You go strolling through the crowd like Peter Lorre/
contemplating a crime --Al Stewart, "The Year of the Cat" 1977.
"M' is a classic 1931 sound film made by Fritz Lang, who was then one of the top directors in Germany. His reputation as a anti-Nazi film-maker was such that it was one of his last films in his own country. After 1934, the film was banned in Germany. The film was based on a serial killing in Dusseldorf by a man known as "The Vampire".
His films "Faust" (1925) and "Metropolis" has already secured him an international reputation. Very much an autocratic director, he relished having total control over his films. Until he had to mellow a bit after going into exile in Hollywood in 1934, very few actors, especially, enjoyed working with him those first few years of his career.
Peter Lorre, who plays the villainous child-murderer in the film, gives an amazing performance in this disturbing film. A German Jew, he too left Germany in the wake of the rise of Hitler, and went to England where he appeared memorably as the leader of a coven of foreign assassins in Hitchcock break-out film "The Man Who Knew Too Much"(1934). A year later he, like Lang, was working at MGM and other major studios.
Eighty years after it's release, the film holds a level of suspense all the way through. The story is simple--a child-killer is on the loose in a German city. The police seem powerless to stop this wave of horrific murders of innocent kids, but they plod on looking for a break. Meanwhile, citizens begin to panic and pull innocent people off of streetcars, claiming they are the killer. The police commissioner demands action, so the police detectives send in flying squads to break up the activities of the criminal underworld. Alarmed by their operations coming under such unusual scrutiny, the criminal syndicates unite to call out all their informants and street operators to also independently track down the killer.
Both the police and the underworld hold conferences are very similar in tone and formality. There's some social commentary by the film-maker here and its no wonder the Nazis were offended. Parts of the film were later re-edited by Joseph Goebbels Ufa studio lackeys into an anti-semitic feature film for German audiences.
The noose tightens. The real killer is identified (ironically by a blind man) and a boy marks his back with a chalk "M" to direct the criminal vigilantes to a hot pursuit. He is cornered in a warehouse and given a taste of justice underworld style. Here's the intense "courtroom" scene where the gangsters prepare to do him in and the murderer offers his defense.
The film ends not with a bang-up shoot out like the American television and films of modern times, but with a dire warning from three mothers sitting on a bench in a police station--"You should keep better watch over your children."
What makes "M" great to me is the care Lang and his writers took to making the police and the gangsters seem extraordinarily real in the film. Both worlds--the men of law and the outlaws--have their own hierarchy and they want ot protect their turf. The killer, played so well by Lorre it's shocking that this is his first film, is partly a sympathetic character. He cannot control his impulses.
Were he an innocent man, the story would be a tragedy, but this story is something more complicated, and raises the issue of how such terrible acts can be dealt with in a society.
There were a lot very good films in 1931 that have enjoyed enduring praise---James Whale's "Frankenstein" with Boris Karloff at Universal and Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney's triumphs as gangsters in Mervyn LeRoy's "Little Caesar" and William Wellman's "Public Enemy", respectively. But "M" stands a little above them all in my opinion. This is a film which, while disturbing, is more relevant than the other griim films that were made in '31, the beginninng of a long and dark period on both sides of the Atlantic.