Fritz Lang – Dial M for Murder
A serial killer preys on children and has been terrorising a town for months. The police, who have put all their resources into capturing him, have no leads to follow. The public, growing increasingly anxious and panicked, have begun to wrongly accuse and attack innocents. This all sounds thoroughly modern – yet it’s the plot of a film made over 75 years ago.
‘M’ is possibly the best and certainly the first serial killer thriller to hit cinemas. Directed by Fritz Lang, the genius behind Metropolis, M was released in Germany in 1931 and subsequently banned for 30 years. This comes as no surprise – the film exists in a morally grey area, asking many questions and offering no real answers.
As the police raid more and more bars and push the criminal fraternity further and further underground, the criminals decide it’s time to take the law into their own hands. Not because of any moral compulsion, but purely because the increased police activity is hitting their profits. In a marvellous piece of juxtaposition, the heads of both sides of the law meet to discuss their plans. The police argue amongst themselves, whilst the criminals utilise the best spies they have, the beggars.
Peter Lorre plays the killer with a subtlety that stands at odds with his contemporaries. He gives his character so many layers that you almost – almost – feel sympathetic towards him. This murderer kills not because he wants to, not because he gets pleasure from his actions, but because he must, because he is ill.
Everything about this film is an exercise in subtlety. Lorre is captured not by any great error on his own part, but by his distinctive whistle and the purchase of a balloon. The violence is always hidden or off screen; Lorre’s first appearance on screen is nothing more than a shadow on a pillar as he catches his latest victim. The same ominous shadow that is cast throughout the whole film.
The film is naturally slow by today’s standards, but its gentle pace that allows tension to be built steadily and unremittingly. There are a few shots that perhaps linger longer than is welcome, but on the whole the film trots along perfectly, leading to stunning climax.
And the climax? Identified by a chalked M on his back, Lorre is hunted down by the criminals and locked in a business complex. The film turns into a heist movie as the criminals dig him out and bring him before the criminal court, which is one of the most chilling images you’re likely to see. The sheer hatred and anger directed by the criminals towards the killer drips from the screen.
The film’s resolution is wonderfully pitched and leaves you guessing all the way. It feels right, yet the last shot makes you doubt your judgement. Like every other question the film raises, the answer you’ll find is not an easy one.