M: The Criterion Collection
Fritz Lang's 1931 M is one of those cinematic landmarks that should be watched again and again by all who consider themselves film buffs, and fortunately for DVD fans, Criterion's second DVD edition is the best home-video release of this German classic to date. The plot is simple, but with a few twists. A sinister child-killer (Peter Lorre) drives a city of millions into a panic when a number of young girls turn up dead. With little evidence to pursue, the police fall back on standard man-hunting tactics dig through case files of recently released prisoners; establish a search perimeter and gradually widen it; and turn over every flophouse and gambling den in the city, looking for information. The police can't find the killer, but they unwittingly mobilize the criminal underworld, who don't like the new strong-arm police tactics and have no love for child-killers anyway. Using a network of beggars who live on the street and see everything, the city's most powerful gangsters manage to flush out "M," noted as such because one of the beggars manages to imprint a chalk mark of the letter (meaning "murderer") on the back of his coat. With bums, crooks, and cops on his tail, the predator becomes the prey, chased like an animal through the streets. The most pioneering elements of Lang's style can be found in M, including early innovations with the new sound format (this was the director's first sound film, an innovation he originally resisted), the use of shadow to create both tension and depth, and those wonderfully delayed establishing shots that initially limit the audience's point-of-view for maxium effect. An early effort from Peter Lorre before he transitioned to the American film industry (and indelibly so, with scene-stealing turns in both The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca), the heavyset star is effective as half-wild, hunted prey by the film's end, but he's also darkly playful, as when Lang juxtaposes a reading of the police's psychological profile of the killer with Lorre making childish "monster" faces in a bathroom mirror. And Lang hardly leaves the silent cinema by the wayside he eliminates the audio altogether just before a raid on a gambling den as police officers fill the streets, ready to strike the lack of sound simply builds the tension, frame by frame, until it's pierced by a policeman's alarm whistle (a subtle tactic few Hollywood directors would risk with today's moviegoing public). Like Alfred Hitchcock's equally dark Psycho, Lang's early masterpiece isn't just a hypnotic picture to enjoy on its own merits. It's also a made-to-order textbook for film schools on fundamental cinematic vocabulary, and a copy belongs in every film buff's personal collection.
* * *
Criterion's second DVD release of M upgrades their initial bare-bones edition with a two-disc set that's filled with supplements. Disc One includes the original 110-minute cut of the film with Lang's original ending (often cut from other releases), and the new, restored high-definition transfer is a revelation. Virtually all public-domain releases of M on home video are taken from aging, substandard materials, with a shrill monaural audio that can be distracting. Criterion's original M disc was an improvement, with audio that could be challenging at times and a fair print quality. This edition boasts the film in its original 1.19:1 ratio (in a slight windowbox, or "pillar-box," presentation), and the print is outstanding, with evident collateral wear, but also very stable images and deep, rich low-contrast details. Audio also has been improved, eliminating a lot of the shrill high-end that marks most early sound releases. Optional digital English subtitles also are on board, and are consistently legible on the black-and-white print. Disc One also includes a feature-length commentary from film scholars Anton Kaes and Eric Rentschler detailed and learned, it's the sort of commentary that distinguishes Criterion releases when compared to the fluff that's heard on most chat-tracks nowadays. Disc Two serves up even more background, starting with "Conversation with Fritz Lang," a 50-min. black-and-white film (naturally) shot by William Friedkin during two days in 1975 (one year before the director's death). Claude Chabrol's "M le maudit," his 10-min. homage to M created for French television in 1982, looks very good with clear French audio and digital English subtitles, and the supplement also includes a brief interview with Chabrol (6 min.). Also on board is a 2004 interview with Harold Nebenzal, son of M producer Seymour Nebenzal (14 min.), tapes of film editor Paul Falkenberg made during classroom discussions of the film in 1976 and 1977, which are presented as scene-specific commentaries (36 min.), the featurette "The Physical History of M," comparing the film's various permutations over the years (18 min.), and a stills gallery. Dual-DVD keep-case.