Friday, 11 October 2013

Alternate Best Actor 1931: Peter Lorre in M

Peter Lorre did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Hans Beckert in M.

M is a masterpiece by Fritz Lang about the search for a child murderer whose crimes are so heinous that it causes even the city's criminals to look for the elusive murderer.

Peter Lorre's screen time in this film is actually extremely limited. His character though is the central character of the film and his performance is the only one in the film that stands out. This is not to say the other performances in the film are bad, in fact they tend to be rather solid, but they are really a sea of faces that Lang makes to represent the populace of the city looking and reacting to one man. Lorre plays the one man, that either everyone is looking for or worried about, in his most eerie role. Lorre went on to play many many of villains throughout his career but this is the one that started them all.

What Lorre does, that is quite striking particularly for a film from the thirties where dull or over the top performances was too often the norm, is go about playing the part of Hans Beckert in a very realistic manner. Lorre method of playing this role in that way makes it one of the most chilling portrait of a psychopath ever given on the screen. In his first scene Lorre is able to just make his silhouette frightening as he approaches a new victim. Lorre's is terribly natural in this scene as he approaches a little girl, inviting her to have a fun time with him in such a calm and welcoming manner.

Lorre uses his expressive face perfectly here as Beckert as he creates a living contradiction. Lorre has a soft face that can seem to be the face of just a gentle kind man, like he actually was in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, as Beckert there is something very off about it. Lorre wield both sides of the sword without a fault in his swing as he shows the face he would show any child. The face that is able to entice them into an afternoon with him, but with the same exact expression though Lorre also portrays the insanity. There is something very evil in Beckert and Lorre is especially chilling by keeping it in his softness.

The portrait of the killer that Lorre creates is particularly off putting in the film and the fear that he creates from his mere presence is overwhelming. There is not any flashy tricks that Lorre tries, he is not at all flamboyant in his portrayal, instead Lorre just gives a blunt portrayal of the worse kind of killer. Lorre performance is deeply disturbing because of the matter fact manner that he brings to Beckert. He gives life to man as horrible as Hans Beckert. Lorre does not try to make him anymore then he in and doing so truly disturbs with every frame of his performance as he walks the street stalking his helpless prey.  

The brilliance of M as well as Peter Lorre's performance is that suddenly the film takes a twist once the hunter becomes the hunted and the criminals track down Beckert by firstly stamping his back with the mark of M for murder. Lorre begins the transition masterfully with the classic moment as Beckert notices the mark in the mirror and instantly loses some of his composure knowing for sure that someone knows his dark secret. The succeeding scenes are just outstanding, mostly silent, moments of Lorre as he now shows the very real fear in Beckert as he tries to run from the large group of finding him. 

Lorre's performance compliments Fritz Lang's direction of the scenes of the criminals slowly closing in on Beckert. As Lang shows, in great detail, every facet of the criminals method to find Beckert in large building, Lorre adds a greater tension to the scene by portraying the growing desperation in Beckert. Lorre is outstanding as he shows the fear grow in Beckert as he almost seems to become a visibly smaller man as the men come closer and closer to finding him. Lorre makes his performance as important as Lang's direction, as every turn Lang takes in showing the men on their mission, Lorre matches it by Beckert's crumbling demeanor as he comes closer to capture.    

Peter Lorre's strongest scene comes when the men finally capture him which is also the first time Lorre is allowed to say more then just a few words as Beckert tries to defend himself in front of a jury of his "peers". Lorre is simply amazing as he presents Beckert's attempts to tries anyway to keep his life. Lorre combines such an array of emotions as Beckert goes from doubting the validity of the trail, attacking the criminals outright for their crimes, and trying to defend his own actions. It is an outstanding display of acting for Lorre going from a vicious anger, to a pathetic sadness, to even a grief over himself which Lorre portrays so powerfully as the most genuine reaction of a man pleading for life.

Lorre is awe inspiring when Beckert tells the men why he has to kill. It is a tremendous scene because Lorre  is absolutely honest in his portrayal of the sick mind of Hans Beckert as he describes in details the irresistible urge to kill that he cannot shake. We never see Beckert murder anyone through the course of the film, but it feels as though we do as Lorre pantomimes Beckert cycle of murder starting as a haunted man with a twisted mind, to the vicious killer as we see the sadistic glee as Lorre represents Beckert's mind as he does the killing to finally the satisfaction in Beckert after he has met his irresistible need.

M is a film with a strong director's hand throughout and it would have been easy for even the character of Hans Beckert to have just been part of the portrait that Lang is creating, especially considering that the character really is not in the film all that often. Peter Lorre though manages to make his performance stand firmly along with Lang's direction as the most memorable aspects of this film. Lorre actually made it so I forgot that he so little time in the film because he makes such a strong impression with each second on screen so his presence is felt even when he is off screen. Peter Lorre gives an all time great performance as Hans Beckert which has not aged a day.


Anonymous said...

what did you make of James Cagney in The Public Enemy?

Anonymous said...

He's absolutely amazing.

Anonymous said...

Lorre, I mean. Haven't seen Cagney.

Louis Morgan said...

Public Enemy is very solid work from Cagney, up there with his work in White Heat and Angels with Dirty Faces.

Anonymous said...

what would be your favourite Cagney performance?

Louis Morgan said...

At the moment Angels with Dirty Faces.

RatedRStar said...

I wonder what Cagneys chances of winning were like for Angels With Dirty Faces since im sure Spencer Tracy couldn't have been the favourite to win twice in a row, you reckon Cagney came close to winning?.

Louis Morgan said...

I hope so, but I am surprised he was even nominated considering the nature of the character. Unfortunately Tracy might have one easily because he played a nice priest, where Cagney and Boyer played criminals, Howard played a pretentious snob, and even Robert Donat played a character who gave up his morals with tragic results.

If I had to guess who was second I would actually say Donat as he clearly had quite a bit of goodwill built up when he won the next year.

RatedRStar said...

also Louis can you remember when you mentioned my beloved hero Rains and said in the Notorious review he probably finished second place for voting for most of his nominations, im not sure he was because the Golden Globes can be a little bit of a benefactor possibly, like in 43 and 46 when Akim Tamiroff and Clifton Webb won instead.

Louis Morgan said...

Well it is impossible to be sure but the Globes and the academy did not match up all that often early on. The three times in the forties they did were for Edmund Gwenn, Barry Fitzgerald, and Walter Huston and those three I would say are outliers. Gwenn of course would win, who would not give Santa Clause an Oscar especially over two murderers. Huston was a veteran who was due and they almost seemed to select the other nominees that year to secure him the win, and they loved Fitzgerald so much that they nominated him twice so of course he was going to win.