Peter Lorre has a face that will forever live in cinematic infamy, and it started with M. In truth, Fritz Lang’s drama involving a serial killer feels fresh and engaging even after all these years, maybe because humanity hasn’t changed all that much. We still murder, we still kill, we still seek justice, we still give into our base desires, and there’s not a perfect person among of us. Each one of us has our faults — our own personal downfalls.
The film begins with a rash of disappearances across the city and the boulevards are plastered with Wanted posters for the mysterious culprit. The day that Elsie Beckmann disappears sets the community off, especially when the perpetrator sends a handwritten letter to the local newspaper. The media frenzy begins as every man, woman, and child begins to suspect their neighbor of being a child murderer. The mob mentality looks to overrun the scales of justice. Meanwhile, the police force looks to use empirical methods as well as frequent raids to drudge up answers. They’re far from popular in the underworld and the force is being run ragged in an effort to get to the bottom of the case. Everyone expects a resolution quickly, but real solutions are hard to come by.
Things have gotten so dire for the local mob bosses that they call a meeting, resolving to do the dirty work on their own. They begin their own search for the man who is single-handedly ruining their rackets because he’s no good. Now the chase is really on for Hans Beckert, because everyone is on high alert, in all spheres of society. The question becomes not if he will be caught, but when, because it is only a matter of time.
It’s in these latter moments that the longstanding mystery behind the film’s title finally is revealed and it is a fitting twist. Everything begins to fall into place, but the strangest thing is that Lang actually begins to make us empathize with his killer. True, we want him to receive justice, but the men on the other side of the law seem little better than he — in fact, many of them are criminals themselves.
M has a fascinating juxtaposition of silence and sound, acting as a bridge between both. Beckert’s whistling of “In the Hall of the Mountain King” is certainly integral to the plot. It’s those exact notes that trigger the memories of a blind beggar selling balloons. However, it is these hollow sounds of the whistling that feel strange ominous and distant in vast areas of open space There’s as much tension in the lulls of silence as there is in the most tumultuous notes.
Although Lorre doesn’t say much, we get enough clues just dwelling for long spells on his face. Those big eyes full of crazed fear and psychological torment. His mind plagued by paranoia and torn apart by schizophrenic bouts of conscience. It suggests the perverse nature of man given that this story was taken from real life accounts of a German child murderer. But also the tragic nature of mankind that we are often drawn to do evil in a sense. Our flesh is too weak and we give into our animalistic urges. Of course, Lang reveals the flip side of the indiscriminate as well, that seems just as questionable including mob rule and a sort of vigilante justice that functions outside of the accepted modes of law enforcement.
It brings up questions on the cycle of crime and the rehabilitation of the criminal. Questions that still get hotly debated and thrown about even to this day. M became the measuring stick for all of the subsequent crime thrillers Lang would churn out so efficiently following his move to the United States. You could argue that although he came close numerous times, he never quite topped this crowning jewel of a crime drama.