Director: Fritz Lang
Cast: Peter Lorre, Ellen Widmann, Inge Landgut
Synopsis: When the police in a German city are unable to catch a child-murderer, other criminals join in the manhunt.
Stung by the failure of his previous two movies – Metropolis (1927) and By Rocket to the Moon (1929) – Fritz Lang chose the controversial subject of the hunt for a serial child killer for his first sound film. However, to keep costs down, Lang shot some sections of the movie without sound, a decision which inadvertently adds to the eerie, dreamlike qualities of the movie. Peter Lorre, until then chiefly known for his comic roles, was cast as the serial killer – who was reportedly based on Peter Kurten, the 1920s’ ‘Vampire of Dusseldorf’- and he’s a revelation in a role that transformed his career. M, although not without its problems, still stands today as a powerful and unique piece of work.
The film opens with a group of children playing a macabre game which foreshadows the fate that awaits little Elsie Beckman (Inge Landgut), the daughter of the housewife (Ellen Widmann) who berates the children. This opening sequence is filled with a strong visual style: the killer’s shadow falling across the poster against which Elsie throws her ball, and which offers a reward for his capture; the same ball rolling from behind some bushes and the novelty balloon caught up in pylon wires as it floats into the sky. It’s a virtuoso sequence that’s cross-cut with equally distressing scenes of Elsie’s mother’s mounting anxiety as her daughter fails to return home, all of which combines to instill a very real sense of dread in the audience.
Lang then spends a good amount of time detailing the progress and setbacks faced by the overstretched police department as it struggles to identify and locate the killer. The public grows suspicious and mistrustful of one another, resulting in a number of public order offences. Under mounting pressure from the government, the police initiate a succession of raids on known criminal haunts, and their increased patrols cause huge disruption to the criminals’ own operations. So extensive is the disruption that a decision is taken by a committee of top criminals to launch their own hunt for the killer…
The devastating impact of M’s early scenes, which are easily the most memorable of the entire movie, are diminished by the comic-book style concoction of individual criminals belonging to some kind of criminal club which is allied to, but separate from, a beggars union. It’s a conceit which suggests that crime is an organised and necessary facet of an ordered, civilised society, and Lang goes to great lengths to illustrate the similarities between the police’s methods and those of the criminals. He might have got away with it back in the 1930s, but it looks like nothing more than a juvenile abstraction today. Lang might have come up with a more realistic avenue by which the killer is brought to justice, but he and co-writer (and wife) Thea von Harbou at least fashion a suspenseful search for the killer by this shadowy organisation in a deserted office block.
To counter the more fantastic elements of the story there is Peter Lorre’s electrifying portrayal of the wretched serial killer, arguably one of cinema’s most believable monsters simply because he is such a realistic character. A small, chubby, friendless loner, he preys upon the only group of people he considers weaker than himself – the unnamed city‘s children. Faced with a kangaroo court – and forced to face himself – the killer’s mental disintegration can be visibly tracked by Lorre’s forceful interpretation of his character’s helplessness in the face of his murderous impulses. So powerful is Lorre’s performance that, incredibly, he comes close to eliciting our sympathy – or, at least, our understanding – an accomplishment which, given the horror of his crimes, one would have thought impossible.
(Reviewed 6th July 2012)