M (Murderer Among Us) a film by Fritz Lang

A Commentary by Linda Merritt

The following is one of the papers I wrote for Film History class. It got an A+ from my teacher, but since he graded on a curve I'm not sure if it's really good or if I was the only one who took the class because I actually LIKE film history.

This film is the story of a serial killer and the reactions to his presence by the public and the police. When police efforts to track him down prove fruitless, the city's criminals form a network of spies and track him down themselves. The film's final sequence consists of a mock trial and a closer look into the murderer's tortured mind.

The film is full of sinister foreshadowing right from the opening shot, of innocent children playing a variation of "Eenie Meenie Miney Mo". But the children's rhyme immediately sets the gruesome tone of the film, and succinctly informs the audience of a string of murders before the film's opening:

Just you wait a little while,
the nasty man in black will come,
and with his little chopper
he will chop you up.

After seeing a mother nervously awaiting the return of her child, the film cuts to a little girl walking down the street, bouncing her ball. She bounces it against a wanted poster for the child murderer. The murderer's first appearance is his shadow suddenly looming onto the poster, the shadow appearing to speak as he asks the child her name, stressing his anonymity. Lang intercuts between Elsie's mother getting more and more agitated and the murderer buying Elsie a balloon and whistling, the tune getting faster and faster as he gets himself more worked up. Lang keeps cutting from where Elsie is to where she isn't, making very effective use of using inanimate objects and empty spaces to make Elsie's fate more horrifying. When Elsie's mother calls for her, Lang shows a number of still life shots in succession: the empty sinister staircase in a twisted spiral with shadows like prison bars, to the empty gloomy courtyard, to her place at the table set and waiting, to Elsie's ball rolling away on the ground, to the forlorn balloon with it's string twisted in the telephone wires. Without showing a drop of blood to the audience, Lang deftly conveys to the audience that Elsie is never coming home again.

Lang then shows how the string of murders has frightened the public. People are accusing each other, and coming to blows. In a bit of well-needed comic relief, two witnesses only frustrate the police as their descriptions conflict with each other, and a brawl nearly ensues. The man insisting that the child had green hair accuses, "if you choose to believe a color-blind man, that's your problem". A man stops to speak to a child on the street, and is immediately viewed with suspicion, accosted, and finally dragged away by an impromptu mob. In this scene Lang makes excellent use of camera angles to show the man's persecution. When speaking to the child he is shot straight on. But as soon as he's asked what he is doing speaking to a strange child, he is now shot from a high angle, and his accusers from a very low angle, accentuating the way they tower over him. This starts as a comic scene, which just makes the pedestrians turned mob more frightening, as the more he protests his innocence, the more riled the crowd get, the more convinced they are he is guilty merely for protesting his innocence, and the more they grasp at him as if ready to tear him to shreds. In the following sequence, an arrested pickpocket cries, "Why is it you can catch pickpockets but not the kinder murderer?", some spectators ask each other "Did he say they caught the kinder murderer?", other people hear, and in seconds the police and pickpocket are fighting a bloodthirsty mob all desperate to exact their justice. The public is so appalled and terrified by the murderer among them that they become feral violent people themselves, so desperate for a just conclusion the to situation that they lose all perspective and go after anyone. Lang studies this "lynch mob" mentality more thoroughly in his later film Fury.

Lang's tendency to use sound to contrast his images is shown again when the head of police explains in detail all that his police forces are doing to track the killer, mostly from off-camera, while the camera instead illustrates all that he is describing, accentuating the documentary feel of the piece,(1) and giving the impression that what is being shown is what is actually occurring at the time the narrative is being spoken.

In the police raid scene, the bar that is raided is shown down a twisting flight of stairs into a crowded and oppressive low-ceilinged basement, like a den of rats. The captain and his men descend to the crowd followed by their long menacing shadows, in a shot that seems to double their number. But the people of the underworld taunt and insult the cops much like the students in The Blue Angel, aware of the limitations of the police's power, and how far they can go as a group to show their displeasure without individualized punishment. They set up a table and laboriously screen each person one by one. The confiscated loot is staggering. Obviously both sides have done this many times before, and tensions are high. When a policeman tells the bar owner he doesn't like it either, coming night after night, she talks about how useless it is, because criminals wouldn't give shelter to this monster anyway. She says "Don't you know how mad everyone is about this guy? Especially the girls. Sure they solicit, but every one is a little mother at heart. Crooks get sort of tender when they see kids. If they catch that murdering pig they'll wring his neck.", which is nearly what they actually do near the end of the film. In another example of foreshadowing, when the heads of the respective criminals unions are impatiently waiting for Shranker to show up, one of them brags that the cops couldn't have nabbed him - they have looked for him for six years and not caught him. Another replies "but dogs can kill wolves". Later in the film, Lorre has become an allegory of the rabid wolf killing innocent sheep, and the criminals have become the pack of dogs that bring him down.

Ingenious cutting interweaves the milieus of the police and the underworld; while the gang leaders discuss their plans, police experts too, sit in conference, and these two meetings are paralleled by constant shifts of scene which hinge on subtle association.(2) As they intercut, most or all of the men attending these meetings are shown only in silhouette, accentuating their similarity. The heads of these two groups are paralleled too, in their manner of command, their similar use of hats and canes, and the leather gloves and jacket that Shranker wears very much like the suits the head of police wears as his "uniform" of position.

A parallel between the crooks and the murderer is also implied, as Shranker says that the gangs must catch him themselves not only because he is disrupting their business, but because "our reputation is suffering. The police are looking for the murderer in our circles. When I run into a cop whole on business, he knows the risk - so do I. That's the risk one takes. But we are not on the level of this murderer. We must make a living. But this monster has no fight to live".

Sitting on a cafe terrace behind an ivy-covered trellis, with only his cheeks gleaming in through the foliage, he suggests a beast of prey lurking in the jungle.(3) The leaves both obscure and isolate him. Using sound, Lang effectively depicts the moment when the murderer gets the urge to kill by the increasing intensity and urgency of his whistling. A blind man, who is totally dependent on sound, recognizes the murderer from this whistled tune. (4) Using the whistling to track him down, a fellow beggar chalks an "M" on his hand and pretends to be tripped by Lorre, marking the murderer so the beggars and thieves can follow him.

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Special thanks to Jon Poor at Poor Design Group for the graphic design tips and other helpful hints.

For educational use only. No rights given or implied.

Questions? Comments? Email me at babaloo@mninter.net