3 x Nebenzahl. Materialien zum 14. Internationalen Filmhistorischen Kongreß, Hamburg, 15. - 18. November 2001.


Los Angeles, 1951

Nebenzal wanted Lang to remake his most successful film, but Lang flatly refused. M was a "classic", he said, "it is stupid to try to improve on it." Nebenzal reports that Lang was opposed "because there is no organised group of beggars in the United States, therefor the premise of the original film is not valid here". Astonished, Nebenzal countered: "I always thought and still think, that the problems connected with a sex criminal of this type, his menace to the community and the treatment of such criminals was the basic premise of the story - a problem which is much more acute today in the United States than the few isolated cases were in Germany in the early 1930s." (…)
Joseph Losey, an American theatre and film director, had close ties to the German exile community in Los Angeles. In 1947, he directed the highly praised stage production of Brecht's "Galileo Galilei" with Charles Laughton; he also made several film noirs before Nebenzal called on him in 1950 to remake M. Because of earlier Communist sympathies, he was under active surveillance by -the House Un-American Activity Committee (HUAC), which began its witch-hunt against "Red Hollywood" in October 1947. For political reasons, Losey had a hard time finding film material that would pass the Censorship Office; a remake of a classic had better chances of being approved. He was reluctant at first, as he admitted, because Lang's M "is and remains a classic, which one doesn't want to compete with‹, but he wanted to work and, in addition, he had found an actor, David Wayne, whom he considered to be perfect for Lorre's part. (…)
There are other changes that make Losey's M a remake in name only. The people of Los Angeles no longer read newspapers, they watch television. The organisation of the beggars becomes a fleet of taxi drivers - a change that allowed Losey's camera to explore the streets of Los Angeles. Unlike Lang's M, this film is almost exclusively shot on location, capturing an old, European-looking Los Angeles that in the meantime has disappeared as a result of urban redevelopment. If overhead shots were the predominant camera position in Lang's M, the camera of the remake is mobile, often shooting through window shields of moving taxis. Lang's claustrophobic and implosive space is now fluid and decentralised, but, despite its dispersion, it is no less dangerous. Losey's remake fleshes out Lang's modernist abstractions: it makes the story a psycho-thriller with realistic characters, set in a recognisable Los Angels milieu.

Anton Kaes: M.
London: BFI 2000 (BFI Film Classics)



M in LA

Although neither Losey nor the critics thought so, M is the pick of his Hollywood films and his best prior to THE CRIMINAL (1960): a film of force and freedom. Hanging over the enterprise was the stigma of a "re-make". Fritz Lang's M (1931) had become a cult classic; Losey had seen it in Munich in the year of its release and viewed it again before shooting his own version nineteen years later. Seymour Nebenzal, the producer of Lang's M, proposed a version closely modelled on the original script (by Thea von Harbou and Lang) but set in contemporary Los Angeles. Losey was reluctant: "I had twice refused to direct it but finally my financial situation dictated my acceptance of the project." The contract is not found but legal correspondence four years later indicates that it involved a $ 10.000 deferment, once the bank loan had been paid off and a number of other charges met. By March 1954 Losey had received no statement of account from Nebenzahl or Columbia. (…)
The new screenplay, by Norman Reilly Raine and Leo Katcher, was graced by additional dialogue from Waldo Salt. Losey was anxious to update the psychology of the fictional child-murderer. The production file notes on "Martin Harrow", the killer, dated 31 May 1950, are based on a study by Wertham and Menninger of two actual psychotic killers: "Harrow was isolated in his youth by religion and by poverty. He is suffering from hyper sensitivity. He was sexually attached to his mother. This resulted in frustration, hatred of father." No less simplistic is the explanation for the killer's habit of collecting his small victim's shoes - not found in Lang's version: "…the shoe and foot as sexual symbol - contact with earth, fecundity". Losey also contributed his own, abiding fixations (as an artist should): "And I wanted to present him as a product of a mother-dominated and materialistic society of lower middle-class America, where everybody had to be he-men otherwise they were sissys … his man undoubtedly was a concealed homosexual, totally in conflict with everything including his own mother whom he adored and hated." This aproach was in strong contrast to Fritz Lang's, with its debt to THE CABINET OF DR CALIGARI and the German expressionist fascination with the demonic loner, the ruthless and anarchic individual ego. (…)
The splendour of Losey's M is its urban locations, set mainly in the dilapidated Bunker Hill area of Los Angeles. The final manhunt was set in the Bradbury Building, at the corner of Third and Broadway, a vast warehouse rising tier upon tier, its wrought-iron staircases echoing with angry feet, a prelude to the prison in THE CRIMINAL. Losey also introduces echoes of San Francisco: precipitous streets, cable cars. The film was shot in only twenty days.

David Caute: 
Joseph Losey. A Revenge on Life. 
London / Boston: Faber and Faber 1994

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