Director – Joseph Losey, Screenplay – Leo Katcher & Norman Reilly Raine, Additional Dialogue –Waldo Salt, [Uncredited] Based on the 1931 Film Written by Fritz Lang & Thea von Harbou, Producer – Seymour Nebenzal, Photography (b&w) – Ernest Laszlo, Music – Michel Michelet, Art Direction – Martin Obzina. Production Company – Columbia Superior Films, Inc..
David Wayne (Martin Harrow), Martin Gabel (Charlie Marshall), Howard Da Silva (Inspector Carney), Luther Adler (Dan Langley), Raymond Burr (Pottsy), Steve Brodie (Lieutenant Becker), Glenn Anders (Riggert), Norman Lloyd (Sutro), John Miljan (Blind Balloon Seller)
Los Angeles is plagued by a child killer who keeps the shoes of his victims as souvenirs. With no leads, police shake down all the disreputable joints and bring in the mentally ill in an effort to find the killer. In actuality, the killer is mousy Martin Harrow who has a history of mental illness. At the same time, Charlie Marshall, the kingpin of the crime rackets in the city, concludes that the child killer is bad for their business. And so he mobilises his people on the street to conduct a manhunt for the killer.
M (1931) was a classic crime film from Fritz Lang, the director of Dr Mabuse, The Gambler (1922) and Metropolis (1927), among others. Lang had gained fame during the silent era and was one of the key figures in the classic period of German Expressionism. M was Lang’s first sound film, based loosely on the notorious Peter Kurten child murders in Germany during the 1910s-20s. Subsequently, Lang went on to build a successful Hollywood career specialising in crime and spy films. This was the Hollywood remake of M – although neither Lang nor wife/co-writer Thea von Harbou are credited anywhere on the remake. Apparently, Lang was initially approached to direct the remake but spurned the idea.
The director of the remake was Joseph Losey (1909-84). Losey had emerged out of theatre and had begun directing in the 1940s. Shortly after M was made, Losey came under the eye of HUAC as a member of the Communist Party during the McCarthyist witch hunts. Rather than deal with this, Losey left the US and relocated to England where he enjoyed a successful career for a number of years making Hammer’s The Damned (1963) and acclaimed non-genre works like The Servant (1963), Figures in a Landscape (1970) and The Go-Between (1971). (See below for Joseph Losey’s other genre films).
The remake is extremely faithful to the original. All the elements of the 1931 film are there – the blind balloon seller who recognises the song the killer whistles; the letter M placed on the killer’s back by petty criminals as they track him through the streets; the climactic trial held by the underworld. At the same time, the film has also been translated to 1950s Los Angeles. Now the killer gets some motivation and the script briefly delves into him having a history of mental illness.
I had heard mixed things about the remake. This made getting around to actually seeing it a considerable surprise as I was expecting a so-so film and found something a great deal more than that. The black-and-white photography looks stunning in the dvd restoration. It is one of the few 1950s films to take the camera out of studio-bound sets to go and shoot in the streets and rooming houses of the day, which gives it a look quite unlike most other films being made at the time.
Losey and cinematographer Ernest Laszlo fill the film with visually striking shots – like the mother looking up/down a tightly wound curve of a stairwell; or the image of David Wayne’s killer sitting in his apartment, his face (which we have not seen at this point) in darkness and all that we see of him being his hand tightly tensed around a lamp cord and then his going over to a clay figure and tearing its head off. It tells us all we need to know about the knotted tensions within his psyche.
The most sustained and visually striking set-piece is the one that takes place at the L.A. landmark of the Bradbury Building, which also served as a location for Blade Runner (1982). Losey and cinematographer Ernest Laszlo make maximum use of the building’s designs with a multi-level atrium and wrought-iron filigree grillwork and stairs, even two open wrought-iron elevator cages. The scenes with the gathered criminals moving through the building, up and downs the stairs, with tight angles looking down from the upper balconies, all contrasted with the sweaty tension as David Wayne is trapped in a store filled with mannequins and tries to get out, is visually enthralling. The set-pieces from the 1931 film – the pursuit of the killer by the gang and the climactic trial – are not quite as vivid in this version but Losey more than compensates in other areas.
Police Procedurals of this era – particularly those dealing with psychopaths – leave you mind-boggled as to some of the things that police are able to get away with (which were presumably reflective in some degree of actual policing methods during the era). One notorious example of this era is The Sniper (1952) where gay men and crossdressers are lined up as suspects in a murder and laughed at by police. One of the methods police here employed to find the child killer is to conduct a shakedown of a bar where some of the clientele are carousing with what is implied are hookers. Here the police also investigate everybody with a psychiatric history, including one scene where a psychiatrist tries to determine guilt based on giving the suspects a word association test to do with strangling and shoes.
Joseph Losey’s other genre outings include:- the children’s fable The Boy with Green Hair (1948), the Hammer science-fiction film The Damned (1963) about the discovery of radioactive children; and Modesty Blaise (1966), the adaptation of a comic-strip about a female super-thief. He was also the original director on the Hammer film X the Unknown (1956) but was replaced.