When thinking of film noir as a genre or style—with its shadowy urban worlds of despair, cool detachment, violence, and cigarettes—it is easy to think of it as something purely American. In fact, Roger Ebert once considered it “the most American film genre” for these very reasons. While 20th century U.S.A was the perfect Petri dish to produce such classics like The Big Heat and Double Indemnity, some of best examples of film noir are not even American. The British film The Third Man and the French Le Samouraï come to mind but the film that influence these, and so many other films, is the 1931 German murder mystery M. Featuring the clever and dramatic direction of Fritz Lang and a shocking performance from Peter Lorre, M is a classic film noir made before the concept was fashionable.
Set in Berlin, M revolves around Hans Beckert, a serial child murderer who is so elusive that even the city’s gangsters begin to search for him once the police start doing massive sweeps in the underground. The story sounds like sensationalist pulp fiction but it is structured as a grounded procedural. Fans of Hannibal or The Wire will find M to be strangely familiar. Much of first act focuses on meticulously showing the daily procedures of the Berlin police, the criminal underworld, the angry civilians, and Beckert’s routine. Almost none of these characters are stylized enough to fit the mold of any film noir archetypes—gumshoes, femme fatales, et cetera—but their environment purely noir. Their livelihoods reveal a paranoid and nihilistic post-WW1 Berlin where everyone is persecuting each other over baseless claims as the city devolves into an oppressive police state. The fears echoed in M are sadly modern even 85 years after its premiere.
What fuels the plot of M is the German expressionistic eye of director Fritz Lang and his use of shadows. After years of directing groundbreaking silent films like Dr. Mabuse and Metropolis, this was Lang’s first foray into sound pictures and he translates his theatrical style brilliantly. The sets are far more grounded than his previous works but he is still more than capable of unsettling an audience with a perfectly ghoulish shot. This is apparent in an early scene where the camera follows a girl bouncing a ball against signpost, the post is plastered with the bounty for an unknown murderer, and then a silhouette of Hans Beckert moves over the sign and he politely talks the girl. It is both a distinctively noir moment and one of most harrowing introductions of a horror character ever filmed. Fritz Lang’s taste in chiaroscuro and genre allowed M to become a critical international hit, which allowed him to work in Hollywood on other great film noirs like The Big Heat.
While they never worked together again, the fact that both Fritz Lang and Peter Lorre made M before leaving Germany for Hollywood is almost too perfect. Lorre has always been a mainstay in early American film noir; often playing villainous and seedy foreigners types in films like The Maltese Falcon, but his performance as Hans Beckert is a far more complex and influential than anything he ever played. Beckert is portrayed as a wide-eyed, self-loathing obsessive who cannot control his urge to kill. Whenever he feels the urge, he habitually whistles “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” which he tries to resist it at one point by drinking cognac in a café. Lorre portrays with an unhinged weariness, as if the song has kept him awake every day and night for a long time, and everything he does only makes it more painful. Lorre provides an entry into the psychosis of Beckert, revealing a side of this antagonist that is genuinely tragic and empathetic. It is testament to a perfectly layered performance that Lorre can make one possibly forgive, but not forget, the sins of his character.
M is easily one of the oldest and best examples of film noir, American or not. Through M, Lang used his expressive silent era tendencies to bring shadows into the sound era, revealing their potential for economic storytelling as well as a creating a bleak atmosphere that defines film noir. The story is a harsh, morally difficult tale to grasp set in a world that slowly becoming too oppressive for morals. It may lack some of the obvious trappings that American film noir had made popular, but noir has always been more of an attitude than an actual formula, and attitude is universal.
(The film is available on DVD and Blu-ray via Criterion, but it can also be found on Youtube as well, not sure if it is legal--pubic domain is a bit vague--but they are there...)
This post is part of the Film Noir Blogathon, hosted by The Midnite Drive-in. Check it out for more posts and reviews of films where the number of smoking guns are only matched by the number of cigarettes.