Friday, May 1, 2020

Double Classic Movie Review: M (1931 & 1951)

M (1931)
Directed by: Fritz Lang.
Written by: Thea von Harbou and Fritz Lang.
Starring: Peter Lorre (Hans Beckert), Ellen Widmann (Frau Beckmann), Inge Landgut (Elsie Beckmann), Otto Wernicke (Inspector Karl Lohmann), Theodor Loos (Inspector Groeber), Gustaf Gründgens (Schränker), Friedrich Gnaß (Franz), Fritz Odemar (The Cheater), Paul Kemp (Pickpocket with Six Watches), Theo Lingen (Bauernfänger), Rudolf Blümner (Beckert's Defender), Georg John (Blind Panhandler), Franz Stein (Minister), Ernst Stahl-Nachbaur (Police Chief), Gerhard Bienert (Criminal Secretary), Karl Platen (Damowitz), Rosa Valetti (Bartender), Hertha von Walther (Prostitute). 
M (1951)
Directed by: Joseph Losey.
Written by: Norman Reilly Raine & Leo Katcher and Waldo Salt.
Starring: David Wayne (Martin W. Harrow), Howard Da Silva (Inspector Carney), Martin Gabel (Charlie Marshall), Luther Adler (Dan Langley), Steve Brodie (Police Lt. Becker), Raymond Burr (Pottsy), Glenn Anders (Riggert), Norman Lloyd (Sutro), Walter Burke (MacMahan), John Miljan (Blind Baloon Vendor), Roy Engel (Police Chief Regan), Janine Perreau (The Last Little Girl), Leonard Bremen (Lemke), Benny Burt (Jansen), Bernard Szold (Bradbury Bldg. Watchman), Robin Fletcher (Elsie Coster), Karen Morley (Mrs. Coster), Jim Backus (The Mayor), Jorja Curtright (Mrs. Stewart), Frances Karath (Little Girl in Hallway).
Fritz Lang’s M is one of the greatest of all films – and its influence cannot be overstated. It is one of the great early sound films – in large part because unlike many in the early years of sound, Lang didn’t go overboard with sound – he used it brilliantly but wasn’t afraid of long stretches of silence. He emphasized visuals above all – and his film is full of amazing camera work. You can see the influence – like much of German Expressionism films – on film noir, in its visuals, but also in its storytelling. It is also a film that you can trace many in the “serial killer” drama to as well – offering a complex portrait of a monster of the worst kind – a man who kills children. It is a portrait of Germany at the time Lang made it – he was only a couple years away from fleeing Germany for Hollywood at this time, the roots of Nazism was surely already there. Every time I watch it, I am truly amazed that Lang made the film he did, when he did, how he did – and it remains a masterpiece, the best film in Lang’s long, brilliant career – and one of the best films ever made.
Lang’s film is about a child killer who is terrorizing Berlin – as one child after another has gone missing, and the city has descended into panic. The film’s opening act is about that panic – and Lang is at his best when he can suggest so much, while showing us so little. His killer is defined by his whistle more than anything else. When we watch him take a child away – poor little Elsie Beckmann, he does it with ease and confidence – and we don’t see a whole lot. When poor Elsie is dead, Lang shows us that with a few quick shots – the balloon she was holding lost in a mess of wires, the ball she was bouncing rolling away and being left. We are shown nothing but know everything. Lang is able to show us the mounting sense of paranoia in the city – both on the streets, and in homes. The police, who have no idea how to stop this criminal, decide instead to try and stop all the other criminals – they crack down on all the underworld enterprises going on. To make matter worse for the criminals, others are staying away anyway – scared for their families. The second act is really a procedural more than anything else – but a duel one. The police are taking one track to trying, and the criminals a much different, much more brutal track. It all comes to a head at a soulless factory – that the criminals have tracked the killer to and have cornered inside.
Lang’s use of visuals and sound in M are a landmark for the time. It is true that many early sound films have stretches of silence in them – it was easier to do that then, and it was common. But Lang uses sound in a way that makes you think he would have done this regardless. He uses strange angles throughout the film – his camera always lurking, peering around corners, up from strange angles, stalking its characters, as if spying on them the entire time. The sound we hear if often what tells us what we need to know – but the camera is a little behind, not quite seeing, what we are hearing, which is out of frame. So, when the sound drops out, the tension mounts – and you listen closely, waiting for the next piece of sound that will tell us something.
M is also innovative in its depiction of its serial killer – brilliantly played in his breakthrough role by Peter Lorre, who like Lang, would flee Germany for America. We don’t quite get a good look at him – and he’s terrifying. When we finally do – when the blind beggars recognize him by his whistle, and mark him for others to follow, Lorre becomes a frightened, pathetic little man – a trapped rat. Lang does something daring – you don’t sympathize with him really, but you do empathize – it is terrifying to have all these criminals chasing you, closing in, having no where to go. Lang doesn’t explain him either – he leaves a lot of clues, but lets them dangle – leaving you to piece together what is real, and what isn’t in what he says and does – does he taunt the police with his letter, or want to be caught. Is his impassioned plea legitimate, or a last ditch effort to save his life? Lang is interested in it sure – but M ultimately is about mob mentality – something Lang returned to again and again in his career. The mob here may well have a point – that Lorre’s serial killer is evil, and needs to be stopped – but they aren’t exactly good guys either, or they take things too far. And its not like the police are corrupt or incompetent – the criminals find him first, but the cops have their own methods, and would have got to him soon. The film doesn’t even tell us the killer’s ultimate fate.
20 years after Lang’s M, the producer of that film, who also came to Hollywood, decided it was time to remake the film – and approached Lang to direct an American version. Lang, correctly, felt there was nothing he could better on a remake, so he passed. The job eventually fell to another great director, who would shortly after making M leave his home country – Joseph Losey. But unlike Lang when he made M, Losey was not yet at the height of his powers – he is best known for films like The Servant and Accident which he made in the 1960s – in the 1950s, Losey was a young director, still looking to establish himself. The Blacklist would drive him out of Hollywood not long after he made M – and if you can see some of Lang’s politics (that he denied were there) about his country when he made M, you can see Losey’s Communist influence on his version of M.
For better or for worse, Losey seems to agree with Lang that there is little he can do to improve on M – and there are whole sequences that are virtually shot for shot, word for word to Lang’s film. If there’s a difference, it’s that Losey shot on location, on the streets of Los Angeles, not a sound stage like Lang did. This does lend a rawness to Losey’s film – but he also clearly didn’t have the complete control that Lang did. David Wayne would play the killer this time – no whistling this time, but a recorder instead – making him even more of a Pied Piper character. Mostly, the two films are very similar – there is a very Freudian scene in Losey’s version – where he literally cuts the head off of a makeshift doll of a child with a picture of his mother in the background, and his plea for mercy is a little more psychological as well – but in terms of plot, it’s basically the same. Losey makes great use of the Bradbury Building – although I kind of like the soulless drabness of the building in Lang’s film. And it’s not completely fair to say Losey just copies Lang – there are interesting touches here and there, differing details that place it in America in the 1950s, not Germany in the 1930s – but for the most part, the translation is an easy one.
But, still, there is a reason why Lang’s film is considered a masterpiece – one of the best films ever made – and a lot of people don’t even know that Losey remade it at all. It isn’t the easiest film to find – I had to PVR it late one night off of TCM to see it after years of being curious about it. Losey’s film is good – a fine 1950s American Noir, with some nice touches and performances. But it really doesn’t come close to matching Lang’s film – with its utter strangeness, the unique angles, use of sound, strange villain, and portrait of mob rule. Lang’s film is a masterpiece – and Losey’s is a curiosity. Perhaps had Losey made it later in his career – and tried to make it his own more than he does here, it could have been – if not an equal to Lang’s film, than at least a more compelling second half of the double bill. It’s a good film – but Lang’s is one of the greatest ever made.

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