There are two essential films with this theme and an uncredited ‘remake’
Films are full of psychopaths, but that they are murderers of girls, there are two essentials, two jewels, one German from 1930 and the other Spanish from 1958, both with a common approach but with very different developments: Son ‘M, the vampire of Dusseldorf’, by Fritz Lang, and ‘The Bait’, by Ladislao Vajda, to which we could also add ‘The Oath’, by Sean Penn (2001), an uncredited remake of ‘The Bait’.
M, the vampire from Düsseldorf (Movistar+, 1931
Directed by Fritz Lang and starring Peter Lorre, Otto Wernicke and Theo Lingen, one of the greatest titles of Lang’s first German stage, famous among other reasons for his hidden denunciation of the Nazism of his time. Peter Lorre carried out here an impressive interpretation of a psychopathic murderer whose figure summarizes a good part of the ills of a hypocritical and sick society. The film, the first sound film by its director, is inspired by the real case of Peter Kürten, who murdered several children in the city of Düsseldorf.
In the city of Düsseldorf, a murderer of girls is on the loose causing fear among the population, creating a collective paranoia that is in crescendo. The criminal Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre) is a dark employee who lives alone in a nondescript pension. The police are on the brink of despair; the city council demands results, the people cry out for the apparent incompetence of the authorities. Thus, the efforts of the police become more and more abusive and authoritarian: inspection of houses at their discretion, harassment of suspicious citizens by arresting any even slightly suspicious person, daily raids on nightclubs and meeting places of the criminal element. Nothing works and all sectors of society will mobilize in search of the dangerous infanticide. For their part, the underworld bosses, furious at the raids they are suffering because of the murderer, decide to look for him themselves, given that police pressure is ruining their businesses, hiring the city’s beggars to watch the streets without raise suspicions.
The film is presented in a splendid, magnificently restored 2011 print, the most complete version of any seen over the years. It premiered on May 11, 1931 in Berlin (In Spain it did so almost at the same time, on November 24, 1931). Since then it has been released in various versions and lengths different from the original. Among them are the English and the French (both from 1932), with a different montage and content alterations. Fritz Lang was not involved in any of these productions. Also the 1960 revival differed from the 1931 original. It was shortened to 96 minutes and music was added to several scenes. A considerable part of the work of Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou was no longer available. For decades there were various attempts to recover the original version of the film. This was possible, for the first time, in 2001 and thanks to the new technologies available, a new assembly was prepared just as Fritz Lang had conceived it. As only 70% of the original negative was preserved, the remaining scenes and images were extracted from different prints. However, and according to what was already assumed at the time, there are still some images that are considered lost. In addition, there were several very deteriorated fragments, both due to damage to the frames and copy failures. In the 2001 restoration, many of these images could be completed thanks to a negative of the French version. An important improvement of the present restoration has been the treatment of the sound according to Lang’s original idea. Parts of the film are totally silent and others with brief sound notes. This restored version of the Fritz Lang classic lasts 111 minutes. It is known that when authorized its duration was 117 minutes. However, as far as the investigations have progressed, it is very possible that this version was not released.
The film can be considered the swan song of German expressionism, with baroque sets and shots full of high and low angle shots.
Protagonists of ‘The bait’. /
The bait (Flix Olé, 1958)
Directed by the Hungarian living in Spain Ladislao Vajda (‘Marcelino Pan y Vino’), it is a Spanish-Swiss co-production starring Heinz Rühmann, María Rosa Salgado, Michel Simon and Gert Fröbe from a script Friedrich Dürrenmatt about which he would later write a novel.
A peddler finds the corpse of a girl in a forest. He notifies Commissioner Mattei (Heinz Rühmann), an acquaintance of his, who is in charge of the case. Mattei rents a gas station in the crime zone, and stays at the home of Mrs. Heller (María Rosa Salgado) who has a girl the victim’s age, and without revealing her true identity, he decides that the girl will serve as bait for the killer. The girl has already seen the man and talked to him without anyone knowing, since the magician (Gert Fröbe) -that’s what she calls him- makes her promise that she won’t tell anyone that she knows him. Only then will she play tricks on him with a little puppet. Commissioner Mattei, based on some drawings shown to him by some companions of the murdered girl, believes that the murderer must live in the canton of Grisons. He makes inquiries about the license plates of the cars and their owners. Once, the commissioner returning home, he sees that the girl comes out of a forest. He questions her and, although the girl doesn’t tell him about the meeting, she finds him chocolate and ends up discovering her appointment with the magician. He warns the mother of the danger her daughter is in and decides to dress a doll in the girl’s clothes. Meanwhile, the girl escapes from her house to go to the forest.
One of the great films in the history of Spanish cinema (here set in Switzerland since for censorship reasons “in Franco’s Spain there could be no murderers of girls”). As in Lang’s film, the murderer is again a timid and timid man with an inferiority complex. If at that time he was dominated by his tyrannical mother, here he is dominated by his no less tyrannical wife. ‘El cebo’ has some hard and solid images, distant and well constructed, which maintains an intense dramatic atmosphere and which proposes a brilliant investigative exercise in criminal psychology, showing a policeman for whom anything is worth in order to catch the criminal, even using an innocent girl as bait. The film was selected by the Berlin Festival, and premiered in Spain on February 12, 1959.
Nicholson in ‘The Oath’. /
The oath (Movistar+, 2001)
Directed by Sean Penn and starring Jack Nicholson alongside Patricia Clarkson and Robin Wright, it is an unconventional intimate thriller that directly adapts Dürrenmatt’s novel. When the film was presented in Cannes, a Spanish journalist asked Penn about Vajda’s version. The director lied like a knave denying knowing her, and claimed that he had directly adapted the novel.
Far inferior to ‘The Bait’, ‘The Oath’ casts Jack Nicholson as a retiring homicide detective who decides to deal with the murder of an eight-year-old girl in the mountains. Convinced that it is related to other murders committed years before, he swears to the victim’s parents that he will find the culprit. An oath that will become an obsession. Confronted with the tragic nature of the crime, the suffering of the parents, and his own uncertainty about life after leaving the police force, the detective is led by the intuition that the real killer is still on the loose and is ready to strike again. again, so he decides to start his own murder investigation, with no bosses and no authority. His investigations take him to the school where he studied the murdered girl. There he talks with the psychology teacher and with the little girl’s classmates, and discovers that the murderer is a man with a certain car, thanks to a drawing made by another girl with the same age as the murdered one, whom he will use as a trap to hunt down the killer
It was the third feature film directed by Sean Penn, after ‘Strange Blood Bond’ and ‘Crossing the Darkness’. It premiered in Spain on October 26, 2001.