The first time I saw M, my experience of the film was dominated by Peter Lorre’s startling performance. He holds back not at all in portraying the full creepiness behind the banal exterior of a child killer. But when he becomes the quarry we feel the fear and desperation that he feels, and at the climax he thrusts forward to deliver an unhinged but disconcerting challenge to his hunters and to us. There is no comfortable perspective for the viewer to watch from.
If you have seen M before and are ready for Lorre’s performance, you can attend more to the rest of the film, and see how skilfully Fritz Lang has shaped it around the central role. He denies us the usual thrills of suspense. It is clear from the start what is going to happen. The innocent people we see are not going to escape. We know who the killer is and we know what he is going to do. Lang unfolds events with complete certainty of touch: a chilling calmness first, then a brilliant withholding from view of the killer that we have glimpsed, while the intensity is steadily built.
From his cast Lang elicits a set of small-scale acting performances that I have never seen surpassed. It’s not really an ensemble piece: there is little prolonged interaction between characters. In fact, Lang is not concerned with character development (crucial to tragedy, but not to melodrama, and perhaps overestimated as a factor in fiction generally). What he achieves instead is a virtuoso orchestration of bit parts. The impression is of a fully realised human world through which the villain cuts a swathe and which then closes in on him. Most performers are only on screen for a couple of minutes, for a handful of lines: yet each performance is vivid, telling, and in place. One feels that the children being met from school, the beggars on the look-out, the unsuspecting nightwatchmen, the dissipated youth in the nightclub, simply were there, and we see them just as they were. This seems to me an almost miraculous achievement, to make the illusion feel real to a knowing 21st-century viewer. It’s not that we believe ourselves there or experience deep empathy: the viewer is not welcomed in, but shown an enactment that is just as it has to be. It is impossible to imagine performances like this in a British or American film of the period, and one can only marvel at the acting resources available in Berlin and the utter seriousness with which Lang made use of them.
You might not enjoy M. It is grim and remorseless, and it is not beautiful or elevating. But I consider it perfect. Really, it is not for me to review the film: let me just salute it.
The 2010 Eureka DVD comes with some extras. A few scenes from the cutting-room floor are re-introduced: these fit neatly enough, and do not disrupt the flow of the film, but do not add significantly. A bonus disc features an English-language version of the film overseen by Lang shortly after the German version. This should not be watched. The dubbing is done competently enough, but with completely the wrong tone - the precise intensity of the original performances is overlaid with a sort of casual English liveliness now horribly dated and unfortunately suggestive of Mr Cholmondley-Warner.