“This won’t bring back our children. We, too, should keep a closer watch on our children.”
M is considered by many to be the defining film of the thriller genre, and as a piece of film noir it’s a masterpiece. Directed by Fritz Lang, this German classic is a terrifying look at a child-murderer who holds a city captive with fear. Peter Lorre delivers a chilling and unforgettable performance as Hans Beckert, a conflicted psychopath. While his friendly demeanor entices vulnerable children in the bustling city, his mannerisms scream madness and portend horrific acts which we gratefully never witness. The murders are more unsettling because they are hidden from us, our minds left to fret out the details.
As the city plunges into greater and greater terror, the widening net of the hyper-vigilant populace and frustrated police create uncomfortable pressure on the criminal underworld. Wild accusations see undeserving suspects at the mercy of uncontrolled mobs. Angry crime lords gather in a desperate summit, and devise means to monitor all of the children in the city with beggars. When a blind peddler recognizes the whistled tune of the murderer, it ignites a city-wide chase of Hans.
I was overjoyed to see such potent themes of justice in this film noir. When Hans is at the mercy of the criminal underworld, their mock trial asks uncomfortable questions. As they struggle to determine a fitting punishment for such a fiend, they’re torn because of his insanity. The courts would see such a man institutionalized, but they want blood for his crimes. In his defense, he points to the sins of his persecuting peers, many of them murderers themselves and forces them to consider the question, “what makes you different from me?”
His concluding monologue is one of the best performances I’ve seen. The moment when he describes the ‘beast’ that comes upon him, the change that craves the killing, and his eyes roll up in his head and his claw-like hands grasp for the phantoms of the slain sent shock-waves through me. The bleak ending screams noir, and Fritz Lang’s foresight in leaving the audience to cast judgement on this pitiful man was brilliant. We don’t know whether Hans was sent to the gallows or the padded room, and we’re not sure he deserves either.