M (1931)

M (1931), directed by Fritz Lang.

It starts as a monster hunt, suggesting German folktales and villagers with torches in a Frankenstein movie. But this is the big city and the monster is real: a child killer who leaves no clues and taunts the police with letters. We're not told what happens to the children; they all seem to be girls and are found in a certain "condition", phrasing that reminded me of Jack the Ripper.

Fear washes over the city. We see it from many perspectives. Mobs are accusing and seizing random people. The police are making a maximum effort, concentrating on the underworld. This hampers crime so much that the syndicate mounts their own campaign to find the killer, who they hate as much as anyone. We have a race between the police and crooks, who are just as hard working and efficient, to find the madman and deal with him. This is really fine movie making.

The criminals get to him first. The story lags a bit as the police try to figure this out and catch up. But then we move to a vivid and moving trial before the assembled underground.

The crooks are remarkably hard-nosed about crime and punishment. Let him off because of insanity? Absurd. Put him in prison at taxpayer's expense, maybe let him out so he can kill again? No way. The defense counsel argues forcefully that a man operating under uncontrollable compulsion has no free will. The State must render him harmless but it would be immoral to punish him. The underground will have none of it.

In the end -- we don't know the end.

Peter Lorre, bulging eyes and goblin face, is entirely believable as the monster. We want him caught, but when he becomes the hunted this conflicts with our impulse to root for the underdog, the fox rather than the hounds.

Watch his hysterical plea at his "trial": the crooks understand, but do not pity.

Lang's first sound picture. Like Hitchcock, he regretted the passing of the silent era and you can see this in many quiet compositions.

The old film stock obviously has a lot of history and has seen rough treatment. Criterion did quite a bit of cleanup and the Blu-ray has been praised for it's high definition image. I think a DVD would have been about as good, but I have not seen one to compare. (I am told by reliable authorities that I'm nuts to doubt the improvement over DVD).

http://www.avizora.com/publicaciones/cine/textos/textos_002/images/0056_m_el_vampiro_peter_lorre_fritz_lang_05.jpg http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/d/de/LangM.jpg http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/a/ab/M_poster.jpg http://watershade.net/public/m.jpg