Fritz Lang did it again.
Of all the films I’ve watched so far, using 101 Horror Movies as my guide, this and Nosferatu are probably my favorites so far.
The story is good, and its also very disturbing.
Peter Lorre plays Hans Beckert, and he is a child killer, first appearing as a malignant shadow talking to a little girl, before she disappears.
His character is terrorizing a town, abducting children from the streets with promises of candy and toys, and they are never seen again.
He sends letters to both the police and the newspapers, and its hinted at through an investigative sequence, that perhaps he does more to the children as well, though we never learn, but to leave it as a mystery like that makes it just as frightening.
The police practically ransack the town to track down Beckert, following down even the flimsiest lead if it draws them closer.
This however steps on the toes of those in the underworld, who are just as upset with Beckert’s actions, though whether they are upset that he is killing children or just causing the police to crack down on the town, and therefore them is unclear at the beginning.
In a wonderfully intercut sequence both the police and the heads of the crime unions are debating about what to do, and how to catch and stop Beckert.
Then the chase is on to see who will get to him first and render justice.
When the Beggars Union of the crime syndicates find him first and mark him, what follows is a tense sequence as Beckert is trailed, until the child he’s taken with him realizes there is a chalk ‘M’ on his back, and then tells him! The realization of what is going on dawns on his face, and he panics and runs.
He holes up in an office building but is slowly hunted down, until he is grabbed, and brought to trial before the criminals and a portion of the town.
At this point, despite the fact that you know he’s done wrong, lets be honest, downright evil, Beckert no longer seems to be such a malignant character, now he is a sad, pathetic creature, one who is now desperately afraid of what will befall him in this court.
He makes an interesting speech wherein he points out that who are they to judge him, they could just as easily stop their thieving and murdering, but they don’t. How is he so different?
It’s a fair point.
The film is truly troubling in the way it presents its subject matter, almost in a documentary style, the camera is merely an observer, showing us the story, it’s not trying to manipulate your emotions, it’s not lying to you, its not keeping anything hidden, it simply gives you the facts, and lets you proceed from there.
There’s something about this film that got under my skin, I don’t know what it was, albeit the subject matter is troubling, but I was both disturbed and enthralled by it.
I think part of it was that for so long in my mind I have associated Lorre with his role of Ugarte in Casablanca, he’s a rat, sure, but you tend to think he’s mostly harmless, slimey, but harmless. Yet, when he’s first shown to us here, he seems to be quite content with what he’s doing, his performance is chilling, whistling (though this was recorded by Lang as Lorre couldn’t whistle) as he stalks children, and when he’s hunted through the business offices part of you wants to see him caught, but the other part of you is actually afraid for him, that isn’t easily done and that is due to his performance.
He talks later of the ghosts and voices that haunt him, but he certainly didn’t seem haunted while he was in the process of abducting his target, was he lying in his trial?
Where does the line for right and wrong get drawn? At what point should people, even criminals take the law into their as vigilantes?
There would have been no better trial by his peers than the one Beckert is given, and both sides actually make very good arguments, and ike the rest of the film it is chilling.
Lorre is amazing, and does something I couldn’t believe would’ve been possible, and that is to feel empathy and sorrow for his character. But you want justice as well, though as the women at the end of the film point out, how will that bring back the lost children.
Be wary, keep an eye out, and keep your children safe.
I can’t recommendthis film enough, it blew me away, and in parts, is truly frightening.