M – British version (1931/1932)

2012 #58a
Fritz Lang | 93 mins | Blu-ray | 4:3 | Germany & UK / English

M - British versionLet’s establish one thing right away: this is unquestionably an inferior version of Fritz Lang’s masterpiece, M. Never mind that it’s an old, unrestored, thoroughly battered print; it’s the conscious changes that — unavoidably — lessen the film.

1) Cuts. It’s several minutes shorter than even the restored German version (which in itself is seven minutes shorter than Lang’s original cut).

2) A re-cut ending that attempts some kind of jollity: instead of Frau Beckmann’s tearful warning outside the court, we get a reprise of the opening shot of children playing. The message is less “watch out for your kids!”, more “childhood saved!”

3) Some moments have been re-shot to replace German text with English. On occasion this barely matters (a close up of a newspaper article, for example, or the murderer’s letter to the papers), but on others it ruins Lang’s original work, the worst offender being the shadow falling across the “Missing” poster near the start. Alternatively, in Masters of Cinema’s accompanying booklet Robert Fischer notes that these text changes also provide us with “the only instance where [the British version] comes up with a genuinely creative idea worthy of the original”.

Missing in Britain4) It’s mostly dubbed into English. The bits that aren’t have been re-shot. Primarily, there’s a phone call between the police commissioner and the minister, which is really quite poorly performed — watch out for an unintentionally comical bit with the wrong end of a pencil. These two actors are also edited into another scene, a large meeting which their characters attend, and it’s glaringly obvious where Lang’s work begins and ends and the basically-shot bits (flatter angles, simplistic sets) have been dropped in. The director of the English re-shoots isn’t specifically credited, but it certainly wasn’t Lang: Fischer’s examination of M’s export versions informs us that it was the localised version’s “Supervisor”, Charles Barnett.

Despite this, the British version isn’t without merit. After all, much of Lang’s work survives the localisation process, meaning his quality and skill still shines through, and there’s that one re-shot text bit. But then, why bother? You can watch the original and get all of it.

No, the only thing worth watching for (other than pure curiosity) is a re-shot trial scene featuring Peter Lorre’s first performance in English. It’s a typically great turn from Lorre; not quite of the same calibre as the German original, but a worthy alternative.

Not Fritz Lang's masterpieceThere’s no way anyone would reasonably recommend this variation of M over the original, but it does hold interest as a curio. It may leave one wondering how and why this practice of exporting films — where multiple versions in different languages were shot at the same time, rather than dubbing/subtitling later — died out. Cost, I imagine. Despite producing interesting asides like this, it’s probably a good thing it did.

3 out of 5

My review of the original version of M can be read here.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2012. Read more here.

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