“M” (1951) Retrospective

Martin W. Harrow (David Wayne) is a compulsive child-murderer, and the public demands of the mayor and police that he be caught. The police start a crackdown on criminal operations, dive bars and hangouts in the city, hoping that the murderer will turn up in one of the many raids. This pressure is preventing the city’s crime syndicate from doing business, and its boss, Marshall (Martin Gabel), organizes his forces to find and stop the murderer, so the police will stop the crackdown and go back to business as usual. Meanwhile, Police Inspector Carney (Howard Da Silva) has a psychiatrist examining patients who have been released from mental hospitals as possible suspects.

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At the same time that the police focus on Harrow, finding incriminating evidence – the shoes of the dead children – in his apartment, the criminals track him down with his intended next victim. They capture him, and place him on trial by his “peers” in the Los Angeles criminal underworld. Harrow makes an impassioned plea for his life, explaining that he is unable to stop himself from committing his unspeakable crimes. Just as he is about to be killed by the crowd, the police arrive to take him away, but not before Marshall has shot and killed his alcoholic lawyer, Dan Langley (Luther Adler).

Joseph Losey had seen the original Fritz Lang’s “M” (1931 film)in Munich in the year of its release and viewed it again before shooting his own version nineteen years later. Seymour Nebenzal, the producer of Lang’s M, proposed a version closely modeled on the original script (by Thea von Harbou and Lang) but set in contemporary Los Angeles Losey was reluctant ‘I had twice refused to direct it but finally my financial situation dictated my acceptance of the project. The contract is not found but legal correspondence four years later indicates that it involved a $10,000 deferment, once the bank loan had been paid off and a number of other charges met By March 1954 Losey had received no statement of account from Nebenzal or Colombia. According to Thomas Elsaesser, Lang never forgave Nebenzal and was not prepared to acknowledge the director Losey, as a member of his profession. (Yet Lang himself was not above directing remakes)”

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The new screenplay, by Norman Reilly Raine and Leo Katcher, was graced by additional dialogue from Waldo Salt Losey was anxious to update the psychology of the fictional child-murderer. The production file notes on Martin Harrow, the killer, dated 31 May 1950, are based on a study by Wertham and Menninger of two actual psychotic Hillers. “Harrow was isolated in his youth by religion and by poverty. He is suffering from hyper sensitivity. He was sexually attached to his mother. This resulted in frustration, hatred of father. No less simplistic is the explanation for the killer’s habit of collecting his small victims’ shoes not found in Lang’s version: the shoe and foot as sexual symbol. Losey also contributed his own abiding fixations.

And I wanted to present him as a product of a mother-dominated and materialistic society of lower middle-class America, where everybody had to be big he-men otherwise they were sissies…this man undoubtedly was a concealed homosexual, totally in conflict with everything including his own mother whom he adored and hated. This approach was in strong contrast to Fritz Lang’s.

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A first-class crew and cast was assembled, with Robert Aldrich the assistant director, John Hubley the production designer, and Michel Michelet composing the music. The director of photography was Ernest Lazo, whose talents were ideally responsive to Losey’s.

Peter Lorre, who had played the psychopathic killer in Lang’s film, later joined the German refugee colony in America, Losey had employed him in The Day of Reckonitig radio series for NBC, but, writing to Brecht in May 1948, he dismissed Lorre as unacceptable for a remake of M because he is now regarded by the American movie public is a clown! To play the child killer, Losey chose David Wayne, an actor mainly associated with high comedy parts – Losey had seen him on the stage in Finan’s Rainbow. A fine supporting cast included Luther Adler, Howard da Silva, Martin Gabel and Karen Morley.

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The film was shot on location in downtown Los Angeles, including the now demolished Victorian neighborhood of Bunker Hill. David Wayne’s character lived at an eccentric Victorian mansion on Bunker Hill Avenue known as the Max Heindel house because Heindel, a famous astrologer in the early 20th century, had once lived there. Some scenes were shot on and around the funicular Angels Flight on Third Street. The most spectacular footage occurs in a lengthy sequence shot inside the Bradbury Building on the southeast corner of Broadway and Third, a block east of Angels Flight. Director Losey used the basement, the distinctive stairways and balconies, and the roof of the building.

Substantial themes were cut from Lang’s final scenario, including the gangster leader’s denunciation of liberal law courts and soft justice. Lang was staring at fascism, Losey’s chief racketeer seeks to exploit public gratitude and so get a grand jury off his back. Lang was trading in metaphysics, Losey in urban pragmatism. Whereas Peter Lorre’s pop-eyed, demented killer breaks off from his compulsions to chuckle over a whole city’s fruitless search for him, David Wayne steps over the screaming headlines like a stranger to himself. Wayne has a psychiatric history, Lorre was born to the devil.

Joseph Losey

Seymour Nebenzal

Waldo Salt (additional dialogue)

Norman Reilly Raine
Leo Katcher

David Wayne
Howard Da Silva
Luther Adler

Music by Michel Michelet
Cinematography Ernest Laszlo

David Wayne as Martin W. Harrow
Howard Da Silva as Inspector Carney
Luther Adler as Dan Langley
Martin Gabel as Charlie Marshall
Steve Brodie as Lt. Becker
Raymond Burr as Pottsy
Glenn Anders as Riggert
Karen Morley as Mrs. Coster
Norman Lloyd as Sutro
John Miljan as Blind Ballon Vender
Walter Burke as MacMahan
Roy Engel as Police Chief Regan
Benny Burt as Jansen
Leonard Bremen as Lembre (as Lennie Bremen)
Jim Backus as The Mayor
Janine Perreau as The Last Little Girl
Frances Karath as Little Girl in Hallway
Robin Fletcher as Elsie Coster
Bernard Szold as Bradbury Bldg. Watchman
Jorja Curtright as Mrs. Stewart

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