A classic film noir that was abruptly shelved during the Red Scare of the 1950s is finally finding an audience, thanks to the efforts of its 93-year-old associate producer.
Harold Nebenzal worked on “M,” a 1951 American remake of director Fritz Lang’s classic 1931 German Expressionist thriller. Nebenzal's father, Seymour, produced both the original and the remake, which was shot partly in the Bradbury Building in downtown Los Angeles and on Bunker Hill.
Peter Lorre starred in the original film, as a child-killer driven by uncontrollable compulsions and hunted both by the police and the criminal underworld. David Wayne played the part in the remake. Nebenzal says the film's prospects looked good, until picketers gathered outside an early press screening.
“When we came out at the end, there was the American Legion with placards saying 'Communist picture,'” Nebenzal says. “They objected to [director] Joe Losey and they objected to the screenwriter and they objected to most of the cast.”
Columbia, the studio that was distributing the film, folded under the pressure. Losey and screenwriter Waldo Salt were blacklisted, and American audiences never saw “M,” although the film was eventually released in Europe.
More than 60 years later, Nebenzal still seethes over the anti-Communist picketing of the movie: “I put in four-and-a-half years in the Marine Corps and 12 years in the Marine Corps reserve. And I saw those idiots with their signs, trying to speak for what is patriotic and what is American.”
Columbia’s decision to shelve the film “had a disastrous result on my father’s career,” Nebenzal adds. Seymour Nebenzal had produced dozens of films in Germany and France before fleeing the Nazis and starting over in Hollywood. After “M,” he worked on just one more film before his death in 1961.
Film historian Jim Dawson wrote about the 1951 version of “M” in his book, “Los Angeles’s Bunker Hill: Pulp Fiction’s Mean Streets and Film Noir’s Ground Zero!” He says the film offers great footage of mid-century L.A. and some remarkable performances, but it hasn’t been easy to find. “Up until a couple of years or so back, you couldn’t get a good copy," Dawson says. "For a time, the only one that existed was in the British Film Museum."
That changed recently, when Nebenzal learned the film was being pirated in France. He re-secured the copyright for the film, and made a pristine copy available. The response has amazed him.
“This chap in Paris took it into distribution over there,” he says. “And consequently we went to the Lyon Film Festival. And the picture is going to go into distribution. It’s going to go on Turner Film Classics. This thing is snowballing. It’s fantastic that there’s such interest.”
Harold Nebenzal will introduce a screening of the 1951 version of “M” at the Million Dollar Theatre on Nov. 5. Ticket sales support the Angels Flight Railway Foundation in its efforts to reopen the historic funicular railway on Bunker Hill.