M is a German film (with English subtitles) from 1931, directed by Franz Lang, and starring Peter Lorre. The film takes place in Berlin during a period of uneasiness. There is a murderer on a rampage, luring little girls with balloons and treats into the shadows to meet their maker. Elsie Beckmann is the latest little one to be found dead, and the police are in a tailspin. They have received a letter said to be from the killer that he will continue to kill unless he is stopped.
Who is this guy? Every man out on the street within the vicinity of a little girl becomes a suspect. Riots break out among the general public. Tempers flare and everyone is on edge. Police set their sights underground, theorizing this guy is from the seedy underbelly of Berlin – a beggar, a thief, a pimp? Berlin becomes a police state; every inch of it, a shakedown operation. And to the stakeholders of Berlin’s crime syndicate, this has become very bad for their business and reputation. They have no interest in little girls and they are not child murderers! So, as the police conduct their search for the perp, so do the disenfranchised. The underworld band together, recruiting beggars and thieves and anyone else to search the city to end this nightmare.
Meanwhile, we come face to face with the murderer, Hans Beckert (played by Peter Lorre) as he wanders the streets, struggling with his inner demons. He fights against the polarity towards a lone little girl out on the street who innocently watches toy trinkets spin in the display window of a store while waiting for her mother to arrive. This scene alone gave me the chills.
Soon, the jig is up, and a heart-pounding race ensues to catch Beckert and bring him to justice – legit or otherwise…
Peter Lorre, understandably, caused a stir internationally with the Hans Beckert role, but it got him into Hollywood. I love his roles in the more familiar-to-me films, Casablanca and the Maltese Falcon and was happy to add M to the watched and enjoyed list of Lorre’s filmography.
There is something about old grainy black and white films…the stories they tell, how the actors are dressed…I am not talking about a period piece wrapped into a story, I am talking about films that are a snapshot of a time in history; M really exemplifies this. I mean, 1931! My husband remarked that this was the era our grandparents grew up. Talkies were just starting to take off; M being Lang’s first talkie, and said to be his best film. In watching M, I was also reminded in how some things never change: humans will still make mistakes, they will still point an ill-informed finger at someone, but are also willing to stand up for justice.
Starring: Peter Lorre
Dir: Franz Lang