The headlines make it plain: there is a child killer loose in Los Angeles, and so far the police have no leads, which is raising the paranoia levels in the city as every parent frets their child could be next. A broadcast is issued on the television telling parents what to beware of, such as allowing their offspring out alone after dark on errands, or playing in remote locations away from the public, but this criminal is making them look very bad. The Inspector in charge of the case, Carney (Howard Da Silva) is already feeling worn down by the pressure on him but knows the problem will have to be tackled head on. Meanwhile the murderer (David Wayne) stalks the streets for a new victim...
M was originally a very well-thought of film from Weimar Republic Germany, created by Fritz Lang as his first sound film and making the best use of the new technology to exploit the noises he could now include on the soundtrack. But as was the case, and is still the case, with hits not in the English language, it was remade in the hope the newer version would find a wider audience, though when this 1951 M opened, the reaction was more wondering what the point of the enterprise was when director Joseph Losey had more or less recreated the source scene for scene, the major differences being the locations and the language, other than that they were pretty much identical.
What the critics and public didn't know was that the censors of the day had only allowed the remake if it was drawn directly from the script of Lang's work, for then, as today, the subject of a serial killer of children was extremely controversial and it was only M's classic status that would permit it even being considered for a new version. Losey was not allowed to change very much - the murderer has a fetish for children's shoes this time, but that was about it - but agreed to take the job as he believed he could create a variation on Lang when the villain was presented as the hero. All very subversive, but you'll search in vain for anything remotely sympathetic about him in the end product.
As in the original, where Peter Lorre took the role, Wayne was simply so creepy that you had a hard time believing anyone, child or adult, would venture within a mile of him, he radiated stranger danger vibes that were blatantly obvious, and since this was in the Freudian era of Hollywood cinema, we had a bunch of supposedly expert but actually phoney baloney psychological explanations that were just too pat to be believable. This was not as deep and searching as it would have you accept, and the flaws in the plot were all the clearer now it had been lifted out of a very specific era and into another one: what you could believe about the decadence of the Germany back then was a lot harder to swallow when applied to the straightlaced nineteen-fifties, especially when the main narrative got underway.
Which was asking us to believe organised crime not only cares about its good image (according to this, that's what it had), but were willing and indeed keen to right wrongs and perform their civic duties like decent Americans. You could just about acknowledge that the Mob were as disgusted by the crimes as the law-abiding citizens, but that they would set themselves up as a stand-in police force and perform the same purpose was unconvincing in this context. The producer Seymour Nebenzal had also produced the Lang film, which added another motive for remaking, to generate funds out of a tried and tested property, but while that had an oppressive danger about it, in the Losey there was the sense of a bunch of Damon Runyon characters suddenly turned serious because of the severity of the crimes. The location work also lent this a position in reality it did not earn to any great satisfaction. Call it an interesting experiment, but it did seem like a cynical cash-in on a well-regarded classic.
Cerebral, at times pretentious, American director, from the theatre. His American career (The Boy with Green Hair, a remake of M, The Prowler) was short-lived due to the Hollywood anti-Communist blacklist, and Losey escaped to Britain.