Curiosity about Fritz Lang’s other films struck after viewing Metropolis. Result – I streamed the film M. I’m not certain but I believe this was Lang’s first adventure into the then wacky, new dimension of film making in 1931 – sound. He definitely used it to his advantage in this, a Hitchcock-esque crime drama which, at its core, is a case-study on the uncertainty principle and our society’s need for resolution, real or perceived.
Lang’s direction is absolutely brilliant. While the story is of a town terrorized by a serial killer who kills children, there is never any direct violence on screen, only subtle events that let the viewer’s imagination run wild. A ball bouncing solo off into a park. A shadowy man talking to a young girl, both disappear. The unknown is worse than the known in this case.
I’d like to compare this film to Hitchcock’s Psycho, it shares some aspects but its not the same. Both work the viewer by creating suspense but in very different ways. In M, you know the villain up front and its a race to see when or if the villain will be stopped. In Psycho, the suspense is not knowing the villain or the story line, just fragments of odd circumstantial evidence.
The villain in Psycho is revealed with surprise and the viewer is left to retro-analyze the circumstantial evidence to create a post-facto mythology – very Hitchcock. The villain in M is up-front painted as disturbed and knowingly so but unable to help himself. There is a ongoing tension from the viewer’s standpoint between reconciling hatred and disgust with some desire to stop and help. To me this was made possible by the almost unbelievable performance from Peter Lorre, who portrays fragility and conflict wrapped in horrific destruction very convincingly.
The setting of Psycho is isolated and the back stories of the characters are vague and disconnected. The story line of M involves the whole town, which, to me, is more complex but more relatable than the story line of Psycho. In M, the police fail to find the killer which causes a spontaneous recruitment of criminals to the hunt. Criminals hunting criminals leads to a lynch-mob frenzy which pits ethics against resolution.
Hitchcock liked to surprise and create elaborate psychological labyrinths; he did this exceptionally well by anyone’s standards. Lang seemed to beg two questions in 1931 which we still discuss today. Are severely psychologically damaged people worth saving? Do the ends justify the means? Difficult questions which still, 80 years on, produce a spectrum of speculative answers and even more questions.