Thursday, July 28, 2011

Mark M For Murder

Fritz Lang's first talkie, M is a masterclass in mise-en-scène, creating pace and tension in quick scenes that click together like a mathematical equation, dialogue from one scene spilling into the next, inducing a sense of urgency, the city overrun with suspicion and fear. It begins as a police procedural, a kind of 1930s CSI Berlin, with both the criminal underworld and the police trying to find child murderer Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre). Beckert is nothing more at this stage than a lurking shadow and an eerie whistle, a bogie man luring children away with presents, like the balloon he buys for Elsie, whose death is conveyed by two unforgettable images; her ball rolling out from behind a bush (we're left to imagine what has happened behind that bush) and the balloon snagged in telephone lines, fluttering in the cold breeze like a distressed soul, or a struggling body.

But then we enter Beckert's world, are with him as he suffers the agony of temptation. Suddenly the film inspires both empathy and horror. The criminal world's attempts to catch him are heroic at first, we're on their side. But as the trap closes in and the hunter becomes the hunted our allegience wavers. Surely this is the film Hitchcock learned how an audience will side with anyone if we're put in their shoes, shown their point of view. In many ways it's a modern film, a classy chase thriller. But it's much more too. It's impossible not to see it as prophetic, an x-ray of the society that so easily let the Nazis into power only two years later. It understands how public mood could be manipulated by fear, by tales of monsters, how the rule of law, with all its sophisticated techniques, was no match for the outrage of the mob. Beckert is a sick and dangerous man, but a man he is, not a monster. And yet the children are dead. If the police can't protect them, who will? There are no easy answers here which is what makes it resonate still. Lorre is extraordinary as Beckert, a man of cunning and weakness, tormented by demons, by his own desires, a pathetic wretch and a vision from our worst nightmares.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Classic Scene #30

The ending of Michelangelo Antonioni's Zabriskie Point comes in three stages; first the multi-angled explosion, a thrilling succession of detonations, each one closer, each one beautiful in its annihilating force, like a Michael Bay wet dream. But then it goes somewhere Bay would never dream of going, wet or otherwise. The sound of Pink Floyd's Come in Number 51, Your Time Is Up drifts over a scattershot ballet of graceful, slow-motion debris, an atomised universe of shattered glass, torn clothes and flying food swimming in the blue ether, surreal and haunting. Then the music changes to a screaming intensity as explosions bloom out at us, books bursting like ripe flesh, pain and anguish erupting from beneath the visual. It's extraordinary, like nothing in cinema before or since. And then it just ends, abruptly, and we're back with the girl. Remember the girl? She's just imagined all that it seems. What could it mean?

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Two Steps To The Left

''I remember people coming through La Junta while we were filming, crew members who were working on another film somewhere that had just wrapped. While they stopped off to see some of their friends who were working on Badlands, I remember thinking, "They're making a film somewhere else?" It seemed like the center of the universe. Like nothing else really existed.''

Sissy Spacek quoted in GQ's excellent Badlands: An Oral History.

''The film has this very American notion, I think, that two totally humdrum kids with hardly an ounce of education between them—if they just take two steps to the left, they're into fame and legend. After all, what the fuck else are they gonna do with their lives?''

Film critic David Thomson from the same article