A Review of Fritz Lang’s “M”

With nothing worthwhile at the cineplex this spring, I’ve been using my Netflix queue to catch up with many of the classics I studied in film class but never watched as a complete whole.  Fritz Lang’s M is one of those classics that looks great on your shelf, but you might only pop in the DVD player for that single scene or shot.  I’m not sure I could ever sit through it again fully because it’s so challenging and draining to watch.  This is the polar opposite of the film I explored earlier in the month, The Third Man, which I could watch again and again for the entertainment value.  That in itself is notable as M is often sited as one of the first films to flirt with noir, while The Third Man is considered by many to be the epitome of the movement.  As the film that bridged two significant gaps in film history (the gap between German Expressionism and Film Noir, and the gap between silent films and talkies), M also exists above the scrutiny of a modern film critic.  I decided to tackle it as I would have when I was a psychology major in college.  The film is endlessly fascinating in its symbolic imagery and psychological, sociological, and political underpinnings.

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“L” Before “M”, 21 April 2008

10/10

Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

In an eerie propagandist fashion, the phrase “in the name of the Law” is repeated over the last two scenes of Fritz Lang’s M as a child killer is brought to justice. If “L” represents the State and the Law, then “M” is meant to represent the Individual (who in this case is a Murderer). Lang boldly asked us way back in 1931, whose rights come first: the State or the Individual? A master of his craft, Lang leaves the question open-ended and let’s the audience decide.

M is shockingly contemporary in its psychological complexities. It explores the psychology of individualism vs. group think while showcasing how a state of fear can be inflicted upon a populace when a government fails to protect society from a single individual terrorizing the people. The story is fairly straightforward: An elusive citizen begins killing innocent children in a large nameless German city. The media fuels a paranoid frenzy that incites the public. The clueless police begin to raid “the underworld” after the populace is turned into a raving mob because of the failure to capture the killer. “The underworld” comes to a screeching halt as their business is ruined by the police and starts their own manhunt for the killer.

Unlike a modern period piece that attempts to evoke a certain place and time, M WAS a certain place and time. Lang, in an almost prophetic sense, captured the state of mind of the German people in 1931 as the Weimar Republic was on the brink of collapse and the Nazi Regime was preparing to take over. When individuals live in a state of fear, as they do in M, society collapses and the Individual is crushed. Only the State, it seems, can bring order.

M is a also a masterpiece for its technical aspects. The way in which Lang uses his camera to move through windows, capture shadows, reflections, empty spaces, and shift points-of-view is staggering even by today’s standards. He also played with the new technology of recorded sound with extensive voice-over narration and dialogue used to overlap and transition between scenes. Didn’t critics recently praise Michael Clayton for utilizing just such a technique as if it was something revolutionary? One can also see a protean style the would eventually birth the Film Noir movement with the creation of tension and suspense in the use of shadows and camera angles.

Yet M is not perfect. It has some major flaws. There are no real “characters” in the film to speak of in the modern sense. The film is virtually all built around mood and plot. The only time Lang invites us to emotionally connect is in the opening and closing scenes with a mother of one of the victims, and in the classic scene of Peter Lorre giving his writhing and primal “I can’t help it!” speech in front of the kangaroo court of criminals. The mother’s grief and Lorre’s madness are presented so sparsely and in such a raw form that it becomes too painful to want to connect with them. Another flaw that is often overstated about films from this time period is the slow pace of the early police procedural scenes. These inherent flaws combined with the inherent brilliance of Lang’s vision make M one of the most challenging films a modern viewer could ever sit through.

What impressed me most about M was the subtlety of the symbolism Lang created with his haunting images. As harrowing as the story is, none of the gruesomeness is shown on screen. It’s all transmitted to the viewer through the power of suggestion. Is it any wonder Hitler wanted Fritz Lang for his propaganda machine, which thankfully led to Lang fleeing to America? I’ll never forget the wide shots of the kangaroo court (and the looks on those people’s faces as the killer is brought down the steps for trial) or the vast expanse of that empty warehouse. The scene of the ball rolling in the grass with no one to catch it, the balloon caught in the telephone wires, and the empty domestic spaces the mother has to inhabit after her child has been murdered are the types of scenes that tape into Jungian archetypes and shared fears. The look on Lorre’s face as he confesses, the hand of the Law coming down to save Lorre from being lynched, and the ghastly plea from the mother in the final scene will stick with me for the rest of my life. 

M is a communal nightmare; one that from which we have yet to awake.

Originally published on the Internet Movie Database:

http://imdb.com/title/tt0022100/usercomments-199

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For further exploration, some of the major themes of M can be found in the following films:

The horrors of group think: Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932)

The stalking and murder of innocence:  Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter (1955)

Individuals crushed while under the surveilance of the State:  Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others (2006)

The unraveling of communities and individuals when children are threatened: Ben Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone (2007)

For the Love of Pete!

Part of the wonder of a living language is reviving dead words and phrases.  When I recently began to toy with the idea of doing a series of novels set in the 1920’s, 1930’s, and 1940’s, I began to wonder if my knowledge of The Little Rascals would be enough to create that period dialog that would truly zing.  While doing a scant bit of research on the internet, I came across some of my favorite sayings and words from those “Old Timey” days.  It was quite funny to realize many of these antiquated phrases have been used by me for some time (for instance, my favorite, For the love of Pete!, or my referring to friends or contemporaries as kids).  Anyone who knows me knows my fondness for creating catch phrases and playing with words, so here’s a list of some of the best that I think should be put back into everyday use:

For the love of Pete! — a versatile exclamation that can be used in almost any situation but is often delivered as a complacent complaint.

Source:  Pete, the dog from The Little Rascals.

Usage:  Ethel said to Abner, “When’re you gonna cut that lawn?”  To which Abner replied, “For the love of Pete, Ethel!  I woulda done did it yesterday if it would get you to shut your trap!”

The Wreck of the Hesperus — a mess; a fiasco; a potentially calamitous situation.

Source: 19th century poet Henry Wordsworth Longfellow.

Usage:  The apartment looked like the wreck of  the Hesperus after the party.

Affrighted — to become frightened or scared.

Source:  Victorian Era novels.

Usage:  The sallow specter of the dead governess left me quite affrighted.

Side Note:  Adding a soft “a” to the front of any verb will make the cut of your jib jive in that Old Timey way.  For instance:  Last Sunday I went avisiting and met a baby and a dingo.  Tonight, I plan to go out adrinking.

Dinners — a woman’s bosom; visible cleavage.

Source:  Old Timey grandmaws.

Usage:  Oh dear, that little trollop has her dinners all ashowing in that dress!

A Real Brick — a good friend or confidant.

Source:  The book and the film Atonement.

Usage:  Gee, Sally, you’re a real brick for listening to me tonight.

Rather — an often sarcastic declaration of a defeatist attitude or disgruntled agreement in the wake of a long story or statement.

Source:  Graham Greene novels.

Usage:  Martha said to George, “Well I’d say he slipped off the wagon tonight with that old scallywag.”  To which George might have replied, “Rather!”

Get out but quick — self explanatory, see?

Source:  The classic noir film Double Indemnity.

Usage:  Laura said to Clyde, “Suppose you get out of here before I slap you.”  To which Clyde replied, “Suppose I do get out, get out but quick.”

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I’d say we start using at least one of these phrases everyday!  So hop to it, kids!

And we’re off

(in a cloud of dust).

What are some of your favorite Old Timey phrases and words?

For further Old Timey fun, check out these hilarious explanations of Old Timey names:

http://oldtimeytimes.blogspot.com/2006/02/old-timey-names-explored.html

Written By David H. Schleicher 

The Thief Maker Named Finalist in Eric Hoffer Awards

Nearly a year and a half after its publication, my novel The Thief Maker continues to accumulate accolades.

The Thief Maker was recently named a Finalist in the 2008 Eric Hoffer Award for Independent Books.

Though it will not be taking home one of the grand prizes, being named a Finalist places The Thief Maker in “the top 10% of entrants to be considered for prizes…Less than 50 books each year are dubbed with the title of Eric Hoffer Award Finalist.”

 

Click here for the complete list of finalists.

Grand prize winners in each category will be announced April 22, 2008.

Eric Hoffer was one of the most influential American philosophers and free thinkers of the 20th Century.  His books are still widely read and quoted today.  Acclaimed for his thoughts on mass movements and fanaticism, Hoffer was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1983.  Hopewell Publications awards the best in independent publishing across a wide range of categories, singling out the most thought provoking titles in books and short prose, on a yearly basis in honor of Eric Hoffer.

 

Cooperstown Travel Log

In honor of the opening week of baseball season, I took a road trip with my brother and a friend up to Cooperstown, NY to visit the Baseball Hall of Fame.  It was the first time I had been back since I was a child.  Though cold (and rainy on the last day), it was the perfect time of year to go to avoid the crowds that typically swamp the small village nestled below the mountains beside Lake Otsego during the summer months.  The quaint town was practically all ours for the taking (spare for some bus tours and kids at the Hall of Fame), and it was great to be able to mingle with the genuinely friendly and sometimes eccentric locals (especially on the first night at the only two bars in town open past midnight).

Below are some of the images and landscapes I was able to capture during my brief stay.  Continue reading

A Review of Carol Reed’s “The Third Man”

CAPTION:  In 1949, this Valli was located in GreeneLand.

CAPTION:  In the best of film noir, a viewer can actually feel the dampness and breathe in the darkness.

The Trouble with Harry Lime, 1 April 2008
10/10
Author:
David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

I initially felt a fool for not having seen The Third Man earlier. However, in retrospect, having now read most of Graham Greene’s major works, and having received some keen insight into the back-story of producer Alexander Korda through Kati Marton’s book The Great Escape, I feel I was able to enjoy The Third Man even more for the staggering masterpiece that it is.

As a European/American co-production bankrolled by two legendary hands-on producers, David O. Selznick and Alexander Korda, The Third Man was masterfully crafted by director Carol Reed from a screenplay by British novelist Graham Greene. The film served as a pinnacle of the film noir movement and is a prime example of master filmmakers working with an iconic writer and utilizing an amazing cast and crew to create a masterwork representing professionals across the field operating at the top of their game.

Fans of Greene’s novels need not be disappointed as the screenplay crackles with all that signature cynicism and sharp witted dialogue. Carol Reed’s crooked camera angles, moody use of shadowing and external locations (Vienna, partially bombed out, wet and Gothic, never looked more looming and haunting) and crisp editing are the perfect visual realizations of Greene’s provocative wordplay and often saturnine view of the world. Reed’s brief opening montage and voice-over introducing us to the black market in Vienna is also shockingly modern, as it is that energetic quick-cut editing that has influenced directors like Scorsese to film entire motion pictures in just such a style. Also making the film decidedly timeless is the zither music score of Anton Karas, a bizarre accompaniment to the dark story that serves as a brilliant contradiction to what is being seen on screen.

The story of The Third Man slides along like smooth gin down the back of one’s throat as characters, plot and mood meander and brood along cobblestone streets and slither down dark alleys in an intoxicated state. Heavy drinking hack writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten, doing an excellent Americanized riff on Graham Greene himself) arrives in post WWII occupied Vienna to meet up with his old pal Harry Lime (Orson Welles) only to find that Lime is reportedly dead, the police (headed by a perfectly cold Trevor Howard) don’t seem to care, and Lime’s charming broken-hearted mistress (Alida Valli, perfect as another Greene archetype) has been left behind. Of course, Martins can’t leave well enough alone as conspiracy, murder, unrequited romance, and political intrigue ensue. Welles benefits greatly from being talked about for most of the film and appearing mostly in shadows spare for two scenes: the famous ferris wheel speech, and a climatic chase beneath the streets of Vienna through Gothic sewers. His top hap, dark suit, and crooked smile are the stuff of film legend.

The side characters, however, are what make The Third Man such a rich, rewarding experience. We’re treated to small glimpses into the mindsets of varying people ranging from a British officer obsessed with American Western dime-store novels (of which Martins claims his fame) to an Austrian landlady eternally wrapped in a quilt going on and on in her foreign tongue as international police constantly raid her building and harass her tenants. The brilliance is that one needs no subtitles to understand her frustration. These added layers of character and thoughtful detail, hallmarks of Greene, set The Third Man in a class above the rest of film noir from the late 1940’s era.

Make no mistake, The Third Man is arguably one of the most finely crafted films ever made. One’s preference towards noir and Greene’s world-view will shape how much one actually enjoys the film. For the sheer fact it has held up so well over the decades and has clearly influenced so many great films that came after it, its repeated rankings as one of the greatest motion pictures ever made can not be denied. With a good stiff drink in hand, and Graham Greene’s collection dog-eared on my bookshelf, The Third Man is undoubtedly now one of my favorite films. Reed’s closing shot of a tree-lined street along a cemetery and Joseph Cotten leaning against a car smoking a cigarette while Alida Valli walks right past him with that zither music score playing is one that has left an indelible mark on my memory and enriched my love of film as art.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database:

http://imdb.com/title/tt0041959/usercomments-308

CAPTION:  On the outside Joseph Cotten is as cool as cucumber, but on the inside, the hopeless romantic screams at Alida Valli, “Don’t walk away!”