In the original version of M made in 1931, as well as in the remake of 1951, a city is plagued by a man, played by Peter Lorre, who is killing children. The police become so relentless in their pursuit of the killer that the ordinary way of life of the criminal underclass becomes disrupted. As a result, the criminals take matters into their own hands, capture the child killer, and have a trial of sorts, during which he tells everyone that he is compulsively driven to do what he does. Before the mob can do anything to him, the police show up and take him away.
In the 1931 movie, it is never explicitly stated that the children are sexually molested, but it is implied, and in any event, we would automatically assume as much anyway. In the remake, however, the movie goes out of its way to make it clear that the children are not molested. While a crowd watches the chief of police on television warning parents about the child killer, played by David Wayne, someone in the crowd asks, “What’s he mean the children were neither violated nor outraged?” Someone else in the crowd responds, “What’s the difference? He killed them, didn’t he?”
Well, it may not make any difference to the people in the crowd, but I should think it would have been better for the children if they were simply murdered than if they first raped and then murdered. More importantly, it must have made a difference to the Production Code Administration. It was not sufficient merely to omit all reference to sexual molestation. It had to be explicitly denied. At the same time, all of the killer’s victims are little girls, which would indicate a sexual preference. Presumably, just in case the audience refused to believe sex was not involved, the producers went the extra step to avoid any hint of homosexuality. (In the original, on the other hand, one of Lorre’s victims is a little boy.) The killer takes the shoes of his victims, which suggests a fetish, which in turn suggests a sexual perversion. Furthermore, in one scene, a man and wife are informed that their child has been a victim. As they start to leave, the woman turns around in desperation and says that maybe it is a mistake, that the child is someone else’s. We can only conclude from this that there was no body in the morgue for them to identify, that the police were only going by the doll and the girl’s dress, which are on the chief’s desk. He holds up the dress for her to look at, which she recognizes as belonging to her daughter. From this we can only conclude one thing: the killer took off the girl’s clothes, and her naked body is yet to be found. Still, we are supposed to believe that sex is not the motive for these murders. Censorship can be confusing.
It goes without saying that the original was much better, and one way in which it was better is that the killer simply had an evil impulse that he did not understand. In the remake, owing to the popularity of psychoanalysis at the time, we are given an explanation for the killer’s behavior as resulting from something that happened when he was a child. As a harbinger of that explanation, we see him strangling a clay model of a child, with a picture of his elderly mother sitting right beside him, almost as if she were watching him do it. At the end, when the child killer is surrounded by the underworld figures that captured him, he gives a garbled explanation about how his father mistreated his mother, and how she raised him to believe that all men are evil. As a result, he reasons that since he is a man, then he is evil and deserves punishment. So, he has to kill little girls, partly to keep them from growing up and being mistreated by evil men, and partly so he will get caught and get the punishment he deserves. The explanation comes across as artificial, unsatisfying, and unbelievable. Fortunately, we are not told why he took the girls’ shoes, which would only have made the explanation even more tortured. The remake was destined to be inferior to the original, but it would still have been a lot better movie had all that psychobabble at the end been left out.