The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

On the hardships of rating old movies and some thoughts about M

with 57 comments

One of the hardest things about writing a review is to give the movie a rating. The more I think about it, the more random does it seem and what exactly is it that differs a 3,5/5 from a 4/5?

If you press me for an answer, all I can come up with is “gut feeling”, which is pretty inadequate and vague compared to the imagined exactness that a figure represents. It’s a completely justified question to ask what affects my gut feeling. My mood? The whether? What I had for dinner? The last film I saw that still lingers in my mind? How I slept last night? Just about anything could have influence on my intestines.

But I do it anyway, paying no attention to my own grumblings about how hard it is, that I “don’t feel it” or some other nonsense justification for passing over.

I insist on making those numbers, not as much as a guide to readers as a tool to force myself to take a stance. Did I like it or didn’t I and what were my reasons? The mandatory rating task works as a catalyst for my thinking process.

Judging older movies
I’m never as close to bailing on giving out grades as when I watch older movies. I just don’t know what to make about them. My stomach feels unreliable.

On one hand there’s the sense of the wings of history that fills me with wonder, admiration and respect. If you know that a movie was a pioneer in a certain aspect and that this particular feature has been copied over and over again in film history, it adds a little something to the experience.

On the other hand, there’s this thing that I’m accustomed to a different standard. Even if I understand perfectly well why the image is unclear, the sound is muffled and the special effects are lame, it doesn’t change the experience. And don’t get me started on the acting! Back in the days they had different ideals of acting, with a great deal more of melodrama compared to the more muted, underplayed style that is common today. I make no secret of that I usually prefer the acting to feel as natural as possible.

Let’s face it: we’ve had a development here. Filmmakers have picked up a few things over the year, working out what works and what doesn’t work by trial and error and there’s nothing strange about this. The tricky thing is whether we should or shouldn’t let it affect our rating.

Is it fair and meaningful to use the same rating system for M, which I recently watched at my local film club, as I do for Mission Impossible IV? Can I compare a one-night stand that gave me wonderful rollercoaster ride for two and a half hour with a move that has left such an impact that I forever will be reminded of it whenever I watch a movie about a crazy murderer?

Probably not. And yet I do it. So bare with me if you think my guts have played up with me and the numbers are strange. This is not rocket science. It’s foolery.

What I thought about M
What about M then? Considering this post originally was intended as a review, I seem to be pussyfooting around it. But here we go.

In case you’re not particularly interested in film history, you might not know that this is a German thriller from 1931, which mostly is about the hunt for a series child murderer, “M”. Not only the police force is after him, but also the underworld, since the constant police activities interfere with their interests. A big chunk of the movie takes place in a building, where we see the murderer hiding in the shadows while the criminals are searching for him, trying to find him in and put him at a trial of their own before the police will arrive.

What I liked about this film more than anything else was the cinematography. There are loads of interesting and beautiful shots. The black and white doesn’t feel old and corny; it adds something to the mood.

Fritz Lang uses small means to create a dense atmosphere. He’s never explicit; we don’t see the murderer as much as touch the girls, and yet we know that something horrible is happening to them when we see a dropped ball rolling on the ground or a balloon he has lured them with drifting. And I’ll never be able to hear that theme from Grieg that M whistles whenever he’s about to commit a crime, without thinking of this movie.

For being a movie from 1931, it feels very modern in some aspects, mainly the aesthetics, but also some of the moral issues at stake, such as in the “trial”. The criminals are having a long argumentation about whether M should be considered insane or not and what negative consequences such a label can have since it automatically will lead to an earlier release from custody in case he’ll get his sanity back. Doesn’t it sound familiar from the news of today?

If there’s anything that pulls down M a bit for a modern viewer, it’s the acting style. My guts don’t care if melodrama was standard at that time or not; they just don’t like it.

But on the whole, the wings of history and the atmosphere was enough to satisfy me. Watching it in on a big screen probably helped quite a bit for my appreciation as well.

And now it’s time to hear what my guts say about this:

M (Fritz Lang, GE, 1931) My rating: 4/5

Written by Jessica

May 15, 2012 at 1:00 am

Posted in M

57 Responses

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  1. Always go with your gut, Jess. Leave nothing in the bag!


    May 15, 2012 at 1:55 am

    • Hm… That almost sounds gross but I’m sure it wasn’t intended that way. I just get… weird associations.


      May 15, 2012 at 7:40 am

  2. I agree with everything in this post! I tend to try and use the number grades as representations of how I responded to a film on any level. And most of that is indeed a gut feeling!


    May 15, 2012 at 2:26 am

    • YEah, so do I. It’s very arbitrary, but I don’t have any other way to measure it. Even if you put up some definitions, different aspects that are weighed together, it always boils down to gut feeling.


      May 15, 2012 at 7:41 am

  3. Grading movies is not easy. I concur. And that’s why I refrain from truly grading them on my own site. In fact, when I write about older movies I refrain from it completely. I tend to feel like the gut feeling of the reviewer will reveal itself through the words of review.

    Oh, and I will also admit that I actually adore the melodramatic acting style of the past as much as I adore the more naturalistic style of today, but to each his/her own. I’m a fairly melodramatic guy, after all.


    May 15, 2012 at 4:07 am

    • I really wish I’d like the melodrama of the past as much as I love the current style. I’m working on it. Perhaps it’s just a matter of getting used to it.


      May 15, 2012 at 7:48 am

  4. I think giving movies ratings is a stupid idea, but the only reason I do it is so that I can rank them on lists and form my own Top 100 movies list and etc. However, I’m seriously considering dropping all forms of movie ratings from reviews I post on my blog. It inspires people to actually read the whole review rather than skimming it just to read the rating out of five or ten to see what I thought. Also, people see a movie I’ve rated 10/10 and assume that means they’ll like it, then if they don’t like it they complain to me for overhyping it. I can be really bad when it comes to overhyping movies, it’s one of my weaknesses, I do it a lot. But I’m trying not to and I’m trying to inject my opinion into what is verbally written, not a meaningless number.


    May 15, 2012 at 6:26 am

    • I think there are both pros and cons with the rating. As if me, yes, I throw a quick glance at the figure before I read a review and I appreciate that it’s there. I find it helpful. If it’s a rating I strongly agree with or disagree with, it will make me curious to see how the argumentation goes, how the writer has come to that conclusion. It also helps me put the review in the right light. When I write reviews I have a tendency to nitpick, which may lead into the conclusion that I’m negative about the film. Which I’m not, it’s just that it’s easier to write about things that could be conclude than to talk about good things in an interesting way.
      The rating gives me a tool to correct those misunderstandings. Even if I complain about a bit of melodramatic playstyle in M, I have a way to clearly show that I actually like the movie.

      There’s nothing wrong about loving the movies you watch. Congratulate yourself to be good at picking them! I give out a lot of 4/5:s and I’m happy with this. I just avoid the rotten apples. It’s not that hard. 🙂


      May 15, 2012 at 7:57 am

      • An interesting and valid argument. Maybe I’ll keep my rating system after all. 🙂

        I don’t like to review bad movies (though it can be fun giving really awful movies a damn good thrashing) which is why you’ll see a lot of four-and-a-half or five star reviews on my site. Can’t help it. It’s much more fun to spread love for a movie than to spread hate.


        May 15, 2012 at 8:00 am

  5. Great post Jessica and you echo similar feelings I have when using a rating system. One of the hardest film’s I had to rate was “On The Waterfront”. In terms of craftsmanship it is a Classic piece of cinema but I struggled with the message behind it. Director Elia Kazan and Writer Budd Schulberg were involved in the McCarthy trials and deplorably named names of people involved in “Un-American activities”. It seems that their film was a justification of their actions and even inspired playwright Arghur miller to respond by writing “The Crucible”. I found it very difficult to judge whether “On the Waterfront” deserved the accolades it recieved and I decided on a rating purely based on the talents in front and behind the camera but I’m not so sure I should have given it what I did.

    Mark Walker

    May 15, 2012 at 9:41 am

    • Thank you! I read your review with great interest and I think I would experience the same difficulties as you. This touches another issue, whether you can keep knowledge about a filmmakers actions outside of the screen apart from your appreciation of their works, something I’ve written about before. i came to the conclusion that I usually can do that, if it’s on level with for instance Polanski’s past as a sex offender. It doesn’t take anything away from his movies. But there is a limit. When the movies become a part of the problem, such as in the case of Leni Riefenstal, I can’t keep it apart. The case you refer also seems to be like that: when the film is used as justification for truly bad actions. That would definitely affect my rating.


      May 15, 2012 at 9:51 am

      • I haven’t seen Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the will” but I don’t think I could detach from the message. Your right, in Polanski’s case though. He’s never really attempted to justify his exploits through his film’s. For that reason, I can still appreciate his work. I think (or at least) tried to judge “On the Waterfront” without it’s history but it throws up all sorts of personal and political issues within ourselves. Sometimes it can leave you feeling like a hypocrite. – it’s hard work all this film reviewing stuff but someone’s got to do it. 😉

        Mark Walker

        May 15, 2012 at 10:11 am

  6. Why use a rating? Hell, why try and use subjective systems at all? This has always baffled me about the critical community. Using stars or numbers is completely esoteric and the only good that comes from it is to demonstrate to an audience your opinions on a completely arbitrary scale; it’s a barrier between you and any reader, since every review you post has to be qualified by a ‘go read and understand my scale, so you’ll know that a 1/5 is actually a *good* rating!’ or some hogwash. Can’t you just put in bold at the beginning “I liked it!” or “It wasn’t my speed!”?


    May 15, 2012 at 10:03 am

    • Well I think I gave a couple of reasons in my answer to Tyler above. I think it puts the things I bring up in a review in some perspective. Sometimes I can appear to be negative about a movies since I go into some details, when I in fact like it a lot. The number can help to point that out. But again: as you say, you can put it into words instead, perhaps in a slightly less digital way than “I like it” or “I don’t like it”.

      Steeve at Cinematic Paradox has made a rating system in words instead of in numbers. I think it’s charming, but unfortunately I find it a bit hard to remember what is what on that scale. For me the number rating still is the simplest, clearest and smoothest.

      I never refer anyone to read an about-page where I explain my ratings. I imagine that regular visitors will get a feeling for how my rating scale works in the long run anyway. And I couldn’t explain it even if I tried. It IS arbitrary after all, as you correctly point out. 🙂


      May 15, 2012 at 10:10 am

  7. Rating is a tough one. I came down form a /10 score to a /5 score in the last year and now it seems the difference from a 3/5 and a 4/5 is huge. The best rating systems out there are the ones (in my opinion) that use an average of different scores for cinematography / design / direction / script / acting and so on. But I can’t be bothered with all of that so I just go with me (very large) gut!

    • Well you can always cheat like I do! I don’t hesitate to use 0,5 as a grade on the scale when I need to. As you say – the gap between 3 and 4 can feel daunting, so 3,5 is a very handy one. It’s like having a 10-point scale at hands when i need it without having to deal with it all the time… 🙂
      It probably doesn’t make sense to anyone else, but it works with my guts!


      May 15, 2012 at 10:34 am

  8. One of the the few movies where I do care when it was made, where the time (and place) where it was made add some value to the movie itself.

    As for ratings, your thoughts remind me this comic:


    May 15, 2012 at 2:04 pm

    • Hehe, that strip was spot on! The exactness is an illusion. I don’t know enough about the circumstances around M tbh. I know it was forbidden by the nazis, but that’s about it. I realize now that I probably should have read up on it and then I would have enjoyed it even more.


      May 15, 2012 at 2:13 pm

      • I do not know about the circumstances around M either. What does matter for me: it was made while nazis were rising and it raise a question where nazis answer looks natural (that murder is a criminal, destroy him), while modern approach is different (I think this days this person would be considered sick. Still isolated from society as dangerous, but would not be considered criminal)


        May 15, 2012 at 2:22 pm

  9. About the acting style in M… Fritz Lang was an expressionist director during the silent film era. Since the films were silent it required the actors to use big facial expressions and dramatic movements to express the feelings. The expressionist style was extreme. Since M came out 1931 and was Lang’s first sound picture (plus the sound film was just getting started), it uses a lot of expressionist acting. I know this doesn’t make it better for you and maybe you already knew that, but I just wanted to point that out just in case.

    The Night of the Hunter is an example of a later film that is influenced by the expressionist style in acting, lighting and mise en scène. I’ve writed about it here:

    Svart Noir

    May 15, 2012 at 3:00 pm

    • Someone remarked about this when I posted this in the Filmspotting forum and it makes sense that it partly is a rest of the silent era style of filmmaking. Again: it might be a thing about just getting used to it. For me it kind of puts a filter between me and the film. It’s hard to become immersed in it when it’s so theatratical. Still: it’s a very good looking film. I really loved the play between light and darkness.

      I haven’t seen the Night of the Hunter, but your review makes it sound interesting.


      May 15, 2012 at 3:09 pm

      • Yeah, it’s probably a thing to get used to!
        I don’t know if you’ve seen it but when it comes to old films, The Grapes of Wrath has some of the most realistic acting from the time (1940) in my opinion.

        Svart Noir

        May 15, 2012 at 3:46 pm

        • I havn´t seen M yet but it´s one of many movies I want to see. About grades i go for the gut-feeling.


          May 15, 2012 at 9:35 pm

          • Check it out. Shouldnt be too hard! Look up Goetheinstitutet in Stockholm on the webs. Apparently they have a library from which you can borrow classic German movies for free. They mostly do it to film clubs, but it seems as if you can borrow stuff on you own if I read them correctly.


            May 15, 2012 at 10:00 pm

            • They have the dvd at my libary, i just have to find the time for it. But thanks for the suggestions to get hold of the movie.


              May 15, 2012 at 10:06 pm

  10. I know I personally never give ratings in my reviews themselves. I do occasionally figure out a number, especially for newer movies when I submit them to the LAMBscores, but that number never actually shows up in my post. I don’t fault people for giving ratings and I generally like reviewers that have more descriptive ratings systems, like (and this may seem like an odd pull) Catherine Reitman on Breakin’ it Down – a YouTube reviewer. She has several different ratings for middle of the road movies that describe more precisely why they are middle of the road – too childish, too cheesy, etc.


    May 15, 2012 at 10:03 pm

    • We all need to find the way that works for us. I don’t think I’d ever be able to break down my ratings into some kind of detailed science. A rounded gut feeling serves my admittedly vague purposes for having ratings at all. But to each one his own. When people ditch the usual 1-4 or 1-5 star rating scale for something they’ve made up on their own, it’s good though if they follow up with a description of what it means.


      May 15, 2012 at 10:05 pm

  11. Great post and I agree with a lot of your thoughts. Rating movies is very difficult, and you’re bound to create your own inconsistencies. I wrote about this a while ago and used that post as a disclaimer for any inconsistencies that could (would) manifest themselves. And when it comes to rating old movies, the task becomes even tougher, as you say. Watching a movie like Alien (not quite as old as M, but still over 30 years old), one might say that this type of thing has been done many times before. But Alien and its sequel, Aliens, set the standard for that action/adventure/shit hits the fan/horror/suspense type of film.

    Rating is tough, and I realized after I started that I really hamstrung myself with my quarter-point increment scale. That was half of the motivation for writing about the whole process — it serves as a disclaimer.

    Tommy D

    May 16, 2012 at 2:43 am

    • Thanks. Yes, the “been an inspring example to everyone else” is a tricky one. Technology has made progression and what once was astonishing efffects look a bit corny now. And yet, if you’re looking at the original and not the copy-cat, shouldn’t it have some cred for bing first? But if we’re only rating the experience of watching it, not making a rating list of “important movies”, perhaps we should disregard of this in honesty? It’s hard to make the call.


      May 16, 2012 at 8:45 am

  12. This is a great article and I can relate completely. It’s so hard to compare, say, M (which you used) to something like Good Morning Vietnam, which I just watched. There’s so much to consider- what was the filmmaker trying to say or do, did they do it effectively, did they do something new or unique, did it make a social statement, etc….? And then there’s the rating system, which (as you say) is inevitably personal. We all change a little bit each and every day of our lives, whether we know it or not. Would I feel the same way about Pulp Fiction now as I did then, if I’d never seen it? A four star movie to me may be something completely different to someone else. And yet, as people, we’re drawn to the short, simple summaries of ____ stars out of 4 or 5. There’s a lot of food for thought here.


    May 16, 2012 at 4:39 am

    • Thank you! And yes, you’re absolutely right about how we change and that’s why revisits to movies can be a bit risky. A movie that used to blow you away turns out to be just okish (Happened to me last year watching Bagdad Café). We’ve grown older, the movie has grown older. We can’t step down in the same flood twice. That’s just how it is. The stars we spread around so generously always risk to grow pale and disappear over the years.


      May 16, 2012 at 8:41 am

  13. I guess I understand the melodramatic acting style complaint, but it honestly doesn’t bug me. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen enough films now that I’m accustomed to it, but it has a quality to it that works for me. Especially in the silent and early sound films, I think the nuance of audio cues aren’t quiet what we have today so we have to rely more on what we see and it works for me.

    James Blake Ewing

    May 16, 2012 at 4:59 am

    • It works better in silent films, I agree on that. It’s also true about how the audio has changed. Those are things I don’t pay much attention to; never been to film school and all that. But I’m learning!


      May 16, 2012 at 8:38 am

  14. To grade or not to grade… And on what grounds? I believe in a combination of markers (story, acting, cinematography, etc) and gut feeling. At the end of the day, watching a movie should be an experience, not an evaluation (summative or formative). To me, it therefore becomes meningless to try and dissect a movie into its minutest parts — just because I don’t like a movie doesen’t mean it’s per definition bad (who are we kidding, of course it is! ;)) but my experience of it there and then was. And that is what I try to grade. Still, the exeperience can of course be softened by for example prior knowledge.


    May 16, 2012 at 6:05 am

    • Grade your experience of the film, I think you nailed it there. And my experience from an old movie can be as “good” as my experience of a new one, even if the nature of the experience is different.


      May 16, 2012 at 8:36 am

  15. Very thought provoking post,Jessica,I’d like to say something about Ratings here:

    First thing first,films are sentimental,you don’t measure a sentimental thing in a scientific way.

    Second,people get dizzy after they see a film,that’s why they will give it a over-high or over-low rate,and it is not objective at all.

    Third,you can’t compare films with ratings,I would rate both M and Sunrise at 4.5,but I still love Sunrise more than M.

    Finally,Ratings is personal,my 5/5 film doesn’t mean it is your 5/5 film,it ONLY means I totally love it and it has nothing to do with others’ taste.


    May 16, 2012 at 8:44 am

    • Very well put about the relativity of ratings. And things change over time. When I make a year-list, a movie that I gave 4,5 may end up higher than the 5.0. Deal with it.


      May 16, 2012 at 9:32 am

  16. Interesting you watched it as a comedy,Jessica.For me,this is a fine cult film,more like a Japanese comic,there is humanity there if you watch closely,and I like the ending a lot.Do you know it has sequels? That is horrible.


    May 16, 2012 at 8:48 am

  17. Oh,I meant to reply it in your Battle Royale post,sorry for the mistake.


    May 16, 2012 at 8:48 am

    • Hehe, no worries, I got as much. Yeah, I liked the ending too. I read at imdb that the director died making the followup. He refused cancer treatment, wanting to finish the film.


      May 16, 2012 at 9:31 am

  18. Well, a rating is pretty much a gut feeling. I just go with “10/10 = It’s great, 9/10 = I liked it very much, 8/10 = I liked it, 7/10 = It was OK, 6/10 = It’s bad.”. Just put up a small scale at the right that explains your rating.

    I’ll be honest though, the number of movies I’ve seen from pre 1935 is very, very small. I’ve checked it: two movies…


    May 16, 2012 at 1:22 pm

    • You make it sound so simple! 🙂
      For some reason I find my 1-5 scale less daunting than a 1-10 scale, which is truly silly since I use half-steps anyway, so in reality it’s the same.

      It’s only thanks to my membership in a local film club that I come around to watch truly old movies. They’ve shown a few silent films, which I really liked, especially since they have a musician performing the score live.

      I’m not the biggest fan of old movies, but I guess that I watch a lot more than the average movie goer. I like them once in a while, providing some variety.


      May 16, 2012 at 4:24 pm

      • I rate my movies on imdb so I have a list with all movies that I’ve seen and whether I liked them or not so it’s a 10 star rating… of which I only use 6-10 (and 5 for truly dreadful movies which happens very rarely).

        I also watch more old movies than the average person but they go from > ’40. Anything older and I have to force myself to watch it 😉


        May 16, 2012 at 8:03 pm

  19. This is a very interesting post, and the idea of using ratings is something I battle with occasionally. It has become increasingly more difficult for me to go through and rate some of the classics I have been seeing for my 50 movies project. I feel like a terrible person for giving a movie like 8 1/2 a 6/10, or Tokyo Story an 8/10. There’s no denying their influence, but I just go with how much I enjoyed the film more than anything. I have thought about ditching the scores, but I do like to use them for self reference.

    Anyway, great post, and some very insightful comments as well!


    May 17, 2012 at 5:08 am

    • Thank you for your kind words! I know exactly what you mean about feeling terrible giving classics average ratings. But I try to do just what you do: rate how much I enjoyed them, not their influence in film history.


      May 17, 2012 at 8:26 am

  20. Excellent topic, Jessica. Would definitely be easier to rate a film from 1940, if I was in 1940! ( : It’s tricky trying to understand the mindset of a different era. Do we rate it, if it holds up now, or on the value it had back then. A decision I suppose that ought to be noted in the review.


    May 17, 2012 at 5:30 pm

    • My film knowledge is so slim so it’s always about my own reactions. But I suppose those sometimes are a little bit influenced about what I know about the movie. So I probably don’t judge it quite the same way as I would if it had been exactly the same movie, made in the present.


      May 17, 2012 at 5:32 pm

  21. Local film club? what is that all about?

    I think it is certainly easier for me anyway, to review more current films. When I review older films I try to keep in mind the time the film was made and what the director had to work with. At times those standards make older films even more amazing when you consider what they accomplished with such limited resources and simple technology.

    This is a great topic by the way Jessica


    May 17, 2012 at 10:46 pm

    • The local film club: we have access to a theatre that is only used for private showings one night a week. It’s a non-profit club where you buy a membership card every term that gives you access to all screenings. The programme is usually a mix of old classics and more recent movies, mostly smaller titles that might have passed by too quickly in the commercial theatres in our city.

      Here’s a link to our website. It’s in Swedish, but if you click on the dates you’ll see film titles that probably are familliar, and you’ll get an idea about our programme.

      I think it’s pretty awesome that this exists, especially since it gives me the chance to watch older movies on a big screen.


      May 17, 2012 at 10:51 pm

      • I will check out that link. What a great idea 🙂


        May 17, 2012 at 10:55 pm

  22. […] at The Velvet Cafe poses an equally interesting question: one related to rating the classics. I’ve never been one to rate a classic, because I believe if a film has endured as long as it […]

  23. Great post, Jessica. I completely agree. It IS very hard to rate movies with numbers and it also is so hard to critique older movies, especially when they’re considered classics.


    May 19, 2012 at 8:09 pm

    • Thanks! Yeah it’s really hard. To be honest there are classics that I’d hesitate to approach with a review because… regardless of how I do it, I know it probably will come off as uneducated and clueless to many readers.


      May 20, 2012 at 6:49 pm

      • Exactly. We sometimes tend to forget that movie-watching and, of course, reviewing are completely subjective experiences.


        May 20, 2012 at 8:07 pm

  24. It is hard rating some older movies or movies everyone seems to love, but personally didn’t. Yesterday I watched 8 1/2 for the first time and although it looks stunning it’s just the type of movie I don’t enjoy. The surrealism didn’t work for me. This made it very hard to give it a number. I now use the system where I first think about if I liked it or not. If I did the grade is somewhere between 6-10 if I didn’t it’s the lower part. So ended up giving it a 5 because it is a good movie which I did not like.

    As for M, which I probably saw 2 years ago it’s one that’s very good and which I really got into. Like you say the acting style is different, but it works for this movie….


    June 7, 2012 at 9:44 am

    • It takes some guts to give low grades to movies that are considered classics. But agree with you, you need to rate your experience with the film, not the impact it may have had historically.


      June 7, 2012 at 10:22 am

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