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.
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.
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!