“My Favorite” Strife December 28, 2007Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, General Film, Fritz Lang , trackback
Everyone knows that the end of the calendar year has become a time to blink and reflect at the past twelve months, tidily summed up in list format despite the undeniably ridiculous and simplistic process of choosing an arbitrary number of “important” candidates. I’m not complaining though. I actually like these little exercises, whether it’s just a top 10 or even if it involves a full-blown trophy ceremony. I recognize the absurdity and I revel just the same. When the staff at DVD Times put together separate lists for top 10 films and DVDs of the year, I carefully considered my choices and picked what I felt were deserving selections among everything I’ve seen, even if, regrettably, I know there are some things I didn’t manage to view that would probably nudge ahead of things I did include.
Around the same time, I supported the idea that the reviewers at DVD Times should put together individual top 10’s of their all-time favorite films. My thinking was twofold. First, it lets readers associate the reviewer with certain films that mean a lot to that writer. It’s not a situation where noses should be upturned because this person really loves any particular film so much as an opportunity for likeminded readers to possibly give more weight to a review (and therefore seek out or avoid the DVD) based on what specific films the reviewer holds near and dear. Second, it will hopefully serve as an alternative to an upcoming feature on the site. This feature isn’t really a secret, I don’t think, but I probably should refrain from discussing it all the same.
So this left me with the task of compiling a top 10 list. I quickly settled on 8 films. Here’s where the arbitrariness of the number 10 comes in to play. It seems, after considerable thought, that I really have a bedrock list of 8 films that stand head and shoulders above the rest, not 10. Still, I needed 2 more, if for no other reason than to appease the unnamed goddess of neat and tidy listmaking. For better or worse, there are probably half a dozen films or more that could vie for those last couple of slots. I’m reminded of why people claim to hate top 10 lists. In some way, I’m going to be defined by what’s included and what’s omitted (just as I am on the Top 50’s by decade here). Too obscure, too popular, too old, too new. It’s silly, but I don’t like any of those labels. That somehow turns the 10 films into avatars of something more. If you’re only including 1 film per director then automatically that establishes said film as your pick for that filmmaker’s best.
I had a variation of that problem with Martin Scorsese. He’s one of my favorite directors by a wide margin, but I can’t say there’s any one film I think is most deserving. Raging Bull may very well be his best, but it’s not my favorite for many reasons. Goodfellas is another one right up there, and I enjoy it immensely every time I give it a watch, but it’s not top 10 material for me. Neither is Taxi Driver or the less lauded but equally enthralling After Hours. In many ways, Mean Streets is my favorite Scorsese (to be reflected by my 1970s list in a few months), though I hesitate to move it up above some more deserving films. In the end, I can’t put any of these on my list despite my affection for Scorsese. Similar issues arise with Robert Altman and Ernst Lubitsch, two more directors I adore but can’t single out just one of their films as obviously superior. There’s Nashville, but my home state allegiance prevents me from fully loving Altman’s epic. Is Trouble in Paradise better than Design for Living or The Shop Around the Corner ? I don’t know and I really don’t want to decide.
I think I’ve settled on a 9th film and now I’m left scrambling for the final selection. Some of the ones in the mix are The Godfather (too popular and overanalyzed?), In the Mood for Love (too recent and in need of another viewing?), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (damn near perfect, but I put it below several others in my 1940s list and maybe it’s not hardly at this level), The Palm Beach Story (represents Sturges, but possibly a little out of its league in this range also) and Fritz Lang’s M. Leaning in favor of M, I decided to give it a fresh watch.
M was Lang’s penultimate film in Germany, sandwiched between Woman in the Moon (Frau im Mond) and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, and his first experiment with sound. He’d flee for America three years later, in 1934. Watching M with a reasonably extensive knowledge of Lang’s career before and after, the film seems like a culmination of the themes explored over and over in the director’s filmography. Guilt, paranoia, hypocrisy, the criminal process, social change, and the evolution of a turbulent society. Those things are all here, well explored and without easy answers. A master filmmaker like Lang was able to repeatedly turn to these issues, either individually or collectively, with enormous success and without becoming dull or repetitive. It’s easy to see everything from Spione and Fury to Beyond a Reasonable Doubt and The Big Heat in M, but it’s the 1931 film that brings it all together and mesmerizes you in the process.
Lang uses technical tricks, including but not limited to some of the best utilization of sound in film history, and a great performance from Peter Lorre to tell the story of a compulsive child murderer unable to stop or be caught while committing heinous and disgusting acts of violence. Lang doesn’t want his audience to merely focus on Lorre’s pedophile though. The investigation process, told mostly through Otto Wernicke’s Det. Karl Lohmann, is the backbone of the picture. Lang seemed fascinated by procedural sagas and here he uses Lohmann as a fat cat alternative to Lorre’s Beckert even though the murderer is identified and caught by more sinister forces. Those forces have lynch mob written across their angry faces and his first American film, Fury, seems to clarify how Lang felt about those out of control vigilantes.
But here, in M, the private citizens are the ones who almost bring Beckert to “justice” and give the film’s final 20 minutes an incredibly foreboding energy that nearly sputters out in the last few frames. I think the ending asks the audience an uncomfortable question of what exactly we want to happen to Beckert. Are we rooting for the mob to take justice into their own hands and completely subvert due process, or are we hoping for the eventual police intervention? Do viewers require resolution, regardless of how lawless, or can we accept that the legal system will distribute justice? Michael Haneke would be proud.
Ultimately, the power of Lang’s film won me over and cemented its position. I’m not sure it’s really one of my favorite top 10 films ever made, but it’s a nearly flawless movie and Lang is one my very favorite directors. I love The Big Heat and Scarlet Street, but M seems somehow more perfect and absolutely essential. It’s a remarkably modern film that has aged as well as anything put on celluloid and it laid a significant portion of the foundation for the crime film, my favorite genre. I’d never assign importance of a movie based solely on its influence and I think M probably works as well now as it did decades ago. In deciding my list, it comes down to the thought of hating the idea that someone could only watch one Fritz Lang film, but knowing that M would be the choice in such an unlikely and unfortunate situation.