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Release Date(s)1931 (May 11, 2010)
Studio(s)Janus Films (Criterion - Spine #30)
Fritz Lang heralded the arrival of what was to be considered by many to be his greatest masterpiece, the socially-conscious suspense thriller M, on the German film landscape in 1931. Later cut up and re-shot in both French and English for foreign distribution, the film has yet to receive appreciation in its complete form since its original premiere in Berlin... but thankfully, all is not lost.
In the year of its release, films were just beginning to learn how to talk, and M was no exception. It was the first film of Lang’s career to utilize an optical soundtrack, and to incredible effect. He had proven himself and his storytelling abilities in the silent film era with such classics as Dr. Mabuse, Destiny, and of course Metropolis, but now with sound he also managed to help invent textbook filmmaking techniques. Armed with this new technology, Lang captured a story about two tiers of society vying for the apprehension of a child murderer on the loose. M’s biting social commentary, mixed with a bit of anarchy, fear and moral outrage by the citizens and underworld characters in the film, plays equally against a very capable government and police procedural process that leads both parties to the same conclusion: catching the killer. Even if the mob of angry citizens got to him first, the police were just as close to catching him as they were, and come out ahead in the end. M manages to paint a unique portrait of a society driven mad by fear and disgust; a portrait that continues to astound viewers over 80 years later.
As has been well-documented, M originally premiered in Germany with a running time of 117 minutes. When exported to French and English speaking territories the film was re-edited and included scenes shot later with the original actors speaking the native tongue (without Lang’s involvement). New translations for the ads, posters, newspapers and letters seen in the film were also re-shot. The film’s running time varied as it was edited to suit distributor needs and it wasn’t until the year 2000 when the film was restored to it’s longest possible length, 110 minutes, that Criterion was able to later release a proper version of the film on DVD in 2004. In 2010, the film was transferred again for the Blu-ray format for both Criterion and Masters of Cinema (Europe), both sporting the same-sourced transfer but with slightly different looks in the final presentation.
For the Masters of Cinema release, a much brighter and slightly softer image is on display. For the Criterion Blu-ray release, the image is slightly more crisp but much darker. This, of course, helps to boost some deep solid blacks but loses a bit of visual detail because of it. Not an enormous amount, but for a film that casts so many shadows, this definitely needs a better middle ground in the brightness department. Contrast is at a very healthy level and shows off a fairly even amount of film grain. There are some minor stock flaws with the final images such as lines running through the frame, slight color breathing, occasional frame jittering and soft focus around the edges of the frame (due to the spherical lenses that the film was shot with). Because these faults are varied and uneven throughout the presentation, there’s never a consistent picture quality. It must be expected for a film as old as this one is but none of it overtly detracts from the overall viewing experience. My only complaint would be to brighten it up a bit more the next time around. It’s also worth noting that the film is presented in its original 1.19:1 aspect ratio, so the presentation has been pillar-boxed to make up for the lack of negative space. In the sound department, the original uncompressed monaural German soundtrack is present with English subtitles. I can’t comment on their accuracy but I found the film to be very effective with them and was never confused because of any inaccuracies in the translation. The soundtrack itself is extremely clean and pleasant. The killer’s whistling, for instance, can be heard loud and clear, free of any crackle or loud hiss. It doesn’t sound nearly as old as the film itself looks. Purists especially will be happy with how clean everything sounds and everyone else probably won’t notice.
For the supplements, there’s quite a bounty of material to cull through. Included is the 92-minute English language version of M; an audio commentary by German film scholars Anton Kaes and Eric Rentschler; the fantastic William Friedkin documentary Conversation with Fritz Lang; Claude Chabrol’s M le maudit, a short film inspired by the film with an interview with Chabrol; interviews with Harold Nebenzal & the son of producer Seymour Nebenzal; audiotapes of editor Paul Falkenberg discussing the film with students in a classroom; a short documentary on The Physical History of M; a stills gallery; and finally, a 32-page booklet featuring an essay by film critic Stanley Kauffman, the script for a missing scene, three contemporaneous newspaper articles and a 1963 interview with Lang. The only things that are missing are the audio commentary from the Masters of Cinema release with the 2000 restoration team contributing, the French language version of M and any theatrical trailers that may or may not be in existence. To me, this just reeks of another release by Criterion in the future, with everything I mentioned included and also expanded into a 2 disc set to allow the main presentation a little more space to breathe.
Regardless, M in high definition is a wonderful thing to behold. It’s an incredibly gripping film, oozing with style and technique from one of Cinema’s great masters. The video presentation leaves a little to be desired, and the extras could use some fattening up, but for my money, this is the best Blu-ray release of the film to date. Superbly-acted by Peter Lorre, masterfully-directed by Fritz Lang and shining in excellent digital clarity, this is definitely one to pick up.
- Tim Salmons