Among other distinctions, Fritz Lang's 1931 classic M is credited with giving birth to the modern psychological thriller, specifically the dreaded serial-killer movie, but that doesn't do justice to its real achievement. While it's true that Peter Lorre's performance as a child murderer who terrorizes the Berlin streets brought unprecedented depth, even hard-won sympathy, to what might have been a stock monster, Lang's grip on societal evils remains most persuasive. Without underplaying the horrific nature of Lorre's crimes, Lang examines another kind of sickness that seizes the city, both in the mass hysteria that affects the tenor of everyday life, and in a criminal underworld consumed by self-serving moral outrage. It takes guts to humanize a serial killer, but Lang goes further than that by making Lorre into a tragic hero, victimized by overwhelming forces from within and without.
Making his first foray into sound, a transition that many actors and directors never mastered, Lang (Metropolis) takes pointed advantage of the new technology without losing the bold visual expressiveness that had always distinguished his work. Lorre first appears in profile, looming over his next young victim, but before anybody ever sees him, they hear him, whistling a telltale refrain from Edvard Grieg's "In The Hall Of The Mountain King." In just a few chillingly suggestive shots—a long shadow, a dropped ball, an unleashed balloon caught up in power lines—Lang covers a little girl's abduction and murder, the latest in an eight-month rampage. As desperate authorities adopt increasingly heavy-handed tactics in an effort to track the killer down, the local criminals find it difficult to go about their business, so they launch their own investigation. Using a guild of street beggars to collect information, the self-serving thugs want to capture Lorre before the police and courts can administer the ineffectual rule of law.
With a keen satirical eye, Lang notes the hypocrisy of thieves and murderers administering justice: In one brilliant sequence, he cuts between two smoke-filled meeting rooms, making it seem like the top detectives and crooks discussing plans to catch Lorre are all engaged in the same dialogue. When the street syndicate finally corners Lorre in the attic of an office building, it also dispatches safecrackers to loot the bank vault downstairs. With his sad eyes and a face rounded with baby fat, Lorre was cast in M because he looked like a man whom no one could believe was a murderer; in the end, he seems more pitiable than frightening, and the truly diabolical villains—the ones who can choose their wicked destiny—are serving as judge, jury, and executioner.
The new two-disc M DVD includes a supplemental disc packed with informative and unconventional features, including a "physical history" that details the film's fascinating journey through foreign countries and censorship boards. M has screened at varying lengths and cuts—the longest surviving print runs nine minutes shorter than the première—and entire scenes were re-shot and re-edited for the French version, with Lorre reenacting his climactic breakdown in a different language. Lang himself appears for a bizarre 50-minute conversation with William Friedkin, shot a year before Lang's death; during the interview, Lang claims that M's peculiar final shot, with a mother ominously warning "You have to watch your children," was the reason he made the film. But the most curious and interesting special feature is Claude Chabrol's 1982 short M. Le Maudit, which sets about remaking M in a frantic 10 minutes. Had Gus Van Sant examined how awkwardly this shot-for-shot "homage" turned out, he might never have bothered with his rendition of Psycho.