Recently having seen, at Film Forum’s True Crime film festival, both Fritz Lang’s and Joseph Losey’s versions of M, one right after the other, I gained some new insights about Lang’s film,which I’ve seen many times, as well acquiring an admiration for Losey’s later (by 20 years) version, which I’ve now seen twice. I admit, I initially found the idea of Lang’s M being remade a, shall I say, brave choice: the original is so famous, holds such a revered place in cinematic history, and is so overwhelming a viewing experience, that to remake it seems like sheer hubris, an attempt to rewrite Hamlet—who would dare to do it?
Yet I think Losey’s film, though it keeps the same plot and characters, does come into its own as a separate cinematic statement. If you’ve never viewed Lang’s original (and if you haven’t—how dare you!), you’ll be gripped as much by what Losey has done, how he’s re-seen, both narratively and visually, its story. Watching both films back to back highlighted, for me, the truism (how true it is!) of a great work of art being an inexhaustible well, revealing further depths of itself each time we approach it; but it also demonstrated how a new pair of eyes, from another time and place, can illuminate something the same but differently. My viewing also brought to mind the influence of culture and history on a specific creation of art: Lang’s film is a product of 1920s Weimar decadence and the German Expressionist style, whereas Losey’s comes out of post-WW2 film noir pessimism and the pervasiveness of Freud (quite the pessimist himself). If noir fans consider Lang’s movie proto-noir in style and theme, then Losey’s is noir’s endpoint and essence—a film is so dipped in the genre’s fatalism, it offers extinction as the only outcome of its narrative path.
What struck me, in comparing the two films, was how deliberately theatrical Lang’s version is; and also how articulate, even eloquent, is his protagonist. By describing Lang’s film as “theatrical,” I refer not to stage techniques or to ‘staginess,’ but to how it uses an artificial heightening of environment and effect to reveal incident and character. For example, Lang uses prolonged, unreal silences during chase scenes (the print shown by Film Forum is the recent, restored version), in which soundless scurries of motion are suddenly punctured by a sharp whistle—the shrill crack of noise pricking the viewer like a knife. The silences often occur during overhead shots of a city street set, with characters darting across bright squares of light to plunge into black alleys, as if swallowed up by absences of space; or during slow pans, such as the one that introduces the underworld ‘jury’ about to judge the hapless killer, as if presenting a play’s cast for a group bow. Lang creates a tightly constructed world, the elements within as contained and laid out as the floor plans the police consult when searching a building swarming with criminals. Spontaneity does not intrude; the race to the climactic trial is a calculated build-up, with Peter Lorre’s final, pathetic, gut-wrenching defense a slow, agonized release of unfolding horror, like pus being squeezed from an infected wound.
By contrast, Losey opts for a style of naturalism, setting his camera right in Los Angeles’ then-ungentrified Bunker Hill neighborhood, its roiling street and traffic noises underlying scripted speech. Much of the film was shot under what looks to be a blazing hot California sun, the hard, bleached light stippled and slashed by stark shadows. And, unlike Lang’s flat grid, Losey uses the district’s sloping streets and stairs to stage up-and-down chases, including a particularly vertiginous descent on a steep flight of steps, with the fleeing child-killer (David Wayne) tucking a tiny girl under his arm like a large baguette. The film has a great opening shot on what I believe is the Angels Flight railway, in which the camera, stationed in the end car, watches in a long, unblinking take as passengers casually enter and take their seats. Just as the train starts its ascent, a furtive little man suddenly springs abroad and crouches near the door, his face turned from us. He remains hunched over, brooding over the landscape slowly dropping away from him, like a wounded animal in a receding lair. The action—or, rather, the lack of it, as Wayne stays immobile throughout—is seemingly ordinary and yet disturbing in the man’s protracted stillness. You keep waiting for something to be revealed; and then stew in anxiety when nothing is.
Losey’s film follows Lang’s closely, using the same plot of the dual search by police and underworld for the child-murdering psychopath—the former to carry out its public duty, the latter to keep the law from disrupting its private operations. Losey also re-uses some of Lang’s tropes, such as the rolling ball and fly-away balloon to indicate the cruel death of one small victim; as well as Lang’s structuring devices, such as intercutting between cops and robbers as they plan their respective dragnets. There are some important changes and additions. The lawyer who defends the protagonist before the underworld jury is, under Losey, a major character, a once-respected dipso attorney (Luther Adler) now working for the head of the underworld. The head himself is no longer a professional thief (nicknamed “Safecracker” in Lang’s film), but a racketeer boss (Martin Gabel) overseeing criminal operations without participating in them. Losey’s killer collects his victims’ shoes as souvenirs; the police discover his identity when they find his footwear hoard, rather than, as in Lang, through his letter-writing activities. And Wayne, though marked, as was Lorre, with the letter ‘M’ to identify him, no longer whistles Grieg’s “Hall of the Mountain King” when on the prowl, but plays a tin whistle instead.
Losey’s changes seem again to push his film towards naturalism, attempting to reveal behavior under stress, while also Americanizing the story. Adler’s alky is a stooge, carrying out his boss’s orders so as to cage a drink, and Gabel’s crime boss (unlike Gustaf Grűndgens’s flashy, theatrical creation who swaggers about like a proto-stage Nazi in a smart derby and slick leather duster), is a faceless ‘corporate’ type, the American concept of Big Crime as the flip side of Big Business. Both letters to the press and victim souvenirs are known serial-killer traits, but the collecting of trophies lends a clinical tone to Losey’s film, as if he’s enumerating types of criminal psychoses; while the shot of those small pairs of shoes, each, we realize, belonging to someone’s child, is a blow to the gut—we grasp viscerally what this monster has done. However, I thought the change from whistled tune to tin whistle nicely did the same thing differently, evoking, as in Lang’s film, the spooky folklore that clings like a cobweb to the killer’s sinister, indefinite presence. If the “Mountain King” conjures up the Scandinavian trolls who kidnap children and leave changelings in their place, the tin whistle suggests a malevolent Pied Piper, luring the little ones to an unknown doom.
The biggest change, though, is with the character of the killer. Lorre’s Beckert, small, soft, fat, is an overgrown infant, his cherubically round face and eyes seemingly having felt no age nor known no sorrow. It’s the kind of visage that would inspire a child’s trust, it being so childlike itself. Lang plays on that shocking contrast, of a baby-faced baby killer who makes silly faces in the mirror when listening to news reports of his atrocities. Can this polite little boy (he addresses the scowling criminals as “gentlemen”), stumping about in his ill-fitting hat and overcoat like Paddington Bear out for a stroll, really be that monster? But Lang goes further: he wants us to be touched by this monster, to have our pity roused and our hearts gripped. That he succeeds is, in large part, due to Lorre’s brilliant, heart-rending performance; no one who has ever witnessed his final monologue, a killer acknowledging his evil while pleading his terror in the face of it, can ever forget it. This is no hardened assassin, but a blubbery, frightened baby; even confessing his worst depravities, he seems as helpless as a puppy.
But Beckert is also a smart, articulate puppy. That, after viewing the Losey version, is what struck me about Lang’s. Even facing a cast of killers, this quivering ball of hysteria can present his case, can explain himself and make us understand. At some level he realizes what he’s done, even if memory conveniently blots it out; he knows what he is. And he can’t help it. He’s horrified by whatever it is that makes him tick, but he’s in its thrall. “Who knows what it’s like inside me?,” he cries to his jury. Lorre’s speech is terrifying, moving, and extraordinarily theatrical; he structures his monologue as a performance, addressing the jury/spectators directly, using voice, eyes, hands, and body to build tension and effect release. I think this theatricality isn’t just Lorre’s choice, but overall the result of Lang’s staging. which proceeds like a well-constructed play, with each character (prosecutor, defense, witness) saying his piece, making an argument, following procedure. It’s exciting to watch because it functions as theater, expertly pulling in our emotions, right up to the final dramatic flourish, the police appearing like the Marines to the Rescue.
In contrast, Wayne’s killer doesn’t tug at our feelings. If Lorre is soft and toddler-plump, Wayne is lean and rat-faced, his character (aptly named Harrow) infused by a rodent-like animalism: he skulks through streets like a hunted ferret, beady eyes glinting with paranoia over a twitchy nose (even the film’s poster shows him crawling out of the title letter). If anything, this fellow challenges us to sympathize with his anguish; it’s hard to feel for a weasel. As an actor Wayne excelled in oozy, lightweight charm (as in probably his best known role, the Cole-Porteresque composer in Adam’s Rib); with his sharp, sly features and elfin twinkle he could be Puck translated to the big city. But he had a neat sideline in sweaty losers, such as the cop-pursued motorist who’s stashed an inconvenient body in the trunk on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and he brings out that desperate, feral quality here. There’s something dim and inchoate about this harrowed creature, who seems stuck in a pre-verbal state of being. In one scene Wayne picks up and then lets go a wounded bird, clearly having to restrain himself from crushing it; he then collapses to the ground and whimpers like a kicked dog. The moment both fascinates and repels; I found myself wanting to look away while he grovelled.
My sense is that this inarticulate atavism is a part of Losey’s dispassionate, clinical view, in which he displays visual clues (such as the Freudian mother’s photo seen on a desk) to present his protagonist as a psychotic-killer case study. Poor Harrow is a classic sicko, no more able to explain himself than a trapped rat can. When surrounded by enraged underworlders, he has no idea what’s happening (unlike Beckert, who grasps right away what’s going on), and he turns, by bad instinct, to the next least-able person in the room. “Who are these people?”, he keeps asking the drunken lawyer—a little rat forlornly seeking aid from a bigger rat, neither one realizing they’re the prey of wolves. His final speech is no articulate defense but an amorphous jumble of memories, of Mother and dead birds and teachings of sin, poured out in a feebly whispered scrabbling for meaning, until descending into incoherent shrieks—a psychic breakdown etched in pain. To Wayne’s credit, he doesn’t try for pity; his performance is as much a tour de force as Lorre’s, but it’s a brutally honest one, leaving us not in tears but in horror.
Losey’s most direct comment on Lang’s original comes also in that final scene. He directs it like a deliberate inversion of Lang’s constructed theatricalism, playing it instead like bad, failed theater. The gang boss even presents the captured Harrow like a star player, raising the top of a convertible in which he’s imprisoned like a curtain. Gabel is actually staging a public relations show, intending to hand Harrow over to a friendly reporter to wangle some good press. But his effect backfires—the underworld thugs don’t want PR theater, they want blood. Instead of Lang’s orderly progression, Losey gives us a growling, seething mob, their faces demonically lit (it looks like high noon in Death Valley). Gabel responds with a frantic call for more showmanship. “Make ‘em laugh,” he snarls to Adler, hoping to reassert control, but his mouthpiece can only mouth stupid jokes (when he finishes Harrow’s case, he declares, he’ll start on another: “a case of Scotch”), and the crowd, like a collective beast excited by the smell of flop sweat, lunges en masse. As chaos erupts, Gabel shoots Adler just when the police march in—prime witnesses to another show, that of murder.
Losey’s finalé brings me to what I observe as the most crucial difference between the two films: that of faith versus nihilism. Lang’s version, however bleak and devastating, does end with a restoration of order, with the criminals caught, the law in charge, and the grieving mothers having the final say. In terms of theater, it’s an achievement of catharsis, purging us of pity and terror; it’s as if our breath, held in for so long during the long, tense underworld trial, can now be let go. We’ve witnessed horror and despair, and terrible questions have been raised, but something, we realize, has also been resolved; there is a justice, however tenuous, that presides.
Losey gives us none of that. His final scene, another long, unblinking take, has the cops hustling out Harrow, gang boss, and criminal horde, leaving behind (prominently displayed in the foreground, so you can’t miss it) the murdered lawyer’s corpse. And that’s it. There’s no restored-order epilogue, no mercy plea; merely an expired shyster stretched out on cement like a sleeping bag forgotten by campers. (“Isn’t anyone going to remove the body?” was the only question I could think of.) Losey’s vision is a despairing one, its cold, clinical view holding out no hope or relief. As a genre type, this film is as noir as it gets; no wonder the Film Forum audience seemed numb at the finish. It offers not released breath but dead air.
Does Lang’s M overshadow Losey’s? Yes, I think so, but I also think Losey’s M has a valid point of view; it’s no facile re-doing but a film statement in its own right. In my own own feeble attempt at something restorative, I’m calling for it to be better known, more widely distributed and viewed, and more discussed and written about. At the very least, it deserves a decent U.S. home video release, just so more people can see it and decide for themselves.
BONUS CLIP: David Wayne’s monologue at the end of Joseph Losey’s 1951 M: