Fritz Lang

Peter Lorre in Fritz Lang's M (1931)

Peter Lorre in Fritz Lang’s M (1931)

  • Born: 1890
  • Died: 1976
  • Rank: 33
  • Score: 621.80
  • Feature Films: 40
  • Best: M
  • Worst: Cloak and Dagger

Top 5 Feature Films:

  1. M – 1931
  2. Metropolis – 1926
  3. The Big Heat – 1953
  4. You Only Live Once – 1937
  5. Nibelungen: Siegfried – 1924

Top 10 Best Director Finishes (Nighthawk Awards):

  • 1927-28 – 1st – Metropolis
  • 1932-33 – 1st – M
  • 1935 – 8th – Liliom
  • 1936 – 7th – Fury
  • 1937 – 1st – You Only Live Once
  • 1943 – 8th – The Crimes of Dr. Mabuse
  • 1943 – 10th – Hangmen Also Die
  • 1944 – 7th – Ministry of Fear
  • 1952 – 8th – The Testament of Dr. Mabuse
  • 1953 – 3rd – The Big Heat

On the one hand, after he left Germany and went to Hollywood in 1935, Lang never again reached the pinnacle of artistic success that he had in Germany with his wife writing the scripts and him directing them. On the other hand, when he left his wife behind so she could run film programs for the Nazis, he went to America and found a whole new career as the first of the noir directors and one of the best, creating his own niche among crime and suspense films and never got his due credit, never earning an Oscar nomination and making two of the best films in history of receive 0 Oscar nominations (The Big Heat, You Only Live Once). While he never hit his peak again, his peak at the time he came to the U.S. was M and Metropolis, until 1937 the two greatest films ever made.

Lang had made great films in Germany and had made a name for himself as the greatest director in the world. He had made great Teutonic epics, innovative crime films and even Science Fiction films. But his reputation hung on two films: Metropolis and M and their technical virtuosity and brilliance were unparalleled for years. While greater films would be made in the 40’s and 50’s, until the late 60’s, the only kind of visual innovations on film to match Metropolis were in Citizen Kane and M remains the greatest film ever made in Germany.

After coming to the States, Lang quickly found his niche in a darker side of the kind of thrillers from Hitchcock. His men were sometimes were innocent, but sometimes just pushed into crime and murder and there was a much greater degree of moral ambiguity. He specialized in these films such as You Only Live Once, a kind of precursor to the revolution spawned by Bonnie and Clyde and The Big Heat, a cop film that is as hard boiled as it gets. When noir found its style during the war, Lang became a master. Eventually in the fifties he decided to leave Hollywood and go back to Germany and he ended his career with a series of films set in India and then with a revisitation to his series about master criminal, Dr. Mabuse.

M – #1 film of 1933

At a time when Hollywood decided that the best way to make use of sound films was to overload it with musicals and talkie dramas and crime films, Lang understood what sound could do. He did things that couldn’t have been done on screen before. We hear the serial killer before we actually see him. He is identified by the blind balloon man because he continually whistles the overture to Peer Gynt. This couldn’t have been done before and Lang made use of the new technology.

But it wasn’t just Lang himself who benefited. The performance by Peter Lorre in this film is the single best performance on film up until this point. Though he would later establish himself as one of the most enjoyable character actors in Hollywood and would eventually show great range in The Maltese Falcon, Casbah and The Secret Agent, here he was new and the other films do not prepare you for what he does here. I was just as stunned as Roger Ebert when he wrote his Great Films review to discover that Lorre does not actually have that much screen time and in fact could have been considered a supporting role. But his performance, especially in the final trial scene, where supposedly Lang had him thrown down the stairs a dozen times to heighten his fear is something that could not have been done in silent films. It is one of the single greatest arguments against the practice of dubbing foreign films because you need to hear the anguish, the fear, the pain in Lorre’s voice when he faces his accusers and tries to make them understand.

But then the trial scene is part of the brilliance of the film, because it’s not a criminal trial, but a trial by criminals. The underworld has risen to stop this child murderer because they can’t function in the paranoid society that has sprung up around his crimes. They need him gone so the cops will relax and they can get back to normal business. This is a film about the way that society has chosen to structure itself and even to police itself. It is all the more credit to Lang and Lorre how much Lorre’s presence is felt throughout the film when we don’t even see him and hear him even less (except his haunting whistling).

In the 40’s when noir rose to an art form the idea of the cold hero who was determined to reach the end no matter who got hurt seemed like a new idea (when it fact its roots stretched to Dashiell Hammet’s novels in the 20’s), but even the idea on film wasn’t new. Everything that Lang was to do in Hollywood – the poor haunted criminal played by Henry Fonda in You Only Live Once, the cold cop determined not to let anyone’s death stop him in The Big Heat – these have their roots in M. At the time that it was made, Lang could already lay claim to having made the greatest film eve – Metropolis. But he surpassed it with M and until Grand Illusion came along in 1937, he was the holder of the mantle of the two greatest films ever made.