M was decades ahead of its time in regard to its storyline and the themes in it – especially the psychology of what drives a killer. This was Lang’s first sound film, but he didn’t just take it easy and record only dialogue. He made M one of the first films to use voice-over narration and to use a musical theme to identify a character. Several times during the film we hear Lorre’s character whistling In the Hall of the Mountain King before he appears on screen. We also hear it when he is stalking his victims. This practice later became a basic part of movie making. Try hearing the Jaws theme in your head and not thinking of the shark lurking just outside of camera range. The whistling in M generates the exact same feeling of menace.
The film opens with police and parents in a German city in a frenzy over someone who has abducted and killed eight children in the last year. Parents are urged to walk their children to and from school. Police have hundreds, if not thousands, of pages of research, clues, and dead end leads. All they know is the brand of cigarettes the person smokes and that he apparently uses candy to lure the children away. The viewer is almost immediately shown who the killer is, though. We see Hans Beckert (Lorre) meeting a little girl with a balloon, and in a poignant moment a little later we see the balloon floating away. (Note – there is never any violence against children shown in the film, if you are concerned about that.)
Because the police are turning the city inside out to find the man, they are disrupting the business of the criminal underground. The various crime bosses come together and decide that they’ve got to find this killer, too. There’s a great series of scenes cutting back and forth between the police and the gangsters where both groups are brainstorming strategies on how to catch him. (And if you think you’ve seen smoking in a movie before, wait until you see these scenes).
In an early example of psychological profiling, the police have an idea of what kind of person would be committing these crimes. (Lang has denied that this film was based on a 1920s serial killer in
, but he did do quite a bit of research into the criminally insane when he was preparing this movie.) This profile eventually leads the police to the apartment of Beckert, but he is not home. They decide to lie in wait for him. Germany
Meanwhile, the criminals have decided that they literally need to watch every child and report back when a man is seen with one. The best way to do this without arousing suspicion is to have beggars do the monitoring because they are on every street. The break they need comes when a blind beggar hears a man whistling the same tune he heard the day that he sold a balloon to the last girl who was murdered. (Trivia – the whistling we hear was done by Lang, not Lorre, because Lorre couldn’t whistle well.)
Another beggar has to act quickly, because this is Beckert and he has a child with him. The beggar manages to mark Beckert with a chalk “M” (for murderer) on his back shoulder to allow others to follow him until he can be captured. The child with Beckert notices the “M” and mentions it to him. This leads to the iconic image of Lorre as Beckert looking at his reflection in a shop window and finally feeling real fear as he realizes people are on to him.
He tries to run, but the criminals corner him and take him away just before the police arrive. What follows is my favorite scene in the film where the criminals put Beckert “on trial” for his crimes and he pleads with them that he doesn’t mean to do these things; he doesn’t even understand why he does these things. Even though his crimes are terrible I couldn’t help but feel a little bit for this man who is just as baffled and horrified by his own actions as everyone else is.
What will happen to Beckert? Will the criminals murder him? Will they turn him over to the police? Will the police find where the criminals took Beckert? If so, will they stand aside and let the criminals take care of him, or will they take him into custody like they are supposed to do, regardless of their horror for his crimes? There are some great moral questions raised in the latter part of the film.
M is one of those movies that even if it doesn’t sound like something you would like, you still should see this movie. I think you will end up agreeing that the story is filled with emotion and tension, both of which will keep you very engaged. I give this film my highest recommendation.
Chip’s Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
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