Last night Charles and I watched one of the best movies we’d seen in quite a while: Joseph Losey’s 1951 version of M, the Fritz Lang-Thea von Harbou classic from 1931 that introduced Peter Lorre to the screen as an unnamed psychopathic murderer of children who is being chased not only by the official police but by a criminal syndicate because the cops’ search for him is getting in the way of the syndicate’s operation. The original was made at a time of intense political ferment in Germany, in which the Weimar Republic was coming apart at the seams and the Nazis were preparing to take over. Just how anti-fascist Lang was at the time is a matter for his biographers to argue about; what is known is that Joseph Goebbels was courting Lang and offering him the chance to run the entire German film industry if and when the Nazis came to power — and Lang turned him down, either because he disagreed with the Nazis politically, he had a Jewish mother and was afraid the Nazis would find out and at best fire him and at worst send him to a concentration camp. Lang and von Harbou originally called their movie Murderers Among Us, but producer Seymour Nebenzal thought that would be too incendiary and in-your-face towards the Nazis (who in 1931 didn’t yet rule Germany but could still throw their weight around and disrupt performances of music, plays and films they didn’t like by literally booing them off the stage or screen). So they shortened the title to M, after the letter one of the gangsters puts in chalk on the child-murderer’s back at shoulder level so the other gang members can more easily track him. When the Nazis did take over Germany, Nebenzal and Lang both fled and ended up in the U.S., and in the early 1950’s Nebenzal, who still owned the rights to the story, started projecting a remake. He ran into a roadblock from the Production Code Administration, which approved the project but only as a remake of an acknowledged classic. Nebenzal also ran into problems finding a director for the project. His first choice was Lang himself, but Lang wasn’t interested in remaking his old film. His next choice was Douglas Sirk, another German expatriate (who had “Anglicized” his name from Detlef Sierck), but Sirk said he would only be interested if he could throw out the story and write a new one whose only commonality with the original would be that the central character would be a mentally ill man who murdered children. When Nebenzal told Sirk he wouldn’t be able to do that, Sirk quit the project and was replaced by Joseph Losey — who also wanted to throw out the original story and write a new one about a child-murderer with no other connection to the Lang/von Harbou original. Nebenzal then told Losey about his deal with the Production Code Administration: he could remake M only if he kept to the original script and made only the most minor revisions.
The reason was that much of the material in M, including the whole concept of a killer preying specifically on children, violated the Production Code, and only by presenting the project as a remake of a classic had Nebenzal got it approved. Losey was inclined to quit the project, too, but he was broke and needed the job. Because of the circumstances under which it was made, and also because legal complications led to the film being taken off the market after its initial release and not reissued until 2013, the Losey M acquired a reputation as being a lousy movie. Surprise! It’s actually an excellent film, not as good as the original (what could be?) but a compelling movie in its own right even if the shadow of Lang’s near-perfect original hangs heavily over it. It’s also a film that bears the marks of the political ferment of the era that produced it; though nothing Losey or anyone else on the film had been anywhere nearly as awful as Nazism, 1951 was the year the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) investigation of Hollywood cranked up big-time after the initial salvos in 1947 and the industry’s cave-in during which the studios and the talent unions agreed not to hire anyone who had been named as a Communist or a sympathizer or had friends who had been or was touched in any way by the eddying spirals of guilt by association. Within a year or two quite a few of the people associated with the 1951 M, including director Losey, co-screenwriter Waldo Salt (listed on imdb.com for “additional dialogue”) and actors Howard da Silva and Luther Adler, would be blacklisted by Hollywood and either driven out of the industry altogether or, like Losey, forced into exile in Britain, where he lived and worked for the remaining 32 years of his life. One can hear the echoes of the blacklist and the questioning HUAC launched against its victims — the “Are you now or have you ever been … ” questions, with the threat of jail time for contempt of Congress if you refused to answer, and the threat of unemployability and shame as a “Fifth Amendment Communist” if you invoked the Fifth Amendment, for which at least they couldn’t jail you — just make your life impossible unless you agreed not only to name names (and thereby feed the inquisition new victims) but essentially repudiate and apologize for any even slightly Left-of-center politics you’d ever been involved in. (I sometimes shudder to think what future HUAC-style inquisitors will be able to do with the Internet, which if you use it to express political opinions at all records them seemingly forever.)
The opening reel of M has a sense of generalized terror about it as the police, confronted with the murders of six children, essentially “round up all the usual suspects,” crashing dive bars and other seamy enterprises on the thin edge of organized crime and arresting people seemingly at random in hopes that the child-murderer they’re after behaves like an ordinary criminal and goes to the same places at which more prosaic offenders hang out. The action of the 1951 M is quite close to that of the 1931 version (not surprisingly given the conditions the Production Code Administration imposed on Losey and his officially credited writers, Leo Katcher and Norman Reilly Raine), and there are particularly obvious borrowings like the elaborate balloon the killer buys for his latest victim — and the blind balloon seller who sells it to him, and who recognizes the tune the killer is whistling (in this version it’s not Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” from Peer Gynt but a nameless bit the killer plays on a tin whistle he always carries with him, along with a knife) and helps identify him. The biggest difference is that Losey, Katcher and Raine told their story in a fundamentally different way that reflects their lack of access to elaborate studio settings and back lots; whereas Lang and his designers had built their unnamed city on the sound stages and the whole environment had an artificial look that added to the parable-like nature of the film, Losey and his crew took advantage of the greater portability of film equipment in 1952 and shot on the real streets of Los Angeles. (The city is again unnamed, but the geography is obviously that of L.A. and it’s especially “nailed” for us in the opening sequence, in which the killer is shown using the iconic Angel’s Flight two-block railway. When Charles saw the Angel’s Flight he joked, “Ah, it’s a film noir!”) The result is a movie that takes place in real urban locations, in which the cops and the crooks (no longer an ill-defined “brotherhood” as in Lang’s film, which seems to have been influenced by another Nebenzal project, The Threepenny Opera, filmed by G. W. Pabst the previous year, but a specific crime syndicate headed by an identifiable person, crime CEO Charlie Marshall, effectively played by Martin Gabel) are working through a recognizable urban landscape while both are chasing a psychopath.
Long-time Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne (whose age is really showing in his introductions — no wonder they’re slowly edging him out and replacing him with Ben Mankiewicz, whom I’ve referred to in these pages before as “a nodule off one of Hollywood’s most illustrious family trees”) said the makers of the 1951 M had gone much heavier on the killer’s psychology than Lang and von Harbou had, but in fact there are only a few speculations about his relationship with his mother and the embryonic beginnings of what we would now call profiling — the film ends, like Lang’s version, with the cops breaking up the kangaroo court the crooks have set up to “try” the killer and taking him away, and there’s nothing like the long and rather embarrassing ending to Hitchcock’s otherwise brilliant Psycho in which he tacks on a long speech by Simon Oakland as a psychologist explaining What Made Norman Run. What’s different about the 1951 M is that it has much more of a specific place and it takes place in a world closer to our own reality and more familiar to us than the stylized dreamscape Lang and von Harbou created in 1931. Even minor details like giving the killer a name — he’s called “David Harrow” and is played quite effectively by David Wayne (whose usual reputation was as a comedian — he made five films with Marilyn Monroe, more than any other actor — but who’s quite good here, even having to follow in the unfollowable footsteps of Peter Lorre, who when he was cast in Lang’s version also was primarily known as a comedian: when Lorre made M he was acting at night in Bertolt Brecht’s satirical farce A Man’s a Man and shooting the film by day) —bring the story home to us and give it a sense of specificity Lang’s version deliberately avoided. Even the “Watch Your Children!” propagandizing in von Harbou’s original script is ironically reflected here in a sequence in which police chief Regan (Roy Engel) appears on television (and the antique screens of the 1951-model TV’s are nostalgia trips in themselves!) essentially to lecture the city’s parents on how they can keep their kids from becoming victims, with a dire credit machine flashing the word DON’T! in italics and all caps every time he gives a piece of advice — and just about everything he says has become commonplace ever since, as kids are routinely told not to accept money, candy or rides from strangers and parents are told to make sure they know where their kids are at all times.
In an era in which parents are increasingly brainwashed to be overprotective and not to allow their kids to go out alone at all, these parts of the 1951 M ring true today (and suggest what a modern version of this film would be like; one can readily imagine a version made and set in 2016 and keying off the decades of social paranoia about psychopathic child abusers, and how that would affect people’s reactions when confronted with a real one). The 1951 M also benefits from the characterization of Luther Adler as Dan Langley, one-time attorney who fell into alcoholism driven by his self-hatred at having taken on the grim task of representing Marshall and keeping him from paying for his crimes — and in one of the biggest single changes between this version and Lang’s, Marshall shoots Langley in the kangaroo-court sequence at the end just before the cops arrive, take Harrow alive and are relieved that they finally have a murder they can pin on Marshall personally. This makes up at least a bit for the omission of the best part of the kangaroo-court scene in Lang’s version — when the killer pleads that his life should be spared because he can’t help himself, and the leader of the crooks say that that’s exactly why they have to kill him. (Lang later said he had intended M as a message film against capital punishment, but that’s not really apparent in the movie itself.) The Losey M also benefits from the incredible (in both senses) casting of Jim Backus as the city’s mayor, who in his one scene gives the chief unwanted advice on how to catch the killer, and it’s risible to hear the censorship rear its head in a scene in which we’re specifically told that there was “no sign of violation or criminal assault” on the bodies of the child victims — for some reason it was O.K., at least in a remake of a classic, to show a mentally ill murderer who targeted kids but you had to state explicitly that he hadn’t molested his victims sexually (“criminal assault” was Production Code-speak for “rape”). The Losey M is quite a good film, not deserving of the opprobrium it’s suffered since it was made; it’s well staged, well acted, well written and the basic strength of the plot survives through the relatively minor changes, which are less in actual dialogue or situations than in emphasis and tone.