Thursday, April 12, 2012
Fritz Lang's M is such an enduring classic that it's hard to imagine a Hollywood remake of it, but that's exactly what director Joseph Losey did, twenty years after Lang's original film about the hunt for a child killer. Losey's remake of M, made under the aegis of the original film's producer Seymour Nebenzal, is extremely faithful to its source, following more or less the same script and at times even recreating scenes virtually shot for shot. It would be easy to dismiss the film as an inferior copy of a classic, and many have: the remake was a flop at release and doesn't have much of a reputation even now. But, though it unquestionably does not match the power of the Lang film, it's still a compelling noir in its own right, transplanting Lang's richly ambiguous social parable to 1950s Hollywood at the height of Red hysteria, which is clearly a prominent subtext here.
For Lang, the film was an anti-death-penalty treatise, a somber and timely warning of the dangers of widespread fear and paranoia, and, of course, a plea to watch out for one's children. For Losey, it's a psychosexual thriller and a parable for the McCarthyite anti-Communism that would soon drive the director out of the United States for the remainder of his career. At one point, in a scene that also appears in Lang's film, two witnesses are arguing over whether a kid's dress was red or blue. Losey adds a key detail: the witness who insists the dress was blue angrily asks the other, "what are you, a Communist?" That loaded question, which was already being casually tossed around at the least pretext in the US of this era, hangs over the film, with Losey subtly reinterpreting Lang's persecution parable, replacing 1930s Germany with 1950s Hollywood to suggest a link between the rise of the Nazi party and the rise of McCarthy. The change in context resonates throughout the early scenes, as random innocent people are persecuted in the streets by a public worked up into hysteria by the child killings.
Losey also subtly changes the film's meaning by making the motive for the child murders implicitly sexual; the film is loaded with sexually charged symbols in a way that Lang's original wasn't. The opening credits show the killer (David Wayne), seen only from behind, approaching little girls, luring one with a string toy that he suggestively pulls and teases with his hands, the framing often hiding the toy altogether so that it's not clear what he's doing, just that he's walking up to a little girl with his hands pumping around at his hips. Another shot shows him turning on a water fountain for a girl, who bends over to drink, her head obscured by the mysterious stranger standing in front of her. Already, Losey, dodging the censors, is suggesting a transgressive sexual component to the murders, a creepy subtext that distances Wayne's killer from the more famous portrayal by Peter Lorre.
Indeed, Wayne plays killer Martin Harrow with a bland-faced intensity and mommy-fixated sexual dysfunction that prefigures Anthony Perkins' Norman Bates in Hitchcock's Psycho more than it looks back to Lorre. Most chilling of all is the scene of the killer sitting in the dark, his face shrouded in shadow, tightly grasping the dangling cord of the lamp hanging above him, wrapping it around his fist, breathing heavily and pulling his hand further and further up the cord. It's such an obviously sexual scene that one wonders how Losey got away with it, especially when the killer "climaxes" by finally pulling the cord and putting out the light. (That the cord is later revealed to be a shoelace taken from the shoes he collects as fetish objects from his victims only confirms the sexual metaphor.) This is immediately followed by a scene where he goes over to his desk, still panting breathlessly, and begins molding a clay sculpture of a child, wrapping a cord around its neck and squeezing to pop its head off, while Losey prominently highlights the photograph of a matronly older women behind the sculpture, a mise en scène detail that suggests the killer is a sexually frustrated mama's boy.
Such scenes proliferate throughout Losey's remake, suggesting that the killer instinctively makes a connection between masturbation and strangulation; at one point, he finds a wounded bird and picks it up between his fists, its head popping out between his fingers as he squeezes it, before letting it go and sobbing with guilt. His final confessional speech is significantly different from Lorre's version of the scene, too, as he talks about a childhood dominated by his mother's tyrannical insistence that all men are evil and need to be punished — a speech comically punctuated by his aside that she's "a good woman."
In this way, Losey makes the material his own even while largely sticking to the template of the original film. He can't match the overwhelming formal beauty of Lang's film, but he has his own minimalist, low-budget aesthetic that gives his take on this material a rough, shot-on-the-streets realism very different from the shadowy expressionism of Lang's M. Losey shot a lot of footage on the streets of Los Angeles, and staged the climactic search for the killer in the instantly recognizable Bradbury Building, an iconic location for many movies, its angular staircases and multiple levels used well in the scenes of the city's criminal underworld tracking Harrow. Losey's austere aesthetic — only occasionally broken by diversions like the Hitchcockian cut from a mother worrying at home to a screaming, cackling clown — puts the emphasis on Wayne's increasingly unhinged performance and the slightly comic efforts of the police and criminals to catch him. Losey dared to remake a classic, and though the remake is not on the same level as Lang's masterpiece, it should be remembered as a noir classic in its own right, with its substantial differences from its source marking it as a worthy extension of Lang's themes.