You might think that an 85-year-old, half-silent subtitled picture wouldn't be the most enticing morsel to dangle in front of the crime-drama-loving friend you want to introduce to classic movies, but you would be mistaken. M is a crisp, creepy police procedural about the hunt for a child murderer set and shot in Berlin in 1931 -- no Nazis in it, but there are Nazis around the edges. What's not to love?
The story is set in a Berlin that has been plagued for the past eight months by a psychopath who targets and murders children. The citizens are in a heightened state of anxiety and are starting to suspect friends and neighbors and pick fights with strangers. The police have had no leads apart from the thousands of worthless tips from the frightened citizenry, who nevertheless continue to let their kids walk home from school unaccompanied. The children seem not to be much fazed by the threat and continue to walk around town by themselves and accept candy from strangers.
The one stranger they should be on the lookout for is Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre in his first major film role), a quiet loner who likes to whistle Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King" when he's out on the prowl. We witness him befriend a little girl on her way home for lunch and lure her to her death. We don't see the actual murder, but director Fritz Lang sets things up so that we can imagine the worst.
All the law can do is increase surveillance and bear down on known criminals. Business has become so bad for the underworld because of this crackdown, that the pickpockets, thieves, and beggars decide to take matters in their own hands. The prostitutes in particular, being very sentimental, have been upset about the children. The remainder of the film is a race between the police and the criminals to see who can identify and catch the killer first.
Semi-spoiler: it's not the cops.
I hadn't seen M for some years before choosing it for this blogathon and I had forgotten that its primary theme was law and order, not how a psychotic works.The movie is equal parts police drama and caper film, with both gorgeous expressionist tableaux and gritty, noir-like sequences, punctuated by riveting periods of silence.
As long as horrible people continue to do horrible things, this semi-silent, foreign, black & white picture will be moving, relatable, and sadly, timely.