M (Joseph Losey, 1951)

“What, are you a communist?” the police officer jokingly asks a citizen who has described as red something she observed. This is the one bit of levity in Joseph Losey’s stark, terrifying M, a remake of Fritz Lang’s late Weimar Republic classic, but it helps explain why Losey felt that a remake was in order in the U.S. in the early 1950s—1951, to be exact: the year that Losey, called upon to testify before the [U.S.] House [of Representatives] UnAmerican Activities Committee, fled instead to England, where he re-established his career, never to return to his birth country. Among the film’s scenarists and cast are several other Americans who would be blacklisted.
     Early on, an atmosphere of communal suspiciousness and self-righteousness is vividly conjured; citizens attack citizens whom they suspect might be the serial killer of little girls who is holding the city in a grip of parental fear. The plot has the same general outline as that of the 1931 film.
     David Wayne is good as Martin W. Harrow, the killer with the tin whistle who buys children—strangers—balloons before murdering them. He is no Peter Lorre, of course, but he is all he needs to be for the purposes of this lesser, although (until the poorly handled trial) brilliant film; and Losey is remarkable—better even than Lang—at generating intense anxiety for the compulsive killer’s victims and intended victims and for the killer himself, who is the object of two manhunts, one by the police, and the other by thugs whose network of criminal activity is being disturbed, for a change, because the police are under such public pressure to find “the baby killer.”
     Watching the remake, I realized how much Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low (1963) owes to the original.

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