Friday, March 4, 2016
A child murderer in Berlin has the city's parents on edge, particularly since the police are no closer to identifying and catching him as they were when the killings began nearly a year before. One day, young Elsie Beckmann leaves school and heads for home, when she's approached by a man who walks with her and buys her a balloon from a blind street vendor. She's never seen alive again. Afterward, the killer sends a letter to the press, admonishing the police for having not caught him yet, while the city's lead government officials begin pressuring them to find him as soon as possible. Hysteria grips the city, with people accusing both acquaintances and total strangers alike of being the killer, while the police feverishly work to the point of exhaustion, raiding any type of establishment known to have connections to the criminal world every single night. Afraid that they'll be ruined if this goes on much longer, as well as repulsed by the idea of being lumped in with someone who preys on innocent children, a crime boss known only as the Safecracker holds a 3:00 AM meeting with other crime bosses and comes to the conclusion that they must find the killer themselves. They employ all of the city's beggars to keep an eye on the children at every street corner at all times and to note any adult who appears to be taking unusual interest them. It isn't long before the killer, Hans Beckert, is spotted befriending and walking with another potential victim, prompting the beggars to go into action. At the same time, the police have finally found evidence that points to Beckert being the murderer, and now it's only a matter time before either group corners him, although the criminals intend to enforce their own brand of justice on him if they catch him: a brand that he will not walk away from.
Before we get really deep into the film, though, I do have to comment on something that I sometimes run into when I watch black-and-white foreign films: the subtitles. The Criterion Collection and other companies who distribute films like this have got to choose better colors for them so they stand out from the monochrome, especially from a distance. The edition of M that I've seen, as well as a lot of these types of releases, use white subtitles, which are virtually impossible to read when the image itself is almost completely white, especially from my couch, which is a good three feet away from my TV set. (The same thing happens with the Classic Media DVD releases of the original Godzilla and Godzilla Raids Again, which use yellow subtitles). And yes, I could toggle the brightness of the picture to make them easier to read but I've got my TV picture settings the way I prefer and I don't like have to alter them for a handful of films. It probably does come down to me being lazy and set in my ways, and I hope I don't sound whiny here, but this is something else that really hampered my ability to enjoy the film when I viewed it, which I didn't need since there are already things about the film itself that I don't like. Home media companies, please choose better colors for the subtitles to black-and-white movies, and also, make them deep enough to where they stand out from the image!
Another memorable member of the police force is Inspector Groeber (Theodor Loos), who doesn't get as much characterization as Lohmann but proves to be a pretty efficient cop in his own right. While he doesn't find any definitive evidence during his initial visit to Beckert's rented room, particularly a wooden table that matches the surface that the killer's letter to the press was written on, he soon realizes that the window sill in the room could have been it instead, which proves to be correct, and further investigation leads to the discovery of pieces of a pencil that match the one the letter was written with. More significantly, when he doesn't get anywhere with Franz, the criminal who was caught after the others found and captured Beckert, he himself comes up with the idea to make him think he's being turned over to Lohmann in the homicide division to be charged with accessory to murder, which scares a confession out of him. Lohmann himself gives Groeber major credit for that brilliant idea. (I could not find any images of this guy at all. Believe me, I tried.)
At this point, you may be confused why I talked like I didn't really care for the film in the introduction when I've basically done nothing but praise it this whole time. The thing is that M is an example of a film that I do have a lot of respect for but not one I enjoy watching, if that makes any sense. For one, the film is 110 minutes long and gets really slow at points, particularly during the scene where the police raid the bar while, at the same time, the other crime bosses wait for Safecracker to show up for their meeting, and during the second half when Beckert tries to escape the office building he's hiding in while the criminals break into find him. Those sections could have been trimmed both in order to shorten the running time and to be made to flow more quickly and smoothly, and there are other moments that could have been eliminated completely, like all the material at a flophouse (at least, I think that's what that was) where the criminals assign the beggars their streets to monitor. The shots of the beggars just sitting around there, doing nothing, a guy noting something on the menu (he mentioned something about a "Black Friday for roast beef" or something of the like but I wasn't interested, so I didn't pay much attention), and the bit where the one beggar responds to the sound of the barrel organ, could all have been eliminated, in spite of the experimental nature of that former scene.
The editing is also sometimes so sudden and spastic that it can take me a bit to realize what I'm looking at, like when the bar is being raided and suddenly, you see a guy creeping around a room and then turn around to see a cop standing on a bit of grating on the outside of the ceiling. It took me a minute to realize this was still going on at the bar, meaning that this room must be in the basement, and after the interrogation, we cut to a bunch of tools and other objects being placed across a table. Obviously, this is still part of the raid but since we then cut to the crime bosses still waiting for Safecracker, I wasn't sure if it was tied to that or not. There's also the cutting between the guy who's accused of being the murderer because he asked the little girl where she lived and the pickpocket being guided down some stairs into a crowd, one that looks like what the former person had to do deal with and made me think if this was going on at the same place. The same thing happened before then when it cut from the one being accused at the table to another who was outraged at his apartment being searched, which made me wonder if this had something to do with what I had just seen. I understand perfectly well that you should expect choppy editing in old films like this and it could also be my Asperger's making it hard to understand, but this movie often lost me with its cutting the first few times I watched it. (The hard-to-read subtitles didn't help much either.)
And finally, we have my biggest disappointment with the film, which is how little of it is actually spent on Hans Beckert. While we do get a fair amount of insight into his diseased mind and Peter Lorre manages to give a bravura performance, I would have still preferred it if the film had been like Maniac in that, for the entire running time, you're following this disturbed man around and really getting into his head. The social commentary about the criminals and the crap the police have to wade through to find Beckert are interesting but this is what I still would have preferred. In fact, I think if the movie had been that way, I would have liked it a lot more than Maniac (which I honestly think is just okay) since it would have been all about watching Lorre, an actor who I like watching much more than Joe Spinell, act completely psychotic. Even without the gore and graphic sexual content, maybe you couldn't have made such a movie back then but it still would have been nice to see. It's not fair to criticize a movie for what it isn't or for what you thought it was going to be (especially if you haven't seen a trailer or read up on it great detail), though, so I don't want to dwell on this any longer, but it still would have been nice if that's what M had been.
In the early days of sound, it wasn't uncommon for a film to be partially or completely reshot in different languages, with the most well-known example of this being the Spanish version of Dracula. M is no different, although its English version (which was thought to be lost for many years until it was found and included as an extra feature in the Criterion release) is mainly a dub, with only a few scenes being reshot, mainly close-ups of documents that were originally written in German. The dubbing itself is mostly stiff and unremarkable, without much emotion, save for Lorre, who not only dubbed his own dialogue, making this his English-language debut, but also took part in the reshoots of his scenes, particularly his monologue at the end, which is just as impactful in English as it is in German. The film is also shorter, coming in at around 93 minutes, which helps the flow a little more, but there are also some sounds from the original that are removed, like voiceover dialogue in some bits and off-camera sounds like people talking in others, which can make it even harder for someone like me to follow along with the story. While its quality is definitely less than the original German version, the English version is still an interesting curiosity piece for fans of film history, especially since it's one of the few examples of its kind that still exist.