Remakes are always the runt of the litter. Outside of Hawks’ His Girl Friday and Sirk’s Imitation of Life are there any remakes superior to the original? Can’t think of one offhand. But there is a remake at the very least equal to the original : Joseph Losey’s 1951 remake of Fritz Lang’s 1931 Masterpiece M
Inspired by a newspaper article about a serial child killer and scripted by Lang and his then-wife Thea Von Harbou, M seems as much inspired by Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera as anything else, as it tells of howa compulsive child- killer disruptes the routines of not only the police but the criminal gangs who operate in that area of the city. Forces of both “good” and “bad” close in on the killer, played by Peter Lorre in the role that made him a star.
This is the pivotal moment. The killer is caught and reveals to the shock of all a distinctly human face. By contrast David Wayne in Losey’s film is an unsympathetic psychopath from first to last.
Using the Lang and Von Harbou screenplay as a general blueprint, Losey’s script collaborators Norman Katcher ( who went on to write The Eddie Duchin Story and Party Girl), Norman Reilly Raine, ( who had already distinguished himself at Warner Bros. with The Life of Emile Zola, and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex) and Waldo Salt ( who had written In a Lonely Place , and would go on to write Midnight Cowboy, and The Day of the Locust) fashioned something far harsher than Lang. It was the zeitgeist in point of fact.
Like the story’s child-killer HUAC was closing in.
Salt was for a considerable number of years blacklisted. And in 1951 Losey, also a former party member was about to be called before HUAC, was “packing his bags” after completing The Big Night that same year, he got the hell out of Dodge — and greater cinematic glory in England and France. Had he been able to stay he was first in line to direct (wait for it!) . . . High Noon.
Losey’s antipathy to the country of his birth can be felt in every frame of The Big Night
And it’s ever present in this uniquely desparing sequence from M as well.
Yes, that’s Karen Morely of Scarface and Our Daily Bread fame in one of her very last roles. And the setting is the “Bunker Hill” area of downtown L.A. A haunting locale it’s featured in Kiss Me Deadly, The Exiles,
And of course Blade Runner.
Downtown L.A. is a strange area. Unlike the rest of the city it looks like an urban cityscape — which is why it’s so often used for car commercials.
Recently its been reconfigured in the lovely 500 Days of Summer as a romantic wonderland.
But in 1951 Losey saw nothing but bleakness.
Even bleaker is Losey’s ending. While Lang honed in on the pathetic killer, Losey empahsizes the mobsters — well-suited businessmen rather than the low-life thugs of 1931, and even more ruthless than their forebearers.
It’s only a hop skip and a jump from that pit of despair to the grand finale of Losey’s masterpiece.
The Commandatore will sing us out.
If you would like to make a donation to the Film Noir Foundation Click This Link.