Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Movie: M (1951)

It takes a lot to get me out of the house on Halloween night. (Somebody has to stay by the door in the unlikely event a trick-or-treater shows up, probably to ask for directions.) Last week it was a passionate piece of film criticism.

In an essay written several years ago for the Film Noir Foundation, Carl Steward declared the 1951 Hollywood remake of M “criminally undervalued” and “maybe the best” noir released that year, other graduates of the class including Ace in the Hole, He Ran All The Way, and The Prowler. It was a surprising argument, given that Columbia’s retread of Fritz Lang’s 1931 landmark is scarcely acknowledged much less appreciated. Yet Carl claimed it was “a near-classic if not a full-fledged one, and a film that complements the original’s vision and power.” His enthusiasm stayed with me. I made a note to seek out the Joseph Losey-directed version.

That chance came last Thursday as part of the Seattle Art Museum’s always popular fall film noir series. I braved streets clogged with tiny Tony Starks and women dressed in costumes that brought sexiness to a diverse range of professions from football referee to prostitute. The fact that the movie was screening on a perversely appropriate holiday might have helped me score a ticket. The verdict: Carl wasn’t kidding.

Lang’s film would go down as one of the all-time greats even if it hadn’t introduced Peter Lorre to the world. A string of child murders in Berlin unleashes a public frenzy, prompting the authorities to come down hard on known criminals. The underworld, prevented from their daily rounds, launches their own manhunt for the killer.

That plot is transposed from the Weimar Republic to HUAC-era Los Angeles with great fidelity and startling ease. (Blacklisted director Losey would move to Europe in 1953.) Losey’s films can be problematic for me, but he seizes your attention in the very first shot, as the killer clambers past newspapers calling for his head and into a car on the Angels Flight funicular railway, which then climbs Bunker Hill.

The many shots of that now-demolished working class neighborhood are one of the film’s huge assets. The 1951 M is a marvel of Los Angeles location photography, particularly the spectacular extended sequence in which the killer is trapped within the walls of the storied Bradbury Building, featured in Blade Runner and most recently The Artist.

Noir stalwarts Howard Da Silva and Steve Brodie play weary cops, but the film features an authentic rogues gallery, a veritable who’s who of hoodlums. Martin Gabel is the kingpin cut from Meyer Lansky cloth. His cohorts include Norman Lloyd, a sublimely peeved Raymond Burr, demanding to know why the cops think “baby-killers” like to play slot machines, and Luther Adler as the bibulous barrister pressed into kangaroo court service. Familiar faces abound in small bits, like Jim Backus as L.A.’s show-must-go-on mayor and character actor William Schallert offering a police psychiatrist his creepy interpretation of an inkblot.

Taking over for Peter Lorre as the tormented murderer is David Wayne. His performance is remarkable, contained and relying on body language for most of the running time only to erupt in a torrent of tortured pleas in a climactic monologue more explanation than confession. The speech, grounded in character and devoid of psychobabble, is a bravura moment.

The shadow of Lang’s original M will forever loom, but the remake deserves – no, demands to be better known. If you live in the Washington, D.C. area, your opportunity to pay your respects is coming.