M (1931) IMDB Top 250 Review

I’ve finally done my own IMDB Top 250 review! 🙂 After this week, only one more guest review will be posted then they’ll no longer be posted regularly every Tuesday. I’ll do my own sometimes but will continue to post guest reviews if & when I receive them. If you’ve signed up for any, feel free to send them to me & I’ll post them right away. Now let’s have a look at Fritz Lang’s M… 

M (1931) (German: M – Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder — “M – A city looks for a murderer”)

IMDB Rank: 52 out of 250 on 01/01/13

Directed by Fritz Lang

Starring: Peter Lorre, Otto Wernicke, Gustaf Gründgens

Plot Synopsis: (via IMDB)
When the police in a German city are unable to catch a child-murderer, other criminals join in the manhunt.

My Opinion:

I know I started this IMDB Top 250 project as a way to force myself to finally watch a lot of classic films that I had yet to see but I’ve been very lazy about reviewing any the past couple of years, especially as I’ve had so many guest reviews to post. I’m glad I started it as I’ve discovered some films that I now adore: things like Charlie Chaplin’s movies and a surprising amount of war movies such as The Bridge On The River Kwai, which I never expected to like so much. But it’s been difficult with a few as, while I can understand why they’re so highly regarded, they just didn’t work for me. One of these was On The Waterfront so I’ve been putting off reviewing that for a year now. I’ll still eventually say something about every Top 250 film I watch but some may be multiple quickie reviews like I’ve been doing lately. I’ll get back to doing more of these myself again in the New Year. I’m just saying that, you know, don’t expect all of them to be “quality” reviews as I have surprisingly little to say about some of these classics. Not that anyone has come to expect any quality reviews from me anyway. 😉

The point of all my rambling is this:  M is excellent and definitely deserves its place in the Top 250 but it’ll never exactly be a favorite film of mine as I’ve never been a big fan of the crime genre. I’ll talk about it a little bit, though, as some of you would probably like it a lot and I do love to bring attention to films that deserve it. And nothing makes me happier than when someone decides to watch a movie after I’ve done a post about it!

I figured I could do this as part of my October Horror thing since it’s a movie about a child killer. This is the sort of topic I’d normally avoid watching but I had no choice if I’m going to ever finish this project. Besides – it’s a movie from 1931 so I knew it would probably handle things in a respectful way & of course not be graphic in any way. If I’m going to watch a movie like this, I’d rather watch one from 1931 instead of some nasty modern day True Detective-style crime story. Sorry – I don’t normally like crime films, particularly ones about murderers, and I never have for some reason. Give me sci-fi & fantasy! (Metropolis is the Fritz Lang movie I really should have watched by now instead. I’m so ashamed…)

That M poster is awesome, though. Look at it! God they had so much more style in the old days. Although it could be a new design – what the hell do I know? And the scene involving the M on the hand was pretty damn great (I did wonder if there would actually be an M on someone’s hand). This movie is a pain in the ass to Google, though, being just one letter. Guess it’ll go at the start of the letter M in my movie review index! Which reminds me – I’d reviewed a movie for every single letter on this blog other than Q and it was really annoying me so I was planning to do Quadrophenia at some point. Then I watched & reviewed the thoroughly boring The Quiet Ones a couple of weeks ago & it didn’t even register that I’d finally done a Q movie until I put it in the index. Dammit!!! What a wasted opportunity – that movie sucked. Off topic again? Sorry!

Review actually starts NOW!

Crime films may not be my favorite genre but M is a truly excellent example of one and I’d strongly recommend it to fans of this sort of thing (someone like Zoe – I know you like your crime & detective books, Zoe!). It’s, I’m assuming, one of the very first of its type and certainly one of the very best (in my limited experience). From a filmmaking standpoint, of which I know absolutely nothing, there are some amazing shots in this that will forever remain in my mind. Ones such as this:


(Hmm – was the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV show opening an homage to this??)

And this, which I couldn’t find a great image of, but it’s from a fabulous scene in front of a mirror shop. Very cool use of the reflections:

Plus a couple others that I won’t share as they’re big plot spoilers…

I’ll admit that the movie did drag a couple of times (for me) when the investigation was underway & detectives were doing all they could to try to figure out who the killer was. It was fascinating, though, as they were using handwriting & fingerprint analysis – it was such a different world back then and it must have been so hard to track down a serial killer. I have to say, though, that this movie feels very ahead of its time in many ways so don’t avoid it just because it’s from 1931. It’s weird to think that this is from a time when Charlie Chaplin was still making silent films (City Lights also came out in 1931) as M is a “talkie”. It feels more like the 1940’s crime films such as Hitchcock’s Shadow Of A Doubt or The Maltese Falcon (also starring Peter Lorre).

Speaking of Lorre, he’s fantastic as the murderer in this (I’ve not given anything away there – this is one of those movies where the audience knows the killer). I don’t watch as many older films as I should so, while I know Lorre’s name, I can’t say I remember him in either The Maltese Falcon or Casablanca as I barely remember those films now. I know, I know – I saw them at a very young age! I’ve been meaning to re-watch Casablanca for years & I especially want to now after seeing Lorre in this. This may sound weird but he has such a great face for this role. He’s totally believable (if that’s a good thing? I read that he was often typecast as a villain after this movie). This movie also sort of explores the psychological aspect and whether a criminal has control over their actions or not, which again made the movie feel ahead of its time. The only one slight downer is that there’s a little bit of blame placed on the murdered childrens’ mothers for “not watching them well enough”. Well, it was 1931… It was a different time!

Summary:

M is one of those movies I appreciated even more after thinking about it for a while and as I wrote this review (I watched it about a month ago). Certain scenes are so iconic and I’ll never again hear Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King without thinking of this movie, in which the song is used in such a memorably haunting way. Peter Lorre is fantastic and, while the middle dragged a little as the investigation was underway, the ending more than made up for it. I absolutely loved the direction the film took in the manhunt for the murderer. I highly recommend M to fans of the crime thriller genre and fully admit that it deserves to be one point higher than my rating but, as always, my ratings are based more on my own personal enjoyment of a movie. Now I really should watch Metropolis as it looks more like my type of thing – it’s ridiculous that I haven’t!

My Rating: 7.5/10

The Maltese Falcon (1941) IMDB Top 250 Guest Review

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Today’s IMDB Top 250 Guest Review comes from Damien of Flashback/Backslide. Thanks for all the reviews, Damien! 🙂 Now let’s see what he thinks of The Maltese Falcon, IMDB rank 121 out of 250…

There are still some movies up for grabs if anyone wants to do a guest IMDB Top 250 review. You can find the list of remaining films HERE. See the full list & links to all the reviews that have already been done HERE. Also, if you’d like to add a link to your IMDB review(s) on your own blogs, feel free to use any of the logos I’ve used at the top of any of these guest reviews.

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The Maltese Falcon

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Reviewing a classic like The Maltese Falcon reveals the absurdity of online film reviews. The endeavor asks us to focus our gaze on a film created before most of us were born, before many of our parents were born in fact, not to mention before countless cultural shifts, artistic fads and genrefication. And of course before the invention of the internet which allows vast hordes of people to weigh in on old classics. What I say here, positive or negative, will have little bearing on the fact that The Maltese Falcon is and always will be one of the greatest films ever made. But reviewing the greats, which is the spirit of the IMDB Challenge that inspired this review, provides the perspective needed to judge new releases.

And without a doubt, The Maltese Falcon is one of the greats; it is listed at #31 in the updated AFI Top 100 Films rankings (down from #23 on the original rankings), #6 on the AFI Top 10 Mystery films, and widely considered to be the first major film noir made. Five other noirs released between 1941 and 1954 would land on the AFI Top 100 rankings (See Footnote) but The Maltese Falcon helped open the doors for the genre and inspire later films. This is especially notable since films released at that time were generally more upbeat and include several classic musicals. To be sure, the genre’s momentum was already trending up by 1941. Just one year prior Strangers on the Third Floor and They Drive By Night hit theaters and showcased Peter Lorre and Humphrey Bogart respectively, both of whom star in The Maltese Falcon. What helps the film stand out from those predecessors is its early use of the so-called “hard-boiled detective” character already found in pulp magazines for years. Bogart’s portrayal of private investigator Sam Spade would become the standard for all noir leading men and helped propel his career forward after his breakout role in High Sierra, a film co-written by John Huston. Huston served as the writer/director of The Maltese Falcon and would team up with Bogart again in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and Key Largo (1948).

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Our film starts like many other noirs. Spade and his partner Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) are hired by the beautiful Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor) to find her missing sister who left home and traveled across the country with a suspicious character. Archer takes the case and by morning Spade finds himself in the center of two murder investigations and a decades-long search for a mysterious statue. As the story unfolds each character works to outmaneuver the others either by charm, violence or the occasional poisoning, all culminating in an extended confrontation by all involved. Unlike most modern films, the film revolves not around plot but character development. Each plot reveal deals more with unraveling the intentions of the characters than it does with propelling the film forward. This development is made possible by excellent acting, strong writing, and precise direction. As we’ve already learned, Bogart’s role not only pushed him to another level of notoriety but his wry smiles, misleading outbursts and redirections will become the stuff that noir dreams are made of. Spade’s ploys allow him to keep a seat at the table with other characters who inevitably hold more cards. Lorre provides the antithesis to Bogart’s slick Spade with awkward exchanges and ill-advised shows of force. Spade’s tactics are more in line with the shrewd Kasper Gutman, played by Syndey Greenstreet in his remarkable first role which earned him a Best Supporting Actor nomination at the 14th Academy Awards. It will come as no surprise at this point that Greenstreet would join Bogart and Lorre again on the cast of Casablanca. In an interesting film history side note, Mary Astor would be honored in those same 14th Academy Awards in which Greenstreet earned a nomination. Astor won the Best Supporting Actress award that year, not for The Maltese Falcon but for her work in the Edmund Goulding directed film The Great Lie. Goulding later directed the film noir classic Nightmare Alley in 1947. Looking back we remember Astor less for her award-winning work in The Great Lie than we do for her role in The Maltese Falcon. Just as Bogart’s work defined the film noir lead, Astor’s portrayal of Brigid O’Shaughnessy shaped the image of noir’s femme fatales, balancing cunning with feigned weakness.

With over seventy years spent appreciating The Maltese Falcon and the genre it helped prop up, it is odd to think that the film was nearly never produced. Huston was not the first director to adapt Dashiell Hammett’s 1929 detective novel. He wasn’t the second either. Two other adaptations had already been made, one in 1931 under the same name along with 1936’s Satan Met a Lady. Transitioning from Warner Brothers writer to Warner Brothers director, Huston chose Hammett’s novel for his directorial debut even with those two other adaptations. Huston believed he could properly bring the novel to the screen and improve on the poorly received predecessors. With hindsight we know Huston was correct and his meticulous direction not only surpassed the earlier films but was met with resounding applause. Accolades continue to be collected for the film, not the least of which is inclusion in the IMDB Top 250 challenged and the praise of internet bloggers.

Rating: 10/10

Classic Film Scale: 7/10

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Bottomline: The prototypical film noir classic featuring early roles by now legendary actors, The Maltese Falcon will continue to be remembered for many years to come. It seems a bit unfair to rank a classic film like The Maltese Falcon on the same scale as The Hunger Games and American Hustle so I’ll use a more appropriate scale with only the all-time greats earning a 10/10.

Footnote: The six films released between 1941 and 1954 which are generally considered examples of film noirs and earned a spot on the AFI Top 100 rankings are as follows: The Maltese Falcon (1941), Double Indemnity (1944), A Place in the Sun (1951), The Third Man (1949), On the Waterfront (1954).

Thanks for reading!

Flashback/Backslide

Casablanca (1942) IMDB Top 250 Guest Review

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Today’s IMDB Top 250 Guest Review comes from Josh of JJames Reviews. He’s already done a review of Apocalypse Now (HERE) and Inglourious Basterds (HERE). Thanks so much for the reviews, Josh! 🙂 Now let’s see what he has to say about Casablanca, IMDB rank 25 out of 250…

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Casablanca (1942)

Directed By: Michael Curtiz

Written By: Julius and Phillip Epstein, and Howard Koch

Starring

Humphrey Bogart
Ingrid Bergmann
Paul Henreid
Claude Rains
Conrad Veidt
Peter Lorre
Dooley Wilson

Running Time: 1 hour 42 minutes

Plot Synopsis

In the midst of World War II, a Jewish leader, Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) and his wife, Ilsa (Ingrid Bergmann), come to the city of Casablanca, part of unoccupied France, hoping to escape Nazi influence and reach the United States. Standing in their way are Major Heinrich Strasser (Conrad Veidt), a Nazi military man, and Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains), a corrupt French police officer. Even more troublingly for Laszlo and Ilsa is that they need Rick Blaine’s (Humphrey Bogart) help, but Rick is seemingly self-serving and withdrawn. That he has history with Ilsa complicates matters, as well.

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My Take

Casablanca is one of the best movies ever made, which means listing its merits proves more difficult than detailing its flaws:

  1. Rick’s final actions are cleverly foreshadowed and brilliantly executed, but Renault’s last decision makes less narrative sense. We can understand why he might help Rick, but why would he choose to leave Casablanca?
  2. In the finale, Renault’s subordinates are so stupid as to be almost unbelievable. Even though their boss orders them to round up the usual suspects wouldn’t one of them ask, “Were you a witness? What happened?”
  3. Um. Maybe. Peter Lorre doesn’t have enough screen time? Sure. Why not?

And that’s it. Even those flaws, of course, are terribly nit-picky, as the first two span the picture’s final thirty seconds and have zero impact on the preceding magic, while the third is not, in reality, a mistake.

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Casablanca’s screenplay is its foremost merit. With much memorable dialogue that has become part of Western culture, it is one of the most quoted movies in history.

  1. “Of all the gin joints in all the world she walks into mine.”
  2. “Here’s looking at you, kid.”
  3. “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here.”
  4. “(Yesterday) is so long ago, I don’t remember.”
  5. “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
  6. And so many more.

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Yet, the script’s greatest strength is not quotability. It’s character development. Rick, Ilsa, Renault and Laszlo are complex individuals, about whom we care, no matter their flaws. Sam (Dooley Wilson), an African American pianist, is layered by loyalty to Rick and emotional acuity, while Major Strasser, the antagonist, is not a comic book villain. Because he’s a Nazi, we do not like the Major, but director Michael Curtiz and his writers are smart enough not to make him stereotypically evil, instead opting to develop him as determined and efficient. Because all of the characters are so genuine, the filmmakers earn our emotional investment, and thereby ensure that Casablanca’s limited action is not a flaw.

It helps that the movie is not predictable, despite being character centric. Rick’s final gambit surprises us, as does some of Ilsa’s behavior. Even more impressively, however, is how well Bogart, Bergmann and Curtiz sell Ilsa and Rick’s romance, in two short scenes, no less. The first: Ilsa asking Sam to play “As Time Goes By,” a request Sam reluctantly accepts, knowing that Rick will respond badly. The second: a ten-minute in medias res flashback. We don’t see the beginning of Ilsa and Rick’s relationship, but we don’t need to, as the flashback shows us their depth of feeling. Therein is why Rotten Tomatoes fittingly calls Casablanca “Hollywood’s quintessential statement on love and romance.”

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Curtiz’s technical decisions are just as good as his writers’ screenplay. This black and white film is lit so well that it is never less than visually stunning. Moreover, the director’s establishing shots set tone in every scene, especially when Laszlo and Strasser have a sing-off in Rick’s bar, when Ilsa surprises Rick in his own home, and when Rick is left heartbroken at a train station. Additionally, Curtiz cuts the movie as to surprise us and increase our anxiety, especially in the film’s climax.

Finally, all of the performances are excellent. Without Humprhey Bogart and Ingrid Bergmann’s soulful performances, Casablanca would not be half as good as it is. Peter Lorre steals his two scenes, as does Dooley Wilson, who makes us wish Sam had a bigger role. Paul Heinreid, Claude Rains and Conrad Veidt are equally note perfect.

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Conclusion: Almost flawless, Casablanca deserves its title as All-Time Classic. It is one of the best movies ever made.

My Rating: 9.75/10