School’s out and young Elsie bounces her ball and makes her way across town to get home to her mother. On her way, a shadowy figure approaches her and walks her to buy a nice balloon and some sweets. This is the last time we see her alive, as Elsie is found dead later that day, with the papers referring to her as the ninth victim of a killer who’s been terrorizing the city. The townsfolk have now grown restless, and immediately devolve into shouts and outrage. In the wake of public outcry, police launch a full-scale investigation to catch this terror.
This is no whodunnit, however, as the identity of the killer is revealed rather quickly to be an otherwise unremarkable individual by the name of Hans (Peter Lorre). This movie has less to do with the murderer and has more to do with how the murderer’s crimes have torn apart a normally close-knit community. The townsfolk are quick to point fingers, but never look inward. They are only concerned about themselves, casting blame on all others without stopping to think what they could do that could stop this from happening again. They are choosing to buy that, even after eight children died, that this was a freak occurrence and not really their business until the police made it their business. Before Elsie is taken, we are shown scenes of her mother asking around if anybody’s seen her. Nobody bothered to notice, and the worst happened.
The law is no more effective, as the cops spend most of their time bursting into local homes and businesses only managing to load up their paddy wagons with innocent people. This tactic might catch the killer in time, but it comes at the cost of an already stressed town’s privacy as their darker hobbies are being taken away. Seeing a sizable dip in the seedier side of town’s business due to the nightly raids that are getting nowhere, the local crime bosses take matters into their own hands. They organize the city’s homeless population to keep an eye on the children with each one designated a section of the city.
Ironically, it is the blind beggar who finally spots the man who did his preying in full view of the public. It’s the tune that Hans whistles, “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” that allows the blind man to see what the rest could not. Hans—in a dreadfully anxious nail-biter of a scene—is hunted down by an army of townspeople and taken to an abandoned distillery where he is put on trial in a kangaroo court. He bears his soul to the crowd, but they only want his head. Peter Lorre really shines here in the scene where he pleads to the crowd as Hans’ disturbing duality is revealed. The beast inside him is insatiable, and his ‘regular self’ lives his life in constant regret over that which he cannot control. The crowd almost had their revenge, but their infighting and need to gloat give the police just enough time to take Hans away and give him a real trial.
Many of your typical noir motifs can be found here, and this is before they were standard. Shadows are capitalized on as Franz, a criminal, is introduced as nothing more than a silhouette speaking with Elsie, and later on as he cowers in the darkness of an abandoned factory. The complex men walking the thin lines, separating the opposite sides of the law, lay out all of their plans in small rooms filled to the brim with smoke; high quality cigars for the more important figures and cigarettes for those around them. The sort of hopeful, yet cynical, final message is a cold splash of water on the audience who’ve already been taken for a grim ride.
Even though Hans is such a monster, we are never shown him get his comeuppance. In lieu of the result to the trial, we are met with a final plea from the surviving mothers who had their children taken. Whether the killer was brought to justice or not, these nine girls are already gone, and nothing will change that. The original title of M was Murderers Among Us (fun fact: the title was changed because the still rising Nazi Party was afraid the title was referring to them), which pairs nicely with the final thought of the film, that we need to keep a better eye on each other and especially on the children of our communities. As a line earlier in the film states, a tragedy like this is all of our faults and all of our responsibilities.
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