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Film Noir Thursday #1 – M

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For those not "in the know", I've decided to start on a 10-movie Film Noir Marathon since my knowledge of the genre is a bit lacking. I'll be viewing one film a week and posting a review, each Thursday, for the next nine weeks. The first film up is M by director Fritz Lang. It was made in 1931 (one of the first Film Noirs) and was Fritz Lang's first movie with sound. It also made a star of Peter Lorre, who in M portrays a murderer of children eluding the police and the underground world of crooks angry about the bad publicity he is bringing them. Below is my review and following it is a finalized list of the next nine films.

M – Review/Thoughts

M is consistently referred to as one of the greatest Noirs by a great Film Noir director, Fritz Lang (he later made the revered The Big Heat). Unfortunately, I didn't find it to be as inspiring as its five-star rating on Amazon.com might lead one to believe. The opening 30 minutes are a bit drab. They simply don't grab you in any way or make you want to continue onwards with the movie. There is one great scene in the beginning where we first meet up with the murderer Hanz Beckert (Peter Lorre) but aside from that, the beginning just doesn't work well.

Luckily, however, the film picks up after this as we start to see the involvement of various syndicates of underground criminals in the chase for Hanz. Upset at the fact that the police keep raiding their hide-outs looking for the child murderer, they decided to perform their own search in order to locate him and therefore stop the pointless and disruptive raids. It's an interesting idea that makes the plot of M stand out from other Film Noirs.

In terms of acting, the movie succeeds. The characters are believable and have clear motivations for their actions. Even the secondary characters are fully fleshed out, not such an easy feat in a movie with many supporting actors. Peter Lorre gives a good performance, although I wouldn't call it the performance of his career, as he tends to overact a bit — lacking a subtlety that would really have propelled his character.

Surprisingly, as M is in a way a portrait of a serial killer, Peter Lorre's character doesn't get a lot of screen time. This isn't so much a bad thing as just an interesting directorial decision. It makes the film more of a picture of the social, underground, and governmental reaction to a serial killer more than one about the actual killer himself. In this respect the film is also good, showing the police's frustration at not be able to catch Hanz and also the public's growing paranoia and suspicion of all the wrong people.

The filming (which of course, every Film Noir review must discuss) was a bit of a letdown. Perhaps this is because I had my expectations boosted pretty high by watching Touch Of Evil recently by Orson Welles, which features amazingly choreographed scenes. And it's not that M is badly filmed, it just rarely does anything that makes the viewer sit up and take notice. It does on occasion though, which points perhaps towards a filmmaker still finding his own unique sense of style.

All in all, I found M to be an interesting introduction to the Film Noir genre. Within it you can see many small things that later Film Noirs used to a greater degree. The movie itself isn't bad or even mediocre — it's a very competent film, but has areas that really drag and don't accomplish much. With some editing, M could be a much better film. As it is now, I would recommend it only to people wanting to explore the beginning of the Noir genre or to Fritz Lang aficionados. 3/5

*Note – This review pertains to the Criterion Collection edition of M

Remaining Films

1) Laura (Fox Film Noir) 1944
2) Out Of The Past (Warner Home Video DVD) 1947
3) The Third Man (Criterion Collection: 50th Anniversary Edition) 1949
4) Sunset Boulevard (Paramount Special Collector's Edition) 1950
5) Strangers On A Train (Two Disc Special Edition) 1951
6) Kiss Me Deadly (MGM Vintage Classics) 1955
7) Rififi (Criterion Collection) 1955
8) The Killing (MGM DVD) 1956
9) High And Low (Criterion Collection) 1963

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About Cameron Graham

  • Great idea for a series! Looking forward to the next one.

  • M is not really a film noir; it is closer to German Expressionism, which influenced film noir.

    Film noir didn’t begin until several years later, and in its classic form is a mostly American phenomenon. Granted, these two fields share a lot of the same traits in terms of moodiness and low-key lighting and all that, but there are differences.

    Film noir as we know it actually started sometime in the late 1930s. The general rule of thumb is that noir started with The Maltese Falcon and ended with Touch of Evil.

    The term itself actually came about in the late 1940s, in an article in a French film journal. Due to the war, there had been a great absence of American films in France; when all these films were released after the war was over, French critics noticed a considerable change in their style. Crime films, in particular, now seemed perpetually dark and gloomy, and held a somewhat grim vision of life. Lang, as you noted, would become one of the auteurs of noir with The Big Heat, as well as Human Desire, Scarlet Street, The Woman in the Window and a number of others.

    Since then, of course, noir has become a recognized genre.

    The ones on your list are all good examples. Let me suggest three more: Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice and White Heat.

    The debate over what is and isn’t pure noir goes on in film circles, and there are people I know who would disagree with me that White Heat is a noir; they would say it’s a gangster film. I also claim Asphalt Jungle as a noir; others say no, that is a heist film.

    In a sense, it’s a little like pornography: you know it when you see it.

  • Rodney is correct. This is German Expressionism. Where is M “consistently referred to as one of the greatest Noirs” because this is the first time I’ve heard that?

    Also, why bother reviewing a Criterion disc and make no mention of the extras?

    I enjoyed it more than you and my review can be found on BC.

  • Mat – Thanks, glad you enjoyed it.

    Rodney – You make some very good points. M may not be truly, 100%, a film noir but I think it’s a crucial stepping stone when entering the film noir marathon. As you say, film noir is heavily influenced by German Expressionism and M was certainly a heavy influence in many later film noirs. Thanks for the suggestions, although I’ve finalized my list at this point, there’s enough film noirs that look very good that I’m considering waiting a while after I finish this and then going back and another marathon.

    El Bicho – Read my above comment for Rodney first. Now, here’s a few places where M is touted highly as a film noir.




    Most reviews that you read will also comment on the film’s noir-ish qualities. I chose not to review the DVD feature simply because I’m not doing this for director commentaries or behind the scenes footage. I haven’t watched any of these films before and chose the criterion editions when possible because they, in general, offer the highest quality of video and best version (if multiple versions are available). Glad you enjoyed the film.

  • No offense, but anyone can post to IMDb and Wikipedia, so take those with a grain of salt. They aren’t necessarily a bastion of film criticism. Have you seen IMDb’s Top 250 films?

    The author of the essay at GLBTQ writes that some people say M is a noir, but he doesn’t cite anyone, appearing like he’s just trying to prove his thesis.

    Saying M has Noir qualities is like saying Scorsese is showing Tarantino qualities.

    I brought up the extras because they provide great background and insight, not that Lang was around to do a commentary track, but he is presented in an interview.

    Rodney, I haven’t seen it in a while, But I’ll go Noir for Jungle, but agree with your friends that White Heat is Gangster. Another Sterling Hayden noir is Kubrick’s The Killing.

    I would question The Third Man on this list. Excellent film, great cinemtography, but our hero doesn’t fit the Noir main character archetype, nor does the plot, although I don’t want to give anything away..

  • El Bicho — As I write this I’m listening to The Stooges’ Fun House, which actually does have something to do with our discussion. It came out in 1970, several years before punk rock “officially” debuted with the Ramones and Sex Pistols — and yet it’s as punky as a punk record ever got, maybe the punkiest record ever.

    This is, a little bit, how I think of noir. It was invented by the French, and it applied to a style that seemed to arrive rather unintentionally — the noir masters didn’t know they were making noirs. So, in a way, it’s a kind of elastic term, and in a way I guess you could go back and pull M under the noir umbrella, although factually it isn’t.

    There are scholars who try to define noir, and say this is noir and that isn’t, but when I think of it I always think of darkness — lots of brilliant night cinematography — a certain kind of fatalism, a sense of real, merciless evil, and a touch of craziness — that is, the bad guys in a real true classic noir should be completely amoral, truly evil motherfuckers, and maybe a little nuts, like Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark) in Kiss of Death, who smiles like a jackal and has the time of his life taking an old lady in a wheelchair and pushing her down the stairs.

    White Heat has all the elements I mentioned, as well as a strong hint of incest, and James Cagney’s character, Cody Jarrett, is both a truly tormented individual as well as a cold-blooded killer who enjoys his work.

    Both of these, I think, set the template that Joe Pesci worked from for Goodfellas.

    The Third Man isn’t maybe the first movie that comes to mind when I think of noir, possibly because of its international locale, but it bears a lot of the same elements. Holly, Joseph Cotten’s character, is very much of an postwar anti-hero, an unassuming type who becomes unwittingly involved in a bad situation. Stylistically it’s very, very much of a night movie — think of all those street lamps, and that chase through the sewers for Harry Lime (Orson Welles). Lime isn’t crazy, of course, but he represents a very insidious evil, as he’s a war profiteer who doesn’t seem all that concerned that his victims are helpless children.

    I don’t really think of Strangers on a Train as noir either; I tend to think of Hitchcock films as Hitchcock films. He was a genre unto himself. But if you approach the film strictly on style, it certainly fits in — and Robert Walker is, again, totally nuts and totally amoral.

    As noted, these are just my own thoughts, and people who have given the matter more serious study than I have mapped out other criteria, and my own general rules are by no means cast in stone. Walter (Fred MacMurray) in Double Indemnity isn’t crazy at all; just evil, “rotten to the core,” as Barbara Stanwyck puts it. That’s a good word, rotten. There’s an alluring rottenness to the noir world.

  • Rodney, I disagree with those who “officially” designated when punk started because for me it is The Stooges. I don’t see them as an influence, but as the full realization of it. The Who’s “My Generation” is an influence.

    More on Noir/Gangsters later.

  • Actually, you’re both wrong. The first “punk” song was “Public Execution,” circa 1966, by Mouse and the Traps, out of Tyler, Texas. It was their first and only hit. Roots have unlikely origins.
    Besides the visual elements, the story premise of noir is usually a protagonist, an ordinary man, thrown against his will, sometimes subconsciously, into a world of extraordinarily sinister circumstances. That leaves a lot of room open for technical interpretation.

  • Since “Public Execution” was nothing more than a fairly convincing Dylan soundalike riding the coattails of “Like a Rolling Stone,” then I guess you could say Dylan was the first punk, which he wasn’t of course. Actually, when you get right down to it, since so much of punk was an effort to recapture the raw primal energy of rock when it started, maybe Elvis was the first punk. The people of his day certainly thought so. Actually, you could argue that punk goes back several centuries, at least that was Greil Marcus’ contention in Lipstick Traces.

    My apologies for sending this discussion off track, but you get my point, which is just that pinpointing the origin of any style or movement can get very, very sticky. You can apply this same discussion to determining the first Surrealist — was it someone from the Andre Breton crowd, or one of the artists they worshipped, like Bosch or Breughel or the Marquis de Sade or Emily Bronte or Lautreamont? (Questions also taken up by Marcus.)

  • Actually, you could argue that punk goes back several centuries, at least that was Greil Marcus’ contention in Lipstick Traces.

    It’s a personal bias, but as far as I’m concerned nothing discredits a theory so fast as Greil Marcus’s support of it.

  • And the first punk song was “Louie Louie.”

  • Ahh–you ARE familiar with the song, Rodney–kudos. If we trace it back to Elvis, then we have to look to Big Mama Thornton, and then to her roots, and so on until we get back to those early caveman drummers and the one day that one decided to whack one of his fellow drummers upside the head, thus issuing in the term “headbanger.”

  • Going back to German Expressionism as it relates to film, where does “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” and “Nosferatu”–lots of shadowy contrast and disturbing uneasiness– fit into the picture as far as being precursors to film noir?

    And I would make a case for Love’s “7 and 7 Is” being the first punk precursor, but I think it was 1967(?) and therefore pre-dated by 1966’s “Public Execution.”

  • Cameron, I recommend watching the film again while considering the German pre-Nazi era in which it was created. There’s a strong sense in the movie of a whole society descending into crazy ugliness that I find historically fascinating.

  • As Al said: as in general art is prescient to historical and societal change, it is indeed fascinating to recognize the disturbing tensions going on in the 1920s and ’30s in Germany — in art (expressionism), literature (Kafka–a Czech but his first language was German) and film, which is where the shadowy and dark “Caligari” and “Nosferatu” come in. Consider that German emigrants such as Billy Wilder and Robert Siodmak directed 1940s crime dramas, bringing here what they learned in Germany.

  • Randy Newman was inspired to write a song based on M titled “In Germany Before the War.” (The lyrics copyist, by the way, wrote Dusselford when he meant Dusseldorf.)

  • Scott Butki

    I think you picked Which Will before, or maybe it was another Nick Drake song, because
    I downloaded it and two others by him. His music is so amazing, very mesmerizing. No
    wonder people are still talking about it 20 years plus later.

  • Scott Butki

    OOps, wrong comment. Or right comment in wrong

    I’m going to try to watch or rewatch some of the others on your list.

    As for M…I think it has dated badly and you need to recall when it came out. At the
    time it was chilling and distburbing – i mean, the story of a serial killer? WOw.

    But compared to today’s standards, yeah, it’s quite slow and drab.

    But one – including me when I saw it – have to resist the urge to compare, say,
    Metropolis to modern sci-fi.

  • Ah, nothing like a comment from Generation MySpace. It’s only “slow and drab” if you have the attention span of a gnat. I hate to sound like an old fart, but is it possible, Scott, that your skull has been raped and abandoned by MTV, so that if a film is moody or evocative you get bored and restless? Do you think a century of film history was just a prelude to Quentin Tarantino? I love this comment: “At the time it was chilling and distburbing – I mean, the story of a serial killer? Wow.” Meaning, I suppose, that to get a rise out of Scott Butki it’s got to have not just one serial killer but a whole team of them, as well as monsters, aliens, explosions, severed heads, pools of blood, car wrecks, titties, Will Smith, and dialogue punctuated at every turn with “motherfucker” or “cocksucker.”

  • I hate to sound like an old fart

    Rodney, I happen to agree with your sentiment wholeheartedly, but man, your delivery was total old-fart.

  • Scott Butki

    Rodney, you totally misintepreted my comment and mischaracterized me. I’d prefer M to anything Tarantino has done and the movie you describe sounds awful to me.

    I’m saying it was daring at the time to tell a movie about a serial killer but in a time when Oliver Stone does a movie like Natural Born Killers – inferior to M in my opinion- it’s a topic that’s no longer quite as novel.

    I hate MTV and have a longer attention span than most people. That doesn’t neccesarily make older and slower better, though, which seems to be the direction your argument is headed.

    Is it not possible to be young and like older movies and still find some of those “classics” wanting?

    I was just mentioning elsewhere that I can’t get into the Thin Man series which is also one that some rave about but which just doesn’t excite or
    interest me as much as the Third Man or Maltese
    Falcoln let alone the Big Sleep.

  • Scott–Blasphemy! You don’t like the Thin Man series? Well, at least you have a good appreciation for Big Sleep, but still…

  • Scott Butki

    I’m going to give Thin Man another try. But I think I should be able to dislike a movie without being criticized for it.

  • Sorry–just kidding Scott, and exaggerating for effect. I love those Thin Man movies, but even though they’re based on Dashiell Hammet’s books, I put them more in the realm of comedy rather than film noir.

  • Scott Butki

    No sweat, Gordon. It was Rodney’s comments that rubbed me wrong.
    I read a good piece on the Thin Man movie today which while praising it for its style also stated that the plot is pretty much incomprehensible,
    which is probably my objection to the movie, being a writer who prefers his stories to make sense.

  • Scott–Sometimes plots take a back seat and it doesn’t matter. Such may be the case with the Thin Man movies, but it was especially true with The Big Sleep. You probably know this already, but at one point during the filming of it, the director Howard Hawks and the screenwriters (which included William Faulkner) couldn’t determine who killed one particular minor character in a scene. So they consulted Raymond Chandler, and even though he had written the original novel, he didn’t know either. They all figured it didn’t matter anyway, that people wouldn’t notice.

    And indeed, the greatness of Big Sleep for me at least, lies with the characters, the atmosphere, and especially the lines (“She was trying to sit on my lap, and I was standing up at the time”). Trying to figure out the convoluted plot almost gets in the way of all that.

  • Scott Butki

    Excellent point. Normally I’m bothered by plots that don’t make sense but there are exceptions and you named a perfect one. Another one for me was Memento – I wasn’t sure who did what and indeed there are various examples of what might be happening.But there are enough other things that were great about the movie to make up for it.