Fritz Lang's M (1931), contains
both dialogue sequences and silent sequences with music or sound
effects. Lang edited the sound as if he were editing the
We are introduced to the murder
in shadow when he speaks to a young girl, Elsie. We hear
the conversation he makes with her, but we see only his shadow,
which is ironically shown on a reward poster for his capture.
Lang then set up a parallel action
sequence by intercutting shots of the murderer with the young
girl's mother. The culmination of the scene relies wholly on sound
for its continuity. The mother calls out for her child. Each time
she calls for Elsie, we see a different visual: out of the window
of home, down the stairs, out into the yard where the laundry
dries, to the empty dinner table where Elsie would sit, and finally
far away to the child's ball rolling out of a treed area and
to a balloon stuck in a telephone line.
With each shot, cries became more
distant. For the last two shots, the mother's cries are no more
than faint echo.
In this sequence, the primary continuity
comes from the soundtrack. The mother's cries unify all the various
shots, and the sense of distance implied by tone of the call suggests
that Elsie is now lost to her mother.
Later in the film, Lang elaborates
on this use of sound to provide the unifying idea for a sequence.
In one scene, the minister complains to the chief of police that
they must find the killer of Elsie. The conversation reveals the
scope of the investigation. As they speak, we see visual details
of the search for the killer. The visuals show a variety of activities,
including the discovery of a candy wrapper at the scene of the
crime and the subsequent investigation of candy shops. Geographically,
the police investigation moves all around the town and takes place
over an extended period of time. These time and place shifts are
all coordinated through the conversation between the minister
and the chief of police.
In terms of screen time, the conversation
is five minutes long, but it communicates and investigation that
takes place over many days and in many places. We sense the police
department's commitment but also its frustration at the lack of
What follows is the famous scene
of parallel action where Lang intercut two meetings. The police
and the crimal underworld meet separately, and the leaders of
both organizations discuss their frustrations about the child
murderer and devise strategies for capturing him.
Rather than simply relying on visuals
parallel action, Lang cut on dialogue at one point, starting a
sentence in police camp and ending it in the criminal meeting.
The crosscutting is all driven by dialogue. There are common visual
elements: the meeting setting, the smoking room, the seating,
the prominence of one leader in each group. Despite these viusals
cues, it is the dialogue that is used to set up the parallel action
and to give the audience a sense of progress. Unlike Griffith's
train chase, there is no visual dynamic to carry us toward a resolution,
nor is there a metric montage. The pace and character of the dialogue
establish and carry us through this scene.
Lang used sound as if it were another
visual element, editing it freely. Notably is how Lang used the
design of sound to overcome space and time issues. Through his
use of dialogue over the visuals, time collapses and the audience
moves all about the city with greater ease than if he had straight-cut
Ken Dancynger The Technique of film and video editing
page 45 - 47
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