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Fritz Lang
Peter Lorre, Ellen Widmann, Inge Landgut
Writing Credits:
Thea von Harbou, Fritz Lang

When the police in a German city are unable to catch a child murderer, other criminals join in the manhunt.

Rated NR.

Aspect Ratio: 1.19:1
German Monaural
Supplements Subtitles:

Runtime: 110 min.
Price: $39.95
Release Date: 5/11/2010

• Audio Commentary with Film Historians Anton Kaes and Eric Rentschler
• “Conversation with Fritz Lang”
• English Version of M
• “The Physical History of M” Documentary
• Claude Chabrol’s M Le Maudit
• Interview with Claude Chabrol
• Harold Nebenzal Interview
• “Paul Falkenberg’s Classroom Tapes”
• Stills Gallery
• Booklet


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M: Criterion Collection [Blu-Ray] (1931)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 28, 2019)

While it didn’t invent the serial killer genre of films, 1931’s M probably stands as the earliest example of a classic take on the topic. In this story, a mystery man abducts and kills the children of a German town.

This villain makes little Elsie Beckmann (Inge Landgut) his latest victim. This adds to the locale’s general panic and paranoia, as every citizen suspects that the murderer could be his or her neighbor.

This doesn’t mean that the murderer has remained totally incognito. Instead, he’s sent letters to the police to crow about his crimes – and when the authorities keep those missives under wrap, he writes directly to the newspapers.

These public declarations amplify the public interest and furor, and the criminal – revealed to us as Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre) – delights in the uproar and havoc. Essentially M creates a cat and mouse, as Beckert toys with the authorities and continues to slay children while law enforcement attempts to locate and apprehend him.

Given that M will soon celebrate its 90th anniversary, one might expect it to offer a clunky relic of the era in which studios struggled to transition from silent films to “talkies”. However, in the hands of cinematic legend Fritz Lang, M becomes a taut, vivid affair.

Lang manages to give M a stylish and surprisingly modern feel. Not that M could pop up on 2019 multiplex screens and resemble something from the filmmakers, but it nonetheless lacks the creaky quality that often impacts old movies.

Unlike more “on the nose” efforts, though, M toys with the audience to a strong degree. Despite the story’s nature, we spend surprisingly little time with Beckert himself.

In reality, Beckert barely appears in the film. Even when he see him, he says little and remains a character who performs sparingly onscreen.

M might nominally be about a serial killer, but it really devotes more energy to themes about the degradation of public trust and civility. While the murders hover over the tale, they don’t receive a lot of attention, as Lang prefers to concentrate on the social impact of the crimes.

Do I read too much into this to see a reflection of the era’s rise of fascism in Germany? Perhaps, but it becomes tough not to view M through the prism of the horrors that followed.

Whatever the case, M does vividly portray the collapse of public trust. We see neighbor against neighbor and various abuses of authority, all due to this singular threat. Without getting too political, one can see parallels with modern society, and that’s another factor that makes the movie timeless.

Even if we ignore these thematic connections and topics, M works on a basic level as a taut drama. Stylish and compelling, the movie holds up very well.

The Disc Grades: Picture B/ Audio C+/ Bonus B+

M appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.19:1 on this Blu-Ray Disc. Without question, M showed its age, but it nonetheless provided satisfactory visuals.

For the most part, sharpness seemed fine. Some wider shots tended to be a little soft, but those never created substantial concerns and I felt the film usually exhibited very good delineation. No issues with jagged edges or shimmering occurred, and I noticed no edge enhancement.

Blacks appeared quite nice. Those tones showed solid depth, and shadows also exhibited positive clarity. Contrast gave the movie a nice silver sheen.

As one would expect of an 88-year-old movie, source flaws created the majority of the distractions. Grain could be heavy, and occasional print defects appeared. I noticed examples of specks, thin lines, marks and blotches.

However, these weren’t constant concerns, and they actually seemed pretty infrequent for a flick of this one’s vintage. Overall, this was a perfectly satisfactory – and often surprisingly good – image.

I felt the monaural soundtrack of M largely matched age-related expectations. Background noise was the main distraction, as that factor offered a light layer of pops. However, the noise was well within the acceptable range for a movie made in the very early days of “talkies”.

Speech tended to sound somewhat metallic and sibilant, but only occasional edginess appeared, and the lines remained perfectly intelligible (if you speak German, at least). The dialogue wasn’t natural, but it showed acceptable clarity. Only a smidgen of music appeared, and those elements were tinny but decent.

Like the dialogue, effects veered toward the bright, slightly shrill side of the street, but they also remained fine given their age. To be sure, this wasn’t an impressive track, but it seemed at least average for its era.

Like most Criterion releases, this one comes with a nice set of extras. We launch with an audio commentary from film historians Anton Kaes and Eric Rentschler. Both sit together for this running, screen-specific look at themes and interpretation, characters and story, aspects of director Fritz Lang’s career and his cinematic techniques, real-life influences on the movie and cultural elements it represents, and a few other areas.

At times, the commentary brings some decent content but much of it feels slow and dry. The track occasionally feels like narration, so it becomes a disappointing discussion that lacks great informational value.

From 1975, we get a Conversation with Fritz Lang. Conducted by filmmaker William Friedkin, this 49-minute, 27-second chat offers Lang’s thoughts about his life and career; he touches on M for a few minutes, but that film doesn’t receive a lot of attention.

Not that anyone should complain, as the interview provides a highly interesting piece. A text screen warns the viewer that Lang could be unreliable in terms of the accuracy of his comments, so one should take what he says with a grain of salt.

In particular, the Blu-ray alerts us to the dubious accuracy of Lang’s account of how he left Germany in 1933. Nonetheless, the interview still has a lot of value and turns into an enjoyable program.

For something unusual, we get an English Version of M. This is from 1931, and we’re told that “in the early sound era, many films were shot in multiple versions for different countries, and it was not uncommon for a completely new cast to reshoot a film in their native language.” That was why 1931 also produced a Spanish-language Dracula created on the same sets – but with a totally different cast and crew – than the Bela Lugosi edition.

In this case, “M was a more hybrid affair, with a mix of dubbing and reshoots, resulting in French and English language versions in addition to the German original. Though Fritz Lang probably did not participate in the filming of this version, Peter Lorre does star in it.”

The English M runs one hour, 32 minutes and 43 seconds. Much of the movie does indeed simply dub English in place of the original German – and pretty clumsily. Very few specifically English shots make it into the movie.

Most display translated text, and we get a handful of shots of officials fairly early in the film. Lorre did reshoot parts of the trial, though; it mixes dubbed components with some reworked material.

The English M a disappointment – at least based on the disc’s introductory note. It leads you to believe that you’ll get a true English version of the film mixed with dubbed shots from the original.

Instead, you find a dubbed take of the original with only minimal new footage. It’s nice to have as a curiosity, but it’s not particularly interesting on its own.

Next comes a featurette called The Physical History of M. It lasts 25 minutes, nine seconds and offers an examination of the film’s original length, edits over the years and the restoration for home video.

Some of this shows the differences between the original and the French adaptation – which is similar to the English version viewed elsewhere on the disc. We also see alterations the film underwent over the decades and the attempts to make the Criterion release as definitive as possible. It’s light on technical elements and heavy on history, which makes it more interesting than most programs of this sort,

For a short, modern remake of the film, we get Claude Chabrol’s M Le Maudit. Created in 1982, this super-abbreviated version essentially cuts out the movie’s first half and starts with the blind man’s identification of Beckert as the killer. It’s an interesting experiment – and successful for what it is, though the concept seems kind of pointless as anything other than an oddity.

We hear from the short’s creator in a six-minute, 47-second Interview with Claude Chabrol. He discusses Lang’s work and his adaptation here. It’s a short but insightful chat.

After this we get an interview with Harold Nebenzal. This one fills 14 minutes, 32 seconds with info from the son of M producer Seymour.

He discusses his childhood memories of the shoot as well as other thoughts about his father’s career and their lives. We also hear about the 1951 remake of M. Nebenzal delivers a tight, informative piece.

Under Paul Falkenberg’s Classroom Tapes, we locate a 36-minute, six-second compilation. These tidbits come from recordings made in a film studies class M editor Falkenberg taught across 1976-1977; we hear audio from the sessions accompanied by movie snippets.

Finally, the disc provides a Stills Gallery. This splits into five domains: “The Crime” (25), “The Search” (80), “The Capture” (39), “The Trial” (12) and “Posters and Documents” (15). These areas mix production shots, publicity elements and sketches. They add up to a good collection of materials.

Like all Criterion releases, M comes with a booklet. Unfortunately, because I rented the Blu-ray, I couldn’t get access to it, so I can’t comment on its contents. Given Criterion’s history, though, I’m sure it’s worthwhile.

An unusually expressive and dynamic thriller, M holds up very well after nearly 90 years. The movie possesses uncommon depth and grips the viewer from start to finish. The Blu-ray brings relatively good picture and audio as well as a nice selection of supplements. M stands as a genre classic.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.2857 Stars Number of Votes: 7
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Review Archive:  # | A-C | D-F | G-I | J-L | M-O | P-R | S-U | V-Z | Viewer Ratings | Main