Though it was generally that of a villain, Peter Lorre had many faces. His protruding features, accentuated by his bulging bug-like eyes, could send a chill down your spine, bring tears to your eyes, or add a smile to your face with ease. He was the face of a ruthless terrorist, an obsessive stalker, an illegitimate Samaritan, and, in one of his most distinctly subversive roles, a bumbling Russian Commissar with an unexpected talent for tripping the light fantastic. And you would always be hypnotized by his presence. However, it was undoubtedly as the face of a child murderer that Lorre made his greatest cinematic mark.
Fritz Lang’s M isn’t just a great film, it’s a monument of cinema. Written by Lang and his wife Thea von Harbou, it loosely dramatizes the actions of the notorious “vampire of Dusseldorf”, who haunted the city in the 1920s. Relocated to Berlin, Lang immerses his audience within a community shaken by fear. There’s a murderer roaming the streets, prying on young unaccompanied children, and the police seem powerless to stop him. As the law search for clues, the criminal underworld forms their own search party to hunt the killer before he strikes again.
Lang himself said that he considered M to be his finest film, which is quite a statement for a director who helped define German Expressionism with such bold and brooding fantasies as Metropolis and the Dr. Mabuse series. Those films, like many others from the era, embodied a theatrical style that rooted the stories within an artificial world that would subtly symbolize something far more authentic. In comparison, M is firmly set within reality, playing out as a police procedural thriller and shot with an unassuming camera that documentarily captures the action.
Yet the director still abides by many of the Expressionist characteristics. Through the police’s inability to apprehend the culprit, Lang exposes a society plagued with fear and driven by suspicion. In one of the film’s most startling moments, the innocent act of a man telling a child the time is misconstrued as an attempt at grooming. Much like Robert Wiene’s Dr. Caligari, the anxious existence we see echoes the pressure persistently mounted on Germany following the end of the First World War.
However, M is far more than an exercise in Expressionist realism. It is a dark and daring manifestation of the psychological thriller, driven equally by the talents of its extraordinary star and director. Though Lorre’s appearance is minimal for much of the film’s first half, his presence is always felt. He is a man revealed in the shadows, harmlessly buying a balloon for a young girl and accompanying her while he whistles Grieg’s ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’. Soon however, the child has disappeared, the balloon has floated away, and all that remains is the haunting resonation of the whistling in your ear. The dread his shadow can then exude is overwhelming, Lang forcing those in the audience to be as fearful as those on the screen.
When he is finally revealed, it is Lorre’s naturalism that chills us. He is invisible to those around him, just another member of the community. He could be your lodger, your customer, perhaps even your friend. Like all of cinema’s most memorable monsters, there is nothing on the surface to distinguish Lorre from anyone else, which Lang uses to build a gnawing sense of tension. An atmosphere he then intensifies through sound, sometimes exaggerating the volume to piercing effect and then suddenly removing it all together.
The actor meanwhile, stunningly utilizes the contortions of his face and movement of his eyes to transform into the killer. It is his reflection that then reveals his intent, his bodying changing as if it has just been injected with nectar. Rarely can something visual stir so much terror and hate
Master of Darkness that he is though, Lang has not finished yet and upends all the power that has been building within both you and film during his astonishing final scene. Lorre’s explosion of guilt and torment is one of the single greatest monologues ever committed to fictional cinema. A powerfully poignant portrait of a man controlled by forces he himself cannot stop.
Through it all, it’s Peter Lorre’s ever-changing face that holds your gaze and continues to plague your mind long after the film’s vague and dejected conclusion. He was a man of many faces, but this was his most memorable.
M will be playing at the BFI Southbank as part of an extended season celebrating the work of Peter Lorre until October 7th. For full details, click here.