Yes, Fritz Lang’s first sound film, M (1931), has a few awkward moments in which Lang hasn’t quite mastered the new medium, but this old warhorse of art cinema works more than it doesn’t, and still registers as a compelling work by one of the undisputed masters of film. And calling it an old warhorse is no insult, since the reason things become warhorses is because they’re so good. As a story, it’s the perfect blend of Lang’s penchant for serial-like melodrama with something more on its mind — and in this regard, it’s probably only second to his next film, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1932), as a successful fusion of the two elements. It is probably not accidental that the two films are connected by the presence of Otto Wernicke as the same character, Inspector Lohmann, in each. On the one hand, M is a crime thriller with a twist. Not only do we have the police on the hunt for a serial child murderer, Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre), but the criminal underworld joins in the hunt. This is not from any altruistic motive, mind you. The underworld has grown tired of too much interference from the police thanks to their increased presence in the search for the murderer, so it follows that his capture is in their best interest. Lang is fascinated by the mechanics of both forces engaged in this manhunt, but he’s equally interested in the psychology of Beckert himself — a character who manages to generate a measure of sympathy because he can’t help himself. No film had previously dealt with the idea of a serial killer like this — and few films have ever topped it for psychological perception. It’s entertaining, exciting and distinctly disturbing.
Classic World Cinema by Courtyard Gallery will present M Friday, June 14, at 8 p.m. at Phil Mechanic Studios, 109 Roberts St., River Arts District (upstairs in the Railroad Library). Info: 273-3332, www.ashevillecourtyard.com.