Friday, September 30, 2011

Scariest Characters in Cinema #31 - Hans Beckert

Fritz Lang's M is a masterpiece of suggestion. A story about a manhunt for a child murderer, Lang's film never shows us any details of the murders. Instead, haunting symbolic images - a stray ball, a balloon caught between telephone lines - leave us to imagine the worst. And we don't get a full look at killer Hans Beckert until halfway through the movie - his threatening presence as he stalks his prey is intimated by shadows, glimpses of a shoulder and his creepy, persistent whistling of Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King." Creating as much menace through his absence from the frame as with his presence, Beckert is a very unsettling cinematic phantom that proves there's truth to the cliche that what we don't see can be as frightening as what we do see.

Much of M is focused on the process of police, civilians and the criminal underground working to catch the killer, and today's procedural dramas, from Zodiac to the many CSIs and Law and Orders, owe a debt to Lang. When the vigilante mob catches up to Beckert, his mock trial presents a cynical view of our collective thirst for vengeance. As M was made during the rise of Nazi Germany (Lang would flee for France a few years later before ending up in Hollywood), the film's distrust of mob mentality is hardly surprising. As Beckert pleads his case to his "court," claiming that he cannot change his nature, the character becomes more human and more frightening for his pathetic submission to his terrible nature.

Peter Lorre is fantastic as Beckert; the childlike eyes and high-pitched voice that would serve him well in films like Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon and, later, Roger Corman's Poe adaptations are used to chilling effect here. When his gaze is fixed on a child, Lorre is able to communicate volumes about the monster beneath his deceptively benign surface and the unspeakable urges that drive him. And though Grieg has become a huge cliche in horror movie trailers, it has never been as effective.

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