Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Bringing a Serial Killer to Justice

At some point 65 years ago this month, the movie "M" made its debut.

It was a remake of a German movie that was made two decades earlier, and it had roughly the same plot — the search for a serial killer — but the setting shifted from Germany to Los Angeles, presumably to take advantage of the locations in the Los Angeles area that had been frequently used to tell stories on the big screen — and continued to be until the Victorian neighborhood underwent extensive renovation starting a few years later. Several locations in the movie do still exist, however, and are sometimes used in movies today.

I have never seen the 1931 movie, and I only saw the 1951 version recently. It is not the greatest movie ever made. At times, the editing seemed choppy to me, and the story isn't told as smoothly as movie stories tend to be told today.

But I found myself thinking of several things as the movie revealed the various themes that were happening at once. And it had an unexpected ending for a movie made early in the 1950s, a decade that is routinely savaged as the "Leave It To Beaver" decade.

I thought, for example, of the notorious child murders in Atlanta in 1980. That is probably the only case of child serial murders to receive national attention in my lifetime. Maybe there are other, equally obvious examples that I am simply forgetting, but that really is the only one that comes to mind.

It isn't, unfortunately, the only case of an individual child murder that comes to mind. I've known of many of those in my life. Too many.

"M" was an interesting movie for several reasons.

While it was kind of raw in its presentation, the nature of the story was raw — and, I am sure, shocking for movie audiences of that time. I have long thought that many of the things that we find repugnant, like child murder and sexual assault, do not happen with any greater frequency today than they did many years ago. They are just spoken of more frequently.

That, it seems to me, was what people really found shocking about such stories in 1951 and even when I was growing up long after "M" was in the theaters. It was the kind of thing that nice people simply didn't talk about.

But ignorance is not bliss, and that was one of the unspoken lessons of "M." If a serial killer is on the loose, knowledge really is power.

The people in "M" knew there was a serial killer on the loose, and the chief of police even made an appearance on TV to warn citizens of the danger. But things were different 65 years ago. TV was not in every home, and many people had to see TV from the display window at the appliance store. That was what was shown in "M," and it must have looked perfectly normal to audiences in 1951, but it looks odd to audiences who can carry TV with them in a phone/computer/camera/TV gadget that is small enough to fit in one's breast pocket. Such audiences can't comprehend a time when everything wasn't available on demand.

(If the movie is ever remade again, that is something that will have to be rewritten. It wouldn't be hard to do, but it would have to mention all the ways that the police could get the word out and solicit the public's assistance. You know. Along with TV, radio and newspapers, the police could be shown preparing messages for Facebook, Twitter and all the other social medial outlets.)

If you think about it in the context of 1951 vs. 2016, you are left with the truly inescapable conclusion that the story's writer was positively prescient. The words that came from the police chief's mouth in his address on TV could be the same speech, virtually word for word, that was given by Atlanta's mayor to his terror–stricken city three decades later.

David Wayne played the child killer, driven by a compulsion that was the result of ideas that had been planted in his brain by his mother when he was very young.

The police were getting desperate. There had been too many deaths and too few plausible leads, and they began to harass mobsters, who did not appreciate the increased police attention. It kept them from doing business so they decided to find the killer themselves. And they did.

He was taken to a parking garage for a mock trial and was convicted by a jury of mobsters.

As I say, it wasn't an artfully done movie.

But there was a remarkable moment at the end when the murderer spoke for himself and explained how all these blood sacrifices had been his way of seeking salvation.

The movie featured several familiar faces — or, at least, they would become familiar to audiences in the years ahead and mostly on television after it became more of a fixture in people's homes.

David Wayne tended to play supporting roles in movies. His performance as the child killer in "M" was a rare opportunity to see him in a leading role. His TV credits were extensive, mostly in guest roles but occasionally in recurring ones.

Jim Backus played the mayor but was better known later in his career as Mr. Howell on Gilligan's Island and the voice behind Mr. Magoo.

Raymond Burr was many things in his career. He played Perry Mason and Ironside, but in "M" he played a gangster named Pottsy.

Oh, and one more thing. Do you know what the M in the title stood for?

It was the code name for the operation that was intended to apprehend the killer. The name was Operation: Murder. That implies that murder was such a rare occurrence in 1951, even in a big city, that the effort to capture a serial killer could be code–named "Murder" — when, in fact, murder was not necessarily a rare occurrence. As I wrote earlier, I think things like that probably just weren't spoken of as much 65 years ago.

If a new version of the movie is ever made, the title will need to be changed — perhaps to a C for children or K for kids.