M (1951)

M (1951) is remake of Fritz Lang's 1931 classic of the same name, and does not disappoint as it condenses and updates the drama, taking it to the streets of Los Angeles, and offering up some great visuals of the Victorian area of Bunker Hill.

A significant amount had happened in the world and in cinema in the twenty years between the two films, and while the story is in essence exactly the same, the two worlds, that of Berlin in 1931 and Los Angeles in 1951, have little in common.

While Fritz Lang presented public and personal paranoia to the max in his 1931 masterpiece, neither are edged deep into the drama of the 1951 M, but it is otherwise an effective film.

There are stabs at public paranoia and criminal psychology, although both seem to be token efforts at times. The police procedural which returns an otherwise constantly roving camera to the quite corner of a soundstage on a fairly regular basis, is handled by Howard Da Silva, who plays the carefree cop, chewing his way from meeting to meeting, first with the city's mayor, and then with various psychologists, colleagues and villains.

Balloons on Bunker Hill

Televised Authority . . .

. . . and the rapt viewing public

Neighbourhood molestation enacted on your TV set (1951)

The psychologists do make a decent attempt to profile the child killer, but this only amounts to one scene in which a clinically cloaked copper attempts to explain that the urge to kill in this psychopath's case, may have something to do with events in his childhood.

Killer in the Dark - M (1951) the psychopath in film noir

So in M (1951) there is the faint stirring of the character of the psychopath, still little explored by Hollywood in the 1950s, and in fact little explored here by both the movie's director Joseph Losey, and the police themselves. 

Also lightly touched upon, is the idea of the public's paranoia in the light of what comes across in the print and broadcast media; and there are some repeated scenes near the beginning of the film, in which innocent citizens are persecuted and even attacked, as they are mistaken for the killer.

Both of these themes seem prescient, or perhaps timeless.

Howard da Silva in M (1951)

For the most part in 1951's M, we don't learn much about the killer at all, that is until the climax, and yet the ideas involved may still have been so relatively new to the public at large, who presumably at the time perhaps lived in the comfortable state of criminal knowledge which presented crime as being carried out both with motive, and by criminals.

Raymond Burr in M (1951)

The actual stars of 1951's M remain therefore the criminal gang themselves, these that spend the body of the movie tracking down the killer and chasing him around the Bradbury Building; the gang that is and the city itself, shot to immense effect, as as of course the Bradbury.

If viewers of 1951's M are invited to draw any conclusions at all, it's probably the fact that the criminal gang is better organised, better placed, better motivated and better equipped than the police are when it comes to tracking down this neighbourhood killer. This is only one aspect of the 1931 original, but in 1950s America, it was fast becoming a major theme. May film noirs present the mob and the gang as a force more organised than was previously imagined.

On the prowl in M (1951)

The criminal gang, led by Martin Gabel, with Raymond Burr doing all the heavy lifting in terms of mood, character, action and screen-filling, are not just better placed than the police, but have better lines of communication and the entirety of the criminal gang is quite a thing to see as it runs from floor to floor in the Bradbury Building.

And once the killer is caught, the gang expands into an entire public mob, joined by everybody from young to old, to carry out a beautifully choreographed denouement in a subterranean car park. Everyone is there in fact, at this rough and ready trial, except the police.

What to make of that? Perhaps harm done to children is so universally disliked that everyone can unite around its perpetrators and their punishment. More likely, and as presented here, society at large is merely a mob in the waiting.

The police however do not do so badly, and are on their own trail with their own procedures, almost beating a different path. The police manage to find the killer's house and the killer's secret stash of children's shoes, which is the final proof of guilt. 

However their procedural is no match for the powers of the criminal gang, and so an interesting contrast does finally emerge in Joseph Losey's M, as the criminal gang is ultimately on the side of social order, and is in its way just as good at providing it as the police; if not better.

Well organised crime (1951)

The name 'Red Scare', referring to the public and political Communist hunts of the 1950s, does suggest that the public were invited to be frightened of Communists, and for all his cinematic power, Joseph Losey was a genuine card carrying Red in the 1940s, meaning that life was going to be hellish in the 1950s. 

While it was true that his best work was to come in exile, beginning with fantastic British film noirs like The Sleeping Tiger in 1954, and culminating in absolute masterpieces like The Servant in 1960, the production of M (1951) was marked by the kind of brewing political trouble which in 1951 was truly boiling over.

Joseph Losey was under a long-term contract with Dore Schary at RKO when Howard Hughes purchased the company in 1948 and began purging it of leftists. Losey later explained how Hughes tested employees to determine whether they had communist sympathies:

"I was offered a film called I Married a Communist, which I turned down categorically. I later learned that it was a touchstone for establishing who was a "red": you offered I Married a Communist to anybody you thought was a Communist, and if they turned it down, they were."

Howard Hughes responded by holding Losey to his contract without assigning him any work. In mid-1949, Schary persuaded Hughes to release Losey, who soon began working as an independent on The Lawless for Paramount Pictures. Soon he was working on a three-picture contract with Stanley Kramer, an equally visionary producer, who made what might be called 'message movies' such as The Defiant Ones (1958), Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967) and On the Beach (1959).

Joseph Losey's name was mentioned by two witnesses before HUAC in the spring of 1951, and Losey's lawyer suggested arranging a deal with the committee for testimony in secret. Instead, Losey abandoned his work editing The Big Night, and left for Europe with his wife Louise a few days later, while HUAC took weeks to try unsuccessfully to serve him with a subpoena compelling his testimony.

After more than a year working on Stranger on the Prowl in Italy, Losey returned to the U.S. in October 1952, but found himself unemployable:

"I was [in the United States] for about a month and there was no work in theatre, no work in radio, no work in education or advertising, and none in films, in anything. For one brief moment, I was going to do the Arthur Miller play The Crucible. Then they got scared because I had been named. So after a month of finding that there was no possible way in which I could make a living in this country, I left. I didn't come back for twelve years.... I didn't stay away for reasons of fear, it was just that I didn't have any money. I didn't have any work."

Howard da Silva, a cop collapsed.

Against the various absences of character and the overwhelming sense of public paranoia stressed in the 1931 original of M, 1951's M becomes a kind of chase movie, roaring with great effect through the city of Los Angeles - - as noted climaxing in the Bradbury Building, beloved of many a movie set, such as Blade Runner (1982) and Double Indemnity (1941) - - as well as Chinatown (1974)

Other film noirs which feature The Bradbury include The Unfaithful (1947), Shockproof (1949), D.O.A. (1950) and I, The Jury (1953)  -- the latter filmed in 3-D.

The Bradbury Building (Wikipedia)

At M's climax, so many things collide simultaneously that it is almost hard to read. The child murderer gives a speech which confuses everyone, including himself, and culminates in an utter abdication of responsibility as he madly punches the cement floor of the parking garage where the citizens' and criminals' impromptu court is taking place.

It's hard to take and hard to understand. Perhaps, having offered so little in terms of solid psychoanalytical persuasion, all that is left is that cement-punching confusion. It is a great scene, beginning with eloquence and humanity, and concluding with nonsense and horror. 

What, if anything can we glean from the child killer's testimony? Certainly there is no subtlety to it, just a rapid descent from what is described as an abusive childhood, into stark staring madness which offers few clues, other than an untoward desire to perhaps protect children from the evils of the world, by killing them. A bird with a broken wing becomes an odd tool in this discourse.

Then there is the drunken mob lawyer, brilliantly played by Luther Adler, who is tasked with defending the indefensible and rises to the challenge, ultimately making a great job of it; so great a job that he opens his heart full o' booze to talk about how it may in fact be mob crime, and slot machines that are the real villains, the real killers of our children. 

He pays for expressing that idea of course, but at this point the police arrive and everything is wound up uber-hastily, with no sympathy, and with an odd feeling of loss.

Justice - -  and an odd feeling of loss
Walter Burke as a complex killer in M (1951)

That is to say, we cannot feel sorry for anyone, here.

1951 - - M

No comments:

Post a Comment