I wrote about this in the first year of the blog:
I just watched M again, and as always, Peter Lorre is so magnificent. You want to make fun of him ... if you're of a certain age (like, for instance, MY age), you can do a Peter Lorre imitation, and he's mostly a joke. But he was a great actor, and in M, even when you know his big scene is coming, and even when you think you're going to laugh, once he starts in, you're taken in once again, with simultaneous pity and horror at this sick child murderer.
I read his bio on the IMDB, and found this anecdote especially good:
“During the Hayes Commission investigation of 'reds' in Hollywood during the late 40s, Lorre was interviewed by investigators and asked to name anyone suspicious he had met since coming to the United States. Lorre responded with a list of everyone he knew.”
Watching it again (it was #68 on my Facebook Fave Fifty list, i.e. it didn’t quite make it), I realized how it was an early example of a police procedural. I may be the last person to figure that out. The long sequence where Lang crosscuts between the police and the criminals as they plan their varying approaches to catch the murderer might be a bit of a cliché, except I don’t imagine it was one in 1931. By giving the criminals equal time with the police, Lang anticipates series like The Wire. Ultimately, though, it all goes back to Peter Lorre. The most recent Criterion Blu-ray includes the English-language version, which is mostly a mess, but Lorre did his own dialogue, so you can watch his big scene in English.
There’s an old-time radio show starring Lorre that fascinates me. It was called Mystery in the Air, and the version with Lorre aired in 1947. It featured Lorre narrating and starring in dramas based on classic works by Poe, Dostoyevsky, and the like. John Dunning, in his invaluable reference book On the Air, describes what a session of the show was like:
Lorre delivered intense, supercharged performances of men tortured and driven by dark impulses. He stood alone at a center microphone, raving and wildly gesticulating, while supporting players worked at a second mike facing him. By the end of the half-hour, he was sweat-drenched and drained. Costar Peggy Walker recalled that once, in the heat of the performance, Lorre threw his script into the air and watched helplessly as the pages fluttered to the stage. Some quick work by the cast and judicious ad-libbing by Lorre got them to the midway break, at which point the script was retrieved and put into order.
Here is the final segment of the Mystery in the Air version of “The Black Cat”:
Meanwhile, M is #46 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 10/10.