I taught Fritz Lang’s classic M this year for the first time in awhile. Since I’ve been watching a bunch of Joseph Losey films I also caught his remake (who remakes M?) from 1951.
Fritz Lang pretty famously said that his 1931 version of M wasn’t about the rise of National Socialism, but it’s hard not to look at it that way, particularly with the ugly mob mentality and the closing plea to keep a close eye on our children.
That kind of prescience aside, Lang’s M is still remarkable. Though a lot of people count the end of cinematic German Expressionism a few years prior, I’ve always considered M to fall into that category. There are the visual cues – the heavy shadows (think of Hans Beckert’s (Peter Lorre) famous introduction) and the demonstrative acting. There’s also the dark narrative. But I think this is really an example of expressionist sound. Consider the opening – the best part of the film – where Elsie Beckman’s mother calls for her missing child.
Here’s the entire opening. Move ahead to 6:18 for what I’m referring to (you can see the shadowy introduction referred to above at 3:30).
There’s so much silence in M but it’s not a silent film. That door closing, the cuckoo clock, they shatter the quiet in a way that calls attention to the heightened emotion.
More importantly, Elsie’s mother’s voice becomes impossibly disembodied around 6:54. We know that that stairwell is nearby, but the room where the laundry hangs hasn’t been show to us yet. It’s as though the voice covers unreasonable (or at least, unknown) distance – her grief knows no bounds.
Lang’s M also pulls off the impossible: it makes a child murderer sympathetic. How? Well, Peter Lorre’s face and bug-eyes, for one, but also: there’s no murder on-screen; there’s time spent with Beckert and his “psychosis;” there’s time spent alone with him, trapped like an animal and desperately clawing for freedom (we’ll root for an underdog); the people hunting him are depicted as smarter, or at least more “normal” than he; and of course, his famous, passionate, heartfelt, terrifying monologue.
And if you’re going to read the Nazi narrative into the film, there’s that whole mob mentality thing. Sure, Beckert is guilty of a heinous crime. But he’s also the victim of a vigilante group who excuse themselves of any wrongdoing and willingly and easily point the finger elsewhere. It’s a twisted sort of parable, but incredibly effective.
If you’ve read any of my recent posts on Joseph Losey it might be clear why the whole mob mentality thing makes sense for his 1951 remake. Losey was essentially exiled as a communist. Blacklisted. There’s only one (by my count) mention of the word “Communist” in his film, but even Lang’s version reeks of the witch hunt that Losey (and blacklisted writer Waldo Salt – writer on Losey’s M) went through.
Wha’s interesting – and true only in Losey’s version – is that if you take this as literal, then Losey and Salt essentially put themselves in the role of Beckert – the one being hunted – the child murderer.
Both versions surprisingly don’t treat the police force badly. The cops in Lang’s and Losey’s versions are adept. They work hard and it’s through some smarts and time spent that they find out the identity of the killer.
You might expect a film like either of these – so cynical and (possibly) allegorical (and liberal) – to simultaneously point a figure at another authoritarian figure and call out the police as inept or lazy or corrupt, but it’s not the case. For both directors it’s the mob – the spread of some kind of moral righteousness in the company of others that is the real antagonist.
Well…almost. Losey’s version has some differences. A main one is the ending. Where Lang’s version is shockingly abrupt Losey’s goes for a bit more of the conventional. The mob is the “villain,” but so is Charlie Marshall (Martin Gabel), the main mafia boss who berates his drunken lawyer and puppeteers everyone.
For Lang, the mob mentality is villain, though none of those in the mob are individually wrong. For Losey, the mob mentality can be villain (see the people roughed up – also in the Lang version, of course – for being falsely mistaken for the child killer), but it’s the mob boss in the form of absolute, corrupt power who is the real bad person. He wants to mete out justice and take it away from the people to serve only his own ends, and that doesn’t fly for Losey.
There are other changes in Losey’s version. That disembodied voice from the beginning of Lang’s film is gone, and from the same scene, the haunting, rhythmic, sing-song “Elsie” is replaced with a more conventional performance.
A more interesting difference is that in the 1951 film Beckert (actually now called Martin Harrow and played by David Wayne, but for continuity I’ll just refer to them both as Beckert), when being hunted by the criminals, is trapped with a little girl. Lang’s and Lorre’s 1931 Beckert is trapped by himself. Losey doesn’t use this too much – there’s an opportunity for narrative change (she’s used by Beckert as a way out), or for emotional depth (Beckert and the girl talk while he’s trapped), but neither happens. Instead, the girl is there to stress her own innocence (she’s not too concerned with the situation) and also to further humanize the other criminals who treat her well upon her discovery.
Wayne’s performance is a pretty good one. He captures the terror of the moment and Losey’s shadowy frame (look at that bit of menace, back-right) helps. But the shoes are too big to fill:
We could use an M for 2016. There’s a good bit of mob mentality at play during this election, and Lang’s warning of “watch out for your children” seems all the more relevant.