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Peter Lorre




Nero-Film AG, 1930.  Directed by Fritz Lang.  Camera:  Fritz Arno Wagner.  With Peter Lorre, Ellen Widmann, Inge Landgut, Otto Wernicke.

The economy, austerity and directness of the films of Fritz Lang made him one of the most profound, and precise filmmakers. Lang, a master of the German expressionist film, shot his first talkie, a crime drama considered a landmark in the story of suspense movies. It was a shocking idea for its time, based on the real-life killer Peter Kurten, headlined as the Vampire of Düsseldorf.

'M' is about a terrorized city, and a plump little man with wide eyes (often chewing candy) who is a pathological child-killer, unable to control his urge for killing. The film embodies several Lang themes: the duality between justice and revenge, mob hysteria, the menacing anticipation of watching a helplessly trapped individual trying fruitlessly to escape as greater forces move inexorably in, and, for probably the first time in the cinema, it adds a new dimension to suspense: pity.  For the killer is clearly mentally sick―he cannot overcome the overwhelming compulsion of his murderous disease, and yet, we see him hunted down and almost lynched as a criminal, rather than treated as a sick man.

Early in the film, the killer is heard whistling the Grieg theme from 'In the Hall of the Mountain King'. This theme inexorably becomes imbued with menace.  And when we see no more than a girl looking in a shop window, the melody on the soundtrack tells us chillingly that the murderer is there, just out of sight.

The Murderer is played by Peter Lorre in a virtuoso performance that has barely been matched in all the thrillers he has made since Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, and The Mask of Dimitrios.  When the photographs of his victims, all little girls, are shown to him, he jumps back and twitches with horror.

With powerful visuals, Lang's motion picture was Lorre's first film.  His performance as the corpulent, hunted psychopath was a masterpiece of mime and suggestion.  Lorre was the archetypal outsider―outside the law and society because of his compulsive crimes, outside the balancing society of the underworld because he was not a professional criminal.  He had only twelve lines of dialog.

In the most famous of all about a pathological killer―Alfred Hitchcock's PsychoAnthony Perkins lacked not only the threat of the tortured Peter Lorre, but also the dimension of invoking our incredulous sympathy.

Psycho reeked with blood and horror, whereas the suspense of M is subtle:  a child's balloon without an owner and a rolling ball are enough to tell us that another murder had been committed.  The audience, trapped in its seats, torn by ambivalent feelings towards the killer, watched him trapped as the net was pulled tight.

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