Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Buried Treasures: M (1951)


The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ rolled out a righteous premiere on the first day of the new year: the Joseph Losey-directed remake of Fritz Lang’s 1931 masterpiece M.  Unseen in this country for many years until a couple of years ago due to a tangle of copyright issues (it got a limited release by Columbia Pictures before the rights reverted to producer Seymour Nebenzal), Losey’s 1951 film suffered from a slightly maligned reputation but TCM oracle Bobby Osbo explains that the reason for this is because no one had seen it in all that time.

Yet I don’t think this isn’t entirely true.  I have an old Kit Parker Films catalog somewhere in this pile of junk I jokingly call “the dusty Thrilling Days of Yesteryear archives” that offered the Losey film for rent…and many years back, I was able to track down a DVD-R of the movie from some bootlegger who has since vanished into the mist of the Internets.  Still, as I have often observed in the past: sometimes the enjoyment of a feature is improved immeasurably by the quality of the print, and since my copy of M was watchable yet non-spiffy (taken from a questionable 16mm print) it was nice to see Tee Cee Em give this a showing (I believe it’s also aired a second time since its January 1, 2016 premiere).  The 1951 version of M cannot compare to the original from twenty years before, that much is certain.  But there is much to be enjoyed from the remake.

Here's the story: a child murderer named Martin W. Harrow (David Wayne) is running amok in Los Angeles, and despite the dogged attempts of the police (represented by Inspector Carney, played by Howard Da Silva) to capture Harrow and bring him to justice, the long arm of the law can’t quite reach him.  Harrow’s reign of terror is making things quite uncomfortable for the criminal underworld, who are bearing the brunt of the cops’ frustrated manhunt to round up the murderer.

So syndicate chieftain Charlie Marshall (Martin Gabel) sends out the word that the underworld will do what the Los Angeles constabulary cannot: they find and capture Harrow, and a kangaroo court set up in what appears to be an underground parking garage finds the man guilty—despite a defense from dipsomaniac lawyer Dan Langley (Luther Adler) and Harrow’s fervent pleas that he’s unable to control his urges: he’s a pathologically sick puppy.  Since the idea of an individual being executed by a mob would have been an anathema to moviegoers at this time in history, the police fortunately arrive on the scene before Marshall and his men can mete out their idea of justice.

Fritz Lang directed the original M in 1931, but the film was produced by Seymour Nebenzal…who shopped the idea of a remake around Hollywood in 1950 and first asked his fellow German expatriate Douglas Sirk if he would be interested.  Sirk was, but what he wanted to do was scrap the original story (written by Lang and wife Thea von Harbou) and write his own involving a child killer.  Nebenzal then went to Joseph Losey and got the same response: why not discard the tale used in the Lang version and substitute a new one?  Seymour then informed the picture’s eventual director that the PCA (Production Code Administration) had only signed onto a remake if the original story and script were retained—otherwise, they would withdraw their approval.  (Norman Reilly Raine and Leo Katcher eventually tweaked the screenplay, with additional dialogue provided by Waldo Salt.)

Carl at Film Noir of the Week writes in a 2006 essay that the 1951 M “is a criminally undervalued film” and that “[i]t’s a near classic if not a full-fledged one, and one that complements the original’s 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.”  (I remember that for many years the 1951 version received two-and-a-half stars in Leonard Maltin’s movie guide…but that later several Losey films—most notably The Prowler—received upgrades; M now boasts a three-star rating.}  I agree wholeheartedly with Carl’s assessment, particularly since he cites the film’s cast, “the spectacular shabby Los Angeles/Bunker Hill location settings of the period,” and the first-rate cinematography courtesy of Oscar winner Ernest Laszlo (Ship of Fools) as major credits in what was often dismissed as an uninteresting remake.

The cinematography is what sucked me into the 1951 M when I first saw it: to this day, the movie’s dazzling opening sequence where Wayne’s killer climbs aboard the Angels Flight trolley as it makes its way up Bunker Hill is an image tattooed into my brain…not to mention the remarkable footage shot inside the Bradbury Building as members of the underworld close in on a trapped Harrow.  (The Bradbury had been used in other movies, notably such noirs as Shockproof [1949] and D.O.A. [1950], but you might remember it in noirs of a more recent vintage like Chinatown [1974] and Blade Runner [1982].)

I’ve made no secret of my love for actress Karen Morley here on the blog, so I’ll try to hold back the gushing when I report that she has a small but memorable role in M as the concerned mother whose child becomes one of Harrow’s many victims.  Since M was filmed shortly before director Losey was shown the door in Hollywood because of his past political affiliations, it’s interesting to see so many of his fellow blacklist victims in the cast like Morley, Luther Adler (fantastic as the lawyer with a weakness for booze) and Howard Da Silva.  M was Da Silva’s last Hollywood feature film (he subsequently migrated to the stage, where the blacklist didn’t cripple as many careers) before David and Lisa in 1962, and after the release of Prowler and The Big Night, Losey would have to travel to the other side of the pond to continue making movies like The Servant (1963) and The Go-Between (1971).

In one scene in M, Martin Gabel’s underworld boss gathers in the same room Adler, Raymond Burr (as a raspy-voiced goon), Norman Lloyd, Glenn Anders, and Walter Burke—could you ask for a better gathering of henchmen and fixers?  There are a lot of familiar TV faces in this one (Madge Blake, Sherry Jackson, Norman Leavitt) but the one that predictably made me laugh out loud was seeing the ubiquitous William Schallert as one of the criminals being subjected to a Rorschach test.  Rounding out the super supporting cast are Steve Brodie (as Da Silva’s fellow cop, who has a bit of a temper problem), Jim Backus (as the buffoonish and ineffectual mayor), and John Miljan as the blind balloon vender (any movie I watch in which Miljan is not playing an Indian chief is a revelation, believe me).

The 1951 M suffers from not having an actor like Peter Lorre as its focus (a lot of critics have praised David Wayne for stepping out of his wheelhouse…but I just wasn’t bowled over with his work in this); yet it compensates for what it doesn’t have with an interesting look at the societal mores of the time (I’m intrigued at how we’re shown the populace going into panic mode once chief Roy Engel has appeared on television with a list of “don’ts” for the viewing public, causing them to go bat-shit crazy whenever some poor schnook tries to help a kid with a problem).  If you don’t compare the 1951 M to the original (which I must plead guilty in doing a couple of times in this review), I think you’ll find it a rewarding watch on its own.

2 comments:

hobbyfan said...

Howard Da Silva would eventually return to the big screen, Ivan, in "1776". He played Benjamin Franklin opposite William Daniels as John Adams.

Scott said...

As devotees of Mystery Science Theater 3000 will undoubtedly remember, John Miljan played the non-Indian, distinctly unchiefly role of the negligent, boozy, philandering father in I Accuse My Parents, while Steve Brodie lent his three-pack-a-day voice to the classic episodes Wild World of Batwoman and Giant Spider Invasion (although I seem to be the only MST3K fan who was excited to see him pop up on the show. Maybe Stacia got a similar tingle up her leg, but that's just a guess...)