M must have been pretty shocking to audiences in the early 1930’s when it was made. The story of a serial child murderer, played to perfection by a young Peter Lorre. The film documents the hunt and capture of Hans Beckert, the murderer, by both the police and criminal gangs. The criminal gangs are in on the hunt because of the intense presence of the police making it hard for them to conduct their “business.”
German Expressionism begat Film Noir and Lang, a master of German Expressionism, uses shadows and light to define the landscape. There’s an excellent shot of young Elsie Beckman on her way home where she stops in front of a poster of a missing girl. Suddenly the shadow of the killer is reflected on the poster as he tells young Elsie what a nice ball she has. Lang excels at with brilliant camera work in this film. The opening shots where Lang’s camera is shooting from high up above pointing downward toward the children playing; then there is amazing shot of Elsie Beckmann’s mother looking down the flights of stairs to see if her daughter is coming home.
Upon the capture of Hans Beckert by the mob they begin a mock trial fearing that if they hand him over to the police the courts will allow Hans to pled insanity and end up in a hospital and eventually free. The mob wants their kind of justice. Kill Hans so he will never kill another child again. For those familiar with Lang’s work you will know that mob hysteria or mob rule is a common thread in some Lang’s films including Metropolis and Fury. What is very interesting is how Lang make Hans plead his case to the mob who have captured him telling them how he cannot control himself and that his actions are like he is addicted. As he goes on you find yourself sympathizing more with the killer as the mob’s actions gets uglier and uglier. This partially may have to do with Lorre’s magnificent acting.
M is a great movie which has lost very little of its power since it was made. Do not miss this film.