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The Forgotten: "The Black Vampire" (1953)

A 1953 remake of Lang’s "M," from Argentina, brims with noir artistry.
Dazzling urbanites of the New York persuasion will no doubt wend their way to MoMA's season of Argentinian noirs in February, seeking the familiar, morally-compromised pleasures of noir in an exotic new form. They will enjoy Carlos Hugo Christensen's Cornell Woolrich adaptations, subject of a previous Forgotten, the great, underrated French filmmaker Pierre Chenal's version of Native Son, and early work by Hugo Fregonese, later a decent Hollywood journeyman who made one classic for Val Lewton (eerie siege western Apache Drums).
But they'll also get the chance to see a stylish remake of Fritz Lang's M, which is as free with its source material as Joseph Losey's recently reappraised 1951 version, and which might almost have cut its ties to its German role model to make its own way as an original work. It's faintly disappointing whenever its plot reconnects with Thea Von Harbou's masterly 1931 scenario, since the new stuff is of such a high standard.
Román Viñoly Barreto's 1953 movie tears up the story and rearranges the pieces, inventing new filler to replace discarded plotlines. The criminal underworld, so prominent in both earlier versions, gets split into two halves. The first half is a shady nightclub where a drug-running subplot ends up floundering, a red herring, on the dance floor. Barreto's version of a dive, served up in delirious deep focus chiaroscuro, seems far sleazier than its Hollywood equivalents, not because he includes specific imagery or suggestions forbidden by the Hays Code, but because the Code enforced not just a set of specific dictats, but a vaguer sense of taste which tried to hold rogue elements like Orson Welles and Josef von Sternberg in check.
The second underworld is more of an underclass, including the blind peddler of Lang's original, now accompanied by a Norwegian who can identify the Grieg tune the murderer whistles, but extending to a hunchbacked dwarf who makes his living foraging for abandoned goods in the city's storm drains. This element leads into a climax channeling The Third Man via Freaks, while the crazed killer's use of these subterranean routes foreshadows both the ants of Them! and Pennywise, the clown of It.
We begin with Rorschach inkblots, swirling superimposed mist, and an extreme closeup of the killer's eyes, lit like lunar craters, vanishing into shadow. Noir loves dollarbook Freud, and naturally Argentina, with its record-beating psychotherapy attendance, loves it too. (In the documentary Argentina in Therapy, one pundit explains the Argentine love of the couch thusly: "It's so complicated being Argentinian...") As with the original M, though, the mentality of the murderer makes little sense and bears less relation to forensic psychology. It's a work of freewheeling imagination rather than research. But Barreto and his co-author do foreground one of the original's unsettling contradictions:,the killer's protestation of madness and irresistible impulse clash with his cool pick-up technique and care to avoid leaving clues. Highlighting this problem doesn't resolve it, but it forces us to think about a central concern of all three versions of M: when is someone responsible for their actions, and when are they not?
Those with no interest in pedophile killers can content themselves with lush, shadowy photography, more old-school Gothic than Losey's L.A. locales, and the va-va-voom of Olga Zubarry, her huge, limpid eyes and her huge, limpid head, and the film's implied critique of the police force, which makes enemies of the populace and arrests witnesses rather than gaining their cooperation. The investigating prosecutor is kind of a dick, too. Zubarry's first interview with him is conducted in her dressing room and played almost as striptease, a subtler precursor to Basic Instinct.
Barreto previously adapted The Beast Must Die, from a novel by Nicholas Blake later re-filmed by Claude Chabrol: based on his form here, it ought to be worth rescuing.
***
The Forgotten is a fortnightly column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

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