Peter Lorre’s Sympathetic Psychopath

Peter Lorre in M (1931)

Peter Lorre in M (1931)

Peter Lorre, the pint size, bug-eyed actor with a nasal Viennese accent, made his name in Hollywood playing ruthless murderers and hooligans.

Lorre got his start in Germany in (shocker of shockers) comedies and musicals on the stage. But it was his breakthrough performance in the Fritz Lang thriller M (1931), along with his unconventional, sinister looks, that set him on the path of being typecast as some of the most despicable creatures ever put on film.

In M, Lorre plays Hans Beckert a serial killer in an unnamed city who preys on children, luring them with candy and toys.

The first half of the film is dedicated to the massive manhunt for the killer by police and the criminal underworld. Beckert hides in plain sight, whistling Edvard Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” as he roams the streets looking for victims, and as he sits in his room writing letters to the press.

Other than the disturbing whistling (which was done by Fritz Lang because Peter could not whistle!), the viewer doesn’t hear much spoken dialogue from Beckert.

Peter Lorre

Peter Lorre as Hans Beckert in M.

When he approaches his victim Elsie Beckmann, he casts a shadow on a wanted poster and says: “What a pretty ball! What’s your name?” He then lures the child away to a blind street vendor to buy her a balloon, whistling that creepy tune.

After he kills little Elsie Beckmann, the manhunt intensifies, and the terrified public becomes suspicious of everything and everyone around them.

And then the killer’s face is revealed as he stares at his childlike reflection in the mirror, bizarrely taking his middle fingers and stretching out the sides of his mouth as a graphologist dictates what he has found out about the killer’s personality through his handwriting.

Hans Beckert’s “Trial”

With the police unable to capture Beckert, the criminal underworld steps in and decides to do something about it. If the police can’t find him, they will.

And they do with the help of beggars.

They find Beckert in the street with a potential victim, and one of them marks the back of his overcoat with a large M in white chalk so they don’t lose him.

Peter Lorre

Hans Beckert’s trial

They finally corner him in an office building after the workers have left for the day and capture him. They then drag him down to an old, abandoned distillery where the underworld and angry citizens have gathered for the vigilante trial.

This is when the viewer suddenly starts to feel bad for Beckert. He looks like a scared little boy rather than a cold-blooded child murderer.

And you feel dirty for having sympathy toward a monster that kills children.

But in quite possibly the best nine minutes of acting ever put on film, Peter Lorre makes you want to reach out and give this awful creature a hug. The tears and the desperation in his voice convinces you that he is to be pitied and put away in a mental hospital where he can receive help, not executed for the crimes he has committed.

Watch the following clip and tell me what you think.

The way he says: “I can’t help it. I can’t…” and covers his face is heartbreaking. And, you are almost reduced to tears when he tells the “jury”: “But I…I can’t help myself. I have no control over this…this evil thing inside me, the fire, the voices, the torment!”

Lorre’s acting in that scene is so realistic, it’s frightening. You don’t want to feel sorry for him, but you are still compelled to.

And then when the film is finished, you have that damned song “In the Hall of the Mountain King” stuck in your head for days…

Let me know what you think about M, Fritz Lang, or Peter Lorre in the comments below!

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11 thoughts on “Peter Lorre’s Sympathetic Psychopath

  1. Rachel Flower

    Fabulous description. Hauntingly so. And it reminds me of when I was back studying writing at uni and one of the guest speakers was the guy that wrote ‘The Boys’ (name eludes me right now) but it was a compellingly horrible film based on a true story of a gang rape and murder. When we asked him how he could write in such a potent way he said: “I had to find that part of myself that could do that same thing. Chilling!!!

    1. Angie Schaffer Post author

      This is one of the films that prompted my mother to say: “Just hearing the name Peter Lorre scares the hell out of me.” LOL This whole film, and Lang’s use of shadows and dirty streets just makes it all the more terrifying. And the blasted whistling. *shudders*

      Lang was also a bit of a sadist and took pleasure in causing physical harm to the actors in his films when roles demanded it. Roughing up Peter Lorre in that clip I posted wasn’t just play acting. Lang told the actors to really go after him, and poor Peter reportedly nearly went unconscious in the midst of it.
      Angie Schaffer recently posted…Peter Lorre’s Sympathetic PsychopathMy Profile

  2. Sharon

    I didn’t watch the clip (I confess), but your description is haunting and compelling. Now I feel like I have to go out and look for M, but I hate movies like that, particularly because I have little kids. I can just imagine the kinds of questions the character evokes in people’s minds as they watch that part you posted in the clip… He probably did belong to a mental institution.
    Sharon recently posted…Don’t wait till it’s too late: Write Now!My Profile

    1. Angie Schaffer Post author

      Thankfully this film doesn’t go into too much detail about the capture and murder of the children. You simply know that it is done, and who it is doing it. The film mainly focuses on how the investigation by police isn’t turning up anything and the psychological effects that these crimes have on the public. Out of the Fritz Lang films I have on this blog (and there are a few) this is the one I recommend the most as it is terrifying because of the thoughts it puts in one’s mind and it is not gruesome. The gory details are left up to the viewer’s imagination.
      Angie Schaffer recently posted…Peter Lorre’s Sympathetic PsychopathMy Profile

    1. Angie Schaffer Post author

      I have a trouble ticket out for the mobile viewing problem. Let’s just see how fast the bloody developers get back to me on that. I might have to use a different plugin.

      ANYHOO…I think Lorre was probably the creepiest actor whoever lived. And that is what makes him so appealing to me lol.
      Angie Schaffer recently posted…The Top 5 Best Actresses in Black and WhiteMy Profile

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