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A psychotic child murderer stalks a city. Despite an exhaustive investigation fueled by public hysteria and outcry, the police have been unable to find him. The police crackdown makes it nearly impossible for the organized criminal underground to operate. The criminals decide that the only way to get the police off their backs is to catch the murderer themselves.

May 11, 1931

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Damn those Germans are rough with their Expressionism

Reviewed by Kiddo


Fritz Lang (1931)

Fritz Lang’s actually lesser known masterpiece is bedrock for film and society and societal observation/interaction in a post world wars world.

After Metropolis’ flop at the box office (though massively loved in later years thanks to Superman cartoons and Herr Goebbels) Lang turned to much more naturalistic fare and turned from the overly stylized world of German Expressionism.

Though some overt lighting, exaggerated camera angles and a fresh-from-silent-acting Peter Lorre may stage-ify M, its illustration of paranoia in civilization is still cutting edge. M follows the capture of a pedophiliac serial killer; sure it’s a cliché to today’s CSI and Nancy Grace-drenched audience, but in 1931 it was still pretty chilling.

What sets M apart from other psychological thrillers (either then or now) is the focus on fear due to physical violence rather than the violence itself. That is, the only evidence that a small girl is abducted is a symbolic balloon tangling in some electrical wires.

Instead, Lang follows an interlaced plot of Berlin’s police force and Berlin’s criminal force. Due to this especially hateful crime, both sides of the law are out for Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre). This is where the only dating of the film occurs: Fingerprinting seems to be a new fangled invention.

This leads us to the idea, and conclusion of the film, that primitive passion is way more effective than coolly cornering a criminal. The mob boss has the bright idea to hire the homeless to track for suspicious characters. Lang interlaces this with coppers rounding up the usual suspects and filling their cells with obviously innocent run-of-the-mill criminals in a giddy blaze of self righteousness.

Yep, we never see that little girl again, and the police pretty quickly forget about the mother; the mob boss never cared that there was a mother in the first place. What they don’t lose sight of is Peter Lorre and his creepy cum cute chub.

A beggar chances on the killer and chases him down. Only here does the title become apparent. The beggar draws a giant “M” in chalk and nonchalantly slaps Beckert’s shoulder so all the mob scouts can join in the chase.

What ensues is a chase scene shot from above to emphasize a rat maze claustrophobia. The only comic relief in the film comes at this point where the petty criminals act as we would expect a swat team to do. Eventually they ferret him out of a dark and sodden wood hole in the attic and take him down to their world—a cement walled basement! There, they continue their sham of justice (lest we forget that earlier in the film they were being strong armed by the law because they were the only people worth suspecting) with a fair trial. Despite a riveting plea for mercy on Beckert’s part (a performance worthy of Charlize Theron’s MONSTER or Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal) the “jury” quickly devolves to a mob again, complete with pitchforks.

Beckert, coming so close to being sympathetic in the face of this mob, is saved only by the law who breaks in at the last second. Their only ability, the whole movie, is to track normal criminals, and track them they do, just in time to claim credit for the arrest.

Statements made by Lang: Pedophiles and murderers suck, but mass paranoia is scarier. Also, Johnny Law is next to useless unless you are committing a crime committed by these five guys over here first.

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