We rarely spend much time watching early German sound films, but Criterion has just brought one of the very finest to Blu-ray. One of the very finest films, not just the very finest early German sound films. Fritz Lang's M [Criterion], and if you've never seen it you really ought to see it now! This is a 1931 tale of the search for a serial killer of young girls, suggested by a 1929 case in Dusseldorf. Lang brings pure, unflinching terror to the screen; not the terror of the victim, but the terror of the criminal. There is a harrowing, and unforgettable, sequence in which the killer — the 26-year-old Peter Lorre — is innocently window shopping. Lang uses reflections in a mirror within the window, and the window pane itself, to watch a young girl approach. Beckert (Lorre), seeing the girl's reflection, is gripped by the most severe terror as he is transformed — against his will — from a meek, small mouse of a man into a serial killer unable to control himself. What a display of acting, one which you will want to rewind and replay! Equally memorable is the (second) sequence with the balloon seller. Lang, experimenting with the new medium of sound, has Beckert punctuate his actions by whistling "In the Hall of the Mountain King" (from Grieg's incidental music for Peer Gynt). How is this serial killer identified? By a blind man, thanks to Grieg, and then marked by a chalked handprint of the letter "M" on the back of his coat.
The film climaxes with Lorre's bravura speech at his trial before the court of thieves. Among the Criterion bonus materials is a full showing of the long-lost English-language version of the film. In the early sound days, before dubbing was practical, major films both in America and abroad would sometimes prepare multiple language versions; using the same sets, a shot-by-shot duplicate would be filmed. In the case of "M," you have Lorre himself speaking his lines in English. While I generally prefer just watching the original-language version the director created, Lorre's performance of the trial monologue in English is riveting.
We try to limit our discussion in this column to films with a theatrical connection of sorts. (Lorre was initially a stage actor, working with Brecht and appearing in the original production of the Brecht-Weill Happy End.) Our next film has a stronger theatrical connection. Who was the only person to win the Best Actor (or Actress) in a Musical Tony in a non-singing role? (Other than Natalia Makarova, who danced — but didn't sing — in the 1983 revival of On Your Toes.) And who, for that matter, was the first person to win Tony, Oscar and Emmy (or rather one of the first two, as both he and Helen Hayes got their Emmys the same year)? Thomas Mitchell, that's who. Mitchell was a versatile stage actor for many years before moving on to become one of Hollywood's most valuable character men; his greatest stage performance, apparently, was as replacement for Lee J. Cobb in "Death of a Salesman." (He also headed the national company.)
Mitchell won his Tony as the bumbling small-town doctor in the 1953 musical Hazel Flagg; his Oscar came not for his performance as Gerald O'Hara, Scarlett's father, in "Gone with the Wind" nor for Diz Moore, Jean Arthur's sidekick in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," but for the hard-drinking Doc Boone in the John Ford/John Wayne Stagecoach [Criterion]. (All three films were released in 1939, a busy year for Mitchell). Never watch Westerns? Never watch John Wayne movies, you say? Well, let this be the exception. It was one of the first major Westerns to come out of Hollywood, and one of the best; its success is more or less responsible for the big-budget Western genre. So fine a film, in fact, that Orson Welles — who liked to make provocative statements — claimed that he watched "Stagecoach" every night for a month while he was working on "Citizen Kane." ("It was like going to school," said he.) Criterion has Blu-rayed the thing, and like "M" it looks infinitely better than the scratchy old prints I'm used to seeing. And the film is sure something to look at; Ford took them on location to the Monument Valley, along the Utah/Arizona border — no, not the contentious Arizona border — and it looks quite glorious. Wayne and Mitchell are joined by a fine array of character actors including Andy Devine (driving the coach of the title) and Donald Meek (as Samuel Peacock, the whiskey drummer). Claire Trevor plays the female lead, nine years before winning her Oscar. And we also get John Carradine, as the disgraced Virginian gambler. What Tony Award-winning musical hit did Carradine star in? Trick question: he was Marcus Lycus, the procurer, in the original production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, with "also starring" billing. And he also made a memorable contribution to the catastrophic 1981 Frankenstein, at the Palace for one night (plus previews).
More to the point, theatre-related-wise, but far less satisfying, is Nine [Sony]. Chicago, Kander & Ebb (and Bob Fosse)'s stark and stylish 1975 Broadway musical, was transformed into an award-winning box office bonanza in 2002; why not give the same treatment to Maury Yeston (and Tommy Tune's) stark and stylish 1982 musical Nine? Well, I'll give you nine reasons. Or maybe eight-and-a-half, or maybe just skip it. I was personally distressed that some of the film critics laid blame for the film's shortcomings at the original musical's weak score. Weak score? Judge what is left in the film and how it is used, if you wish; but any such reference to the Broadway score of Nine betrays an ignorance of the show. Yeston's score is one of the finest of the last 30 years; it is, in a very unusual way, remarkable. So much for critical acumen. As for the film, which has now been released on DVD and Blu-ray, it is what it is; not very successful cinema, but of obvious interest to theatre folk. Daniel Day-Lewis, Marion Cotillard, Penelope Cruz, Judi Dench, Nicole Kidman, Sophia Loren and more, under the direction of Rob Marshall of the "Chicago" film. But oh, to see Raul Julia, Karen Akers, Anita Morris and the others once more! (Steven Suskin is author of the recently released Updated and Expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at email@example.com.)