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American Version of M Returns from Film Purgatory

by Sam Shapiro

March 3, 2016

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story included a production error that eliminated some text; it has since been corrected.

Photos: (above) David Wayne in the lead role as the child killer in the American remake of M; (middle) film poster for the 1951 version; (bottom) director Joseph Losey, who left America for Europe after seeing his film buried during the Red Scare

On Thursday, March 10,  at 8 p.m., Turner Classics will show, possibly for the last time, a film virtually unseen and unavailable for over 60 years: M. I’m not referring, of course, to the 1931 German version of M, an early masterwork of the sound era and milestone in world cinema. Directed by Fritz Lang, the original M is an astonishingly detailed depiction of organized crime, a subject Lang had explored earlier in such silent classics as Spies (1928) and Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922). With Peter Lorre’s tormented performance at its core (as the child killer Hans Beckart), the original M is as powerful today as it must have been during the time of the Weimar Republic.

Until recently, the American remake of M had been more of a cinematic footnote than an actual film. With the exception of a few random out-of-context movie stills, the 1951 version had been nearly impossible to track down for well over half a century. It was almost as if it had been deliberately suppressed from history, like a Soviet functionary erased from a group photo. However, this had nothing to do with the quality of the film, and almost everything to do with the political hysteria of the 1950s.

Essentially, the American M was buried by the Red Scare.

The era of the Communist “witch hunts” was a time of jeopardy for Hollywood filmmakers with leftist, or activist, affiliations. And yet many of the artists affiliated with M had been already working under a cloud of suspicion by the time filming began in late 1950. Within months of the film’s release, director Joseph Losey and several cast members (including Howard da Silva and Luther Adler) had come under intense scrutiny by the House on Un-American Activities.  Losey, who joined the Communist Party a year after his 1945 debut film, The Boy With the Green Hair, later admitted he accepted the M assignment primarily because he needed the cash to relocate to Europe.

Losey had been offered the job by Seymour Nebenzal, the producer of the 1931 M. But at first Losey was unenthusiastic. Why remake a German classic? The original version was a film of significance, as well as one of the last international hits from Germany before the Nazi stranglehold set in. The genius of Lang’s direction and magnitude of Lorre’s performance cast a long, imposing shadow over any potential remake.  

By 1950, the careers of Lang and Lorre were flourishing in Hollywood. Nebenzal followed a similar path, but with a much lower profile. Forced into exile by the Nazis (during the mid-1930s, like Lang and Lorre), he had been producing low budget, independently financed films throughout the 1940s.  After Lang rejected Nebenzal’s offer to remake M, the producer turned to Losey.

Shot on a tight budget in less than three weeks, M was inauspiciously released in March of 1951, and relegated to the bottom half of a double feature. (In those days low-budget films were often programmed as double features, but the studio’s decision to pair a film about a psychopathic predator of girls with a musical—Purple Heart Diary—is mystifying.)

Variety gave M a positive review, pointing out that Losey “captured the gruesome theme skillfully.” The Hollywood Reporter praised “the unidentified but hugely effective backgrounds of Los Angeles.” But M was in trouble, and it had nothing to do with its “gruesome theme.” The film had been tainted by the participation of Reds in an era when hysteria about communists was its peak. Subsequently, some of the theaters that showed M were picketed, and it was banned outright in eight states. Columbia withdrew it from distribution after only a few weeks.

In a 1960 interview, Losey had few positive things to say about his experience working on M: “The producers had an agreement that the film respect the structure of the original. I had twice refused to direct it, but finally my financial situation dictated my acceptance of the project.  I was constantly embarrassed by the enforced reliance on the original.”

Losey had nothing to be embarrassed about, although the criminal underworld depicted in his remake is not as distinctively realized as the one in the original. As portrayed by such film noir stalwarts as Raymond Burr, Norman Lloyd, Glenn Anders and Luther Adler, Losey’s underworld is presented in the era's clichéd, rat-a-tat style of low-budget gangster films.

Lang’s underworld, by contrast, is an omnipotent network of thugs, thieves, and beggars. Overseeing all is Der Schranker (“The Safecracker”). Der Schranker, authoritarian but practical, believes it is bad for business that the police can’t apprehend the child murderer, as their raids and roundups have disrupted the underworld’s operations. The beggars, a constant presence on the streets, are enlisted to keep vigilant watch over the children. Der Kindermörder must be stopped!

In spite of the fact that some aspects of the German M do not translate seamlessly to 50s America, there is still much to recommend in the remake. Losey had a superb sense of visual design, and his M is set against the backdrop of one of the great “natural sets” in American cinema. The “unidentified but hugely effective background of Los Angeles” (to which the Hollywood Reporter referred) was in fact a legendary neighborhood called Bunker Hill

Before it was obliterated and paved over by the colorless section of L.A. that exists today, Bunker Hill was the site of hundreds of movies. Its attraction to filmmakers is obvious, and well-chronicled in Jim Dawson's history, Los Angeles’s Bunker Hill: Pulp Fiction’s Mean Streets and Film Noir’s Ground Zero. Located in close proximity to Hollywood, Bunker Hill was an enclave of shabby flophouses, decayed Victorian homes, vertiginous hills and winding stairs. Due to its ominous appearance, Bunker Hill was vividly represented in such film noir classics as Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956), Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955) and John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950).

In Losey’s M, the decrepitude of the neighborhood seems to reflect the torment of its central character, Martin Harrow. As he prowls the streets in hunt of prey, the buildings crowd around him, tilting like tombstones in a dilapidated graveyard. Lang shot his M entirely in the studio, and the subterranean world that he was able to artificially create was a perfect fit for his theme of entrapment. Losey, working with essentially the same material, moved his remake outdoors, into the daylight, and found his visual equivalent in Bunker Hill.  

A more surprising Losey choice was casting David Wayne as the child killer in the remake—the  actor was primarily associated with comedies and musicals.  Wayne would surely also have known the role he was inheriting was a daunting one. Lorre’s performance in the original had been a sensation, his final speech before the kangaroo court an iconic moment in cinema history. Dragged into a warehouse and tossed at the feet of criminals and beggars, he implores, “Who knows what it’s like to be me?” And when he attempts to explain his hideous crimes, his confession chills to the bone, “I have no control over this evil thing inside of me, the fire, the voices, the torment!”

It would require an actor of the highest quality to inspire pathos for a character so driven by demonic impulses. Lorre was such a performer, but an unexpected virtue of the remake was that Wayne proved to be, too. Of course, Wayne was not as sinister looking as the toad-eyed Lorre. In fact, in the remake, Wayne is so utterly nondescript that on at least three occasions he walks directly into the path of those who are on the lookout for him (while dragging along a potential victim, no less!). From the moment he enters the film, he behaves as one condemned from birth to eternal damnation. Beside his bed is the framed photo of his stern, unforgiving mother, watching over him as he twists the heads off clay figures and hoards the pathetically small shoes of his victims.

Wayne’s Martin Harrow is finally cornered by the crime syndicate in a dark storeroom filled with the body sections of mannequins. It’s a dynamic, surreal setting, and perhaps the inspiration for an almost identical one four years later in Stanley Kubrick’s 1955 directorial debut, Killer's Kiss.

The movie’s final scene is its greatest. Hauled before the L.A. underworld and forced to confess, Wayne’s monologue is every bit as mesmerizing as Lorre’s 20 years earlier.  Losey’s camera never leaves Wayne as he speaks, haltingly and with increasing hysteria, of his endless torment and uncontrollable need to violate. Filmed in one audacious take, the speech continues for almost four minutes. When it’s over, one is left wondering all the more why Losey’s M was allowed to languish nearly 60 years.     

Losey would direct two more low-budget crime films after M—his final American films, as it turned out. Following self-exile to Europe, he continued directing for 30 years, averaging approximately one film every two years. In spite of a substantial body of work, a case could be made that Losey's three collaborations with playwright Harold Pinter—The Servant (1963),  Accident (1967) and The Go-Between (1970)—represent the critical and commercial peaks in his post-Hollywood career.

Losey's Hollywood films, long undervalued, are finally receiving their due. The Prowler, one of three Losey films released in 1951 (along with M and The Big Night), was recently restored by UCLA Film Archive and released on BluRay. So the return of M from cinema purgatory is well timed, and for most viewers its appearance on cable (and eventual DVD release) will provide the opportunity to see this unique gem for the first time. 

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Tags: film, director, Joseph Losey, HUAC, Red Scare, child killer, film noir, Peter Lorre, David Wayne, organized crime, Bunker Hill

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