Fritz’s Lang’s M and other such films from the era represent a problem. They are important films, but are they still good films? After all, a computer from the 1960s can be considered important in the history of developing the internet, but cannot come close to being considered useful. Many older films (I name Gone With the Wind as the greatest offender) retain importance but also are far to connected witht eh time period that they were made in. Today’s audiences need no longer recommend them except as a museum piece.
Originally, I actually believed M fell into this category. It was an interesting piece that was quite a remarkable look at early film noir. But that was about it. Other noir films had come out that managed to top it. Other serial killers depicted on film have been far more effective at conveying that sense of fear. The influence was obvious. Even serial killers in real life have borrowed from this film. But was it still effective? Not really. That is, not until the final act, where everything clicked into place.
The film is about a child murderer (and possibly pedophile, although that is never explicitly said. The serial killer has panicked a German town and affected all the lives. Even the children play a game based around the killer. The police are under an enormous amount of pressure to capture him and restore public order. So, they turn to the beggars on the street to monitor the people and find the people. The situation rapidly degenerates as the paranoia that is sweeping the town causes innocent people to be accused of the murders.
The plot is all well and good. And the scenes are effectively chilling (particularly the use of “In the Hall of the Mountain King.”) I want to emphasize that I didn’t believe this was a bad film. What I did want to say is that other, later films have used the premise and the material to far superior results. Just because something is first does not make it the best.
But then, the final act came, in which the murderer is actually captured. Played by Peter Lorre, this murderer does not come across as a great monster. Instead, he is a bug eyed, frightened man who seems aware that what he is doing is monstrous. He can no longer control his id, and his ego has been shattered because of it. But that is not what makes the film. The murderer is put on trial by the very beggars who were searching for him. They demand he be killed. Lorre begs and pleas, trying to explain his actions. This monologue is why the film is still relevant today. Lorre’s performance actually made me applaud. I cannot remember the last time I have ever done that in the film. Lorre’s character shouts, but never moralizes. He tries to explain himself, but we do not forget that he is a murder. It is a wonderful performance.
So, one man saves the film. I normally despise when this happens. But I must emphasize that this was not a bad movie. The design was wonderfully atmospheric (it is a Fritz Lang film) and it was a delight seeing how much the film has been mined. But, as stated, there were other films that have used the material to much better ends.
Should one man have to carry the film? In this case, yes. Lorre’s performance is incredible enough to warrant a recommendation. It has aged better than many of the other films from the time period. Oh, and if you wish to look further, that I would highly recommend Jon Muth’s wonderful graphic novel based on the film.