Boy, did I like this one.
I have a bit of a soft spot for police procedurals – born of watching countless actor friends go on to be single-scene extras on Law and Order – and that’s exactly what M is, is a police procedural. Or, rather, it’s a police procedural where the mob also takes on its own separate investigation to catch the real bad guy.
We’re plunged right into the story from the start – the story’s set amongst the lumpenproletariat in a German city, where everyone’s on edge because of an ongoing series of child murders. The parents are keeping a sharp eye on their kids. The kids have made up gruesome jump rope rhymes. People are giving their more suspicious-looking neighbors the side-eye. The city is plastered with posters warning parents and promising a reward. And a girl on her way home from school is stopped by a man in a trenchcoat who buys her a balloon and leads her away to parts unknown, as her mother sits at home and starts to fret when her daughter is late home from school.
In their desperation to catch the killer, the police are bearing down hard on the city’s low-lifes, conducting near-nightly raids on all the pawn shops, speakeasies, brothels, bars, and other dens of ill repute. Which gives one of the city’s criminal masterminds an idea – if they can find the child killer and turn him over to police, maybe the police will finally get off their back. So while the police are assembling forensic scientists, fingerprint experts, and graphologists, the city’s criminals are enlisting beggars, pickpockets, and streetwalkers to spot, follow, and ultimately corner and catch the culprit.
This was Lang’s first work with sound, after a career full of silent films, and he uses it in some fun ways. There are a few sequences where one character’s speech becomes narration for a separate sequence – such as when the police commissioner is on the phone to the mayor, and as he complains about how tired his men are from their investigations, we see a slow stream of very tired-looking officers returning to their squad room at days’ end, nudging awake still more officers asleep at their desks. Or when the mother of the missing girl starts to realize she’s gone; we hear her desperately calling for her daughter as we see a series of still scenic shots – her building’s empty stairwell, the attic of their apartment, the empty sidewalk in front of the girl’s school – all places where presumably a search party would have looked.
And then there is the sound that introduces us to our killer. Fortunately we don’t see any of the actual murders; but as he leads his first victim away, he is whistling an air from Peer Gynt. There is another sequence later that really caught my eye, though, when he sees another little girl playing alone on the street, he starts to whistle that same tune again…only to be thwarted when her mother comes out of a store and hurries her inside. He scurries to an outside café and orders two shots, desperately knocking both back, and then sits back in relief – only to start whistling Peer Gynt again, before getting up to seek out another child.
We spend just as much time with our killer’s trackers, though, and the different paths they’re following to find their culprit. One minute, we’re watching the police puzzle out that a packet of cigarettes in their suspect’s room matches the brand on the butts left behind at one crime scene; in another, we’re seeing the crime bosses meticulously assigning each of the various beggars different blocks to monitor. While the police are heading for a stakeout at the killer’s boarding house, the criminals are breaking into an office building where they suspect he may be hiding.
We hear very little from our killer until the very end, when he is dragged before a kangaroo court the criminals have set up in an old warehouse and he is ordered to account for himself and his actions. Peter Lorre is our killer, and desperately begs for mercy on the grounds that he is suffering from an irresistible compulsion. He’d very much like to not kill, but sometimes the urge is too strong to resist. Some of the criminals listening are sympathetic, others less so, and the kangaroo court starts to argue what to do….Lorre’s pretty impassioned here, but I found him equally as expressive when he was on the run from the criminals he’d figured out were chasing him – and wasn’t saying a word. This may have been Fritz Lang’s first sound picture, but he still knew how to work with silence.