When the police in a German city are unable to catch a child-murderer, other criminals join in the manhunt.
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Fritz Lang's film "M" opens with children singing a song about a child killer. A shadow appears, a figure whose face we do not see, but we hear him whistling a sad song. He purchases a balloon from a blind man and gives it to a little girl named Elsie. Then we see Elsie's mother searching for her and the lonely balloon tangled in the wires before it floats away.
The police begin a massive search for the killer, using every technique they have at their disposal, from forensics to good old fashioned knocking in doors and interrogating criminals. The criminals bristle at this additional pressure on them. They band together to find the killer also. They employ the city's homeless as a network of spies, watching the city while the killer does not suspect.
The killer walks past the blind balloon salesman, whistling the same song. The salesman immediately recognizes him and informs the gangsters who set the beggars to tail him. When they grow afraid of losing him, one of them marks his jacket in chalk with the letter M for murderer. This touches off a tense chase, culminating in cornering the killer, named Hans Beckert (played by Peter Lorre). The criminals haul him before a mock trial.
"M" is a harrowing and tense movie to watch. It is particularly unsettling because, like many other films, it predates the rules of cinema and violates them repeatedly. There is no protagonist in the film. There is only a mob, roaming the streets of a decayed Berlin, paranoid and desperate. The audience is just as in the dark as this mob. We don't know what the killer looks like, what his methods are, not even who his victims are. Like many experienced silent filmmakers, Lang does not know how sound and dialogue will come to be used in film. Instead, he uses screaming crowds, a bare whistle and dead silence to highlight our anxiety.
The climax is the first scene that uses sound conventionally and Peter Lorre tears apart the screen. He made a career out of playing unsettling weirdos and this is the role that typecast him. His drive to kill is little different from the audience's drive to bring him to justice. There is no nobility in the pursuit of this killer, only pure animal hunger. His final speech leaves the search a hollow, haunting experience for us and we emerge from the film with no relief or satisfaction.
"M" is certainly a must for anybody who enjoys suspense, but it is not a fun movie to watch. It is, however, definitely worth watching.