Trade reviews knew a quality thing when they saw
it, but expressed deep reservation about M. "A new high note in Germanproduction," said Motion Picture Herald, "but doubly unfortunate ...
that there are several inherent factors which may be handicaps for the American
exhibitor." The language barrier was overcome somewhat by "expertness
of its dramatic action," but M needed "at least fifty percent ...
more subtitles" to be fully understandable. Lack of humor or even
"occasional lightness" to relieve "stark, tragic stuff" put
further weight to the anchor. "More readily appreciated by the class,
rather than the mass audience" was kiss of death in a trade where mass was
essential to keep doors open, outside of art housing where empty chairs were a
given. "By no means should this be shown to children" was salt to
wound inflicted by MPH, their review adding that "women, especially
mothers, areapt to be somewhat horrified by the subject." Again, and
considering M's ongoing power, wouldn't that remain the case today?
Variety found M "morbid to an extreme"
despite its being "compelling and at times almost thrilling." All
this would "stand against it in its bid for popular appeal" (worth
noting is fact that trade reviewers for M saw the original German-language
version as opposed to the English alternative as substituted at the Mayfair byJoe Plunkett and Walter Reade). Motion Picture Herald, Variety and others had to address
product from standpoint of commercial interest; theirs was not to celebrate
aesthetics, however much they'd recognize a "thing simply yet beautifully
done." Variety knew there was a classic in M, and even acknowledged its
potential use in classrooms, a neat foretell considering the visual textbook
Lang's film would become once schools took cinema seriously. All this is well
and good to us looking back, but showmen tending turnstiles saw only risk of hosting
morbid content from a nation seemingly gone mad and branded outlaw by the
civilized world. Whatworse time for M to go into general US release than
spring of 1933, that is, if Plunkett and Reade could interest any distributor
in handling the feature nationwide?
Whatever the down side, M had been a hit for the
Mayfair, and critics outside the trade were
unqualified in their praise. Within a month of initial bow in America, Plunkett/Reade arranged with Paramount forwide
circulation of M. By this time, Walter Reade had bought a 25% interest in the
film, attorney L. Lawrence Green, who represented Joe Plunkett, kicking in for
another 25%. Plunkett himself held the rest. Paramount would take 30% of the "gross
rental return" in exchange for distributing M "throughout the
country." Offered as a "sensational international film success,"
M was available in two versions, "Spoken English or German with English
titles." A stark trade ad ran in Variety on 5/2/33, four days after
Plunkett/Reade's deal with Paramount
was announced. Given their enthusiasm for M and itswider prospects, the pair
rather than Paramount
may have picked up the tab for Variety's ad, owing to distinctly minor interest
the major distributor would take in their foreign acquisition.
It didn't take long for fruit of the deal to
sour. According to a $100,000 lawsuit filed by Plunkett's company, Foremco
had fumbled the ball re distribution of M and stolen story elements besides,
their 8/33 release This Day and Age a plagiarized yarn directed by Cecil B.
DeMille. Nonsense, countered Paramount,
This Day and Age was "diametricallyopposite" in theme, concerning
itself with "depredations of schoolboy gangs," while M was about
"a fiendish murderer of children." The stolen plot allegation may
have been icing on cake of Foremco's real concern, which was Paramount's utter indifference to M once they
took control of it, most of promised bookings never fulfilled. This, according
to Foremco, was "conspiracy to suppress the feature, M, through failure to
release it." Para's defense was spirited:
M had "poor sales results" based on exhibitors' "natural
antipathy to foreign pictures to begin with, and, secondly, that Nazi propaganda
was partially responsible." This was a position that showmen, if not a
sitting judge/jury, could certainly understand, Paramount making it known to a trade likely
to sympathize with them. The lawsuit wassettled, as most are, in 6/34 (there
was a cash payment, and plaintiffs "get back the picture," said Film
Daily) . By then, M was past possibility of mainstream acceptance and headed
for exploitation oddity status.
Where you'd catch it at all was art houses, or
down-dirty grinds where M played with horrors of moreconventional stripe.
Peter Lorre, by then a star in American movies, wanted to catch his old act and
did so at L.A.'s
Regina Theatre, legendary site of doubling for Dracula and Frankenstein in
1938. Lorre saw M on a triple with White ZombieandThe Black Room, an observant
trade columnist seeing the actor fall fast asleep over the very long haul. Here then,
was M's for-most-part US
fate, to play as sickie attraction like that other cast-off from polite houses,
Freaks. It was inevitable, perhaps, that a refuse dealer like Sherman Krellberg would get hold of it. He
was a long time associate of Joe Plunkett's. They had linked during the 30's to
acquire a circuit of ten theatres in Gotham,
and were further associated in takeover of the prestigious Astor on Broadway.
Krellberg practiced law when he wasn't swapping screens or buying up features. He'd
peddle M (as M --- The Kidnapper) in trashier-than-trash terms for a 1943 combo
with his earlier The Lost City, re-edited yet again from 1935 serial format and
re-titled City Of Lost Men. You could wonder from sleazy ads whichwas nastier.
M was sold in basest terms and trimmed from Lang's original to 96 minutes,
music/sound fx added to pep up pace. To watch something like this beside
Criterion's Blu-Ray would be like experiencing two entirely different movies.