When I think of pure cinema, I often think of Fritz Lang. After almost fifteen years of directing silent films, including the sci-fi classic Metropolis (1927), the German director made his first sound film with M and thoroughly capitalized on the technical innovation. In the opening moments of darkness, the viewer can already hear the warning voice of a child (“Just you wait, it won’t be long”), and by the first frame, we know that “the man in black will soon be here.” Lang uses a crane shot to hover over the children, and the viewer subconsciously enters the mindset of the antagonist before he appears on screen. The camera surveys the scene and rests at an upward angle for a full 30 seconds, as a woman emerges and disappears while the haunting chant continues on in the background. It’s a masterful open.
The establishing scene of M is not only significant in the scope of film history, but it’s certainly an influential precursor to the film noir releases of the 1940s and beyond. Of course, the term “film noir” wasn’t actually coined until 1946 when French critic Nino Frank wrote about the darker tones of American films in his article “A new police genre: the criminal adventure,” but Hollywood’s love affair with German Expressionism was long underway, especially upon the arrival of Lang’s sound debut. In the opening sequence of M, Lang cuts to a dark staircase — a staple of film noir — right after the 30-second shot in which he’s already established the mood of the film. Soon after, a cuckoo clock produces a sense of paranoia, and steam rises from a kitchen stove. Something is terribly wrong, and it all leads up to the appearance of a shadowy figure with his own iconic whistle (“In the Hall of the Mountain King” by Edvard Grieg). One can only imagine the excitement of 1931 moviegoers as they experienced the director’s new technique for the first time. Almost 85 years later, the ambience is still incredibly frightening.
But one has to love film noir to truly appreciate the significance of M. If you can’t watch a regular drama in 2015 because it makes you feel uncomfortable, then it’s best to stay away from noir productions, as you will find yourself confronted with the worst of characters.
What I find particularly fascinating about M is Lang’s ability to subconsciously point a finger at the viewer. After all, the film was intended as a warning to parents, but Lang slips in several low-angle shots of supporting characters staring at the camera. They seem to be saying, “You’re a part of this, but what are you really going to do?” In classic noir style, the characters know that something bad is going down, but they can’t help themselves. And it’s this style of filmmaking that produces a shock to the senses, especially when something terrible is taking place right before our eyes. Moments before Hans Beckert notices that he’s literally been tagged as the killer, he briefly turns to the camera as if looking for audience advice. Normally, a viewer might yell “Run!” — but this is something different. We can’t do anything, of course, and Beckert does, in fact, slip away. Through a breaking of the fourth wall, Lang’s characters are taunting the audience.
It’s hard to imagine M without the magnetic Peter Lorre in the lead role. He’s not your classic leading man, although his presence is undeniably powerful. With only three film credits to his name in 1931, Lorre was far from a big screen veteran but had performed on the stage for the previous ten years. In fact, Lang didn’t even request an audition, as the part was specifically written for Lorre. Sure, the actor’s abrupt movements could make the average viewer chuckle in 2015, but it’s the slow facial transformations that carry such weight. Years before low-angle shots and checkered noir lighting became popular, it was Fritz Lang who framed his villain in such a menacing way. When Beckert frantically hides from the police, he once again looks to the audience for assistance, but we can’t help him. Nobody can. We know that he’s in deep, deep trouble, and yet we can’t help but smirk as he spirals out of control. It’s a dark film…it’s early film noir.
Fritz Lang’s M kicked off TCM’s “Summer of Darkness” as the first investigative clip of Richard L. Edwards’ online film class, and it was also the first feature of the network’s opening Friday marathon. It’s going to be a #NoirSummer, and hopefully some of the world’s filmmakers are paying attention to the simple yet effective methods of their predecessors.
Q.V. Hough (@qvhough) is a freelance writer and founder of Vague Visages. He lived in Hollywood, California from 2006 to 2012 and has bachelor degrees in Communication-Mass Media and History. He now resides in Fargo, North Dakota.