Nov 23, 2013

M and Peter Lorre

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What is there to say about M that hasn't already been said? It is a magnificent cinematic achievement crafted by a legendary filmmaker. Gripping, ballsy in its subject matter, and explicit in its subtlety, the film's only flaw was that it was a product well ahead of its time. Hollywood filmmaking was on the cusp of entering the Hays Code era at the time of M's release. American pictures then usually followed a succinct set of guidelines--endings were to be happy, all that is evil is to be vanquished. The beauty of M was it simply couldn't be bothered by the traditional storytelling conventions of Hollywood--instead it is a picture that is riveting storytelling from start to finish all the while encompassing a disturbing character study that challenges conventional norms as well as the viewers.

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M raises the provocative subjects of murder and mental illness as well as seemingly asking--how do you humanize a monster? The first time we are able to see Hans Beckert, he is staring at himself in the mirror with his eyes ghoulishly wide open, and he is manipulating his face in a freakish manner that certainly gains him no sympathies from the audience. Later, he is out and about in the public looking like your seemingly normal man, that is, until he lays his eyes on a child, to which we are then witness to him becoming overwhelmed with ill intentions, deep breathes, and clenched fists. The look of murderous desire he gives as he strokes his fist with his hand is disturbing not only because he is a child killer, but because the film so frankly allows it to be shown on screen. In just a minute's worth of screen time, Peter Lorre does wonders with depicting a small slice of the dark side that eats away at this poor but terrible man. 

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The framing of images is done intrusively, creating many haunting shots. The editing is noteworthy in its differential styles that veers so far away from the editing you see in typical Hollywood films. Given its incompatibility with Hollywood filmmaking norms, it's no wonder M wasn't a hit at the Oscars. Not a single nomination in any category to suggest this was at all a good picture. And really, how could the Oscars have embraced it? This is a tale about a man who murders children, who is being hunted by fellow criminals, some of whom are also murderers. This is a film that allows said child murderer to defend himself, that forces us to understand him and if for only a moment, even forgive him. Peter Lorre is nothing short of astonishing as he desperately tries to justify his actions all the while having an emotional and mental breakdown. It's a monumental scene of acting unlike much I've ever seen before. We refuse to forgive him only because it's embedded in our moral DNA that his actions are too ghastly to be forgiven, but this is conflicted by Lorre's cries of raw emotion, of moments in which he seems to be slipping in and out of sanity as he fluctuates between decrying what he's done and shooting palpable glances of bloodlust. M is an amazing picture all the way through its haunting ambiguous ending--and one of many that bear the honor of being too ingenious in its day to be considered one of the best of its year. The film, and Peter Lorre's breathtaking performance both receive

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