M

Peter Lorre with M chalked on his back

The point of Fritz Lang’s 1931 film M – Eine Stadt Sucht einen Mörder is slightly lost when its truncated title, simply M, is used. This is a story not about a murderer (which is what the M stands for) but about the mob, when the rule of law is rejected in favour of a lynching.

Which all comes as a bit of a surprise if you’re watching M for the first time and only know it from its reputation. There are two other things that most people coming fresh to this film already “know”. These are a) that M is an expressionist masterpiece and b) it’s got Peter Lorre in it.

Dealing with these two swiftly, M is not a particularly expressionist movie – see Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr Caligari or Paul Leni’s Waxworks if that’s what you’re after. And Peter Lorre is barely in it. He’s more a presence, a threat, than a character, until things move into the ugly final few scenes, when Lang’s intentions really snap into focus and Lorre does come into his own.

The other single thing I “knew” about M is that it’s a technically brilliant film. This does turn out to be true, and Lang wastes no time in pulling off several remarkable camera movements (and a very smart edit) in the opening moments of the film, as if to say “relax, take it easy, you’re in the hands of someone who knows what he’s doing.”

Expressionism lurks at the edges, but for the most part Lang lays out the blueprint for the police procedurals we still avidly consume. The based-on-fact premise. The shadowy serial killer writing taunting letters to the police. The pin board where evidence is displayed for our benefit as much as the police’s. The forensics effort going into trapping the killer scientifically. The political pressure from “upstairs” on the hard pressed police. The inspired “I’ve got a hunch” moment. The loved-ones of the victims used as window dressing. The freak chance that eventually nails the villain. And so on.

A poster offering a reward for the child killer
A poster offers a reward for the child killer



It’s not all here: there’s no sign of a maverick cop with a messy backstory, for instance, but we’re most of the way there. Instead Lang and co-writer Thea von Harbou (his wife) present a still-audacious story of a town that bands together to nail the killer, not because they’re appalled at the crimes (though they are) but because the killer is bad for business – the cops are exhausted, the takings in the city’s bars and clubs are down, the criminal underworld is being tarred with the killer’s brush. These three groups are not all working in concert, but they are all pointing in the same direction, the masterstroke coming when the underworld, in a meeting in a smoky room intercut with the cops’ meeting in another smoky room in another part of town, decide to turn the city’s many beggars into an proto-CCTV network – eyes and ears everywhere. The murderer’s days are numbered.

Talking of blueprints, Peter Lorre is the template for every child-killing murderer ever since. In reality most murdered children are killed by their parents, but here Lorre’s Hans Beckert is the creepy, smooth-skinned, shifty, boggle-eyed weirdo we’ve now come to expect from screen killers. The role made Lorre’s name but he came to resent the box it put him in.

As said, he’s not in it much. Glimpsed as a shadow in one of the opening scenes, Lorre’s Hans disappears for much of the film, returning in time to be chased down by a crowd that’s lost its head and has decided that the criminal justice system will be too lenient on the man if he’s caught. They’re grim, these final scenes, and the terrified Hans does yank at our sympathies. Lang is more interested in the crowd.

A superbly tight drama, Lang’s first talkie also features whole stretches done as a silent movie. An added bonus is its picture of the Weimar era just before Hitler rose to prominence, using a manipulation of the mob as his engine. Unsurprisingly, Hitler banned it as soon as he came to power. Intriguingly, it was also the last film that Lang would collaborate on with his wife, Thea. She became a Nazi Party member; Lang, of Jewish descent (as was Lorre) did not and was soon on his way to France and then the US, where he’d become one of the archetypal monocle-wearing tyrannical directors of legend.



M – Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder – Watch /buy the restored Criterion version at Amazon


Fritz Lang Box Set, including Metropolis, M and The Testament of Dr Mabuse – Buy it at Amazon



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© Steve Morrissey 2021









The Man Who Knew Too Much

Bob consoles wife Jill

Here’s the original 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, the thriller Alfred Hitchcock would remake in 1956 with James Stewart and Doris Day in the lead roles. He later said this first version was “the work of a talented amateur, and the second was made by a professional.” However, ever a master of misdirection, it’s actually the first one that Hitchcock preferred. He found the second too polished.

Unlike the second, this is a very British affair, with Leslie Banks and Edna Best as the married couple whose holiday in St Moritz is interrupted when a friend is shot and killed in front of them (in one of the most elegant death scenes in cinema). Amazingly, before dying the man reveals that he’s actually a spy and that there’s some valuable information in his room. By getting involved, Bob (Banks) unwittingly triggers a series of events that end with the couple’s daughter Betty (child star Nova Pilbeam) being kidnapped, with sharp instruction from the kidnappers not to say anything to the police. The couple comply, though that doesn’t stop them from trying to get their daughter back, and once back in London they set out on an amateur investigation of their own, with the police constantly on their backs.

Enter a German heavy (Frank Vosper) and his boss Abbott (Peter Lorre in his first English-speaking role) and a classic Hitchcock set-up – innocent person caught up in a situation beyond their understanding. It’s not pure Hitchcock though. The formula isn’t quite complete. That would come two years later with The 39 Steps. For example, here, back in London, Bob teams up with Hugh Wakefield’s Clive, the pair of them forming a Holmes and Watson-style amateur sleuthing outfit attempting to stay one step ahead of the police. There is banter and some humour. Later, classic Hitch generally teams the innocent man up with a woman, preferably blonde, for banter plus humour plus sexual frisson.

Leslie Banks, Peter Lorre and Frank Vosper
Banks, Lorre and Vosper: the good, the bad and the ugly


Then again there are snatches of classic Hitchcock – a scene in a dentist’s chair where Bob is menaced with sharp instruments, or the dramatic climax at the Albert Hall, where Hitchcock pulls off one of those big set pieces as the hero races to prevent a political assassination while an orchestra is at full roar. He then disappointingly tacks on a final gun battle that seems to have been pulled from a Western B movie – villains holed up in the ranch, much bang bang bang – perhaps hoping to get that golden ticket to Hollywood. It works better as a come-on than as a rousing finish.

Lorre is interesting. A white streak of hair making him look like a malevolent badger, he barely knew English at the times and speaks his lines phonetically. It doesn’t harm his performance. In fact the icy detachment helps, as does Hitchcock’s decision to shoot Lorre in a style reminiscent of the much admired Fritz Lang, who’d made Lorre’s name as the child murderer in his groundbreaking thriller, M.

In fact Hitch’s camera is very fluid for the time, and his shots are beautifully composed – this is a director who loved to storyboard it all out in advance. The real problem with the film is its key characters. They’re a bit wan, and the too, too cut-glass accents of Banks and Best add an alien quality that distances them from the modern viewer. Unlike, say, William Powell and Myrna Loy in The Thin Man, who did “high tone detective” a lot better in 1934.

It’s best seen, alongside The Lodger (1927) and Blackmail (1929), as an “on the road to classic Hitchcock” movie, in spite of Hitchcock’s protestations that he preferred it over the remake. If we can put aside the notion that Hitchcock essentially kept making the same film over and over, this is the only one he actually went back to and had another crack at. And he’d been intending to remake it as early as 1941, when he’d not been long in the USA. So clearly he knew all was not right.





The Man Who Knew Too Much – Watch it/buy it at Amazon



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© Steve Morrissey 2021









The Raven

Artwork for the original poster of The Raven

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

23 November

 

 

Boris Karloff born, 1887

On this day in 1887, the great horror actor Boris Karloff was born. Disappointingly, his birth name was William Henry Pratt and he wasn’t born in some Carpathian cave but in the inner suburb of Lewisham, South London. A well educated young man with a lisp and a stutter, he dropped out while training to become a functionary of the British Empire and instead took to farm labouring before becoming an actor. He took the name Boris Karloff while in travelling repertory theatre in Canada, and after arriving in Hollywood he played a number of villain roles before getting some notice in the Oscar-nominated newspaper drama Five Star Final. The same year, 1931, saw Frankenstein hitting the screens with Karloff as the monster. He instantly became one of the most famous actors in the world. Within a handful of years he had also appeared in The Mummy and The Old Dark House, other classics from Universal’s golden horror era. Karloff loved to work and was always grateful for the opportunities the bolt-necked monster had given him. He continually sought to widen his appeal, though it was as mad scientists, deranged villains or even as the demented Captain Hook that his gifts for deadpan and the sibilant vestige of his lisp would stand him in best stead. Towards the end of his career his star waned. Whether he would have kept his career in better health by not being so ready to spoof himself, so keen to work in no matter what low quality B movie, to appear as a regular on any old TV show is debateable. What isn’t is that Karloff was a trooper and a gentleman who gave handsomely to charity and dressed up as Father Christmas every year to hand out presents to orphaned children. He worked right to the end, through emphysema and arthritis: Peter Bogdanovich cast him in his first film, Targets, as a horror actor approaching the end of his life. It was in fact Karloff’s final film (though four further Mexican films, shot earlier in 1968 would appear posthumously). He died in England, of pneumonia, and was cremated and laid to rest as William Henry Pratt in a low-key service.

 

 

 

The Raven (1963, dir: Roger Corman)

There’s a scene towards the end of the final Harry Potter film when the massed might of Hogwarts stand up for a “wands at dawn” showdown against Voldemort’s cohort. It’s a thrilling sequence that brings to mind the finale of Roger Corman’s great adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem. Like all Corman productions it was made on the cheap. But Corman always had an eye for talent going for a song, rising stars who’d work for buttons and, most of all, the main chance. All combine in The Raven, which sees the cut-price horror triumvirate of Vincent Price, Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff, rising star Jack Nicholson and genius sci-fi writer Richard Matheson (The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Twilight Zone, I Am Legend) collaborating on one of the best fantasy B movies ever made. The plot is Poe’s (sort of): a retired widower wizard named Dr Erasmus Craven (Price) is visited by a talking raven (Lorre) who claims he was turned into a bird by the most powerful magician in the world – Dr Scarabus (Karloff). After Craven returns the raven to human form, he learns that his wife isn’t dead after all; she’s shacked up with Scarabus. Apparently. So off the pair head to Scarabus’s castle for a showdown. Cue wands, wizardry, special effects and ever increasing amounts of camp. It’s here that the film comes into its own, as Karloff and Price try to outdo each other with “serious face” spoof-acting, while Lorre bounces around improvising trying to make them corpse. Corman was just off a string of Poe adaptations with Price and both are clearly enjoying the opportunity to have a bit of fun at the old drunkard’s expense. This was the first time that Lorre, Price and Karloff appeared together. And though it happened again the following year in Comedy of Terrors, the later film is not a patch on The Raven. As for Jack Nicholson – let’s just say he was yet to invent the “here’s Johnny” persona.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A great example of a Roger Corman film – cheap but full of ingenuity
  • Karloff was also in the 1935 The Raven – which is nothing like this
  • Lorre’s improvising
  • A camp classic

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

The Raven – at Amazon