This old movie is in German. Peter Lorre stars as M, a psychotic murderer of young girls in Berlin. The movie chronicles how the murderer’s crimes terrorize the city and galvanize the police to roust the criminal element of the city in an effort to find the murderer. And this interference with their normal operations convinces the criminals to organize and find the murderer themselves. So, the movie is made up of the murderer’s actions including his killings, the police investigation and the effort of the underworld to find the murderer themselves.
Up front we have to address the foreign language aspect of the film. If you cannot tolerate a subtitled foreign film then let this one be. If you can, then follow my review and see if this sounds interesting. Peter Lorre’s character is satisfactorily creepy and despicable. Luckily a movie from this era would not include any graphic violence against a small girl so all the murders occur off camera. The police procedural scenes and the investigator’s analysis of the evidence and the psychological profiling of the killer are well done and satisfy that part of the movie’s work. But it is the underworld’s capture and subsequent treatment of M that are the centerpiece and most interesting aspect of the movie. Because after locating M. The underworld gang have to break into a bank building to extricate him from where he is hiding out. So, all of their criminal expertise is employed in an enterprise that is actually admirable.
And finally, after capturing M they put him on trial for his life. They provide him with a defense attorney and have a prosecutor, judge and the membership of the underworld serve as the jury. The only effective defense that might sway the jury is M’s own testimony that a terrible compulsion forced him to kill against his own will. But led by the women who formed part of the criminal jury the verdict comes in guilty and they are right at the point of carrying out the death penalty when the police break in and rescue M for his legal arrest and trial. The last scene is the judge giving a verdict which appears to be the death penalty and a sort of Greek Chorus of the mothers of the murdered children lamenting that M’s death will not bring back their children’s lives.
I like this movie. Certainly, it is so far removed in time and culture from our present world that it makes it slightly difficult to become submerged in the cinematic experience but I don’t find it too great a barrier to enjoying the story. And it is a very clever idea. Criminals policing their own and a parallel manhunt going on by the police and by their usual quarry. And a trial before the underworld is a wonderful invention. Finally, Peter Lorre is perfect for the part. Here he is a younger and surprisingly chubbier Lorre than we are used to seeing in such things as “The Man Who Knew Too Much” and the “Maltese Falcon.” But his manner with the young girls makes your skin crawl. So, acknowledging the caveat about foreign language films I highly recommend this film.