The other 'M'

Fritz Lang's first sound film, M (1931), is one of the great classics of cinema: even today it is riveting, with a gripping plot and a star-making performance from Peter Lorre. So it would seem a little foolhardy of Joseph Losey to remake it in Hollywood in 1951: however you have to remember that few people in the USA would have seen the original on its first release, and by 1951 the only place to see it would be specialist film clubs (if you were lucky).

Losey knew the original and wasn't all that keen to make a new version: he would have preferred a complete rewrite to take into account the changed nature of criminal gangs from 1930s Germany, and the change in attitudes to child-killers - by 1951 regarded as mentally ill rather than purely evil. However the censorship office insisted that he could not write a new version, only remake an established classic. He was never entirely happy with the result (which was banned in many states and often censored in others).

It was shown yesterday evening as part of a Losey season at the National Film Theatre. In the event the film stands up well on its own, even though it's nowhere near as good as the original. It's not by any means a shot-for-shot remake, but it does stick quite closely to the original plot. In Los Angeles, a serial child-killer (David Wayne) is eluding the police, who are under considerable political pressure to catch him. Their policy of raiding premises used by known criminals is disrupting criminal activity to the point where the local crime boss decides that his gang should catch the killer themselves. Bookies runners, small time street crooks, and a large taxi firm tied up with the gang, are all pressed into watching out for the killer.

Eventually he is spotted making off with a small girl: the gang pursue him and he holes up in the Bradbury Building (a large and ornate business premises which has been a favourite film location, most notably in Blade Runner). The gang break in and search the building: they find him and take the girl home (in the original he didn't have a child with him) and drag the killer to an underground car park where a sort of mock trial takes place in front of the gang leaders and a mass of petty criminals. The killer makes an impassioned plea on the grounds that he couldn't help his actions; the criminals are about to kill him when the police arrive and arrest him.

Despite Losey's reservations the criminal underworld is portrayed quite successfully, even though it may not be the way things actually were; the plot is updated to include the use of a television appeal by the Police Chief and the use of radios in the taxis, and the seedy atmosphere of the scruffy end of Los Angeles is well conveyed in Ernest Lazlo's photography. Wayne's performance, like Lorre's, creates some sympathy for the character, though the final scene does become a little over-wrought.

Inevitably the film is completely overshadowed by the original, which is now much better known (and has been issued on DVD though its availability is now limited), and it's very rarely shown; but it's good enough to be seen more often.

Posted: Fri - June 26, 2009 at 09:30 AM by Roger Wilmut          



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Published On: Mar 11, 2016 05:00 PM