A distant memory of Peter Lorre's unique screen presence has stayed with me since I first saw him in Casablanca in my youth: his expressive eyes, hunched back, pudgy face, and somehow diabolical screen presence. Now, seeing Fritz Lang's German film M, starring Lorre as a kindermord or child murderer, I understand better the Peter Lorre mystique. Only he could inhabit the definitive doppelgänger character of M.
The picture above displays the complex, rich dualities of the film: mirroring, marking, darkness, fear. True, it is an "old" film, but after reading this and listening briefly to the Criterion Collection's DVD commentary, M is even better than you could think. Made in 1930, the film beautifully portrays the paralytic government of the Weimar Republic and the social disorder that led to Nazism.
All the scenes develop the film's intellectual framework, and it's weird to see camera and audio combined so well, considering that M was Lang's first film with sound -- perhaps M is the first great film with sound, since the technology had only just been developed. Many films play off the parallel organizational styles of the cops and the crooks, but Lang flashes between the two groups at work trying to catch the villain, who eventually carries the "M" mark of Cain.
Pathological criminals often seek to be caught, so we know how the film will end. Lorre's kindermord character is eventually brought to justice by the underworld, foreshadowing the rise of Nazi power from the ground up. Like all great filmmakers, Lang is markedly patient with the camera and his cuts, requiring some patience, but I found M as suspenseful as any drama I can recall, much like Kurosawa's Yojimbo. Indeed, it takes an intelligent film for me to think, "Get that bastard!"