This will be the most difficult entry into the blog. I consider 1931 to be the greatest year in the history of cinema, and that isn’t a statement that I make lightly. This year saw the release of two of the greatest horror movies of all time, two of the greatest gangster movies of all time and a movie that many critics believe to be Charlie Chaplin’s greatest. I encourage everyone to look at the “Why this was a hard decision” section and feel free to check out any of those movies (there’s a reason this is the longest entry for that section so far).
The movie that I’m highlighting for this year is M. Directed by Fritz Lang and starring Peter Lorre (who looks so young that he hasn’t lost his baby fat), M is an amazing work. The dramatic story of the search for a child-killer in Germany, the movie manages the difficult task of maintaining tension even though we know his identity from the very beginning.
Because the police search to find the killer is so determined, the city’s criminals also decide they must find him in order to keep the law off their backs. What follows is a tale of cops and criminals both hoping to find Lorre’s character before the other and the killer unknowingly being followed by both. He is eventually caught by the crooks and tried in a kangaroo court, making an impassioned speech in his own defense before the “jury.” This scene is amazing and Lorre’s performance is one of the most powerful I have ever seen.
This was Lorre’s first major starring role in film. I think that most Americans have a tendency to immediately think of a him as a caricature. The bad impressions that we all do of him (mine might be the worst) and the supporting roles of un-trustworthy foreigners that he played for decades in Hollywood have created an image of him in our collective consciousness that is not altogether positive. He is a revelation in this movie. Peter Lorre was a great actor and his performance in M is absolutely stunning. The final scene of his trial is full of drama, tension, and genuine torment as he struggles to describe what it is like being a monster and not being able to help it.
This is Lang’s first sound film and he uses the new technology better than any of his competition at the time. I don’t know if it is because of the newness of sound, but there is an economy to it that contributes to the tension that builds throughout the piece. You hear nothing but the sound of footsteps on the streets and you know that something bad will happen soon. There are long moments of quiet followed by yelling, which jars the viewer and adds to the tension. Most importantly, the killer whistles “In the Hall of the Mountain King” seemingly every time he is on screen. This not only serves to let the audience know when he is around, but also makes the viewer concerned for the characters on screen every time it is heard. It makes a fairly innocuous song a source of anxiety. Lang used sound perfectly in this movie and should be recognized for his ingenious application of the cutting edge technology.
Ultimately, M is a stunningly moving inquiry into justice, paranoia, and our relationships in society. It is beautifully shot and acted and is definitely worth a look if you haven’t seen it yet.
Why this was a hard decision (other movies from 1931 worth seeing):
Many believe that City Lights is Chaplin’s greatest movie and the AFI recently rated it the greatest romantic comedy of all time. The final scene is considered by many critics to be one of the greatest movie endings. That’s a lot of greatness.
Dracula starring Bela Lugosi and Frankenstein starring Boris Karloff were two of my earliest movie obsessions and began my lifelong love for the Universal Studios horror movies of the thirties and forties. Karloff’s performance is particularly moving and I can’t say enough about Edward Van Sloan as Van Helsing in Dracula and Dr. Waldman in Frankenstein.
Little Caesar, starring Edward G. Robinson, really kicked off the gangster film genre and his final line is one of the most iconic in movie history. The Public Enemy is one of my favorite movies and James Cagney’s performance practically jumps off screen its so full of energy. It is one of the great performances from a genuine legend.
Waterloo Bridge and Night Nurse (which features a pre-mustache Clark Gable) are two wonderful examples of the frank inquiries into sexuality, violence, and criminal behavior that flourished in Hollywood between the advent of sound and the enforcement of the Hayes Code, which neutered studios’ ability to create without interference from morals clauses. This era is known as the “pre-code” era and many great and forgotten films were made during these few years. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, starring Fredric March, is another pre-code film that was considered controversial because of the sexuality of some of its characters. I’ll talk more about the Hayes Code in a future post, but all these movies are available of DVD now and are worth a watch.
Monkey Business is another high note in the Marx Brothers’ career, featuring the group making a trans-Atlantic journey and being forced into the service of mobsters. Tabu was the last film by F.W. Murnau before he died in a car accident. Filmed on location in Tahiti with a Tahitian cast, it is an interesting work, although ultimately not as powerful as his earlier films.
Did you know? (1931 Trivial knowledge)
“Don’t I have this cursed thing inside me? This fire, this voice, this agony?” The killer in M, Hans Beckert, when trying to describe why he kills.
Which DVD did I watch?
The Criterion edition