Cast: Peter Lorre, Otto Wernicke, Gustaf Grundgens
SUMMARY: In Germany, a town has been terrorized by a rampaging serial killer, who abducts (and presumably kills) small children. Mothers all over the city are on edge, and start paying extra attention to their children. While many parents have started to pick their children up from school, Elsie Beckmann still walks home to her waiting mother. However, this day she is approached by a man who is whistling “In the Hall of the Mountain King”, who asks her about the ball she is playing with. He then buys her a balloon from a blind vendor, and walks down the street with her. Several hours later, Elsie has still not returned home; her ball is seen abandoned in the grass, and her balloon gets stuck on overhead power lines. This latest crime puts the entire community even more on edge, and when the killer sends a letter to the newspaper, the police kick things into high gear. They analyze the letter for clues, and take fingerprint and handwriting samples. Inspector Karl Lohmann (Otto Wernicke), who is in charge of the investigation, pushes his men to turn over every stone. On the hunch that the man is mentally disturbed, the police look into the records of all recently released psychiatric patients. They begin arresting anyone who seems slightly suspicious, and stage frequent raids on shady businesses. All of this disrupts the city’s criminal underworld, which angers and worries the head boss, called “The Safecracker”(Gustaf Grundgens). At a meeting with the other bosses, he decides that for their own good, they must catch the killer as soon as possible. To keep a constant eye on the city’s children, they employ beggars, giving each a particular section of the city to patrol. Meanwhile, the police have searched the apartment of a man named Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre), and have found clues indicating that he is the murderer. Several of them then wait in the room for Beckert to return.
Beckert himself is out on the street, where he sees a young girl by herself. He follows her, but is forced to retreat when the girl meets her mother. However, he finds another little girl, and starts talking to her. He begins whistling “In the Hall of the Mountain King” as they walk past the balloon vendor — who recognizes the tune and remembers hearing it on the day Elsie Beckmann disappeared. The vendor tells a younger (sighted) friend, who is one of the beggars employed by the Safecracker. Trading off as Beckert moves through the city, the beggars follow him nonstop. One of them is afraid that he will either lose Beckert or be spotted, so he draws a large chalk “M” on his hand, then claps Beckert on the shoulder, leaving the chalk imprint on his coat. However, the beggars do not lose Beckert, and he eventually realizes he is being followed — and why. He hides in a huge office building, which is locked up shortly thereafter. The beggars alert Safecracker and the others, who arrive with a plan. They break into the building, take the guards prisoner, and torture one of them for information. They then search the entire building, ultimately finding Beckert in the attic. However, one of the guards manages to trigger a silent alarm, alerting the police; the criminals escape with Beckert just in time. All of them escape but one, who is arrested by the police and questioned. After some time, and veiled threats from the police, this man reveals where Beckert has been taken. The criminals have taken him to an old, empty distillery, where they have convened a “trial”. It is clear that most, if not all, of the assembled crowd (including some of the mothers of the missing children) wish to see Beckert executed immediately. In the interests of “fairness”, Beckert has been given a lawyer, who tries to put up a good defense. However, it is Beckert himself who does the most for his defense, when he goes on a rant explaining how he is unable to stop his compulsion to kill. Though his lawyer argues for insanity, the criminals seem to have made their decision, but just then the police arrive. Beckert is eventually put on trial in a real court; just before the verdict is announced, the mothers of the missing children are shown. Elsie’s mother notes that no matter the outcome, the children will not come back, and states that parents must keep a closer watch on their children.
MY TAKE: This is one of those movies where I don’t mind reading subtitles, because it’s really good. Considering the early date at which this movie was made (it was actually Fritz Lang’s first “talkie”), it shows a number of great cinematic techniques: for example, you don’t see the killer’s face for quite a while, and you don’t know his name for even longer than that. The scene where the beggars tail Beckert through the city is really tense, first because you don’t know if the blind man is going to find someone to tell in time, and then because it keeps seeming like Beckert is going to figure things out. The whole story is an interesting premise, since it’s the criminal underworld of the city who actually manage to find Beckert. Granted, they want to get rid of him so that the police will leave them alone, but they do seem genuinely appalled that the man is targeting children. After they manage to find him, they put him on trial, with the obvious intention of killing him. At the start of this trial, I was definitely on the side of the criminals — while I wasn’t really comfortable with them just killing the man, I can understand the reasons behind it, and I can’t argue with their logic. According to them, in a real court, Beckert would just use the insanity defense; he would then either spend the rest of his life in a psychiatric hospital, where his bills would be paid by the state, or he would be paroled or escape, and go back to killing. However, after Beckert’s outburst, I did think that he really was mentally ill, and I have a problem condemning someone who can’t help himself (as did the “defense lawyer” and several others in the room). Also, as the “lawyer” pointed out, Safecracker himself was wanted for at least three homicides, so what makes him any better than Beckert? Some really interesting questions are raised, and I was a little disappointed that the police showed up just then. It stopped the criminals from having to make a decision about Beckert, but I would have liked to see what they ultimately decided, and if any of them changed their minds. Despite all of this, as Elsie’s mother points out, nothing will bring back the missing children. It’s not a very satisfying ending, but the rest of it is very tense and suspenseful.