Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Crooks become cops in one of the first and still best serial-killer movies

Illustration for article titled Crooks become cops in one of the first and still best serial-killer movies
Screenshot: M

Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: With the Denzel Washington thriller The Little Things hitting theaters and HBO Max, we’re looking back at other movies about detectives hunting serial killers.


M (1931)

“I don’t like violence, Tom,” Sollozzo tells Hagen in The Godfather, mistakenly believing that he’s just killed Don Corleone. “I’m a businessman. Blood is a big expense.” Four decades earlier, Fritz Lang devoted much of M, his ice-cold masterpiece about the hunt for a serial child murderer, to that very idea. Sure, the Berlin police do everything in their power to find the culprit, eventually identifying him via good old-fashioned detective work. By that point, however, it’s too late. The city’s criminal underworld, fearing that constant police attention—precipitated by the search for the killer—will put them permanently out of business, resolve to catch him themselves. Any number of movies have explored the symbiotic relationship between cops and crooks, but M may be the only one in which the crooks effectively become the cops… and then a collective judge, jury and executioner, putting the pitiful maniac on trial for his life.

Lang’s achievement is all the more remarkable when you consider that he made M at the dawn of the sound era—a period when filmmakers were still actively figuring out how their industry and job description had instantly, radically changed. This was his first feature with spoken dialogue, but he opted not to avoid audio hassles by locking the camera down, in a stagebound way, as many other directors did around that time. Instead, he simply allowed the film to be intermittently silent, devoid not merely of words but also of music, sound effects, or anything else. The effect is appropriately eerie, and allows for dynamic shots that wouldn’t otherwise have been technically feasible. At other times, he expertly weds divergent sounds and images—establishing a little girl’s death, for example, by playing the increasingly frantic voice of her mother calling for her with stark, sober shots of her ball bouncing to a stop, unaccompanied, and a balloon that she’d been carrying (purchased for her by the murderer) drifting into some power lines.

And none of the above even touches upon M’s best-known element: Peter Lorre giving one of the most indelibly anxious performances in cinema history. Hans Beckert, the child killer, ultimately becomes the film’s most sympathetic character, if only by virtue of there being nobody else who stands out. While there’s no doubt of his guilt, we never actually see Beckert commit any of his murders, and it soon becomes clear that he’s driven by a compulsion that he truly can’t control, and belongs in an asylum. That’s what his defense attorney—one of the criminals, assigned the case against his will!—skillfully argues in their kangaroo court, insisting that it’s wrong to execute someone who can’t be held responsible for his actions. Lorre’s climactic screeching monologue, as Beckert first angrily demands and then desperately pleads to be turned over to the police, is so raw as to be almost physically painful to watch. Lang stages a magnificent, wordless conclusion to this tribunal, which only reinforces M’s thesis that almost everyone in society exists on one side of the law or the other, and that economics can make for mighty porous borders.

Availability: M is currently streaming via HBO Max, the Criterion Channel, Hoopla (selected libraries), and Kanopy (selected libraries). It’s also available for digital rental and/or purchase from Amazon, VUDU, and Apple.