“At least while we hear children sing we know they’re alive.”
I do not believe there is such a thing as a perfect film. There are some that I believe come close but like people all films have flaws. There is one film, however, that has possibly changed my belief that there is such a thing as a perfect, flawless film. That one film is Fritz Lang’s 1931 masterpiece M.
The film opens to a group of children playing a game. The game is played by one little girl singing a gruesome song about how a man in black will come and get them and chop them into pieces. One woman hears the children singing and yells at that to stop playing such a horrid song. The children stop for a moment until they believe the woman is out of earshot. The woman brings laundry to the apartment of a Mrs. Beckmann. She washes some of the laundry until she hears the cuckoo clock chime the hour when she expects her daughter to be home. When the cuckoo sounds she puts down the laundry and begins to make dinner.
Mrs. Beckmann’s daughter Elsie goes to school in the city. She is walking down the sidewalk bouncing her ball to an ominous rhythm. She bounces it against a poster for a wanted man. The wanted man is a murderer who has murdered children and has yet to be caught. The shadowy figure of a man against the post comes up to Elsie. He takes her to get a balloon and some candy.
Back the apartment Mrs. Beckmann begins to frantically worry about her daughter. Elsie was supposed to be home and she has not arrived. She yells out into the apartment complex and into the streets for Elsie.
In an area of plants and trees the small hand of Elsie Beckmann falls out. The scene cuts to her balloon floating between two telephone pole wires.
The next day the newspapers blare out that another little girl has been murdered. This new murder and the fact that the murderer has not yet been caught sends an extreme amount of panic and paranoia throughout the city. A group of men sitting in a café reading the newspaper with the latest headline immediately begin accusing one another of being the killer. An old man is mobbed in the street when he is seen speaking to a little girl after she had asked him the time. While panic erupts around him the murderer writes a letter to a newspaper since the police would not print his last one and whistles an upbeat tune that creates an unsettling feeling.
The police are doing everything they can to catch the murderer. They are encouraging his letters to the newspapers in the hopes that they can somehow lift his fingerprint from it. They also have it psychoanalyzed and poured over for clues. To further help track down the murderer the police enlist the help of the homeless of the city. They give the homeless men streets to watch and corners to watch over.
The police begin to narrow down their search to a list of patients who have been released from mental institutions within the last year. They track down the former patients to their current addresses. One detective goes to an apartment complex where the murderer has just walked out of only moments before.
Even the world of the underground is after the murderer. The police have been performing so many raids on their rackets that they cannot get any business done. The heads of some of the gangs have a meeting and pledge to take down the murderer themselves. They place their informants all over the city just like the police have placed the homeless men.
While walking down the street the murderer stops to look at a store front. In the reflection of a mirror on display he sees a young girl. The temptation is too much for him and when the girl walks away he follows her whistling his uncomfortable happy tune. Before he has a chance to grab the girl she fortunately finds her mother.
Sometime later the murderer is walking and whistling down the street with another young girl. He passes a blind man selling balloons. The blind man recognizes the whistle as the same one he heard the day Elsie Beckmann disappeared. The man calls the attention of a boy and has the boy follow the murderer. The boy sends word that the murderer has been found and has another girl. When the murderer walks out of the store someone bumps into him. What that person did was mark him with an “M” so people on the streets and the police would know who he is. The murderer realizes he is now being followed and runs away into a building. The leaders of the gangs get word about the murderer hiding in the building. They storm the building knocking out the guards taking complete control over it. They just tracked the murderer to a junk room on one of the top floors when one of the guards comes to and pulls an alarm warning the police of trouble.
The leaders manage to find the murderer and bring him someplace outside of town. They hold a trial in front of a large room of people. They interrogate him and get him to confess to killing the girls. Unfortunately one of the criminals was caught when the police answered the alarm and he is caught. He confesses that the other leaders have the murderer and where they can be found. The police come to the building and take the murderer away for a real trial. Elsie Beckmann’s mother is at the real trial. She mournfully cries out that nothing will ever bring her daughter back.
One of the aspects of this film I love the most is how there is no music score. All the background noise is just that. There is no music to create tension with the exception of the murderer’s whistling. The bells of the clocks and the bouncing of the ball at the beginning was genius. Those sounds proclaimed the coming of the end of life for Elsie Beckmann. There were other scenes where the sound cuts out. For a few moments I thought YouTube was being stubborn and cut the sound out but then I realized it was part of the film itself and later learned that those few silent scenes were due to the fact that sound was still relatively new to films. The second moment of silence in the film happened when the murderer was looking at the display window. That silence was perfect because it was as if it had come from the murderer himself as if was blocking out all the noise around him and only concentrating on the little girl behind him.
Fritz Lang’s direction in this film deserves every ounce of praise. It was stunning, raw, emotional, tense, and dramatic without going over the top. I could not get over his direction in the beginning when Mrs. Beckmann is calling out for Elsie. Lang shows us an empty room where the laundry hangs and an empty place at the table where Elsie should have been. The meaning of that emptiness is so impactful.
M is a film I have been wanting to see for quite some time. I am currently participating in TCM’s Into Darkness: Investigating Film Noir. It is a free online class where four times a week they send out clips and questions about certain noirs. The first ten minutes of M kicked off the course. M is a considered a precursor to the noir genre. It is fascinating to see where all the elements of a typical noir got its start.
M is that rare flawless film that is all around genius, stunning, intense, dramatic, and suspenseful. If you are a film buff or just want to see a perfectly made film than M is a must watch. It is available to view in full with subtitles on YouTube.