Last Saturday my friend, Fred Blosser, and I went to the American Film Institute’s Silver Theater in Maryland to see a movie I never knew existed. In 1951 director Joseph Losey filmed a remake of the famous Fritz Lang movie, “M.” Everybody knows about Lang’s version. It’s hailed as a cinematic masterpiece of German Expressionism. But hardly anybody has heard of Losey’s version, and even fewer people have ever seen it.
As you know, the original “M” starred Peter Lorre as a creep who prowls the streets of a German city at night killing little girls. The story is about how the police can’t seem to catch the guy even though they tear up every seedy, sinister place they think he might be hiding out. This causes the criminal element a lot of concern, since the police raids are having a negative impact on all their rackets. To end this situation the criminal element decides to team up and find Peter Lorre and turn him over to the cops so they can have some peace and quiet.
Losey’s version updates the story to 1951 Los Angeles. The movie was filmed on location in the seedy Bunker Hill section of Los Angeles, and has more daytime scenes than Lang’s noirish presentation, but it still retains the moody atmosphere of a good noir movie. Losey added a new character to the story, an alcoholic lawyer who works for the mob. Played by Luther Adler, he serves a crucial function in the story, forced to serve as the murderer’s attorney in a mock trial held by the criminals.
In place of Peter Lorre, this version stars character actor David Wayne as the killer, and he delivers an amazing performance, particularly in the climactic mock trial scene. In fact everyone in the film, including Martin Gable as the top mobster, Howard De Silva as the cop in charge of the case, and Raymond Burr as one of Gable’s henchmen, turn in incredibly realistic performances. As does the city of Los Angeles itself.
It’s too bad this film got lost in the shuffle. There were two reasons why that happened. First was the fact that Fritz Lang hated it, and most critics at the time dismissed it as a cheap ripoff. The other was that Losey was one of those filmmakers who got in trouble with Joe McCarthy and the House Unamerican Activities Committee. Shortly after the film was finished he was handed a subcommittee subpoena and fled the country to London, where he remained until his death at age 75.
As for David Wayne, he might best be remembered for his role of Inspector Richard Queen on the 1970s TV series, Ellery Queen. But what I most remember him for is a part he played in the “Aren’t You Surprised to See Me.” episode of the Route 66 TV series. In this story, filmed in 1962, Tod and Buz the two guys in the Corvette are in Dallas, Tex., when they have the bad luck to run into Caine, a man who considers himself the Avenging Angel of the Almighty. He goes from town to town, captures someone and tells the police he will kill that person unless the city can go for 24 hours without committing a sin. In Dallas he takes Buz hostage. Wayne gave a chilling performance as the maniac killer. Seeing him in M reminded me very much of that route 66 story. Makes me wonder if Stirling Silliphant, creator of the show and writer of that episode, had ever seen Wayne’s version of M. I wouldn’t be surprised. Silliphant was a very eclectic personality.
So far the 1951 M is not available for viewing anywhere but in AFI theaters, part of a series of LA crime films they’re showing. It it comes to your town, check it out.