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We watched M the other day: I am trying to gather about myself a broader understanding of the history of mass-culture, so becoming familiar with early cinema successes is important. M is apparently the first serial-killer movie; it’s also the first talkie that Lang directed. So, it is an interesting film to watch, seen, as I must see it, through an understanding of a genre and cinematic tropes that developed in response to it. Lang’s artistic ingenuity is impressive: everything from montage shots to the use of voice overs must have appeared inspired to his contemporary viewers, and considering them historically displaces what might be felt as the natural expressiveness of film. Tearjerking scenes of familial pain and horror shots of killers’ faces are revealed to be artistist constructs, moments of potential meaning that arises according to historically determinant schemes (schemes? what should we call these? vectors? schemata? coordinates?): qualities of media; of economy; of gender relations; of gender roles; etc.

Besides all this, you can’t help but be struck by the multifaceted portrayal of morality that the action in M turns upon: neither the perspective of the cops nor the perspective of the crooks determines the narrative of the film. The film accomodates both, and neither is given a privileged status. In fact, they both seem to be coolly derided. The one universal in the movie seems to be the fact that seen from whatever vantage, the killer, Peter Lorre, is despicable.

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  1. but in having the crooks go after the killer, isn’t lang saying that not only are the police ineffective but comments on how far morals can be relaxed for a “common good” – thieves are better than a serial killer. think of u.s. policy and who it chooses for allies.

    bayman-townie8 January, 2008 @ 9:09 amReply
  2. He has them go after the killer for completely different reasons than the cops do. They are pissed because the law is cracking down on their operations and so they are beginning to suffer financially. And the cops and the crooks don’t actually work together (unlike the World’s Policeman and its Villanous Allies), they just work separately to eliminate a problem that affects them both.

    There is a touch of universal loathing for the killer, like when the bartender is telling the cops that they are looking in the wrong place and she says something like “I’ve seen hardened thieves get all soft around kids” etc. Lorre’s character is supposed to be beyond the pale of what is acceptable to anyone — cop, crook, civilian, otherwise — who is a member of Berlin society. But the way this loathing is oriented is distinct.

  3. I was most interesting in the use of the homeless, and how completely different the word homeless is in the American conception of the word (crazy men shouting obscenities) to that of the “beggars union” used in the film, beggars who reminded me more of Orwell’s “down and outs”, homeless who are still humanized. It is important to remember, I think, that the criminal was caught by a blind beggar, and that it was the beggars who found and cornered Lorre in the first place. I though it was also an interesting comment on society that they caught him because everyone, moral or not, ignored them. They seemed like the most morally idealized characters in the whole movie. I can’t think of an American film that has ever shown the homeless in a good light, much less made one of them the key witness to a very important crime. Silence of the Lambs with beggars and not the FBI? It just doesn’t work.

  4. Yea, I think that was interesting as well. And the amount of ugly people in the film: they all looked like ‘normal’ people as opposed to the plastic folks that fill up our movies.

    Silence of the Lambs works with a completely different social view than the one that is worked with in M (obviously, as you point out). For Thomas Harris, the Eff Bee Eye is the symbol of what is good and wholesome in society, or at least the good men and women who strive to protect us poor little sheepies from big bad baddies like Hannibal Lecter.

  5. Peter Lorre is great in that film - his eyes are so big.

  6. Yes: he is a very strange looking man.

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