A child murderer is terrorizing the city. The police hunt is intense, but fruitless. So the cops redouble their efforts—rousting bars, hassling citizens walking the night streets, turning a bright spotlight on the creatures of the back alleys.
The killer still remains at large, but there’s an unexpected side effect: with every flophouse and crime den being raided on a nightly basis, the underworld pimps, thieves and pushers cannot operate. “There are more police on the street tonight than whores,” complains a pickpocket, who can’t find a john’s pocket to pick.
What are the criminals to do? A meeting is called of the city’s underworld leaders. Until the monster is captured, they agree, their business will suffer. Therefore, they decide, the job must be theirs. The gangsters must find the killer, if only so that things can return to normal.
That’s the setup for director Fritz Lang’s 1931 masterpiece M, which is based on the true story of German serial killer Peter Kurten, the “Vampire of Dusseldorf.” It stars 26-year-old Peter Lorre, whom you’re more likely to know from his portrayal of weasely characters in Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon (or, more recently, as the inspiration for the voice of hyperactive Chihuahua Ren in The Ren & Stimpy Show).
Here, the young Lorre is all bug-eyed and sweaty, kneading his chubby fingers as his twisted desires kick in. He’s loathsome and, for one very brief moment, sympathetic, as he wanders among citizens oblivious that such a pipsqueak of a man could be the monster among them.
But the audience knows from the start. In the first few minutes, Lorre’s character buys a balloon for a young girl playing on a city street. The camera cuts to the girl’s family apartment, where her mother sets a table for lunch. Time passes. Now the mother, frantic, calls the girl’s name out the window. There is silence, as we see the balloon floating away. We know the girl is gone.
The drama comes in catching the killer. In Lang’s eyes, the cops are fat and inept. There’s a great scene that sets up the second half of the movie; it shows frustrated police officials and the city’s underworld leaders holding parallel meetings on opposite ends of town.
“Maybe we should offer more reward money,” one cop suggests. “No, we need to crack down harder,” offers another. “We need more raids.”
Meanwhile, the mobsters—a smart collection of counterfeiters, safecrackers and club owners—need to get the law off their backs. “You can’t do business anymore without tripping over cops,” says one. “An outsider is ruining our reputation.”
Another notes that with the cash tap turned off, “We can’t even afford to pay the expenses for the wives and children of our members who are currently boarding at state expense.” Meaning prison, of course.
The gangsters make it clear that murdering a child violates their code. It’s evocative of the drug summit scene in The Godfather, where the dons draw the line at selling heroin near schoolyards.
The camera shifts from one meeting to the other. The cops pace the table, scratching their heads and smoking (including one corpulent detective who puffs a cigar stuffed into a pipe stem). The gangsters, too, wring their hands, until the cleverest among them devises a plan.
To catch the child murderer themselves, the gangsters employ an army of the city’s beggars to act as a spy network. Each is assigned a block, and it quickly becomes clear that the underworld is better equipped for this manhunt than the police are.
Needless to say, Lorre’s monster is captured, and Lang employs a great device to make it happen. The killer unconsciously whistles the same tune every time he stalks a child. A blind balloon salesman hears it, recalls it from the day of one of the murders and notifies the gangsters. The device has been imitated many times over the years, but never to such great effect.
Lorre’s creepy killer is hauled into a vacant distillery, where he stands trial before a kangaroo court of more than 100 hardened thieves and hookers. He initially denies the murders, but breaks down when shown photos of the missing young girls. His face becomes a fright mask, his words impassioned.
“I can’t help myself,” he moans. Then he turns on his jury. “Who are all of you? Criminals and proud of it. . . . But I have no control over this cursed thing inside of me. The fire. The voices. The agony.”
We won’t tell you how the story ends, but it’s well worth sticking around for the full 110 minutes to find out.
M opened in 1931 and was banned in Germany in 1934 by the Nazi Party for its negative portrayal of police. It disappeared for more than 30 years, before a few old muddy copies were found. The movie was masterfully restored for its Blu-Ray release in 2010.
HIT: Lang was way ahead of his time in his use of sound and shadow to set mood. In an early scene, schoolchildren jump rope while reciting a singsong nursery rhyme about a bogeyman who “will make mincemeat out of you.” Lorre’s killer makes his entrance as a shadow, cutting across a streetlight poster promoting a reward for his capture. Eerie stuff.
MISS: If you can’t hack subtitles and the slower pace of old movies, this one’s not for you. But we recommend you try.
BEST LINE: The gangsters rationalizing their plan to capture the child stalker:
“We conduct our business to survive, but this monster must not survive. He must be killed, eliminated, exterminated.”
“Yes, he’s not even a real crook.”
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “It is regrettable that such a wealth of talent and imaginative direction was not put into some other story, for the actions of this Murderer, even though they are left to the imagination, are too hideous to contemplate.”—Mordaunt Hall, the New York Times
DON’T FAIL TO NOTICE: Lorre’s pained expression as he is thrown down the steps by his captors. That’s because he really is in pain after Lang directed him to take the tumble more than a dozen times. Lang, who was accused over the years of displaying sadism toward his actors, thought it imperative that Lorre’s trapped murderer felt genuine terror in the scene.
VIOLENCE LEVEL: Not much, other than that stair toss. Although this is the first movie ever made about a serial killer, all of the bad stuff happens off screen.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: Lorre had been a comedic actor before M and saw the movie as his chance to expand his career. Decades later, he said he regretted taking the role because people always associated him with being a child murderer. Beyond that, Lorre, who was Jewish, fled Germany soon after the film’s release. A still shot of his face from M was put on a 1940 Nazi propaganda poster above the words: “Typical Jew.”
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[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]