A child murderer is on the loose. The police can’t find them no matter how many streets they patrol and no matter how many places they raid. Rather inconvenient for organized crime wouldn’t you say? That’s what they think in this movie so they decide to suspend operations while they hunt down the murderer independently. Step one, put every homeless person on the payroll because they are all but invisible even to the murderer. Sounds like a good plan and it works. They do catch him, but in the process have brought a mentally disturbed individual before a group of people who choose to be criminals and mothers who can only see the death of the murderer as justice. Putting aside all the social commentary, this film is worth watching purely for Lang’s technique as a director.
One of the first things I remember noticing about this film when I first saw it over three years ago was Lang’s use of sound. He didn’t just add sound like color is so often just added to film in a blanket manner. Lang artificially silences many sequences to build suspense or so that we only hear a single sound (like the whistle of the murderer). There are also numerous other special uses of sound. In fact, I would go so far as to say that you don’t hear anything that Lang didn’t purposely include for a very specific reason.
The use of the camera is also quite remarkable. Remember that this film was made in 1931 when sound was brand new and had oppressively anchored previously freewheeling cameras to a single position with only slight pans. Lang clearly took advantage of a technique used in numerous films like All Quiet On The Western Front whereby a silent camera was used for freedom of movement and the sound synchronized in post-production. This allows for a shot where the camera moves toward a window, a small part is opened, and the camera moves in to pan over several characters before resting upon one all in one smooth movement. It’s almost as impressive as the shot at the end of Antonioni’s The Passenger. Another example is a topographical shot of a hole in the floor that pulls back to reveal a circle of cops as a man climbs a rope from the room below.
The acting is not the central part of the film, but there are still two performances that are notable. The first is Peter Lorre as the murderer who convincingly portrays an otherwise innocent man who is overcome by something when he sees young girls that he can’t control. The second is Otto Wernicke as Inspector Lohmann who is trying to track Lorre. In fact, he did such a good job that Lang would use him and the character in the squeal to Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler called The Testament Of Dr. Mabuse.
Returning to the plot, this film also is an early example of the procedural. We are taken step by step through each piece of evidence till we reach the end of the story.
This is one of those really special films that never loses it’s power. My only complaint is that the ending never really satisfied me completely, but that’s a minor complaint that perhaps only bothers me. I can’t recommend this film enough.