GORE IN THE STORE

REVIEW INDEX

INTERVIEWS  FILM  BLU-RAY  DVD  &  BOOK  REVIEWS

M (DEVIL’S ADVOCATES) ****

By Samm Deighan. RRP: £9.99 106pp

Out now from Auteur Publishing.

 

Samm Deighan, associate editor of the estimable “Diabolique” magazine and co-host of the “Daughters of Darkness” podcast (if you have ears, you owe it to yourself to check it out), has written a passionate and highly accessible “Devil’s Advocate” about an 89 year old film and its legacy, tracking its key predecessors, its place in Depression-era Germany and its enduring influence all the way up to the portrayal of Ed Kemper in Netflix’s MINDHUNTER.

 

For those unfamiliar, the “M” stands for “Morder” (Murder) and Deighan makes a compelling book-length case for Fritz Lang’s remarkable 1931 picture as the catalyst for what we now know as the serial killer movie. She positions it in a cycle leading inexorably to Hitchcock’s SHADOW OF A DOUBT and PSYCHO, alongside significant movies from different decades and countries, notably PEEPING TOM and MANHUNTER. It was a hugely significant film in Lang’s remarkable career, incorporating as it does the filmmaker’s recurring themes of paranoia, mob justice, surveillance and the blurred line between the law and the lawless. The author defines M as “an indictment of the culture he was soon to flee”, a country on the brink of massive change: it was the final Lang movie to be exhibited in his native Germany, and in its hybrid of realist social drama, modern police procedural and horror, offers a grim microcosm of Germany one year before the rise of the Nazi Party. Deighan captures PSYCHO parallels throughout as the audience is encouraged to empathise with a desperate, dangerous, sick child killer (Peter Lorre) who has no control over his actions and whom the police consider to be “a man who looks like he couldn’t hurt a fly”. Sound familiar?

 

Deighan considers Lorre’s Hans Beckert dwarfed within a vivid portrait of the paranoia, poverty and crime overwhelming Berlin at the turn of the decade. Anyone could be the killer – and there are, presumably, other killers operating in the city undetected – and Beckert is simply a product of the time and place. Innocent, harmless people – including an old man helping a child on a street – are hounded as suspects and Beckert’s murderous activities are downplayed: his off-camera murder of a little girl at the outset conveyed by a balloon getting caught up in some telephone wires before it floats out of sight. The book, in likening its portrait of a murderer in a corrupt city to Scorpio in DIRTY HARRY and the necktie strangler in FRENZY, captures “a chilling postcard from a society on the brink”. The monstrousness of Beckert runs parallel to the monstrousness we see in the city as a whole, with industry declining, unemployment rife, regular clashes between fascists and communists and Hitler biding his time for the right moment. Beckert is as much of a victim as anyone – he just happens to be a highly disturbed killer.

 

Deighan covers the stylistic and thematic holdovers from German Expressionism: the themes of isolation and “lonely monsters”, madness and violent doppelgangers, mankind confronting its own violent impulses in a world physically and mentally impacted by the Great War. Parallels are drawn between Beckert and Lon Chaney’s sympathetic grotesques from the 1920’s alongside Poe’s fondness for characters plagued by guilt for their acts of desperation and violence. A then-recent influence is considered to be Hitchcock’s THE LODGER – which also incorporates angry mobs and satirises the media’s role in sensationalising horrific crimes – but Lang’s film was even more ahead of its time in replacing THE LODGER’s relatively old fashioned murder mystery andle with an examination of abnormal psychology, of the killer as a kind of anti-hero.

 

Peter Lorre earned his place in many a classic horror film fan’s heart for his scene-stealing roles in Roger Corman’s Poe cycle and deliciously dark-humoured pre / post war genre fare like MAD LOVE and THE BEAST WITH FIE FINGERS. The book offers valuable insights into the cruelty endured by this truly unique performer during M’s six week production at Staaken Studios, highlighting how his physically “cartoonish” presence led to inevitable typecasting as deviants and outsiders (including memorable turns for Hitchcock). It also delves into some of the real-life murderers informing his portrait of a disturbed man at a time when media and social developments resulted in a child-killer protagonist / antagonist because – in Deighan’s analysis – the rape of women was no longer considered enough to shock. Peter Kurten, “the vampire of Dusseldorf” was still at large during the movie’s conception, his antics obsessively documented by the contemporary media – and Lang’s extensive research into such notorious figures, and determination to portray Beckert as a man not a monster, resulted in a complex central character and an overall commentary (in Lang’s words) on “the grotesqueness of an audience infected with a murder psychosis”.

 

Deighan’s easily digested, informative study closes with a comprehensive guide to M’s extensive influence on almost a century of cinema. Doomed “Lonely Man” protagonists in key films noir and further prominent psychological dramas continued the trend for the “killer as protagonist”, reflecting the continued media exploitation of such figures in the real world. Joseph Losey’s McCarthy era remake in 1951 offered an even more sympathetic portrait of Beckert, while we were encouraged to identify with and even root for Michael Powell’s PEEPING TOM and the vulnerable, nervously gulping Norman Bates the same year. Kurl Raab memorably channelled Lorre in THE TENDERNESS OF THE WOLVES, while 80’s “urban squalor” serial killer films like CRUSING and MANIAC were joined by more conventionally “respectable” thrillers like THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS in their exploration of Lang’s themes of voyeurism, surveillance and the serial killer (by then a widely understood term) as mythical hero. Deighan finds useful parallels to David Fincher’s equally influential SE7EN, which offers another hellish urban environment and, eight decades after Beckert’s story, another realistic incarnation of Dante’s inferno giving birth to another disturbed killer. When the audience listens to Doe’s justification for his own gruesome handiwork, the mid-90’s audience, as they did with Peter Lorre’s Beckert during the political and social turmoil of post-Depression Berlin, couldn’t help but empathise and understand.

 

Steven West.

 

 

BACK TO REVIEW INDEX

 

 TO FRIGHTFEST

 

This web site is owned and published by London FrightFest Limited.

FrightFest is the registered trade mark of London FrightFest Limited.  © 2000 - 2018

This web site is owned and published by London FrightFest Limited.

FrightFest is the registered trade mark of London FrightFest Limited.
 © 2000 - 2018