter Lorre's character everyone remembers, in spite of the fact that his face is not seen directly for more than half the film. With his huge eyes and childlike features, Lorre's Beckert seems harmless - until you see him struggle with and fail to conquer his demons. The final sequence, when Beckert defends himself before a kangaroo court of the city's criminals, is a masterpiece. On his knees, Beckert cries out that he is unable to remember the killings themselves, that the ghosts of the children he has slaughtered haunt him, that he cannot help himself. Lorre inhabits the role so completely that what could have been a cheesy, over-the-top chewing of scenery is instead a moving and horrifying plea for mercy and understanding.

Released in 1931, "M" was Fritz Lang's first sound film. Lang had already directed such silent delights as "Metropolis," but was new to the realm of talkies. You'd never know it by the wonderful way sound is used in "M," though! From the children's song about the killer which opens the film to the silence in which the film ends, every sound (or lack thereof) in the film has a purpose. The depiction of Beckert is especially dependent on sound: our first glimpse of him, as he asks little Elsie Beckmann her name, is his shadow falling over police poster offering a reward for his capture. His inner struggle is witnessed partially through sound; when his compulsion takes over, he whistles a theme from "Peer Gynt"… and it is that whistling which finally leads to his capture.

The lack of background music will probably startle modern audiences, as will the lack of gore; although the film is about a serial killer, the only blood seen on screen is Beckert's, when he's thrown down some stairs by the criminals who capture him. Indeed, the lack of gore is more disturbing than any actual images would be - it leaves the details of the murders to our imagination. Nothing is ever shown or said to explain what happens to the children, except for a moment when Beckert flicks open a switchblade… then uses it to peel an orange. It's far more chilling to watch little Elsie's ball roll out from behind a bush, and see the balloon Beckert bought her caught by telegraph wires than anything a makeup effects artist could devise.

The bottom line on "M" is this: it's a marvelous film on a variety of levels. Lovers of classic, foreign, or suspenseful films and fans of Peter Lorre will doubtless adore it, but those who demand gore or loathe subtitles would be better advised to look elsewhere for their evening's entertainment.