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
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