Friday, March 4, 2016

M (1931)

The first time I ever heard of this film was in The Amazing, Colossal Book of Horror Trivia, which I bought in early 2002 in a Chattanooga book-store. A couple of questions on it were in the chapter titled, Psychos, Slashers, and Serial Killers, and thanks to that section, I learned that the film was directed by Fritz Lang, whose name I associated solely with Metropolis at the time, and that the killer played by Peter Lorre often whistled In the Hall of the Mountain King. That would remain all I knew about the movie for about ten years, with my only other exposure to it being a VHS copy that I spotted in a small film room at my high school's library, with a quote that called it, "The Psycho of its day," on the back, and what I read about it in books on the horror genre, particularly 101 Horror Movies You Must See Before You Die. I wouldn't actually get to see it until 2012 when I found the Criterion Collection Blu-Ray of it at a horror convention in Lexington, Kentucky and I was quite stoked when I did. While I was perplexed by the title when I first heard it (my initial reaction was to think of James Bond's boss), as I read up on it over the years, I grew to be interested in it. A movie about a serial killer preying upon children, with Peter Lorre, an actor who I grew to really enjoy over the years, playing said role? How could this not be amazing? What's more, I was also interested in seeing just how a movie from the 1930's would deal with this type of subject matter, especially since it more than likely had never been done before. When I went into it, I was basically expecting Maniac, only with no gore and with Lorre; what I got, however, was very different. While the film did indeed give me a little bit of what I expected and wanted, which I did enjoy, I would have preferred a lot more of it. Instead, most of the film was spent on the police's attempts to find the killer and the social commentary about how the "good" criminals were trying to do the same since his crimes were causing problems for them due to the increased police presence throughout the city, which was all well and good but was not nearly as interesting to me as watching Lorre play this deeply disturbed, and surprisingly sympathetic, character. That's pretty much how I feel about M as a whole: the social commentary, which I will say I've grown to appreciate a lot more than in my first viewing, is interesting, as are some of the experimental touches Lang managed to bring to the film, particularly with the then new medium of sound, but I would have liked a lot more focus on Lorre's character, a complaint that, along with other issues I have, make it a movie that I can't say I watch all that often.

A child murderer in Berlin has the city's parents on edge, particularly since the police are no closer to identifying and catching him as they were when the killings began nearly a year before. One day, young Elsie Beckmann leaves school and heads for home, when she's approached by a man who walks with her and buys her a balloon from a blind street vendor. She's never seen alive again. Afterward, the killer sends a letter to the press, admonishing the police for having not caught him yet, while the city's lead government officials begin pressuring them to find him as soon as possible. Hysteria grips the city, with people accusing both acquaintances and total strangers alike of being the killer, while the police feverishly work to the point of exhaustion, raiding any type of establishment known to have connections to the criminal world every single night. Afraid that they'll be ruined if this goes on much longer, as well as repulsed by the idea of being lumped in with someone who preys on innocent children, a crime boss known only as the Safecracker holds a 3:00 AM meeting with other crime bosses and comes to the conclusion that they must find the killer themselves. They employ all of the city's beggars to keep an eye on the children at every street corner at all times and to note any adult who appears to be taking unusual interest them. It isn't long before the killer, Hans Beckert, is spotted befriending and walking with another potential victim, prompting the beggars to go into action. At the same time, the police have finally found evidence that points to Beckert being the murderer, and now it's only a matter time before either group corners him, although the criminals intend to enforce their own brand of justice on him if they catch him: a brand that he will not walk away from.

I'm ashamed to admit that, at this time, this is the only one of Fritz Lang's films that I've ever seen, although, to be honest, aside from Metropolis (which I do intend to see at some point), it's the only one that I've ever had any interest in. He may be considered one of the most influential filmmakers who ever lived but none of his other work, particularly the stuff he did upon coming to America, hold much appeal for me, and given how this, the one that's considered to be his masterpiece as well as his personal favorite, is hardly a favorite of mine, I don't know if his other movies would fare much better with me either. All that said, though, I can definitely appreciate what he was able to do with this story, especially given how this was his first sound film and, like Alfred Hitchcock, he took the opportunity to experiment with the new medium. That still doesn't make me absolutely love the movie, and there are other things he did that I find to be plain unnecessary and confusing, but I can still respect his ingenuity. I can't say the same for who he was a person, though, given that he had a reputation of being an absolute tyrant on the set (he supposedly really threw Peter Lorre down a flight of stairs a dozen times while filming the climax, prompting Lorre to refuse to ever work with him again), as well as a liar whenever he was interviewed, to the point where a 1975 interview between him and William Friedkin that's included as a bonus feature on the Criterion Collection edition of the film has a disclaimer that advises you to take his story about his escape from Nazi Germany in 1933 with a grain of salt. But, that's not what this is about, so let's not dwell on that.

Before we get really deep into the film, though, I do have to comment on something that I sometimes run into when I watch black-and-white foreign films: the subtitles. The Criterion Collection and other companies who distribute films like this have got to choose better colors for them so they stand out from the monochrome, especially from a distance. The edition of M that I've seen, as well as a lot of these types of releases, use white subtitles, which are virtually impossible to read when the image itself is almost completely white, especially from my couch, which is a good three feet away from my TV set. (The same thing happens with the Classic Media DVD releases of the original Godzilla and Godzilla Raids Again, which use yellow subtitles). And yes, I could toggle the brightness of the picture to make them easier to read but I've got my TV picture settings the way I prefer and I don't like have to alter them for a handful of films. It probably does come down to me being lazy and set in my ways, and I hope I don't sound whiny here, but this is something else that really hampered my ability to enjoy the film when I viewed it, which I didn't need since there are already things about the film itself that I don't like. Home media companies, please choose better colors for the subtitles to black-and-white movies, and also, make them deep enough to where they stand out from the image!

Regardless of any problems I have with this film, there's no way that I can deny that the best thing it has going for it is Peter Lorre who, despite not having as much screentime as one might expect (or hope, in my case), manages to make Hans Beckert a very complex character, both creepy and disturbing as well as pitiable. When he's first introduced, he comes across as every parent's worst nightmare: a stranger who goes up to unsuspecting little kids, acts friendly enough towards them, and even buys them things like sweets and balloons, before doing whatever it is he does to them. The killings are never shown, nor do you even see the bodies after they've been done or any description of what state the bodies were in other than they were pretty bad, but the way he reels in these innocent children, all the while constantly whistling In the Hall of the Mountain King, is enough to make your skin crawl. And while it's not dwelt upon, the fact that he's described as a "sex offender" and the like by experts, suggest that he did more than just kill the kids, making what I've described all the more creepy. In addition, the way the police finger him as the killer is due to a report from a mental institution where he was once a patient, suggesting that he may have been a child killer, at least a possible molester, for a while now. He definitely makes himself look like a complete creep when, after sending his letter to the press, he looks at himself in the mirror and makes a weird face, looking like he's revelling in what he's done, and it's also suggested that he may get some sort of sick kick out of seeing his crimes mentioned in the newspapers. However, as the film goes on, you're shown that Beckert is more complex than your typical film villain. While his letter to the press, admonishing the police for not publishing his first ones, may seem like him getting off on the publicity and the attention, since he tells them to continue their investigations and that all will soon be revealed, it's also a possible cry for help, for them to find and arrest him. In the section leading up to his being chased by the beggars, you can see him struggling with his compulsion to lock onto and follow potential victims when he goes out, walking to a small diner after one slips through his fingers and ordering some cognac, while whistling his tune in desperation. And when he realizes he's being followed and ducks into an office building to hide, there's a palpable sense of fear in him, particularly when he ends up locked in a storage room in the attic and is doing anything he can to get out.

It's in the film's penultimate scene, when the criminals throw Beckert into a kangaroo court in the basement of an abandoned distillery, where it delves into something that I doubt had been done before: the mind of a serial killer. When they pass judgment on him for what he's done, Beckert tells the criminals that they have a choice in what they do, whereas he can't fight this evil impulse that he has, which he says is always there, driving him to go out into the streets, to look for victims, and to kill. He describes it as being stalked by himself, arguing with a voice that tells him to do it, as well as being haunted by the children he's killed and their mothers. And he also says that he has no memory of actually doing it and only knows that he has done it when he reads about it, something he feels no one will believe, which is why he lied about not knowing one of the victims at first. It's also during this monologue that his other actions, which at first seemed irrational and contradictory (like how he wants to be turned into the police but never did so himself before he killed again), fall into place. What you saw when he was making that face in the mirror was probably when he was being gripped by the desire to go out and kill, and the content of the letter could have been the two sides of himself wrestling with each other. Even when he's giving this monologue, there appear to be moments where the evil side slips in, because he sometimes makes some monstrous faces. Plus, it also doesn't hurt that Lorre particularly gives this scene his all, screaming at the top of his lungs in a tortured voice and even seemingly beating himself up mentally when he's talking about the back-and-forth he goes through, to the point where he spends the rest of the scene crumpled against the fence-like barrier between himself and the man assigned to be his defense, apparently exhausted. It's a shame that he got typecast in playing villains, particularly those who are not sympathetic in the slightest, afterward because this performance not only allows him to show off his acting skills but also really helps to further sell the idea that this man is just as pitiable as he is scary, although the question of the proper way to contend with him, as we'll see later on, is never given a definitive answer.

Before we move on, I'd be remissed not to mention the famous section of the film where, in order to keep from losing sight of him, a beggar writes an M on his hand in chalk and pushes it on the back of Beckert's shoulder, marking him. The first time I saw the movie, I thought it was an interesting and clever way to let the other beggars and criminals know who they're looking for, and I also liked how it explained the meaning of the film's title. I'd always wondered why the movie was simply called M (there's a rumor that the original title, Murderer Among Us, was changed because the Nazi party thought it was referring to them but its validity seems to be in question) and once that scene came up, it quickly fell into place. The moment where Beckert sees the M reflected in a store window is the cover of the Criterion release but it's cropped in such a way that, if you've never seen the film, you might not know what you were looking at, as was the case with me whenever I saw the cover. Upon seeing it in the movie, though, I thought, "Oh, okay. That's kind of cool, actually."

The film doesn't have that much of a main cast besides Lorre, although there are some characters who do stand out. On the police side, the most memorable is Inspector Lohmann (Otto Wernicke), a character who would later appear in another Fritz Lang film, The Testament of Doctor Mabuse. The first time you meet the guy during a raid on a bar, he's mocked by the people there for his slightly obese appearance, called "Fatty Lohmann" or "Tubby Lohmann," depending on the translation, but throughout the film, he proves to be a pretty smart cop who knows how to handle himself in these types of cases. When everyone in the place is being inspected for proper ID, he initially plays around with one guy who comes across as smug and overly confident, whistling and winking at him as he's searched by another cop, before revealing that his identity papers are a very poor forgery and sending him off to the precinct, and then letting another person think he's got off when he notices he's carrying a newspaper with an article about an unsolved burglary at a furrier's and decides to send him to the station since he happens to be wearing a fur-lined coat. Later on, he hits upon a cigarette brand found in Beckert's rented room that was the same as one that was found near one of the murder victims, which eventually leads to Beckert being fingered as the killer. His best moment, however, comes near the end of the film, when he tricks a criminal who was caught by the police after being left behind by the others when they cornered and captured Beckert in an office building into confessing who they were after and where they had taken him. He makes him think that a security guard at the building that they knocked out has died from his injuries and that he's going to be charged with accessory to murder, which frightens him into making a full confession (although Lohmann makes him sweat a little longer by initially telling him that it's too late for that, smiling at his growing desperation) and leads to Beckert being found before the criminals can pass sentence on him themselves.

Another memorable member of the police force is Inspector Groeber (Theodor Loos), who doesn't get as much characterization as Lohmann but proves to be a pretty efficient cop in his own right. While he doesn't find any definitive evidence during his initial visit to Beckert's rented room, particularly a wooden table that matches the surface that the killer's letter to the press was written on, he soon realizes that the window sill in the room could have been it instead, which proves to be correct, and further investigation leads to the discovery of pieces of a pencil that match the one the letter was written with. More significantly, when he doesn't get anywhere with Franz, the criminal who was caught after the others found and captured Beckert, he himself comes up with the idea to make him think he's being turned over to Lohmann in the homicide division to be charged with accessory to murder, which scares a confession out of him. Lohmann himself gives Groeber major credit for that brilliant idea. (I could not find any images of this guy at all. Believe me, I tried.)

The character in the film who's probably the most memorable outside of Beckert is the Safecracker (Gustaf Grundgens), the crime boss who comes up with the idea that they themselves must catch the killer. He decides that this must be done not only because the killer is hurting their businesses but also because the police are searching for him within their ranks. Besides damaging their reputation amongst those who would do business with them, Safecracker is also downright disgusted at the idea that the police are lumping them in with the killer, saying that they do what they do in order to survive and refers to the killer as a monster who does not deserve to live and must be eliminated completely. He makes this opinion even clearer when, during the kangaroo court scene at the end, in which he plays the role of judge, he forces Beckert to look at photos of his past victims and accuses him of wanting to be turned over to the police so he can plead insanity, spend the rest of his life cared for by the state, and when he either escapes from the institution or is pardoned, he'll be able to kill again with no fear of ever being put to death. Ultimately, he decides that a man like Beckert who must kill has to be destroyed, arguing with the man who is made to be Beckert's defense that the cycle of him being institutionalized, set free, and killing again will go on indefinitely if it's not stopped at that very moment. Granted, Safecracker himself is hardly guiltless since, according to the defense counsel, he has three charges of manslaughter against him and, when he and the criminals broke into the office building where Beckert was hiding, they tortured the security guard to make him tell them how many others were on duty, but, like Beckert, he's made to be much more complex than your average movie criminal at the time, and there's no denying that he firmly believes what he says about the distinction between him and his colleagues and Beckert, feeling that they have every right to pass judgment on him as a result. Plus, the guy has a really good, authoritative presence to him and is also not somebody who sits back and lets his subordinates do the work for him, as he joins them in raiding the office building to find Beckert.

On the flip side, the one man in the entire movie who manages to feel sympathy for Beckert is, ironically, the man who's appointed to defend him (Rudolf Blumner). He doesn't initially think much of his "dubious honor," as he calls it, after Beckert's monologue about the torture of his madness, he decides that he can't be held responsible for his actions due to his uncontrollable compulsion and, therefore, nobody has any right to kill him, least of all the Safecracker, whose manslaughter charges he brings up. He insists that Beckert is a sick man and must be turned in so he can receive help, which doesn't go over well with everyone else, who are about ready to kill Beckert when the police show up. There are a couple of other noteworthy characters in the film, one of whom is Franz (Friedrich Gnab), the crook who's left behind in the office building by the others when they find Beckert and is captured by the police. He's left behind in a room that he drilled into through the floor and when he sees that the rope-ladder he used to lower himself down in there has been taken away, he grumbles about how idiotic his companions are... only to be faced with the police when the ladder is thrown back down there so he can climb up. When he's taken to the police station, he's initially smug and confident in saying nothing about what was going on, feeling that nothing will happen, but when he's forced to face Inspector Lohmann in the homicide division and is told that he's going to be charged with accessory to murder, his confidence cracks wide open and he immediately makes a full confession (I wonder if he found out that he'd been tricked)? And finally, you have the blind street vendor (Georg John) who, despite his disability, is the one who enables the other criminals that Beckert is the murderer since he recognizes the tune he was whistling when he bought a balloon from him for Elsie Beckmann. Like Safecracker, he forces Beckert to face his crimes when he shows him the same type of balloon that he bought for Elsie in the kangaroo court.

The film has a very nice look to it, one that's very akin to film noir, with the darkened streets, the shadows, and the grim atmosphere, all of which are made more palpable by the black-and-white. No part of the film takes place in any comfortable environments, like the inside of a nice-to-do home; instead, you're stuck in either dark, rundown attics and cellars, seedy places like bars, or the less than welcoming, especially at night, streets, which are sometimes stuffed with people who are either reading the latest news on what's happening or are surrounding someone they feel could be the murderer. The offices at the police station are either full of exhausted cops or are cluttered with evidence, documents, and maps pertaining to the case, and even the nice-looking environments, like the meeting room where the police discuss their strategy for finding the killer, the rented room where the criminal bosses meet to discuss the same, and the room where one guy accuses of another of being a suspect, are often so thick with cigarette smoke that just looking at them makes me want to choke (that's something that always gets to me in old films like this, when smoking was common). And the feeling of poverty that's present in the city, with the dwellings of the Beckmanns and even Hans Beckert himself looking very, very simple, the flophouses that are raided, and the people on the street, trying to make a living by selling stuff like balloons or just plain begging for money, mixed with how the sky always seems overcast, adds to how this is a very unwelcoming place and time to be in.

Another aspect that adds to some undeniable moments of atmosphere is that the film often feels like a silent one. Save for a sudden "bong" that you hear during the opening titles (which only consist of the film's title and the German version of, "A Film By Fritz Lang"), Beckert's whistling, and a scene where a barrel organ plays, there's no music at all in the film and there are long stretches of complete silence, which give the images that you're being shown a very haunting feeling. Nowhere is that more powerful than in the opening, where Beckert kills little Elsie Beckmann (Inge Landgut). It's the only murder that he commits during the film's narrative and even then, we don't see anything of the actual killing or even much of its aftermath, but what we do get is a great example of less is more. Elsie walks home from school in a very carefree manner while bouncing a ball and stops to look at a poster asking who the killer could be, when Beckert's shadow creeps across it and he tells Elsie that her ball is pretty (skin crawling yet?) The film constantly cuts back to Frau Beckmann (Ellen Windmann) as she waits for Elsie to come home, while we see Beckert buy a balloon for Elsie, all the while whistling In the Hall of the Mountain King, which is the only real noteworthy sound in the sequence aside from the occasional bit of dialogue and the sounds of the city, which are very subdued due to it being the dawn of the talking movie. This is the last time Elsie is ever seen, and the rest of the sequence is spent with Frau Beckmann as she realizes that it's getting very late and that Elsie should have been home by then. Eventually, she opens a window in their apartment and calls for Elsie, as you see shots of locations like a down-shot of the winding staircase in the building and a shot of clothes hanging up and drying in its dark attic, with the only sound being her calling for her daughter. The last two images are completely silent and are the only sense we ever get of the murder: Elsie's ball rolling into some grass and the balloon Beckert bought for her caught up in some telephone lines. Very unnerving stuff and, for my money, is the best part of the film. It actually kind of got to me when I first saw it and made me interested in where the film was going to go: too bad it didn't live up to my expectations.

Lang also uses the sound in other, experimental ways, feeling that film wasn't bound by any concrete rules. For instance, when I said there are long stretches of complete silence, I wasn't just talking about the lack of music. There are sections of the film where it literally becomes a silent movie, even when there should be some sound, like a scene of a lot of activity on the streets where you see cars drive up to the sidewalks to allow a bunch of people to hop out and cops and pedestrians scrambling across the road. It goes on for a while when the silence is suddenly broken, in this case by somebody whistling, and the sound comes back (in some ways, this could be the birth of what would later become known as the jump scare). It's unusual and when I first saw it, I thought it was indicative of the growing pains as filmmakers tried to adapt to the new medium, but now I can see that it was Lang just playing around with it. There's also a scene whose gimmick one may not immediately catch onto, which is when that aforementioned barrel organ starts playing and the sound is initially so bad that a guy clamps his hands over his ears. Whenever he does so, the sound stops, even though you should still hear it, and it comes back whenever he takes his hands off his ears. Again, it's just an experiment that Lang is doing with this new tool he has at his disposal. However, his most significant and influential use of it is how, despite the lack of a music score, he manages to give the character of Beckert his own leitmotif in the form of his whistling In the Hall of the Mountain King, which is used to let you know that he's nearby even when he's not on-camera, like when the blind street vendor hears the whistling and recognizes it. Nowadays, this idea is commonplace but back then, it was a new approach to filmmaking that wasn't possible in the silent age, as was the use of voiceovers for certain scenes and other sounds being heard off-camera and motivating the characters, like when the one criminal hears Beckert tapping as he tries to pick his way out of the storeroom he's stuck in and tells the others that he thinks he knows where their target is hiding.

Fingerprinting and handwriting analysis were new techniques at the time and Lang decided to incorporate them into the story in a possible attempt at making the film feel up to date. There's a long sequence early on in the film where the city secretary talks with the police commissioner about the steps being taken to track down the killer, such as examining the fingerprints on the letter he sent to the press and having a graphologist examine the handwriting in order to build something of a psychological profile of the man they're looking for, but it doesn't make their job any less difficult. During this conversation, the commissioner makes it known that the police are being run absolutely ragged by the case, with the officers having gone weeks without twelve hours' sleep, the riot squads not getting a moment's peace due to the hysteria and panic that's gripped the city, and the painstaking nature of the investigation working on their nerves. So many factors are hindering their progress: the letter the killer sent to the press has passed through a number of hands and is now covered in many different fingerprints, 80 to 90% of the leads have turned out to be false, further agitating the men on duty, the fact that, after so much time has passed, people are unable to remember anything that might give them a clue, and the conflicting nature of eye-witness testimony, as shown by two guys who, while giving a statement, get into an argument about what color was the hat that Elsie Beckmann was wearing when she was last seen alive. You see them scouring the countryside for even the smallest clue, using police dogs who eventually lose any scent that they pick up, and checking all flophouses and railroad stations, again with no results. They eventually have a conference to decide what to do and come up with some more ideas, like appealing to the public for help (an idea that Lohmann derides as completely useless given how they've proven time and again that you can't depend on them), increasing the reward money, and they also discuss how the killer is possibly a normal, upstanding citizen when he's not killing and that people like him often leave very few clues behind. They ultimately come up with an idea to check if any mental hospitals and institutions have released a patient who could have relapsed and begun killing again, a ploy that finally does lead them to Beckert's apartment and the discovery of clues that point to him as the murderer, but they had to go through so much crap in order to arrive there that it's a miracle he didn't kill again (which he would have had it not been for the other criminals).

Another thing that makes the investigation difficult is the hysteria and panic that has gripped the city, which has gotten so bad by the time the film begins that some kids have made up a song about the murderer. Not only do you have shots of people crowding around a bulletin board with an article on the case, desperate to learn any information they can, and parents waiting outside the schools for their kids and admonishing them for straggling behind on the streets or wandering around aimlessly, you also have the sheer paranoia of not knowing who the killer is, prompting people to start accusing each other. There's a scene where a group of men are sitting around a table, reading the same newspaper article, when one of them is suddenly accused of having followed a little girl up the street, resulting in a heated argument and the accused being dragged away, threatening to sue the one who accused him for trying to ruin his reputation. That leads into a scene of a man who is outraged that his house is being searched because of an anonymous letter that accused him of being a suspect, and when Inspector Groeber tells him that every possible lead must be followed up on, that any man on the street could be the killer, it cuts to the most impactful one, which is a guy getting mobbed simply because a little girl asked him the time and, after telling her, asks where she lives, undoubtedly intending to walk her home. The same thing happens to a pickpocket who admonishes a cop for being able to catch him instead of the murderer, prompting a crowd to go crazy and attempt to lynch him, thinking that could have been something of a confession.

I could be wrong but it's possible that M may be the first film to address the notion that criminals actually have something of a moral code and a big part of it is that you don't prey on children. Like I said before, the Safecracker says that they must draw a firm line between the murderer and themselves, not only because the constant police raids are hurting their "livelihood" but also because their being lumped in with the killer is hurting their reputations amongst those who would do business with them. More to the point, Safecracker is just plain disgusted of the idea that the police are looking for the murderer in their ranks, saying that what they do is a means of survival and that if one of their own kills a police officer or vice versa, it's merely an occupational hazard, whereas the man they're looking for is a hideous, depraved animal who can't be allowed to live. During this scene where they try to decide what must be done to ensure their survival, Lang cuts back and forth between them and the police holding a meeting about what other steps must be taken to find the killer, intended to show that there isn't much of a difference between them (one of the crime bosses even backpedals after saying the word syndicate, instead deciding to call it an "organization"), going as far as to use sound to have someone in one group start a sentence and then cut to someone in the other group who finishes it. However, during the kangaroo court scene at the end, Beckert tells the criminals that they're not as high and mighty as they'd like to think they are, saying that they have a choice in what they do, that they could easily give up their criminal activities if they learned something more useful, got an actual job, or weren't simply lazy, whereas he has no control over his actions. And let's not forget that Beckert's "lawyer" makes it known that Safecracker has three counts of manslaughter against him, making it all relative, even though he tries to pass it off as irrelevant.

This then leads into the discussion about what must be done with someone like Beckert. Safecracker and everyone else feels that someone who claims that he has no choice but commit murder must be wiped out, whereas Beckert's "defense attorney" argues that that fact exonerates him from any responsibility for his actions and that, as a very ill man, he must be turned in so he can get help. That's when the notion of the cycle of him being declared sane, released, and killing again comes up, one that has, unbeknownst to them, already started since Beckert has been institutionalized before, and has the possibility of going on forever. The defense, however, maintains that no one, including the state, has the right to kill a man who isn't responsible for his actions, but when a woman who has lost her child (possibly to Beckert, although it's never made clear) tells him that he has no idea what it's like to go through that kind of agony, and even directly asks Beckert if he thinks the mothers of the children he murdered will be merciful towards him, she whips the "court" up into a frenzy. The defense insists that Beckert must be turned over to the police, which angers the crowd to the point where they're just about to lynch Beckert when the police arrive and take him into custody. Ultimately, there's no clear answer to this issue, and the film ends with Beckert's impending trial and a final shot of Frau Beckmann saying that nothing will bring back the children and that all that can be done is the children must be watched, which Lang said was the real message he was trying to convey with the film.

At this point, you may be confused why I talked like I didn't really care for the film in the introduction when I've basically done nothing but praise it this whole time. The thing is that M is an example of a film that I do have a lot of respect for but not one I enjoy watching, if that makes any sense. For one, the film is 110 minutes long and gets really slow at points, particularly during the scene where the police raid the bar while, at the same time, the other crime bosses wait for Safecracker to show up for their meeting, and during the second half when Beckert tries to escape the office building he's hiding in while the criminals break into find him. Those sections could have been trimmed both in order to shorten the running time and to be made to flow more quickly and smoothly, and there are other moments that could have been eliminated completely, like all the material at a flophouse (at least, I think that's what that was) where the criminals assign the beggars their streets to monitor. The shots of the beggars just sitting around there, doing nothing, a guy noting something on the menu (he mentioned something about a "Black Friday for roast beef" or something of the like but I wasn't interested, so I didn't pay much attention), and the bit where the one beggar responds to the sound of the barrel organ, could all have been eliminated, in spite of the experimental nature of that former scene.

The editing is also sometimes so sudden and spastic that it can take me a bit to realize what I'm looking at, like when the bar is being raided and suddenly, you see a guy creeping around a room and then turn around to see a cop standing on a bit of grating on the outside of the ceiling. It took me a minute to realize this was still going on at the bar, meaning that this room must be in the basement, and after the interrogation, we cut to a bunch of tools and other objects being placed across a table. Obviously, this is still part of the raid but since we then cut to the crime bosses still waiting for Safecracker, I wasn't sure if it was tied to that or not. There's also the cutting between the guy who's accused of being the murderer because he asked the little girl where she lived and the pickpocket being guided down some stairs into a crowd, one that looks like what the former person had to do deal with and made me think if this was going on at the same place. The same thing happened before then when it cut from the one being accused at the table to another who was outraged at his apartment being searched, which made me wonder if this had something to do with what I had just seen. I understand perfectly well that you should expect choppy editing in old films like this and it could also be my Asperger's making it hard to understand, but this movie often lost me with its cutting the first few times I watched it. (The hard-to-read subtitles didn't help much either.)

And finally, we have my biggest disappointment with the film, which is how little of it is actually spent on Hans Beckert. While we do get a fair amount of insight into his diseased mind and Peter Lorre manages to give a bravura performance, I would have still preferred it if the film had been like Maniac in that, for the entire running time, you're following this disturbed man around and really getting into his head. The social commentary about the criminals and the crap the police have to wade through to find Beckert are interesting but this is what I still would have preferred. In fact, I think if the movie had been that way, I would have liked it a lot more than Maniac (which I honestly think is just okay) since it would have been all about watching Lorre, an actor who I like watching much more than Joe Spinell, act completely psychotic. Even without the gore and graphic sexual content, maybe you couldn't have made such a movie back then but it still would have been nice to see. It's not fair to criticize a movie for what it isn't or for what you thought it was going to be (especially if you haven't seen a trailer or read up on it great detail), though, so I don't want to dwell on this any longer, but it still would have been nice if that's what M had been.

In the early days of sound, it wasn't uncommon for a film to be partially or completely reshot in different languages, with the most well-known example of this being the Spanish version of Dracula. M is no different, although its English version (which was thought to be lost for many years until it was found and included as an extra feature in the Criterion release) is mainly a dub, with only a few scenes being reshot, mainly close-ups of documents that were originally written in German. The dubbing itself is mostly stiff and unremarkable, without much emotion, save for Lorre, who not only dubbed his own dialogue, making this his English-language debut, but also took part in the reshoots of his scenes, particularly his monologue at the end, which is just as impactful in English as it is in German. The film is also shorter, coming in at around 93 minutes, which helps the flow a little more, but there are also some sounds from the original that are removed, like voiceover dialogue in some bits and off-camera sounds like people talking in others, which can make it even harder for someone like me to follow along with the story. While its quality is definitely less than the original German version, the English version is still an interesting curiosity piece for fans of film history, especially since it's one of the few examples of its kind that still exist.

At the end of the day, M is an interesting film and does deserve merit for what it managed to do back in its day. It has a really good film debut performance by Peter Lorre that gave early audiences a look into the mind of a serial killer, admirable performances by the supporting cast, particularly in the cases of Inspector Lohmann and Safecracker, a nice, film noir look, good use of silence and images in order to create atmosphere, interesting experimentation with early sound, and some nice commentary on the moral code of criminals and what should be done with a man who can't control his homicidal urges. All that said, though, it's not a film I find enjoyable to actually watch given the rather slow sections, the choppy editing, and the disappointment of not getting as much exploration into Hans Beckert's disturbed mind as I would have liked. I can understand why so many people like or, at the very least, admire it, the latter of which I can say I do, but I'd be lying if I said it was a film I would watch again.