Movie restorations are good and admirable and the people who do them are to be commended. On the other hand, setting things right with a movie can mess with your relationship with that film. Which is my way of saying that in restored versions of Fritz Lang’s M, I greatly miss the little swatch of “In the Hall of the Mountain King” that played under the opening credits, a credit sequence that I guess must have been cobbled together for some later stage of the film’s distribution (the version one saw on PBS or in 16 mm. prints for years and years), and which has been replaced in restored prints with silent, stark, and very impressive graphic images.
Well, Peter Lorre still whistles the Grieg in the movie, of course, so there’s that. And that whistling, and the thousand other details in this movie, make it a gateway film: see it at age 13, and you will have to find out more about foreign films, these movies from different places and have subtitles at the bottom of the picture. And you’ll never go back. The title alone – how cool is that? – and then the arresting story and the overwhelming atmosphere, and then just when you think you might have it sized up right, Lorre’s child murderer begins speaking at the end, and then you get this feeling maybe this is about more than a murder case, but about something larger, something dark that spills over the strict edges of the movie’s authoritative frames and seems to reach all around the world.
In short, M became one of my favorite movies in adolescence and has never lost its place. The #2 movie for the 1931 list is an all-galaxy masterpiece, too, but this had to be M. The #3 film is by Lang’s fellow German genius, F. W. Murnau (who completed the project he’d begun as a collaboration with documentarian Robert Flaherty), the last movie Murnau made before his early death.
And with that, the man in black will soon be here. The ten best movies of 1931:
1. M (Fritz Lang)
2. City Lights (Charlie Chaplin)
3. Tabu (F.W. Murnau/Robert Flaherty)
4. La Chienne (Jean Renoir)
5. Frankenstein (James Whale)
6. Dishonored (Josef von Sternberg)
7. Platinum Blonde (Frank Capra)
8. À nous la liberté (René Clair)
9. Dracula (Tod Browning)
10. The Public Enemy (William Wellman)
Should find room on there for Hitchcock’s Rich and Strange, an early effort but amazingly assured. Same description applies to La Chienne. Capra and Wellman apply their very American energies to the romantic comedy and the gangster picture; the Capra movie is really ahead of its time, while The Public Enemy is perfectly of it. Dracula gets a rap for being sort of stagey and static, but the opening reels are fluid and unforgettable, and there’s something mysterious and quiet about the whole movie that becomes more mesmerizing the more you see it.
Also-rans include Clair’s Le Million, Sagan’s Mädchen in Uniform, Hawks’s The Criminal Code, and Mervyn LeRoy’s Little Caesar. Some directors on the list had strong second movies, including Clair, Capra (The Miracle Woman, with a blazing Barbara Stanwyck performance), and Wellman (Other Men’s Women). John Ford had Arrowsmith, and G.W. Pabst had two flavorful titles, Kameradschaft and The Threepenny Opera.
Frank Borzage’s Bad Girl and King Vidor’s Street Scene are lesser offerings from major directors, and then you’ve got Monkey Business, which is not the best Marx Brothers movie but has a few absolutely indelible sequences, many involving Groucho in a lady’s stateroom.