Guest Richard Edwards

Daily Dose #1: The Nasty Man in Black (The Opening Scene of Fritz Lang's M)

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The tone of this movie is set from the beginning without the ominous music, so often found in current movies. It's just a normal day for the innocent children who don't entirely understand what they're saying with their rhyme, while the adults are obviously frightened by the prospect of one of their own children being the next victim. 

Everything from the children, hardworking mothers and everyday life going on and that one poster, partially covered by a man's shadow, is enough to set the tone for a story that is sure to be a thriller.

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Although noir films are associated with the darkness of night, the opening sequence of M demonstrates that even in a world filled with daylight and populated by adults, children are not safe from predators. What could possibly create a greater feeling of dread?

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Some words that convey , for me, the quality of the opening scene to Fritz Lang and Peter Lorre's masterpiece "M"  are trapped, ominous, foreboding, eerie, doomed ,.

 

I believe that the film captures, from its opening moments, that sense of immanent death that is inherent in all of life, and that it is complicated in a compelling way by the immediate assertion of a corruption of innocence by intentional, compulsively disordered evil .

 

Both the beginning and the ending of "M" are shiveringly intense, dynamically engrossing  movie sequences  that epitomize the genre of film noir. It seems to me that Fritz Lang achieves this spectacular immersion in the lives of ordinary people who face extraordinary violence against what they love and cherish most the innocence of kids, and hope for a better future through children, by foreshadowing images of jail like staircases, the daily labor of hard scrabble adults, and the contrasting precarious joy and rebellion of still vital, still unwary young people.

 

The visual power of in the opening, individuals who confront fear on their own, and the ending, where the power of a large community to respond to a threat to its most precious and vulnerable by the predatory unbalanced appetite for murder by one of its own, and in which the group seeks to avoid acting as a mob, but rather poses an alternative form of justice... is uncanny in its own reason and rationale for achieving cessation of the threat , justly.

 

 

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M is one of my favorite films, and the opening sets the mood perfectly. I'm sure we've run out of adjectives to describe that mood, but there is definitely a strong sense of impending doom for the children, their parents, and the community as a whole. I think it's a brilliant move on Lang's part to begin the film through voice over and then fade in on the children singing their song about the black man. To me, it seems as if Peter Lorre's character, Hans Beckert, (the shadow for those who haven't seen the film) is just waking up and watching the children from below. We get a nice high angle, long shot there which makes the children seem powerless (even as they're "killing" each other off in their game), and automatically connects the viewer to that sense of impending doom. The same thing happens in The Night of the Hunter when Pearl sings a similar song and her older brother Billy tells her to stop. The two films would make a great pairing, that's for sure.

 

Throughout the opening scene, children are usually seen from a high angle (until the ending shot), as to promote their innocence. As an audience, we feel for the children, especially since we know something bad will probably happen. Whenever we see adults, however, we usually face them head on (though, that is not the case after we pan over from the children playing their game to the woman carrying the laundry). For me, that associates the camera even more so with Hans Beckert. Only then, on the last shot, does the camera dolly forward and pan up to the poster and the shadow that moves into frame. That's where, I think, we get a shift in perspective from Beckert to Elsie, which is when we truly get that sense of doom, especially after just reading the poster.

 

I also quite like how we only get diegetic sound in the opening scene (music that takes place within the world the film has created). Horn honks, the sounds of a cuckoo clock, and the bounce of a ball set us into a realistic setting, which I think fits into the film noir style quite well. For me, film noir is all about that dirty, sleazy, and grostesque but slick and stylish underbelly of our society, and the use of diegetic sound here sets that realism in motion. There isn't anything wrong, of course, with nondiegetic sound (the score and any added sound effects), but I like how in opening M Lang doesn't fool around with anything not "in the world the film creates."

 

Also, I think we should think about the rise of Nazism in Germany at the time, and how it surely had an effect on Lang and other German filmmakers at the time. That sense of dread for Beckert could also beckon to the sense of dread for the uprising Nazi party and how it will prey on the innocent. I won't go too much into it for now, but I think it's something interesting to think about.

 

(And, on a side note, what is our fascination with turning terrible things into songs, stories, or games for children? I understand that a song like this is to warn the children about this dangerous man, and that song and melody are good tools for memorization, but I've never understood turning that into a game; for instance, Ring Around the Rosie is a terrible song for children to sing--though few, if any, would even know the meaning behind it--and that gives me the creeps. Anyone know why we do this? Anyway...)

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I've never seen this movie so watching the opening clip was quite an eye opener.  The silence is symbolic, as are the sounds of everyday life.  The clock, the traffic, the bouncing ball.  All filled me with dread and unknown, almost hypnotic foreboding. 

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I saw someone else on this board refer to Lang as the "master of shadows" and after watching the opening clip of M I'd have to agree. The most striking use of shadow is undoubtedly that of Beckert's looming over the off-screen child, the police poster titled "MURDER" as it's backdrop. But even from the beginning Lang uses shadows to build an atmosphere that is, in a word, foreboding. The children from the very first scene, shot from above, cast pointed menacing shadows around themselves.  Both underscoring the darkness inherent in the game they innocently play and the evil lurking around their otherwise carefree lives. 

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I saw someone else on this board refer to Lang as the "master of shadows" and after watching the opening clip of M I'd have to agree. The most striking use of shadow is undoubtedly that of Beckert's looming over the off-screen child, the police poster titled "MURDER" as it's backdrop. But even from the beginning Lang uses shadows to build an atmosphere that is, in a word, foreboding. The children from the very first scene, shot from above, cast pointed menacing shadows around themselves.  Both underscoring the darkness inherent in the game they innocently play and the evil lurking around their otherwise carefree lives. (Cross posted from other discussion board)

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Inevitability is the feeling that comes across from the opening for M.  The children's song ends only to start again.  The laundrywoman shouts to them to stop, a demand made and ignored before,  but they continue.  She tiredly gathers her basket, trudges up the stairs, and hands off the clothes to another woman.  Everything we are shown has the feeling of familiarity that comes from the cyclical nature of a daily routine.  Visually, this is reinforced by the shot of the clock as it strikes twelve since a clock tells the forward progression of time even though the hands always move over the same territory.  The feeling of inevitability comes from the expectation that equilibrium must be disturbed for the narrative to begin.  It's a noir film, and the genre's conventions dictate the nature of the disturbance, a crime of some kind.  That knowledge creates frustration and anxiety since we know what's coming as soon as the silhouette slips into frame, but inevitably, it happens despite our knowing how the interaction will play out. 

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I immediately noticed the lack of grass or trees in this small community (that we saw)...really depressing... but no sense of trouble to come despite the song the kids were singing. No sense of dread until the man approached the little girl playing with the ball on the street.

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I have never seen this movie, so will watch it when I get home.  From the clip, it was interesting to see that the mother of the little girl wasn't as bothered by the gruesome nature of the song, but the other woman was.  Since I also tend to go off on a tangent, I found it interesting that the table is set for just one (the child), and that the mother used a napkin ring.  Wasn't the mother going to join her child for lunch (the clock was first at noon, then 1:15, so I assume it was lunch)?  If there have been several murders already, why wasn't the little girl walking with friends?

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Fabulous foreshadowing in this opening scene, particularly the use of the children and their song. There's the obvious diegesis in the song's lyrics, then the remark Frau Beckman makes about knowing they're safe because we can hear them--followed by ominous quiet. But that interplay also comments on the persistence of evil; though the first woman implores the children to stop singing because she doesn't want to hear about the murderer, the children keep on singing once she's out of sight, just as the murderer will continue to stalk the city. 

 

Lang layers the dread by then creating a scene of cozy domesticity, which then alternates with views of dangers outside the home; once Elsie leaves the school (that's where the policeman helps her cross the street), she's no longer on the radar to adults, hearkening back to her mother's remark about knowing they're safe. Until she stops at the sign to bounce her ball, no adult acknowledges her, until the murderer does. 

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The scene starts with a high creep factor right away, with the little kid singing about a murderer. It makes it even worse that the kids have turned it into a game, because they're having fun with something connected to a horrible crime. Once you realize there's an actual murder that occurred in the town, you start to feel more nervous, thinking something bad could happen at any moment. The mother is happily getting lunch ready at home, while the girl is walking home from school oblivious to imminent danger. When she bounces the ball against the sign about the murders, the sound of the ball hitting the sign increases the sense of anxiety. When the shadow of the man appears, he so obviously sounds evil it's almost beside the point.

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In addition to all of the ominous signs previously noted, I watched the clip expcting to see nothing new.  However, what stuck out like a sore thumb to me was the very heavy apron (rubber or leather ) that the mother was wearing to do very light housekeeping (setting the table, toting laundry).  It reminded me of something a butcher would wear. 

 

More foreshadowing?

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Thanks, 'The Working Dead', I agree, write what works. I read in a post by WIlliam Martell (Blue Books) a way to manage this dilemna is to have a focus object that is played with, or becomes part of the action.

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The children's song immediately reminds us of every infant's instinctive fear of being torn away from the safety of their homes. "The nasty man in black" is first introduced to us by this group of joyless children who stand stiffly in a circle, seen from above, each casting a long shadow that is characteristic of the film noir genre.

 

The camera moves away from the children and then upwards, showing us a tired, irritated woman who demands that the singing be stopped, as though the weight she is carrying were increased insupportably by the horror ellicited by the song.

 

A second woman opens the door and we see the expression of fatigue and preoccupation on her face. Through the dialogue with the other woman we learn that there is a murderer, confirming what was insinuated earlier. But when she is alone in the room, doing the laundry, her face lights up with anticipation. The camera is now at eye level with the woman in the room and there is light coming in through the window in a natural way. The sounds we hear from the neighbourhood contribute to a feeling of normalcy that was absent before.

 

Meanwhile, a girl almost gets run over by a car and the tension increases. It is heightened by the text we read in the advertisement against which she is bouncing a ball insistantly. And the scene reaches its climax when the large shadow of a man looming over the child is visible on the advertisement.

 

 

 

Fritz Lang's M (1931). Opening scene

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In addition to all of the ominous signs previously noted, I watched the clip expcting to see nothing new.  However, what stuck out like a sore thumb to me was the very heavy apron (rubber or leather ) that the mother was wearing to do very light housekeeping (setting the table, toting laundry).  It reminded me of something a butcher would wear. 

 

More foreshadowing?

I noticed this too, and wondered if there might be a body in that basket ...

 

What struck me the most at the beginning was the emptiness of the set. It reminded me of a slum: no plants, no trees, just concrete and metal. Very bleak.

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Screewriters write what the audience sees, not how they see it. For exampleThe writer would write about the game and the environment in which they are playing.They would then discribe the woman scolding the children and her dialogue. The writer would not write how the scene is shot (i.e crane shot;low angle; close up;etc.). The writer writes and the director stages the actors and cameras to meet their (the director's) interpretation of the script.  The last scene  could be written as: A little girl bounces a ball on the sidewalk on her way to school. Adults on the sidewalk pay no attention to her.  She approaches a pole that bears a wanted poster for a child murderer. A man only seen in shadow talks to her.... There are no stage directions, and the director is free to stage the scene however they see it in their minds.

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Ominous is exactly what I was thinking for this clip.

 

I agree that the darkness only builds as the scene progresses, leaving the audience wanting to know what this mysterious man in the shadows has in store for the little girl and for others.

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Another thing that is striking about M is its realism.  A lot of German Expressionist films (but not all) have some sort of supernatural or fantastical element.  When watching a German Expressionist movie, the audience looked into another world with demons, vampires, doppelgängers, and exotic-dancing robots.  In M, Lang immediately lets the audience know that this story takes place in the real world.  Although the use of shadows adds some stylization, we see buildings, rooms, and streets that were a common sight in late Weimar Germany.  M’s world is gritty, noisy, and full of people just going about their daily lives.  Instead of a traditional folklore or sci-fi monster, the villain is just a man.  Apparently, Lang loosely based M on several serial murder cases, and the song the children sing at the beginning is based on one about Fritz Haarmann, the "Vampire of Hanover":

 

“Just you wait ’til it’s your time,
Haarmann will come after you,
With his chopper, oh so fine,
He’ll make mincemeat out of you.”

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I'm pretty new to noir and I'm excited as I'm reading through all of these posts, learning what details about noir show clear in this clip. What jumped out to me, as a noir newbie, is the precise detail and attention paid to the framing of the mysterious man's shadow against the 'Wanted' sign at the end of the clip. How precisely it slinked into frame and onto the sign and then, with rising stakes, how perfectly it shifted and framed itself; it enacted an instant feeling of dread and fear for what might in store for the poor, innocent girl.

 

Looking forward to the next daily dose!

Welcome to the world of film noir. It's based in German Expressionism as is horror and gangster films (think The Cabinet of Dr.Caligari 1920,Little Caesar ect) and the technical term for the dark/light contrast is "Chiaroscuro". In my opinion,it's why these types of films don't work as well in color. You need that high contrast,that only black and white can provide. Enjoy ????
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My thoughts on the opening of M probably reflect what others have said over the course of the day. I do find it uniquely interesting that the film begins with the children's point of view of the crime. Rather than throw us into a world of gangsters or police, we are put in a world where the victims - who are the most vulnerable people as children - don't see their own danger as dangerous. 

It also gets to the heart of noir, at least in my view, where the filmmaker looks at the lower classes and the darker corners of the world. Lang isn't going to take the viewer to upper-class society and even Hans Beckert's victims are of the lower class. He doesn't go after rich children for money.

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[i initially misunderstood the way this form was supposed to work and posted this as a standalone topic. Now understanding things a little better, I've just copy/pasted into the main discussion. Sorry 'bout that, folks.]

 

Play = Death

 

From the very opening shot of M, Fritz Lang is equating innocence and play with death and corruption. The very first shot is from a birds eye view, watching as a group of children circled around one girl who stands in the middle and chants about a murderer coming to get them. This should be familiar to anyone who has ever been on a playground; many playground songs and games revolve around death in one way or another(Ring around the rosie...). No kid would find the song or the actions creepy, just as no parents watching their kids play this way on an average sunny day would be particularly worried. Kids don't think about death the way adults do, they see it only as an end to their part in a game.So when one of the kids' mothers leans over a balcony and yells at them to stop singing that horrid song, they wait only until she has retreated out of the film's frame to start the game again.

 

There's an interesting sequence here, between the shot of the kids playing and the next bit of human interaction. Once the mother retreats back into the building, Lang holds the shot for 10 seconds. 10 seconds is an eternity to not have any human presence or action in your movie. He then cuts abruptly to an empty stairway, and waits another 6 seconds before the woman enters the frame. It primes us for something important to happen, and gives us the first subtle, subliminal feeling of dread and anticipation. At the top of the stairs there is a small interaction between two women in the building, in which we learn that the song the children sing is actually in reference to a real string of child murders that have been occurring recently. Death to adults is something much more serious than how it appears to the children.

 

The final sequence in this opening follows a mother as she prepares for her child to return from school, as she cleans and cooks and makes the table. A clock chiming noon is the connective tissue that Lang uses to cut to a school letting out, and here he crosscuts the mother preparing the meal with the daughter walking home(and taking her time about it). The child is still playing, bouncing her ball as she walks, and finally bouncing her ball against a post that is revealed to hold a poster describing in more detail the child murders we've been hearing about. Again Lang is equating playtime with death. Eventually, the killer enters the picture, not as a demon or a monster, but as a simple shadow, slowly creeping into the playtime of a child.

 

I know it's not part of the opening clip, but I think it's interesting to note that this comparison continues. When watching the movie, take note of the two shots Lang uses to tell the audience of what happened to the girl.

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The writer would not write how the scene is shot (i.e crane shot;low angle; close up;etc.). 

 

A small point of order; a writer can write these things, there are no rules against it. I've read plenty of produced scripts where the writer includes what type of shot or angle should be included. It's necessary for some things, like if you're looking at a character from a certain vantage point, and the camera is supposed to move a certain way and reveal some new visual information. It's probably not a good idea to have your script entirely set in stone direction-wise, but it's often crucial to describe how you see the scene in your head.

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One of the ways that Fritz builds tension is by only showing us very little.  Most of the angles are harsh.  We never see much more than a corner of a room or a small part of a street.  This makes the scene where we see an entire building so shocking.  This exclusion of information accomplishes two things.  First, it establishes that we should fear the unknown.  We never know what kind of thing is hiding right out of the range of our view.  Second, this shows how small the individual really is.  They have no power in this society, and can do nothing to stop a murderer.  It takes an organization such as the police or even a group of criminals to take on such a task.

Well articulated.  Thank you.  

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