Powerful, provocative, thought-provoking masterpiece from famed director Fritz Lang. For the most part this is a clever, gritty, tense, film noir-like (as it predates film noir, strictly speaking) crime/mystery drama. Shows how the police go about their work and how often nothing positive happens for months, and then the smallest thing breaks the case wide open. The criminals' methods in finding the murderer are also very interesting, and realistic.
Lang maintains the suspense and mystery well, only revealing the murderer in the last few scenes and even then you're not sure they have the right guy.
The last few scenes add a level of profundity and debate to the proceedings. We are forced to think about justice, especially vigilante justice, and the concept of of an eye for an eye. This can be quite jarring, as you may feel that Lang is steering you down one way of thinking and even wants you to feel sympathy for the murderer. However, ultimately, while justice was served, he does leave the verdict open to a degree, leaving you to fill in your own outcome. Moreover, the ultimate feeling was a balanced, objective discussion was had.
Superb performance by Peter Lorre as the murderer. He only has a few scenes but is fantastic in them. Good work too by Otto Wernicke as the police inspector.
Lorre became an international celebrity with this film, and it's hard to imagine any other actor playing the part. Unfortunately, it also type cast him for a couple of decades, until he was retype-cast as a drunk. Lang, already recognized as a competent director after Metropolis, cemented his reputation world-wide as a great director of "talkies' too. *Note: -until the rise of Naziism in the mid 30's, German cinema was possibly the best in the world - the US merely had a larger potential audience to gain profits by.
Fans of Dexter owe a lot to Lang's M. The movie begins with some mothers, nervous about their children's safety. We are introduced to a nice, quiet neighbor whom no one would suspect of also being a crafty murderer. Enter the intelligent and determined police who have only the flimsiest of leads, and criminals who want to beat the police to the psycho - he's disrupting their normal business by putting all citizens in an uproar! Cinematography and editing are among the best.
*Note: real career criminals were used as extras in this film!
By the time you get to the "Hilfe, HILFE", you'll be seeing parallels in the problems of living in a 21st century modern society. How far have we come since the first cities sprang up hundreds of years ago? Will we ever outgrow a need for police?
*WARNING*: this film may get you thinking about today's social/political problems.
If you get the chance, no..., go out of your way and make sure you watch the extras that come with the 80th anniversary DVD. Unless you've NEVER been interested in any interview or DVD extra of a Spielberg film; or a Capra, Hitchcock, Polanski, Kubrick, Lucas, Scorsese, Barry Levinson, Billy Wilder, Oliver Stone, Ken Burns, Joss Whedon, ...production. (In which case, why did you read this far??) Then watch M again. Yes, THIS film is THAT good.
Movies that dare to make audiences uncomfortable with truth while simultaneously enriching audiences with a satisfying and entertaining story are few and far between. This film is one of the first - and best - to do those things.
Suspenseful, thrilling, and provocative. Initially, the ending disappointed me, until I realized the honesty of what it said about people and society.
Even though it's 85 years old, this movie still stands out today as a completely unique production.
While the police are shown at work with some early examples of forensics - fingerprints, handwriting analysis, and sifting through physical evidence in concentric circles around the crime scene - the overall picture of them is unflattering. In a very heavy-handed way they begin putting heat on the street and in pubs, asking for papers and rounding people up for little reason, motivating an organized crime ring to get involved to find the killer themselves and get things back to normal. The police and mob are barely distinguishable as they both discuss the matter over cigars and alcohol in separate meetings as Lang flips back and forth between them, and perhaps that's one of his larger points about Germany at the time. He does do a fantastic job at establishing a dark feel to the film throughout, and is brilliant when he cuts the sound a few times, letting the action speak for itself, which is heightened because of the darkness of it all.
Unfortunately the movie gets a little bogged down in its middle portion, when Lang could have shown us other sinister acts from Lorre or at built some type of backstory in his characters. Instead, he shows us the surveillance network of beggars and focuses too much on procedure. At one point we do see Lorre nearly salivating at the sight of a child's reflection in the window of a shop he's looking into, and at another, him trying to lure in his next victim, but he's simply not on-screen enough. I have to also say that when the mob have found him holed up in a building and don't just call the police instead painstakingly going through the rooms, it seems like a plot hole, since from their perspective all they need is to get the police off the streets.
The ultimate scene showing Lorre confronted by a mob intent on killing him after a mock trial redeems the film, however, and is riveting. The scene of Lorre seeing them all staring at him as Lang has the camera pan slowly from left to right is brilliant, as is his own statement in self-defense shortly afterward. We have an unruly mob confronting a child killer, where both sides are reprehensible. We feel for the mob when they voice their concern that he will simply serve a little time in a mental institution, then be back on the street again and kill again. Perhaps improbably, we even feel for Lorre, as he says he's sick, in what is one of the great scenes in film:
"But I can't help it! I can't ... I really can't ... help it! What would you know? What are you talking about? Who are you anyway? Who are you? All of you. Criminals. Probably proud of it too. Proud you can crack a safe or sneak into houses or cheat at cards. All of which it seems to me you could just as easily give up if you had learned something useful, or if you had jobs, or if you weren't such lazy pigs. But me? Can I do anything about it? Don't I have this cursed thing inside me? This fire, this voice, this agony? I have to roam the streets endlessly, always sensing that someone's following me. It's me! I'm shadowing myself! Silently...but I still hear it! Yes, sometimes I feel like I'm tracking myself down. I want to run - run away from myself! But I can't - I can't escape from myself! I must take the path its driving me down, and run and run down endless streets! I want off! And with me run the ghosts of the mothers and children. They never go away, they're always there! Always! Always! Except ... when I'm doing it .. when I... then I don't remember a thing. Then I'm standing before a poster, reading what I've done. I read and read ... I did that? I don't remember a thing! But who will believe me? Who knows what it's like inside me? How it screams and cries out inside me when I have to do it! Don't want to! Must! Don't want to! Must! And then a voice cries out, and I can't listen anymore. Help! I can't!"
There are few positive role models here, except perhaps the counsel who stands up and says and tries to defend him. This a dark, brooding film showing us some of the worst aspects of mankind. A child killer, sure, but also a mob which draws the wrong conclusions and gets violent without evidence. There is a lot of smoking and drinking. Lang shows one guy drinking out of a giant stein with a plateful of sausages in front of him, and another guy from a camera angle up his crotch practically as he's sitting down. If it was made by someone other than a German, you might think it a caricature, as it's made by Lang, we know he's expressing his frustrations with the state of Germany at the time. The ending that has a mother simply asking the audience to watch out for their children probably refers to watching out against predators, but also watching out for them that they don't get swept up into mob hysteria (history would turn out differently of course). It's this hidden message warning against Nazi Germany, Lorre's performance, and Lang's direction that all make this a very good film.