Dir. Fritz Lang. 118 minutes.
Perhaps the first-ever police procedural movie, “M” takes a bird’s eye view of an unnamed German city, where police and criminals alike hunt “the Kindermörder” (Peter Lorre), a child-killer who sends taunting letters to the media.
Eerie and threatening, “M” is a film less about individuals than about systems: the police, better suited to raiding speakeasies than catching psychopaths, and the underworld of organized crime, which may have the ability to catch the Kindermörder by working outside the law. For most of the film, director Fritz Lang seems to mount a defense of bending the rules to preserve order, and premonitions of the Holocaust are unavoidable: the Kindermörder is a semi-human outsider, threatening to undermine society unless he is exterminated. Only at the end of the film does Lang pull the carpet out from under the audience.
“M” is sinister and haunting, somehow both dreamlike and clinical. Though Lorre doesn’t spend much time on screen, his portrayal of the titular murderer is subtle and self-conflicted, miles away from the bug-eyed silent-screen hamming you might expect from an early talkie. The film also features a wonderfully tense “heist” sequence, in which mobsters use safecracking techniques and other dirty tricks to apprehend the murderer as he hides behind locked doors.