M is for murderer. A child murderer to be exact.
Fritz Lang’s expressionistic crime thriller certainly wasn’t the first film to feature a serial killer, but it was likely the first film that, at least marginally, painted the psychopath in a sympathetic light--or rather, a pathetic light.
Peter Lorre, the murderer, is dripping with pathos, especially in the third act, when he pleads with the underworld crime figures who have captured him. Sobbing that he is compelled to commit the evil deeds he does by a force beyond his control, Lorre implores his captors to have mercy on him and turn him over to the police for a fair trial. The kangaroo court of indigents and criminals will have none of Lorre’s speech. The more he begs, the angrier they become, quickly turning in to a mob, driven by bloodlust.
Rescued by the police nanoseconds before being lynched, Lorre is tried and sentenced in a court of law. Lang uses this epilogue to admonish parents in Germany to keep a closer watch on their children.
In M, no one is innocent, except for the children. Boiled down, Lorre’s speech is essentially, “let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Murderers and thieves take the law into their own hands. A manipulative police force cajoles and bullies. Parents are neglectful and deny responsibility while seeking scapegoats. M isn’t an easy film. One can understand the mob rules sentiment of the underworld and at the same time feel that Lorre does deserve due process of law.
Lang’s complex story is told powerfully through his groundbreaking cinematic flair, which relied on montage-laden sequences as much as the strong performances from his German cast. As heavy as the subject matter is, and as Teutonic the approach to filmmaking, M is sprinkled with several wonderfully comic moments.