Dial M for Masterpiece 


M (1931)
Directed by Fritz Lang
Opens March 15 at Film Forum for two weeks

This doesn't hold up as a so-called thriller, contrary to received wisdom—it feels old and clunky next to sleek machines like the director's own 1959 Hollywood nasty The Big Heat, or even 2009's Orphan. But it's not just great "for its time," because its achievements transcend its innovations, which include genre-fying the police procedural and adapting to film the Wagnerian trope wherein a character is identified by a specific song (Lang as Peter Lorre whistling Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King").

Eight years before his Fury, Lang, with wife and screenwriter Theo von Harbou, identified the dangerous and depressing aspects of frenzied public consensus, personifying its victim as a seeming perpetrator—a pathological child murderer named Hans Beckert. This almost unprecedented empathy is its boldest legacy. Lorre was so good as Hans that once in Hollywood, after fleeing the Nazis, he never shook the persona of a shifty and alien villain. Massaging his jellied face and bugging out his incomparable eyes, Lorre was, per Lang, playing against the type of the emaciated psychopath, embodying what David Thomson called his "stricken childishness."

Because while at large Hans brings scrutiny on the underworld, the crime world wants him caught even more than the police do, and Lang relishes cross-cutting between cops and criminals to emphasize ironically their similarity. As "The Safecracker," in ankle-length leather jacket, Gustaf Gründgens is effectively malevolent, and the actor would go on to enjoy success during the Nazi era. Along with Lorre and Otto Wernicke as Inspector Karl Lohmann, Gründgens contributes to the posterity of great German acting that might also be M's greatest legacy.

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