I wasn’t disappointed. Sure, the film is rather uneven and in some ways technically crude by modern standards – but considering the limited technology Lang was working with and given that this was his first sound film, it is really rather remarkable what he achieved and reveals an innovative director at the top of his game. Lang himself considered it his greatest achievement.
The film also features an astonishing performance from Peter Lorre in the role that made him an international star and today’s classic scene is his standout moment from the film.
To set it up, Lorre plays Hans Beckert, a serial killer (and, it is implied, a pedophile) who preys on young children. As the body count increases, the police come under great pressure to catch him. But despite using extremely advanced (for the time) techniques such as fingerprinting and handwriting analysis, they have little luck and so start to target criminal organisations and underworld hang-outs.
This affects the criminals business interests and income and so they launch their own investigation.
Ultimately, the criminals win the race to identify and capture the killer. They decide to try him themselves in a kangaroo court, even providing him with a lawyer, with the intention of executing him.
However, Beckert makes an impassioned plea to be spared, insisting that he has no control over his dark urges – unlike the hypocritical thieves and gangland killers who chose their illegal path in life and are now sitting on their moral high horses in judgment over him: