Quick name the first film that Peter Lorre made in English....if you said anything other than M you're wrong. To be fair, up until recently you would have been right, however the truth is that Lorre actually shot an alternate version of M in English and it's been released in the UK as part of the Masters of Cinema series from Eureka Films and in the US as part of the recent Bluray from Criterion.
(A bit of background: Where we in the US have Criterion as THE company putting out super sets of old and new films the UK has two BFI- The British Film Institute and Eureka who put out the Masters of Cinema. Both of those companies work with Criterion so very often the release mirror each other.)
The Masters of Cinema release of the Fritz Lang classic was just done this year and it benefits from the discovery of the long rumoured, until recently never absolutely proven English language version of the film. The liner notes mention that Criterion had tried to find the film for their DVD release of M a few years back but that they couldn't find a copy.
Even though I have the Criterion DVD version in my collection I ordered the Masters of Cinema version because Amazon UK had it on sale and I was too curious about the English M to pass it up.
According to the liner notes Lang didn't have anything really to do with either the English version nor the French version of the film. Both versions are essentially the Lang version dubbed into the appropriate language with a few alternate sequences that were filmed in English or French as well as all of the newspapers and posters translated into the language of the version. Both version run about 96 minutes which is the length of M before a restored version was put together several years ago. For the most part the new sequences in the English version fit in with the film and unless you were really looking at the mouth movements there are is a chance that you wouldn't notice. (Then again you might... but I'll get to that in a moment)
The real kicker in the English version is the trial sequence which has new shots of Peter Lorre acting in English inter-cut with the old footage from the original film. The shots don't match the remaining original footage much, and its a bit jarring, more so when you know its a patch job, however the performance of Lorre is still amazing. Here, three years before Lorre did The Man Who Knew Too Much, was Lorre acting in English, and doing it really well.
I'm not going to lie, outside of Lorre this version of the film is little more than a footnote. I can completely understand why the film bombed when it was originally released and was buried. To me the problem is not the film itself, but the dubbing process, which makes the film seem like a silent film with post synchronized sound. A few mismatched mouth flaps aside, the problem is that the dubbing has wiped out almost all of the sound effects and ambient sound to the point that the dialog seems like it was recorded in an empty room. It all seems wrong. Watching the two versions back to back I was shocked at how the poor soundtrack ruined the film. Seeing the dub its easy to see something is wrong, even with Lorre doing his own speaking.
Is the film worth seeing?
How big a fan of the film are you? More importantly how big a fan of Peter Lorre?
To me the chance to see Lorre doing, what is essentially a "do over" of the trial scene was worth it. The ability to see another run through is one of the reasons I like to see live performances a second time because you get to see how an actor approaches a part on a different night. There is shading. Lorre's original take is the best, but at the same time this is an interesting curio, more so since it's clear he's giving the role more than the people who are acting with him.
If you're curious this version is worth keeping an eye out for. I wouldn't say buy it if you already have a copy of the restored version that it accompanies, however if you don't have the restored version and don't have a Bluray player, the Masters of Cinema version maybe the way to go, especially if the extras on the Criterion version are not to your liking.