In a nutshell, Bored & Dangerous says: “M takes a disturbing and bleak subject matter and never tries to water it down.”
The main reason I started this blog was to make me watch more movies, and to vary the kinds of movies I watched. The first part of that has been well and truly accomplished with me watching hundreds of movies for the first time, instead of falling back on old favourites over and over again. But l’m not sure if I’ve varied my selections enough. I still watch mainly American movies, with directors, writers and actors that make them a pretty safe bet. So this year, I’m forcing myself to seek out more international movies. With Foreign Language Weekends, every weekend(ish) during 2016, I’ll review two(ish) non-English language movies.
“Just you wait, it won’t be long. The man in black will soon be here. With his cleaver’s blade so true. He’ll make mincemeat out of you!”
Peter Lorre was a such a singular, unique presence, his persona and ticks are more well known than the man himself. I remember the first time I saw Casablanca and the character of Ugarte, played by Lorre, I couldn’t believe there was a real life inspiration for the seemingly over the top, creepy character type that had been parodied in so many Warner Brothers cartoons. But while his characters in movies like Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon are weasily creeps, they’re nothing compared to what I just watched. Because I just watched Peter Lorre take unsettling menace to a level totally new to me, in M.
Paraonia rules the streets of Berlin. Two little girls went missing and are presumed dead. As a third innocently bounces a ball on her walk home from school, she stops to read a wanted poster for the man now identified as a serial killer if children. A menacing whistle is heard, before an even more mincing silhouette covers the poster. The ball rolls away and the girl is never seen again.
Infuriated that a letter he wrote to the police was never made public, the killer writes directly to the local newspaper. Once published, and with residents petrified for the safety of their children, the police begin rounding up every known and suspected criminal, everyone recently released from a mental hospital, as well has raiding every know criminal hang out. Soon, even the local criminals are on the lookout for the killer, as increased police presence is impacting on their business as well.
In no way a whodunnit, M reveals Peter Lorre’s Hans Beckert as the killer to the audience within the first act. With no mystery for the viewer, it’s more of a game of cat and mouse as we watch the various parties try to track him down in their own way. For the police, there’s finger print and hand writing analysis that I found really impressive considering this movie was made in 1931. For the crooks, they utilise the vagrants on the street, giving them eyes and ears almost everywhere. I wasn’t sure what to expect with M, but a gripping crime procedural definitely wasn’t it.
Made in the early days of Nazi rule, with a German Jew writing and directing, and another in the lead role, the attacks on Hitler’s regime are fairly clear. The police are a little too eager to use the panic in the streets as an excuse to round up large sections of the community and label them as second class outsiders. The mob justice of the criminals is also there to highlight how blind rage can lead to a dangerous gang mentality.
M takes a disturbing and bleak subject matter and never tries to water it down. A community of parents fearing for the safety of their children makes the extreme actions of the citizenry perfectly understandable. It inspires plenty of uncomfortable questions about what even the most reasonable person may be capable of if pushed far enough. And it knows there are no simple, crowd pleasing answers. All of that, with Peter Lorre at the core, giving his character more tragic humanity than you’d expect a child killer could ever possess.