Ranking: #89/111

Director: Fritz Lang (Germany)

Genre: Film Noir Crime Thriller

This major psychological crime thriller was German film legend Fritz Lang’s first sound film. He makes a seamless transition from silent to a talking movie, showing how skilful he was as a filmmaker. It becomes an early example of European Film Noir, in the genre of the crime thriller.

Peter Lorre is undeniably powerful in his portrayal of a serial child killer whose spree of murders caused terror in a German city in the 1930s.

Lang was a master of mise-en-scène and the textures and details in each scene are revealing. For example, the shot of the empty dinner plate which has been put out for the missing child in the opening sequence. In addition, there’s a riveting mood of suspense and fear which engulfs the film.

M opens with a mother awaiting her daughter’s return from public school. The narrative tension is slickly increased as time passes and the child doesn’t come back. Children are going missing, with eight victims already, and the whole of society starts to develop a mass neurosis.  Everyone is up in arms and ready to act in both rational, and irrational, ways. Yet, the killer continuously evades justice and both the police and members of the underworld are in a race against time to find the detested child murderer.  The whole city is united in its hatred of the elusive paedophile killer.

Once he is hunted down, the murderer (“M”) is subjected to mob justice in an illegal kangaroo court. Lorre’s impassioned monologue, as he breaks down before the hostile mass of enraged citizens, explaining why he acts so diabolically, is one of the high points of the film. His words “Don’t want to! Must!” hauntingly reveal his compulsive urge to kill the children. It is a terrifying scene. The hastily convened defence counsel argue the man is sick, but the mob want to kill him. Then the police arrive and “M” gets his proper trial in the end.

For Lang, a crime thriller had to have psychological significance and power. In this sense, M is a forerunner of Hitchcock’s classic Psycho which made a big breakthrough almost three decades later.

M is an impactful, perfectly blended, work of Film Noir art.