Ellen Widmann

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M Review


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Critic David Thomson called him "the squat, wild-eyed spirit of ruined Europe, shyly prowling in and out of Warner Brothers shadows, muttering fiercely to himself." The Peter Lorre thus described was the Hollywood character actor familiar to Americans for his buggy looks of astonishment and his singular, rasping speech. But the wild-eyed spirit Thomson writes of first exhibited itself in Germany, before Lorre and director Fritz Lang fled that country's Nazis, in the 1931 Lang masterpiece M.

The "M" stands for "murderer" in either language, and the film is loosely based on the actual case of a Düsseldorf child killer named Peter Kurten. (His name was later borrowed for Copycat.) The plot of M echoes the fascination with shadowy syndicates and underworld figures that Lang exhibited in earlier films such as the Dr. Mabuse pieces and Spies: When a police dragnet for the child murderer upsets normal criminal activities, the criminals themselves organize and track the suspect down, labeling him, without his being aware of it, with a chalk "M" on the back of his coat.

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