M (1951) B
USA (88 mi) 1951 d: Joseph Losey
—Joseph Losey, from Losey on Losey, by Tom Milne, 1967
Born in Wisconsin, the American heartland, where he was friends with Nicholas Ray in high school, Losey studied at Dartmouth and Harvard Universities, moved to New York to work in theater, directing WPA political theater groups combining an anti-realist aesthetic with radical political views. Losey studied with Sergei Eisenstein in Moscow and Bertolt Brecht in Germany, directing the world premiere of the American version of Brecht’s play Life of Galileo in 1947, which he would later film in 1975. By 1951, he had directed five films, none of which expressed his political views, however they do contain common themes of manhunts and mass hysteria, reflective of the political paranoia of the era. After making his first film in Technicolor, THE BOY WITH GREEN HAIR (1948), Losey’s subsequent American films are all classified as film noir, where location shooting was an important element in all of them while also exhibiting an artistic visual aesthetic that would become the hallmark of his later more modernist studies of power and class, exploring personal relationships within the rigid British class system. Losey had briefly joined the Communist Party in 1946 and was subpoenaed to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) shortly after completing this film, but was blacklisted when he refused to cooperate, leaving for Europe, never to return. What followed was a difficult career of an artist in exile, where according to Video Curator Steve Seid from BAM/PFA (Joseph Losey: Pictures of Provocation - BAM/PFA - Film ...), “Throughout his forty-year career, Losey seemed preoccupied with the limits of personal awareness and the freedom that arises from it. His fully faceted characters confront ethical dilemmas—hypocrisy, personal weakness, moral fallibility—and more often than not fail to retain their integrity. Losey’s characters lack the very freedom he sought throughout his own life,” remaining deeply contemptuous of the American film industry, where outsiders become a recurring motif in his films. In remaking Fritz Lang’s M (1931 in 1951 for Columbia Pictures, Losey was offered the chance to direct the film by the same producer of the Lang film, Seymour Nebenzal, though he was contractually obligated to follow the original script. Although there are location shots of housing estates, and a long sequence shot in the cavernous and baroque complex of Los Angeles offices known as the Bradbury Building, the same locale utilized in other film noirs D.O.A (1950), I, THE JURY (1953), Kiss Me Deadly (1955), where Robert Aldrich, notably, was Losey’s assistant director, and the infamous Blade Runner (1982), the story — the hunt for a child killer (David Wayne) by two equally dubious organizations, the police and the underworld — follows many of the cultural nuances of the original. The darkness and shadows mirror the murderer’s own mind and his own helpless recognition of his guilt.
Losey’s earlier film THE LAWLESS (1949) reflected a similar mob mentality, introduced in voiceover, “This is the story of a town and some of its people who, in the grip of blind anger, forget their American heritage of tolerance and decency, and become the lawless.” This overriding sense of anger and injustice was an oblique reference to contemporary politics, especially the liberals’ collective failure of nerve in abandoning the cause of the Hollywood Ten after the 1947 HUAC hearings. Striving for an intellectual rather than an emotional connection with his audience, Losey’s pessimistic world view often alienated audiences, depicting a world ruled by coldness, greed, and hypocrisy. After the original HUAC hearings in October 1947, there was a period of calm before the storm, as the hearings started up again in March 1951. Nebenzal and Losey were certainly aware of the deteriorating conditions for leftists in the movie industry, making the film at the height of McCarthyism and the Red hysteria, so the cast and crew are comprised of leftists and communists that would soon be subject to the Hollywood blacklisting. In 1950, having exhausting their appeals, the Hollywood Ten began serving their prison sentences. Within a year, no one worked in Hollywood without political clearance approved by HUAC. Karen Morley, playing a murdered child’s mother, seen helplessly calling her missing child’s name down the building’s enormous stairway, is unforgettable, where she had already been blacklisted, while screenwriter Waldo Salt, an unfriendly witness in 1947, was subpoenaed again for a second time. Within this swirling maelstrom of political discontent, including a 10/26/51 article written by Lowell E. Redlings from the Citizen News that reads, “Many in the cast, whose names have been associated with communistic fronts and activities, brought about a picket line in front of the two theaters, the pickets’ signs protesting the use of ‘known reds’ in the film and therefore urging non-patronage,” Losey brings to Los Angeles the same feeling of turmoil and unrest that Fritz Lang brought to the original in 1930’s Berlin, both undergoing bouts of political upheaval. Losey initially turned down Nebenzal’s offer to direct the remake, changing his mind because he needed money, only to discover that Lang was openly hostile to the project, where according to film scholar Thomas Elsaesser, Lang showed up at a promotional screening and got into a shouting match with Nebenzal. The famed Austrian director was a great cultural hero during the Weimar Republic, creating the original with his second wife Thea von Harbou, becoming his first talking picture, inspired by the real-life serial killer Peter Kürten, known as the Monster of Düsseldorf. Lang threatened legal action, but he had no screenwriting credit on the film, while the papers that would establish his rights to the story had been lost when he escaped from Berlin. Nebenzal, a German exile who also escaped to the West, procured the rights from Harbou and simply ignored Lang’s wishes, moving ahead with Losey.
A fundamental difference between the two versions is the shift from newspapers in the 30’s to television in the 50’s, where the citizens of Berlin learned about the child murders from newspapers and from posters plastered around the walls of the city, while the residents of Bunker Hill in Los Angeles obtain their information from watching television. In Losey’s film, the murderer never writes to the newspapers, instead late in the film it’s the underground mob that attempts to coerce favors from newspaper publishers in exchange for an exclusive story turning the child killer over to the authorities. While Losey’s film, at times virtually shot for shot, pales in comparison to the formal beauty of Lang’s shadowy expressionism, which was a breakthrough in sound recording and way ahead of its time in its methodical, perfectly synchronized, psychological storytelling, Losey’s version is especially noteworthy for moving the camera into the shoddy downtown streets of Los Angeles into the now demolished slum neighborhood of Bunker Hill, with its irregularly shaped streets, shabby rooming houses, and Victorian-era mansions memorialized by pulp writers such as Raymond Chandler, providing something essential that Lang’s studio-based film lacks, namely a time capsule recording of the historical architectural and urban fragments seen before their imminent demise. Sixteen months after the end of the shoot, Los Angeles voted in 1951 to condemn most of the buildings in the neighborhood for urban renewal. The film’s opening sequence of the Angels Flight tramway, a steep incline railway with a long flight of stone steps alongside, offers a glimpse of the hilly landscape and wide open spaces, but also a stack of newspapers with the headlines “CHILD KILLER SOUGHT” as the killer (Martin Harrow as David Wayne) boards the train just before the ascent up the hill. What follows is a montage sequence of the killer approaching various young girls, where he’s eventually seen sprawled out on a park bench high above the hill with a panoramic view of the city below, captured by the mesmerizing cinematography of Ernest Laszlo. Wayne has more screen time than Peter Lorre’s character, playing a helpless psychotic with a mother complex, where her framed portrait dominates the grim environment of his dark, claustrophobic apartment, seen molding clay sculptures of childlike figures before wrapping a cord around their necks and snapping the heads off. He also collects shoelaces from his victims which are used in a sexually suggestive manner, associating masturbation with strangulation, revealing a mother-fixated sexual dysfunction that could serve as the model for Norman Bates in Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960).
Despite a laudable cast, there’s very little connection to any of the characters with Losey, as he’s prone to do, using an overly theatrical style that distorts and exaggerates the effect of the stark realism of the streets, which has the effect of distancing the audience from the story, becoming an increasingly empty experience where women are all but absent and there’s simply no emotional connection to anyone except the lone figure of Karen Morley. Instead, with a script that fails to live up to expectations, they all play stock characters, as Jim Backus plays the overwrought Mayor that wants action, Howard Da Silva plays a chain-smoking homicide cop that can’t give him any answers, Roy Engel is the overly paranoid police chief making apocalyptic pronouncements of doom on TV, Martin Gabel is the abrasive, tough-talking crime boss used to having his way, Raymond Burr is his stalwart henchman following orders while Glenn Anders, so familiar “taking a little tarrrr-get practice” in THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI (1947), psychoanalyzes his boss’s every move, Luther Adler plays a washed up lawyer, the mob mouthpiece who can’t stay off the booze, and John Miljan is the blind balloonist with floating fat lady balloons that recognizes the serial killer’s ominous whistling, who previously worked in silent films as well as Buster Keaton’s first talkie in FREE AND EASY (1930). Lang’s objection to the remake was the setting in bright and sunny Southern California, the exact opposite of Lang’s carefully constructed cloistered madness, a link between silent and sound, but also German Expressionism predating Film Noir. Berlin in the 20’s and 30’s was filled with poverty-stricken beggars and panhandlers on the streets, comprising the underground network, while Los Angeles had no such culture in the 50’s, where Losey acknowledged, “I couldn’t believe myself in the idea of the whole underworld ganging up against the killer.” Nebenzal, however, felt the story could still work as Los Angeles, and America in general, had all kinds of random psychotics running around the streets, often seen creating a disturbing presence, but this rationalization never expresses itself onscreen, instead doing a poor job duplicating an underworld gang of thieves, where this is actually the weakest part of the entire picture. Peter Lorre is so compelling in the original, evoking great sympathy in his speech to his accusers, not just because he is helpless to his sick condition, but because after performing such hideous acts he persuades the audience to care about what happens to him. Wayne on the other hand, is not a sympathetic figure, where his weeping pleas about his wretched childhood dominated by his mother’s tyrannical hold on him fall short with the audience, where in the same breath his twisted mind resolutely calls her “a good woman.”
For Lang, the film was really an anti-death-penalty statement, a reminder that no matter how grotesque the crime, criminals often tend to be victims of abuse in some strange and perverted way, where state sanctioned killing is an inappropriate response for what in large part are society’s ills, often stirred up by the voices of moral authority. For Losey, it’s a more personally haunting psychosexual thriller with an allegorical subtext of McCarthyism, rabid anti-communism, and a lynch mob mentality that would eventually drive the director out of the country for the rest of his career. The film is not without humor, where especially notable is a discussion between two witnesses, with a man seeing a blue dress, while a woman insisted it is red, so the man turns angrily and shouts at the woman, “What are you, a communist?” While Losey’s film loses its way at the end, the first half is much more compelling with its excellent use of Los Angeles locations, including the infamous chase sequence that takes place inside the ornate Bradbury Building downtown on the southeast corner of Broadway and Third (just a block east of Angels Flight), with its interior courtyard, exposed elevators, and wrought-iron railings, turning into an architectural web of intrigue. With its distinctive stairways and balconies, not to mention spatial enormity, where the killer hides in a cramped storage room of mannequin parts, Losey even filmed the roof of the building, using a notable shot through the roof’s skylight. The army of beggars mobilized by the underworld in Berlin is replaced by a fleet of radio-connected taxi drivers in Los Angeles, with views through the windows of the cars with an eye fixed on the vantage point of the road. Losey was interested in the script for its alternately chilling and pathetic protagonist, a victim of his own psychotic compulsions balanced against recurring images where random innocent people are persecuted in the streets by a public worked up into hysteria by the child killings. Three of the notable players, Howard Da Silva, Martin Gabel, and Luther Adler, were blacklisted, where the film was greeted by right-wing picketers in Los Angeles that October. In Dan Callahan’s Senses of Cinema essay on Losey, Joseph Losey - Senses of Cinema, he reflects on his career:
These last fifteen years or so make for a melancholy afterthought to such auspicious beginnings, and these poor films have permanently marked Losey’s reputation. Far more damning in its way, Caute’s voluminous biography lists, in tedious detail, his many shortcomings as a man. “A bit of an old misery, an unhappy person,” said cinematographer Freddie Francis (quote from Joseph Losey: A Revenge on Life, by David Caute).
Most accounts paint Joseph Losey as almost always rude and ungenerous, a man who made many enemies and, worst of all, a man who badmouthed almost all of his actors. Perhaps he was not as smart as he thought he was. The psychological notes he kept on his characters reveal a somewhat shallow mind. In the interviews he gave, there is a strong whiff of the charlatan. Looking at the evidence, one can only assume that too much critical acclaim crippled his instincts and made his talent self-conscious. He seems so bored with the films of his last years, so passionately committed to the movies up to and including The Servant. “Do you really think he is a great director?” asked a colleague of mine, when I was starting on this piece. After a hesitation, I replied, “Yes.” We might hesitate over Joseph Losey, but we cannot deny that his best work, so wounded, so angry, so filled with crazed brio, so bold, emotional and unashamed, places him securely in the pantheon of great film directors.