What hasn’t been yet said on M, Fritz Lang’s 1931 psychological thriller masterpiece? Breath-taking, revolutionary, multi-dimensional, this grandiose movie still subjugates audiences, despite its 83 years of age.
It was the second time in a few months I watched M. The first screening was of course stunning: how could an early 1930s film and its director’s first sound movie could stay so modern, produce such an effect on 21st century eyes and ears? Whilst the movie still detains some of its magic secret, several aspects are worth noting as some key factors in our contemporary amazement.
Sound, in first instance, is marvelously mastered. For the first time, Lang uses it, and he instantaneously brings it to a level of subtlety rarely achieved by the majority of today’s productions. The magic of sound is to tell a story in parallel to the images. Before that, our brain was « mono-stimulated », the images and some scarce intertitles being the only source of information we had to figure out and sense the narrative of a movie. With the advent of sound, the story of the photography can be emphasized, mitigated or diverted in a million different ways by the what we hear and listen.
At the very beginning of the movie already, Lang uses this particular attribute of sound: when the mother starts to lose patience and screams the name of her daughter desperately, Lang leads us from her to the deserted staircase, the empty attic, the unoccupied chair at the table, and finishes with the girl’s ball rolling, silently, and her ballon caught in telephone lines. Nothing needed to be shown, the sound empowering the mother’s pain, and giving us a chill at each « Elsie! » shouted.
In the same vein, the second part of the movie depicting the operations of the police department to catch the killer are showed in a novel way. Images of the inquiring investigators are dubbed with commentaries of the police chief, justifying his units’ lack of results. This way of assessing the plot makes the audience much more captivated, as it is swept into the flow of the images and guided by the chief’s voice.
A last point I would like to emphasize concerns the very deep moral issues the movies deals with. As we arrive towards the end of the film, we find the killer as terrified as the public, if not even more. Lorre’s character makes us deeply realize he is his own pulsions victim. The fear in his eyes is horrifying, his dementia freezes us. And Lang concludes by putting us directly in front of the question of the society’s handling of the mentally ill and dangerous individuals. Without giving a straight answer, he leaves us at our moral judgments.
Nowadays, the genre of psychological thriller is still very relevant. Privacy issues would be an appealing and suited theme for it. A lot of it has to do with grey areas, where actors can difficultly be identified, the methods are secret or very technologically demanding, our knowledge is very limited and confuse – who is spying? how? at what extend?
The journey to more control and transparency of one’s privacy rights is potentially full of perils, pressures, threats and institutional power. One can go mad in this kind of conflict, between an individual and the terrible force of obscure corporate and governmental establishment, with every means to crush him. Confusion and absurdity of modern technology will, I am sure, lead to a potentially great psychological thriller.