Thomas Pollock’s review published on Letterboxd:
The thing that makes “M” so great is the official film noir quality it has and its thrilling plot. “Fritz Lang” was one of Germany’s best directors and was an immensely important one too. “M” is certainly one of his best as is “Metropolis”. Featuring a young Peter Lorre, who was surprisingly distinguished in his role in the film, the story is drenched in great suspense. This is one of Lang’s final films made in Germany as he emigrated in 1933 (I assume because of the Nazis) and “M” remains one of his most important films. This is one of Lang’s greatest works and is everything you could ask for in film noir.
Peter Lorre is Franz Becker, a compulsive child murderer in Germany 1931 Berlin. The police are anxious to capture him and they begin rounding up every criminal in town. The underworld leaders decide to take the heat off their activities by catching the child killer themselves. Once the killer is fingered, he is marked with the letter "M" chalked on his back. He eventually ends up being tracked down and captured by the combined forces of the Berlin criminal community, who put him on trial for his life in a kangaroo court. The killer pleads for mercy, whining that he cannot control his homicidal instincts. The police close in and rescue the killer from the underworld so that he can stand trial again in "respectable" circumstances. Some prints of the film end with a caution to the audience to watch after their children more carefully.
The young 26-year-old Peter Lorre was no less than magnificent in his role whose facial expressions are memorable and impressive. Lorre’s appearance in the movie gives him his presence in a beautiful manner. Becker rarely has any dialogue in the film until the final scene. His presence in the movie is often implied rather than seen; he compulsively whistles the same tune, from "Peer Gynt,'' over and over, until the notes stand in for the murders. Lorre may not have charm and good looks, but he makes a fine actor.
“M” has some of the most memorable images in cinema history: Lorre staring into the mirror at the letter "M" on his back, a child’s ball rolling from a bush, the chase through deserted night-time streets, and numerous other scenes. From all the dark chiaroscuro shots, banked angles and chase sequences, it is film noir at its finest. In this early use of great techniques, you can see its style of filmmaking would later be inherited; like in the 1949 film “The Third Man”, were a chase sequence was used alongside special shots and tones, giving it a similar visual look.
As a film of the early days of sound, it surpasses most of them. Most films had a static, theatrical look. “M” is Lang’s first sound film that was shot in 1930 and his use of techniques surpassed many films of this time. The camera moves at will, gliding and craning through studio sets, creating an open, flowing, lyrical look for the movie. Lang’s illustrious German expressionism of the silent era fits well with this mild talkie picture.
Another thing that makes this a very surprising film is the amount of swearing there is in it. This is one of the few films from this period to feature such language. The word ‘Bastard’ is used several times and the film remains Unrated. I do not mind at all, just an interesting thought.
Lang and his wife Thea von Harbau who was a screenwriter wrote “M”. His wife would soon give in to the Nazis in the early 1930s and joined the NSDAP in 1932. They soon divorced. Lang's fears would be realised following his departure from Austria, as under Nazi eugenics laws he would be identified as a Jew even though his mother was a converted Roman Catholic, and he was raised as such. Lang immigrated to America in 1933-34 where his early American films “Liliom” and “Fury”.
Even after 80 years, his early talkie classic works magnificently as a carefully constructed thriller. The way the film was put together interests me, because the set pieces, cinematography and editing are impressive for its time. Films were a challenge to edit during these times and were truly a physical challenge. In some shots of the film we have impressive quick cutting and scene swapping, that was all nicely constructed.
Fritz Lang as a hugely important director of the silent era and early talkie films and his techniques, were, and are a source of inspiration for filmmakers. Lang was easily one of the best of the medium. Many great films came out of Germany during the silent era such as F.W Murnau’s “Nosferatu”, Erich Von Stroheim’s “Greed” and even Lang’s own “Metropolis”. All these films have illustrious style and technique that have inspired many films after it. “M” most certainly sits among these early classics/masterpieces, a must-see for film lovers, historians and critics.