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M (Blu-ray Review)

6 May, 2010 By: John Latchem

Street 5/11/10
$39.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
In German with English subtitles.
Stars Peter Lorre.

The letter “M,” when presented on its own, has two major connections with film history. Most pop culture buffs will associate the letter with James Bond’s boss of the British Secret Service. But long before Ian Fleming got the urge to dabble in adventure fiction, M was the name of one of two of German director Fritz Lang’s best-known masterpieces (the other being 1927’s Metropolis, due on Blu-ray later this year from Kino Lorber).

Debuting in 1931, M represented Lang’s first foray into the new genre of the talkie, but it is also one of the most provocative films ever made. A young Peter Lorre stars as Hans Beckert. a murderer preying on the children of Berlin (Lang based his script on several serial murder cases that dominated the headlines in the late 1920s and early ’30s). Desperate to end his reign of terror, the police have begun clamping down on criminal activity in the city, causing Berlin’s mob leaders to organize their own search for the killer. (The title alludes to a chalk letter an informant manages to stamp on Beckert's back, thus tagging him as the murderer).

Eventually Beckert gives himself away by his habit of whistling a suite from Peer Gynt (one of many compulsions explored in the film).

Lang has a lot to say about the nature of criminality and justice, straddling that thin line between cop and criminal to great effect. Lorre is the perfect Beckert, creepy without seeming out of the ordinary, while conveying a tense internal struggle to resist his sexual desire for little girls. Who is more to blame for the deaths of these children, Lang ponders — a man who cannot control his sickness, or parents who are lax in their social responsibilities.

With this Blu-ray, M becomes the second-oldest film released on the high-definition format (bested by Buster Keaton’s 1927 classic The General), but the oldest sound-film. The HD transfer has been mastered from a restoration negative produced in 2000 and looks pretty good for an 80-year-old movie, marred only by the occasional scratch that is no doubt a function of age. The soundtrack has been painstakingly restored and is very crisp. M is presented in its original 1.19:1 ratio, a European standard that is narrower than a 4:3 monitor.

The HD presentation and excellent extras make this Blu-ray the definitive home video version of M. Everything from the 2004 Criterion DVD has carried over, making this disc a virtual film-studies class. Analysis of the film is offered through several extras, from a booklet of essays, to commentary by German film scholars Anton Kaes and Eric Rentsehler, to audio excerpts from classroom discussions conducted by M’s editor, Paul Falkenberg, in the 1970s.

The disc also includes a William Friedkin interview with Lang and a 2004 interview with Harold Nebenzal, son of the film’s producer — both very enlightening. One fun extra is a 10-minute French short from 1980 that essentially summarizes the plot and borders on parody.

Rounding out the line-up is a featurette about the production process of the time, which often involved shooting new scenes in the language of whatever market was showing the film. When combined with this Blu-ray’s lone new extra, an English-language version of M, these tidbits provide a valuable insight into the early days of filmmaking.

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