The child murderer in M (Peter Lorre) makes his entrance as a silhouette cast on his own wanted poster.
In this early scene of Fritz Lang’s first sound film, the poster connects the victim to her killer. As little Elsie Beckmann bounces her ball against the column, the camera tilts upwards ominously so that the viewer can read the particulars of the crimes. And then the stranger’s shadow sidles into the frame.
Our inability to see the child and the man looming above her heightens our anxiety. Lang uses sound and offscreen space to frustrate his audience. He reminds us of our helplessness by removing us from the characters and forcing us to deduce the characters’ spatial locations from a silhouette and a ball bouncing in and out of the frame.
Confronted with imminent danger, made pitilessly obvious by the Gothic-font warning of the poster, we are paralyzed. What might otherwise be a perfectly innocuous exchange plays out with the darkest of irony. This child is about to die. The visuals drive that point home with ironclad inevitability. And we are powerless to intervene. Has any movie ever conjured that nightmare feeling, the inertia of dread, as well as M?
Noir owes a lot to M, but I don’t consider it a film noir. There’s something inherently romantic about noir. That’s the element missing from Lang’s thriller. That touch of fantasy, that seductive wickedness. Perhaps that’s what Lang meant when he suggested that he wasn’t an expressionist but a realist.
No, M‘s not noir. It’s a hell of a lot darker.
M succeeds in knocking its viewers off balance while not disorienting them. It has all the horrible clarity of the moment when you lose your footing, see the ground rising to meet you, and think, “Oh, no. I’m falling…”
Amusingly enough, you can hear Lang’s very personal contribution to the off-kilter quality of the film: “I am a musical moron who can’t carry a tune, but I decided to dub the whistling [of the murderer in M] myself. It was off key and turned out to be just right since the murderer himself is off balance mentally.”