Monday, September 9, 2013

Criteritron #7

The Criteritron is an occasional series in which I take a look at The Criterion Collection's vast offerings on HuluPlus and recommend a title to watch.

The Criteritron #7: M
Germany, 1931
Directed and cowritten by Fritz Lang

What Is It?: The first sound film by the brilliant Austrian director Fritz Lang (of Metropolis fame), M is the story of a child murderer whose heinous crimes so disrupt a city that both the police and the criminal underworld try to hunt him down. Drawing on the techniques of German expressionist cinema while using (and, indeed, innovating) many of the tricks that would become tropes of the thriller and procedural/policier genres, Lang steeps his film in atmosphere and dread. The incomparable Peter Lorre has his first major role, here, and he makes the twisted killer Beckert equally pathetic and menacing. But perhaps the most interesting thing is how, in spite of Beckert's obvious guilt and the darkness that pervades every frame, M is a rather humanistic film, treating people of all classes as three-dimensional, full human beings with all the shading that implies.

Why Watch It?: Because it is one of the first early sound films to realize that film audio could be used for much more than just spoken dialogue and musical cues. Fritz Lang had been working in silent film for years, even well after the advent of sound, biding his time so that he could learn how best to manipulate the audience through audio. Here we have one of cinema's first uses of leitmotif—a recurring musical cue associated with a character or place—with Beckert's oft-whistled rendition of Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King" following or presaging his appearance on screen. Here, too, we have sounds that link scenes together, match cuts that function on audio rather than (or in addition to) picture, and dialogue that drifts in from the next scene before the camera cuts. These things may not all have started here, but M is certainly the film that brought these techniques to a global audience (and influenced the countless filmmakers who followed in Lang's footsteps). But, far from being a technical film that only a cineaste could love, M is especially noteworthy for immediately putting its innovations to use, making the film one of the most intense, engaging, and affecting works of its time.

M is available for purchase on DVD or Blu-ray, and either format can be rented from Netflix. You can also stream M on HuluPlus via any compatible device, or through the embedded player below the cut. 

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