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M Musing

10 years ago I saw Fritz Lang’s M in an intro class on film history. I recall jotting down some notes about Nazism and early sound. Over the intervening decade I took its greatness for granted. Now, upon revisiting it, the film feels startling and fresh. Its structure remains radical, emphasizing forensic methodology for the first half and a tightening manhunt in the second. (Ostensible star Peter Lorre is onscreen for maybe a quarter of the film.) It’s more about the throng than the individual, with a George Grosz-like attention to urban disarray. How, ask both cops and criminals, do you monitor a populace? Despite its lurid narrative, M bears strong resemblance to Walter Ruttmann’s montage doc Berlin: Symphony of a Great City. It depicts the metropolis from top to bottom, indoors and out.

For a story of child murder, M also displays a sick sense of humor. The famed sequence of shots cutting from Elsie Beckmann’s newly bereaved mother to a stairwell, attic, dinner table, ball, and balloon isn’t exactly a joke, but it is droll, and its drollness is nauseating. Later in the film, Lorre’s Hans Beckert stalks a little girl past a row of shops, ducking into a doorway when her mom shows up. The two of them walking past while he faces away is a punchline familiar from dozens of slasher movies: the near-victim oblivious to her brush with death. More overt gags predominate during a police raid on an underground bar. One fugitive tries to sneak up a secret exit; when he sees a patrolman’s boots blocking it, he sneaks back, hanging up his hat with an air of resignation.

Lorre himself looks boyish with his bowtie and his egglike head. He’s cartoony rather than intimidating, a stranger in an overcoat, until the climactic burlesque of a trial renders him hysterical. This outsider (Außenseiter, says the Mabuse-like kingpin) is the right villain for a film of such supreme moral irony. Most of M digresses from the killings to the citywide panic they incite, revealing a spectacle of violence, hypocrisy, and fear. Yet it’s subtle, each segment snapping into the next, all part of the broader investigation. The film was a trailblazing procedural, and it lays its subject bare. What is police procedure? It’s how people with power get things done.

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Power Trip

[This is my fourth entry in the Blind Spot Series hosted by Ryan of The Matinee.]

Nothing I love more than a truly terrifying villain. Heroes are OK, and anti-heroes can make for morally ambiguous fun. But a villain! Someone who cooks up and executes diabolical plans! Someone who’s ambitious and charismatic, even at the cost of ethical bankruptcy. It’s gratifying to identify with a villain. I’m just a human being, you see. I’m cosmically insignificant, a speck in an indifferent universe. I like to fancy myself “good,” at least in the sense that I exhibit empathy and avoid hurting others. But when I see a villain like Dr. Mabuse, the titular mastermind of Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922), I can’t deny his power. He’s fearless, in control, always one step ahead! I may be a “good” person in real life, but in the dream life of moviegoing I can identify unequivocally with Mabuse and suffer nothing but a mild sense of shame.

As he skulks through the Berlin underworld, Mabuse’s authority is total. Foreshadowing director Fritz Lang’s future use of surveillance motifs (M, The Big Heat), he’s a one-man panopticon, using his victims as informants against one another. Mabuse himself, meanwhile, remains functionally invisible. Either he’s wrapped up in one of his many alter egos, or he’s slipping through cracks in the film’s expressionist architecture. He is the master of modernity, ringleader of the Weimar circus. Everyone is in Mabuse’s thrall, and life in his thrall is a waking nightmare. Of course, it takes one hell of an actor to pull off a towering figure like Mabuse, and thankfully Rudolf Klein-Rogge (later the mad doctor in Lang’s Metropolis) is equal to the task. His broad forehead, beak nose, and piercing eyes are accentuated here, making him look like a physical incarnation of a George Grosz grotesque. His swagger, too, is that of an übermensch, a man swollen with megalomania.

But Klein-Rogge, as mighty an actor as he is, doesn’t create Mabuse alone. Every second he’s off-screen, his performance is supplemented by the dark mythology that rises around him. “One of the most dangerous criminals ever,” for example, is how his police inspector nemesis describes him. “He lives above the city—big as a tower!” cries Cara Carozza, a showgirl at the dancing end of Mabuse’s puppet strings. “He is the greatest man alive!” The terror of those in Mabuse’s orbit inflates his evil stature. The film’s duration (4 1/2 hours) works similarly in his favor, since it provides ample time for him to engineer a network of alliances and betrayals. Mabuse ruins the life of one aristocrat after another; he supervises one convoluted heist after another; he bends the masses to his whims. If anything, Mabuse is too thorough of an evil genius, staging increasingly flamboyant ends for his enemies as the police close in around him.

The film’s second half (entitled “Inferno”) begins with Mabuse cocky and drunk, declaring his intent to become a titan—“churning up laws and gods like withered leaves!!” Yet for all this grandiose rhetoric, his empire is a mere hour or two away from crumbling. After a few more subterfuges and one scene of all-out urban warfare, he’ll be cornered and institutionalized, subjected to a system of disciplines and punishments identical to the one he so recently ruled. (This muddying of the cops/robbers dichotomy is another career-long Lang motif.) And in a final irony, he’ll be back in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, leading criminal enterprises from beyond the grave. That’s symptomatic of how Lang envisions his countrymen: decadent and weak-willed, prime targets for a villain of Mabuse’s caliber. Pessimistic? Absolutely. But vindicated by history with chilling precision, and as true now as it’s ever been.

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One Against All

By Andreas

Two very different movies, a western and a film noir, blossomed from the paranoia of the early 1950s with identical scenarios. In each film, a lone lawman sees an Absolute Evil that he’s morally compelled to fight. (In one, that Evil is paroled gunfighter Frank Miller; in the other, it’s mob boss Mike Lagana.) In each, that lawman’s world is permeated by cowardice and corruption, and his would-be allies refuse to help fight the Evil. And in each, he takes a stand, risking his life for the town that deserted him.

These similarities between High Noon (1952) and The Big Heat (1953) are anything but coincidental. Rather, they’re open-ended, metaphorical reactions to America’s Cold War crisis of conscience. Bombarded with threats from without and within—China! The Rosenbergs! The Soviets! The Blacklist!—the nation spent the early ’50s twisting itself into knots. Naturally, Hollywood followed suit, albeit in a genre-colored fashion that sufficiently distanced its stories from present-day political realities.

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Long Day’s Journey into Nightmare

By Andreas

In the mood for something seedy, paranoid, devilish, but still light-hearted? Look no farther than this week’s pick for “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” over at The Film Experience: Fritz Lang’s fantastic film noir The Woman in the Window (1944). It stars the always-great Edward G. Robinson (Little Caesar, Double Indemnity, etc.) as a middle-aged psychology professor who gets involved with the foxy Joan Bennett, the titular woman in the window. One thing leads to another, and next thing you know, he’s following a murder investigation that could end up sending him to the chair.

Both Ashley and I picked favorite shots for this movie, and both involved the sequence where Robinson and Bennett systematically hide the body of the hot-blooded Claude Mazard. It’s a crucial scene, as they deposit all the clues that the police will interpret throughout the film, and Lang shoots it with all the expressionistic lighting he can muster to heighten the mood. For example, Ashley’s “best shot” was this glimpse of Bennett wrapped in shadow:

She’s escaping under cover of night, and trying to avoid any cops’ (or audience members’) prying eyes. But the streak of light on her arm gives her away. Even though The Woman in the Window backs out of its fatalistic attitude with a pretty cheap twist at the end, these scenes are suffused with raw fear. That’s what you get when you murder a man in Fritz Lang’s part of the universe. (If you want a Lang noir that never backs down, though, 1945’s Scarlet Street is basically the same movie, only far more pessimistic and full of erotic obsession.)

Soon thereafter, Edward G. Robinson is driving off into the wilderness to get rid of the body. That’s when we get my favorite shot of the film:

I love how we get two parallel worlds here, with the glimpse outside the car on top, and Mazard’s dead face on the bottom. Robinson’s giving a quick look around, just in case, while Mazard lies in swath of light as if silently screaming, “Look at me! I’m a dead body!” The image’s composition confirms all of Robinson’s worst fears, both by calling attention to the corpse and implicitly assigning blame for his death to that face in the window. (Worse yet, Mazard’s dead eyes are tilted upward.)

Edward G. Robinson being presented in profile also subtly heightens our panic, since he’s gazing off-screen at something we can’t see… but can easily imagine. But what else would you expect from Fritz Lang, who conjured up some of the cinema’s worst nightmares? We should just be grateful that The Woman in the Window is an experience we can wake up from.

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German Expressionism in film posters

I’m currently swamped with schoolwork, publication editing, comics, and virtually no sleep, so alas, I haven’t been able to do much writing today. However, for your viewing pleasure, here’s a cavalcade of movie posters from Weimar Germany. Specifically, they’re rooted in the horror-friendly style of German Expressionism – a movement that, throughout the 1920s, produced some of the best and earliest horror masterpieces. I’ll be back this weekend with reviews of The Fog, Perfect Blue, and more. Enjoy!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s fascinating how the extreme, angular stylization of these films carries over to their poster art. These are well-designed posters that complement the films they were made for, with the composition and typography integrated to make terrifying images. Look at the predatory, vampiric Mephistopheles in the poster for Murnau’s Faust, or Dr. Mabuse’s glowing yellow eyes. Or, maybe best of all, the pestilent creature representing Nosferatu‘s titular monster. They all expressively hint at the horrifying events to come.

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