Fritz Lang never fails to be ahead of his time. Despite sound having existed in film for four years previously M is Lang’s first film with synchronised sound. The sound is used in modern and innovative ways throughout. Often in ways that would later become classic tropes. However it is not just in the sound that the film breaks ground, sequences are intercut to create irony in their contemporaneousness, shots obscure the faces of characters, allowing the plot to play out in a series of symbols.
M tells the story of the hunt and capture of a known paedophile and murderer. It could be, from that description, a classic old time chase film, complete with some clueless cops and a denouement where the day has once more been saved and the bad guys locked up, despite police ineptitude. However M does not allow itself to degenerate into such a film. From the very first scenes, new ideas and questions are directed at the audience. Where is the line between legality and morality? Why is it that criminals, who clearly understand “a criminal mind” are never allowed to help hunt down each other? In fact, M aptly demonstrates this; it is the criminal underbelly who find the murderer within a few days when the police have been fruitlessly searching for months. However, this is only the case because the criminals choose to exploit a workforce of homeless beggars. At what point does the end no longer justify the means?
With all the great visual surveillance put in place by both teams, it is not by sight, but by sound that the murderer is identified. In what had, up until very recently,been a purely visual medium, this is a bold use of sound as a key plot device, not as the accompaniment it was often seen to be. The murderer has a musical motif before we even see his face, characters are heard speaking while off-screen. The final sequences take place in a mess of shouting and anguish. The sound builds and builds upon itself until it is horrifyingly loud. One can only imagine the effect of this on an audience so unaccustomed to hearing voices from a screen.
Peter Lorre’s performance as the murderer cornered is gut-wrenching. In a single speech he describes the nature of obsession, compulsion and fear and the pain and guilt he feels. This is made even more touching by the context. A mock court-room run by criminals who steal and kill as their wills bid them, never knowing what it is to truly regret their actions. It would seem that there is no hope for him, and yet still he shares these thoughts. He wishes to be at least heard, if not understood or accepted. After all this it is a wonder that the film can take another turn, yet it seems to have a double ending. Lang fades to black only to fade back into the action to a single shot, one which shows us the pointlessness of it all. How useless are our ethics and criminals in the face of pure wrong and grief. If there is anything to be taken from this film it is that: to guard against injustice in the first place rather than concerning ourselves with the ethics of bringing a criminal to justice.