A branded child-killer stalks the streets of Berlin, but who’s the real monster? The murderer, or vandals who’d ruin a very fine peacoat?
The Film: Fritz Lang’s 1931 depiction of mob justice and prewar anxiety
The Potable: A six-pack of Mickey’s fine malt liquor
Nighttime in the streets of Berlin. The Nazi Party has not yet come to power, but a pall has fallen over the country. Shadows drape across empty storefronts and footsteps echo against stone, raindrops slide along glass. Rounding a corner in this expressionistic moodscape, one could hardly be surprised to find a bug-eyed Peter Lorre.
First, I will say that this movie should not be confused with Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder. Don’t mistake it for Wall-M, Pixar’s delightful space romp. If, like me, your local DVD retailer does a deplorable job of sorting, you may find yourself with a copy of Oliver Stone’s W., placed upside-down in a pile between a M*A*S*H boxset and The Nutty Professor. If anyone wants a copy of the Bush biopic, I’m selling it cheap. Email me for details.
Lorre stars in the role he was born to play: a creep who abducts and kills children running home for their evening bowl of borscht. Kids play in a square as their mother calls. One meets a stranger. Lang cuts to a ball that rolls unaccompanied into a gutter, and we are made to understand that the child won’t be coming home. Goddamn, merry Christmas, right?
As DJ Jazzy Jeff says, parents just don’t understand, and to prevent additional murders they launch a citywide manhunt. A father stumbles across Peter Lorre in a beerhall, takes one look at the guy, and knows immediately that he’s the one. Too drunk to make a citizen’s arrest (been there!), the father uses chalk to draw an M on his palm and then gives Lorre a firm pat on the back, marking him for life or until he takes his coat off.
M for “mörder,” the German word for “this is the guy.”
Make no bones about it, Lorre is the guy. M is not a whodunnit, its story instead driven by the details of the increasingly desperate manhunt. The police struggle to find a lead and eventually the mafia gets involved, since no one’s in the mood to buy stolen cigarettes when there’s a serial killer on the loose.
After a successful career in silent pictures, M was Lang’s first to utilize sound. While several scenes remain absent of any sound effects whatsoever, they are often punctuated by sharp cries from off-camera. The killer, too, has the frightening habit of whistling before he kills, an idea that would be repeated in Charles Laughton’s 1955 German expressionist throwback, The Night of the Hunter. I’d recommend watching M with a set a high-def headphones to pick up the finer aural details, especially if your fiancé has already complained about all the German shouting.
The film’s ending will leave many unsatisfied. Like the picture puzzles beneath a Mickey’s cap, M’s complex moral questions present challenges. An orange slice, a stoplight, and a circle with an arrow at the end of it? A knotted rope, followed by an eye, then the letter R and what looks like a pancake? No clue. Lorre is admittedly guilty, but what should his punishment entail? He’s a sick man who’s committed heinous acts, but shouldn’t any civilized society prefer treatment to execution? Are his accusers, revealed to be imperfect themselves, in any place to deprive a human being of his most inalienable right to life?
Given the direction Germany was heading at the time, you can probably guess which route the townspeople prefer. Thankfully, as a hoard of nutjobs move in for the kill, the police show up and pour cold water on the whole thing.
Anyone watching M during it’s original 1931 release would have to wait 11 eleven years to see justice done, when Lorre’s character is gunned down in Rick’s Café Américain in Casablanca. Few understand that this seminal gem of old Hollywood was actually a sequel to M, but I’m pretty sure I heard that somewhere. The beginning of a beautiful friendship? Not for Lorre. Not for Lorre.
Verdict: rated M for Mature