In the first college film class I signed up for more than 30 years ago now, a lot was thrown at my fellow wide-eyed undergrads and me. I donít even remember the name of the instructor, but the films are so easily recalled: Eisensteinís Battleship Potemkin, von Sternbergís The Blue Angel, Chaplinís The Gold Rush, Renoirís Grand Illusion. But the film that left the most indelible impression on me, opening my eyes to the brilliance and grandeur of classic film was Fritz Langís M. As I look back, itís probably the film that ultimately led me to my noir obsession.
The original M is a film I have long revered, so much so that I resisted viewing Joseph Loseyís remake for years, believing not only that it couldnít possibly measure up to the original but that it somehow might cheapen my appreciation of Langís masterpiece. But thanks to some comments here at the Blackboard about the merits of the remake, most notably by Don Malcolm, as well as viewing a couple of impressive Losey films (The Prowler, The Big Night), I took the plunge. I finally landed a crude copy and watched it. I watched it three times. Then I watched the original M again and the remake once more.
It turned out to be my best noir viewing experience in quite awhile. It only required one viewing to realize that the í51 M is a criminally undervalued film--for a variety of unfair reasons--and one of the very best noirs from that year, if not the best. Even if it was a turkey, it still would be essential viewing for the performances of its exceptional cast, the spectacularly shabby Los Angeles/Bunker Hill location settings of the period and the mesmerizing cinematography of Ernest Laszlo. Itís a near classic if not a full-fledged one, and one that complements the originalís vision and power as opposed to diminishing it, demonstrating pretty effectively that the social conditions which produced such a film in early 1930s Germany could be successfully transported to 1950s noir-era America.
The remakeís plot closely follows the original. A child murderer is at large in the city, and the police manhunt is so intense that it interferes with the operations of the underworld. The crime syndicate determines that to ease the scrutiny on itself, it must undertake a search of its own for the killer. The criminals get to the the psycho first, conduct a kangaroo court in a city underbelly location, and just as the killer makes his plea for some measure of understanding and mercy, police break in and the film is concluded.
But as in the original M, the remake is less about the shocking acts of the murderer himself but how a troubled society reacts and responds to such an urban crisis, with public officials and criminals acting with like mind and capitalizing on public hysteria for self-serving gain. The remake also successfully conveys the allegorical undercurrent of a ruthless witch hunt, highly topical for the time and for many principals involved with the film. The House Un-American Activities Committee was actively investigating Losey and others during filming and around Hollywood in general. Some were blacklisted before the film was even released, which occurred almost concurrently with the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
The M remake is certain to make an immediate impression on the noir aficionado. David Wayne, taking on the unenviable task of reprising Peter Lorreís unforgettable performance as the baby killer who canít control his murderous actions, sets a believable tone in the opening scene, when he hops aboard the Angels Flight trolley for a nighttime ride up Bunker Hill, stepping over newspaper bundles with headlines screaming his latest offense.
Wayne gets much more screen time than Lorre did, and in a remarkable performance that belies anything else in his acting career, he leans more toward Anthony Perkinsí Norman Bates than Lorreís Hans Beckert. His shoe fetish makes a declarative statement that he is a helpless psychotic, barely able to maintain enough mental balance to commit his horrific crimes. He lives in a dark, shabby apartment with the shoelaces of his victims tied to a hanging lamp, and he yanks one down to strangle a clay figure, with a framed photo of his mother next to him. Itís an incredibly chilling scene, the high point of a performance by Wayne that sets up his shrieking, Lorre-like oratory at the finish. He also plays an eerie tune on a flute to entice his youthful victims, a touch that doesnít really ring true but nonetheless adds another dimension to his level of insanity.
But thatís just the tip of Mís high entertainment quotient. A delicious noir cast gives the remake a different but still powerful slant to the original. Howard Da Silva plays the beleaguered, hardened homicide inspector in charge of tracking down Wayneís Martin Harrow. His hot-headed, violence-inclined assistant is wonderfully played by Steve Brodie.
Martin Gabel is the menacing crime boss, much more a true Mafioso type than the originalís frightening, calculating Nazi-esque thug Schranker. His henchmen are a real all-star team: Raymond Burr as a raspy-voiced muscle man named Pottsy, Norman Lloyd (the saboteur in Hitchcockís Saboteur) as a racketman-of-all-trades and last but not least Luther Adler as the drunken and down-on-his-life attorney Langley (supposedly, a surname cocktail of Lang and Losey) who attempts to craft a defense for the murderer when he is captured. Another excellent bit part is turned in by Jim Backus as a cartoonish nitwit L.A. mayor, who browbeats the detectives to use their brains to solve the crime so his image isnít sullied while he attends supermarket openings.
Another key star: the city itself. This is one of the very best look at noir-era L.A. The Bunker Hill scenes are revelatory, showing the area in all its decaying griminess, much more in the Kiss Me Deadly "spirit" of hopelessless (Robert Aldrich, notably, was Loseyís assistant director) than other films such as Criss Cross. The street scenes are full of unsavory characters--winos, beggars, street vendors. Itís a seedy tapestry. And the climax of the search scene is played out in the astounding and cavernous (and at the time, run down) Bradbury Building, built in 1893 and still standing (it was also utilized in the sci-fi flick Blade Runner); its French rail dťcor and z-shaped stairwells adding much to the atmosphere of the quest. Laszlo gets the most out of all of it through his camera lens. Some of the stairwell scenes, in particular, give the film a distinct Hitchcock touch.
M has some important distinctions from the original. Adlerís Langley becomes a compelling central character, a figure who capably demonstrates how America beat down and ultimately smothered noble idealists in that era. Second, the newer Mupdates effectively to incorporate the instantaneous power of television over the masses and the general paranoia of the early nuclear age. That paranoia, to be sure, helps to heighten the hysteria about a sicko child-killer. But the message is also clear that the obsession to root out "reds" during that time period was turning urban America into an ugly, distrustful, gang-mentality society.
An aside: both M films were produced by Seymour Nebenzal (youíll recognize some music from another of his noir classics, The Chase, in the M remake) and in several sources I read, Nebenzal actually asked Fritz Lang to direct the remake. Lang was incensed, decrying that the original couldnít be improved upon and also maintaining that he should have owned the rights to the story anyway. But Losey may have been the more effective choice, considering the HUAC pressure he was receiving at the time. One wonders if Lang ever saw the remake because Iíve never read any comments from him about it. If he did, it wouldnít surprise me that he would have been at least somewhat impressed by the result.
Reams have been written about the original M, and rightfully so. It is a timeless classic that demonstrates the possibilities of cinema and the many levels a single film can attain. Sadly, the remake doesnít deserve its fate as a lost artifact with scant critical evaluation. Why has that happened? Partly because of the subject matter, partly because of the originalís omnipresence, partly because it IS a remake, partly because the film was shelved almost from the moment it was released by Columbia and many of its key personnel banished from the industry.
What a shame that Criterion, in its magnificent restoration of the original M a few years back, didnít choose to include the remake as part of its still-essential two-disc package. It most certainly would have been a more worthwhile companion than the fairly lifeless remake of The Killers, which was included in the Criterion package of that stunning original. Now, one wonders if Loseyís remake will ever receive the DVD circulation and due it deserves, or whether its sad destiny will be to be a bootlegged underground nugget, enlightening those lucky enough to see it as an American noir embellishment to the unforgettable original.
Losey's M has fared reasonably well since Carl wrote this piece, receiving a Library of Congress restoration and a 4K upgrade in France (that still needs a release in the USA with removable French subtitles). It needs to be shown more often, and it's unfortunate that circumstances did not permit Eddie to have a more expansive "They Tried to Warn Us" series, because that double bill of M/THE LAWLESS really needs another big-screen matchup before we're too old to wheel ourselves into the theater...