Release Date: March 31st, 1933 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Fritz Lang Actors: Peter Lorre, Ellen Widmann, Otto Wernicke, Theodor Loos, Gustaf Grundgens, Fritz Odemar
ittle Elsie Beckmann has been murdered – yet another victim – announcing the clear pattern of a serial child killer. The public is in a panic while the police have exhausted all their manpower, leads (many consisting of grossly conflicting eyewitness accounts), and technology (including a primitive fingerprint system) trying to locate the monster. Combing the neighboring fields, nitpicking the crime scene, utilizing tracking dogs, and conducting nightly raids of the criminal districts turns up nothing but enraged citizens (as well as frightened bank robbers) and greater fatigue for the “greencoat” authorities. The murderer causes further torment by having a letter of threatening intent published in the Courier newspaper. Oddly, mention of the victims’ bodies and areas of discovery are left conspicuously vague (save for children singing about a cleaver’s blade).
An extensive eight-month search proves futile, triggering several groups of people to assemble. The commissioner demands results, pondering the idea of public cooperation, which appears pointless when many nationals still consider the problem none of their concern – or are simply unaware. Perhaps a larger reward will stir up nonprofessional participation in the manhunt. Police captains brainstorm new places and residents to investigate, including recently released mental patients. And organized crime members consider the detriment the surge of snooping fuzz has caused to their illicit activities; they too need the menace to be stopped in order for their illegal operations to commence unmolested.
In one of the film’s most electrifying scenes, Peter Lorre (as Hans Beckert) stretches his face with his fingertips into a wide frown in front of a mirror – intended to establish his psychosis. It’s a fantastically effective moment and one that is similarly used to define insanity in later films like “American Psycho” and “The Silence of the Lambs.” Lorre makes quite the visual villain, with bulging eyes, a chubby face, and an unforgettable chalky “M” etched into his overcoat (placed there by beggars looking for a reward on the killer). Interestingly, Beckert initially seems too smart to leave clues behind, having successfully eluded the cops for nearly a year; yet when he’s finally cornered, he’s frenzied and in hysteria – conditions that contrast the calculating mastermind the inspectors took him for.
Director Fritz Lang employs several peculiar, innovative camera tricks, including zooming into a building through a window by literally moving the camera through an open pane, a shot from the ceiling glimpsing down on a bank robber, and a point of view from under a table. More famously, he uses lights and shadows to designate a film noir atmosphere to pair with his German Expressionism topics. Smartly, just as the cinematography dabbles in fresh involution, so too does the plot, bringing to the table not just a suspenseful hunt, but also scrutiny over mob mentalities and their morality, the injustices of compulsion theories, the downfall to insanity pleas, and ultimately, the notion that executing a murderer won’t bring back the deceased. “M’s” influence is no less than monumental, paving the way for all psychological thrillers to come, as well as the cinematic madmen that frequent them.
– Mike Massie