M (1951): Joseph Losey’s Remake of Fritz Lang’s 1931 Classic

In 1951, Seymour Nebenzal, the producer of Fritz Lang’s 1931 classic M hired a relatively debutant director, Joseph Losey to remake the original film, which was to be set in Los Angeles, instead of Germany.

Thus, the killer’s name in the film was changed from Hans Beckert to Martin W. Harrow.

Nebenzal’s son Harold, benefiting from his father’s knowledge, was associate producer of the 1951 version.

Character actor David Wayne plays Martin W. Harrow, a compulsive child-murderer, who is tracked down and then placed on trial by the criminal underworld in Los Angeles.

Syndicate chieftain Marshall (Martin Gabel) organizes his fellow crooks in order to bring “M” to justice, thereby keeping the police off their own backs.

Found guilty by his “peers” and sentenced to death, “M” makes an impassioned plea for his life, explaining that he is unable to stop himself from committing unspeakable crimes.

The cast is populated by excellent character actors, including Howard Da Silva, Martin Gabel, and Raymond Burr (before he became a TV star).

Though not as urgently scary as Lang’s original movie of 1931, which was groundbreaking in many respects, this M is tautly directed by Losey, who is good with establishing a fast pacing for his tale and the needed rim and gruesome tone.

The film was shot on location in downtown Los Angeles by the excellent cinematographer Ernest Laszlo.  Wayne’s murderous character lived at an eccentric Victorian mansion on Bunker Hill Avenue known as the Max Heindel house, because Heindel, a famous astrologer, had once lived there.

Some scenes were shot on and around the funicular Angels Flight on Third Street. But the most spectacular location footage takes place within a lengthy sequence inside the famous Bradbury Building on the corner of Broadway and Third Street.  Assistd by Laslo’s sharp camera work, Losey used the basement, stairways and balconies, and the roof of the building in a most impressive and effective way.

The Bradbury Building has been used in many films, including Ridley Scott’s cult film, Blade Runner, due to its unique look of wrought-iron and brick.

While Wayne renders an effectively convincing performance, he is not narky as initially scary and then gradually fearfully pathetic as was Peter Lorre in the 1931 feature.

The supporting cast fares better: Luther Adler, as a drunken lawyer member of a gangster mob, Martin Gabel, as the gang-leader, and Howard da Silva and Steve Brodie as police officials.

The film was classified by Ohio film censors as unacceptable for public screenings, which led to the producers’ appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court  In 1954, M was approved for exhibition in Ohio, as elsewhere, without any cuts.

 

Cast

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

Credits:

Screenplay by Norman Reilly Raine, Leo Katcher, Waldo Salt (additional dialogue)
Music by Michel Michelet
Cinematography by Ernest Laszlo
Edited by Edward Mann

Production company: Superior Pictures
Distributed by Columbia Pictures
Release date: March 1951
Running time: 88 minutes