You look at two thirds of this film, and you're looking at an episode of Taggart or Prime Suspect, perhaps Cracker. A serial killer is on the loose in the city, the people are terrified, the press are doing rather nicely out of it - printing mail from the killer and flooding the streets with extra editions, the police are clueless and their bosses are leaning on them to get a result. We follow their investigation and the killer in a race against time. All so-so sofa fare, so far.
Except, this is a 1931 German film not a 1990s ITV police procedural, one of the earliest talkies and, in the hands of Fritz Lang, a bit of a wonder.
If you've seen Metropolis at any of its various lengths or speeds, even with the addition of Pat Benatar and colouring in, you can't help being attuned to Lang's vision of the city and of class. The towering tenement at the film's opening has no elevator and a water pump in the square below, making you wonder if it has running water either, and you can't help being reminded that that really is how our cities' poor once lived. This is also a city in which industry has died, the derelict state of the warehouse of the film's climax is pointedly highlighted, the beggars are unionised, organised crime has more resources than the police, and yet the bank is protected by an elaborate security system which can draw the police in minutes, even at the height of a city wide murder hunt.
The use of sound is really impressive, pretty much every successful film audio technique is here from the off, intercutting dialogue, incongruous juxtapositions of image and sound, the whistled tune that tells us the killer is around before we see him, all great stuff, even if now a couple of the deliberately mute sequences now seem oddly lacking.
Peter Lorre is of course excellent, resembling some strange Orson Welles, Tony Hancock, Pete Doherty combo, all big eyes, round face and full lips, like a world weary baby with a penchant for long coats and hats, he doesn't seem to do much at first, but there's a powerful cumulative effect to this performance.
Cinematically, the whole thing feels very contemporary, bar a couple of frankly silly low angle shots, and the screen ratio is also jolly exciting for the likes of me, still chanting 4:3 good, 16:9 bad, it's almost completely square. I never got bored and looked at the black bits at the screen edges once.
Perhaps the one big weakness in the film naturalistically is that the people's court that appears towards the end feels rather out of place after a couple of superb demonstrations of the nature of mob justice, early on. Given what we know of human nature and what we see in the film, particularly when a fare dodge nearly gets lynched when Chinese whispers identify him as the murderer on the loose, it seems unlikely the killer would have lived for more than minutes after his discovery. This isn't a naturalistic film though, and its right the film's underpinning ideas get this slightly unrealistic outing, even if now seems a touch 'on the nose'.
Incidentally, for a late expressionist, early film noir (take your pick) movie about the hunt for a child killer, this is surprisingly funny, which no one's ever suggested to me, before. A lot of the scenes with the criminal underworld are quite broadly comic, including a quite lengthy sequence in which the police raid an illegal nightclub.
The heavy shadow of the Nazis hangs over the film of course, this is Weimar Germany in collapse on screen, which perhaps makes me more uncomfortable with the suggestion that a city's crooks and pan handlers might be all part of a secret and structured order- it's a little too close to the lies that allow whole classes of people to be demonised, declared subhuman, and eliminated, but that's also part of what makes the film live. There's a queasy lack of moral high ground, anywhere, and the final shot warns us that none of our cures for our social ills and illnesses are better than their prevention.
You should see this, the emotional tone is surprisingly broad and there's genuine suspense too, in which your sympathies shift in sometimes unexpected directions. If for nothing else, you need to see it for an utterly superb shot of a man smoking a cigar in a pipe. Recommended.