With his bugging eyes, lingering baby fat and perfectly round head, Peter Lorre’s face has become something of an unexpected icon. Lorre’s visage is such a strange molding that it has even become enshrined in a number of cartoons: Warner Bros. used his impression in a classic Daffy Duck cartoon, the Genie in Disney’s Aladdin concocted a Peter Lorre impression and a worm featured in the stop-motion film Corpse Bride bore a striking resemblance to the classic actor. Most of these representations of Lorre played up the creepy nature of his image. It should surprise no one, then, that Lorre’s first role was as a pedophile and serial killer in the Fitz Lang directed M.
Many film critics credit Lorre’s character in M as the first serial killer in cinematic history, a dubious, if somehow unsurprising honor. The film itself is less interested in the motivations of the serial killer, although they are touched upon, than in how his reign affects the citizens of the unnamed German city. There is no single main character in the film, leading one to suspect that Lang was interested in the living, breathing life of the city itself rather than a single stalwart investigator. Just as the M is the first serial killer film, it is also likely one of the first police procedurals.
Lang beautifully illustrates how the threat of this serial killer has upended the lives of the citizens, police and criminals alike. In the first scene we hear a chorus of children singing a makeshift nursery rhyme about the killings (a technique that has been copied many times since, most famously in Nightmare on Elm Street). Even as one mother complains about the grisly song, another comments that when they can hear their children singing, at least they know they’re still alive. The police have been chasing after the killer for months, but, as the police chief explains to a politician over the phone, the murderer has left no clues and any tips have turned out to be worthless. These murders have even hurt the criminal element of the city. As the police have increased their efforts to find the killer, they have also increased pressure on criminal establishments. In order to rid themselves of the law, the gangs have decided that they must first get rid of this killer.
These stories are woven together through several strategically employed film techniques. When both the police and the gangs lay out their plan for capturing the murderer, Lang deftly cuts back and forth between them. It becomes a race between the law and the criminals to find the killer first. Cutting-edge camera work further helps draw a line between many different characters who have little in common beyond their fearful reaction to the killer. Lang’s camera deftly movies around buildings and through windows, connecting disparate city space. M becomes much more than a story about a serial killer, but rather becomes how fear breeds in an urban environment.
There are few modern corollaries to M. The closest example in film might be David Fincher’s Zodiac, another film about a serial killer that is more concerned with those trying to capture the criminal than the criminal himself. However, the movie’s diffuse focus, its cast of dozens and its curiosity about the detailed workings of a city is also reminiscent of many HBO television shows of the last decade or so, especially The Wire. It’s become something of a cliché to say “they don’t make them like they used to,” so instead I’ll merely suggest that they’re still trying to make them like they once did.