Guest Richard Edwards

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

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I find the tension palpable in the opening moments. Everything feels overflowing with dread and the possibilities within that dread. Each character present has a sense of weight hanging over them, a burden they carry. Even the children seen to have lost optimism.

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Much has been written about Fritz Lang's influential employment of audio in his earliest sound pictures -- the sound of the cuckoo clocks, church bells et al. in M (1931) seem to forecast the chaos that awaits the film's characters.

 

I would argue, however, that Lang's primary legacy, as it relates to the development of the noir movement, is a visual one. Lang's films ranging from his early German efforts (Metropolis (1927)) to his later Hollywood features(Fury (1936) and While the City Sleeps (1956)) are always interested in light versus darkness -- a staple of traditional noir fare. In the opening moments of M, this fascination is especially evident as an innocent young girl encounters Peter Lorre and the viewers see only his dark, menacing shadow.

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As was said earlier, the word I'd use is vulnerable...the overwhelming feeling I have is one of the vulnerability of children. Elsie seems so small compared to everything around her, plus she nearly gets hit by a car crossing the street. I'm only an uncle, but it still gave me an intense feeling of dread how vulnerable all of our children are (I imagine for parents watching this film, that feeling's magnified a thousandfold).  

 

In terms of style, the shadows everywhere really seem to be a hallmark of noir and are so here, even before the final shot of Peter Lorre's shadow looming over the girl. The cuckoo clock even creates a shadow on the wall.

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Guest Rich Dannys

It's a genius setup for a number of great reasons.. Lang quickly establishes that there's a lurking danger present. And that the townspeople are generally hard-working folks that care deeply for their children. The fact that if we can "hear them singing.." we'll know that they're still okay, etc.   My favorite moment is when the policeman carefully ushers Elsie safely across the street, before we see her playing innocently with the bouncing ball. It sets you up for the ominous shadow of Lorre, by making you feel that things must be safe and secure with such a thoughtful and attentive police force.. What could possibly go wrong?

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Guest dylanfan

There is so much to read through and hope to reply without repeating previous posts not read yet.  I noticed that the three times the little girl throws the ball in the air before she gets to the sign, it goes out of sight and you wait to see if it will come back down; once she bounces it against the pole, it stays in screen until the shadow appears and comments on it being pretty ... then the ball is not seen again/

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The comment from the woman in the kitchen to the laundry woman "Well at least if there singing we know they're alive" certainly set the mood for me, what an eerie unsettling statement.

I think what's even more ominous than the line itself is what follows: As the woman carried the laundry up the steps, we heard the children resume their song -- they ignored her plea to stop as, we can assume from her chat with Elsie's mother, they have done many times before. Elsie's mother's remark makes us in the audience listen hard to hear the song again -- and to see Mrs. Beckmann's (presumably relieved) response to it -- but all we get is an interval of silence. With our alertness heightened this way, the chime of the cuckoo clock is startling and disturbing to us, even though Mrs. Beckmann seems pleased to hear it.

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Guest Joseph J. Boris

I think the wman going out and yelling at the kids singing that same song over and over, and then carrying a load of wash upstairs only to be told that at least the children can be heard is an ominous scene of things to come.  No smiles or laughter along with the shadows makes for an ominous beginning.

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Guest Joseph J. Boris

I think the wman going out and yelling at the kids singing that same song over and over, and then carrying a load of wash upstairs only to be told that at least the children can be heard is an ominous scene of things to come.  No smiles or laughter along with the shadows makes for an ominous beginning.

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Guest Jordan Blossey

The opening scene of M is eerie, with a feeling of dread and paranoia of things to come. It is done with subtlety-no music save for the children's morbid nursery rhyme and chiaroscuro lighting mixed with the setting of an ordinary town. All of this is enhanced by a sense of realism, in that a murderer preying on little children can happen anywhere and under similar circumstances.

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Guest Barry

This opening definitely gives you a feeling that things are not right in the neighborhood. There is a sense that something bad happened from the children's song a the ladies conversation. Only when we see the reward poster do we understand what it is. They the creepy man appears and we know its not good.

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Guest Kerry

I love the quiet tension in the opening scene of M.  The children sing a macabre song in the street while their mothers worry upstairs.  The mother prepares her daughter's lunch expectantly as we see the shadow of the murderer loom over the little girl.  Chilling.

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The cop helping the little girl across the street feels disarming, effectively lessening the tension. It makes the half second view of a man leaning against the lamp post reading a paper seem intensely threatening. 

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Elsie's mother's remark makes us in the audience listen hard to hear the song again -- and to see Mrs. Beckmann's (presumably relieved) response to it -- but all we get is an interval of silence. With our alertness heightened this way, the chime of the cuckoo clock is startling and ominous to us, even though Mrs. Beckmann seems pleased to hear it.

This is a great point, and I think the lack of music also contributes to the audience being "on alert." After the children's voices fade away, the rest of the opening is almost eerily quiet, and I found myself straining for some kind of audible clue to what would happen next.

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Guest Mandroid51

Age413 said it: "In terms of style, the shadows everywhere really seem to be a hallmark of noir and are so here, even before the final shot of Peter Lorre's shadow looming over the girl. The cuckoo clock even creates a shadow on the wall." Was thinking the same thing only you articulated the sentiments more clearly. Shadow and the effectiveness of its use is definitely something I want to take away from in this course.

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Guest William Stanley

The Coo coo clock is important that it signifies that the 'time has come.' 

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Guest Mandroid51

As was said earlier, the word I'd use is vulnerable...the overwhelming feeling I have is one of the vulnerability of children. Elsie seems so small compared to everything around her, plus she nearly gets hit by a car crossing the street. I'm only an uncle, but it still gave me an intense feeling of dread how vulnerable all of our children are (I imagine for parents watching this film, that feeling's magnified a thousandfold).

 

In terms of style, the shadows everywhere really seem to be a hallmark of noir and are so here, even before the final shot of Peter Lorre's shadow looming over the girl. The cuckoo clock even creates a shadow on the wall.

 

 

Agreed.

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Guest Matt Carpenter

I am not absolutely certain but I think King Kong (1933) was the first movie with a specifically composed musical score.  The absence of a score in M, for me, markedly increases the tension.  It makes all the other sounds have that much more emphasis.

Another striking thing is that the innocent children obliviously continue playing around signs on increasing adult fear (the counting out game, similar to the origins of ring-around-the-rosie) and the use of the poster as a backboard.

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Guest david

Lang displays all that is suggested that makes a movie film noir in this opening scene.  A Google search of 'What is film noir' revealed the following and I feel Lang has displayed  it to perfection.  The setting is very grim and urban with subtle use of light and shadows. The weary mother's disillusionment, pessimism and despair of the children's song and her hard toil is lightened by the optimism of the other mother who cooks and sets the table lovingly -for her child and possibly husband? The clock announces the girl is due home soon?  Again the policeman shows concern and this shows how the children are being watched over- but - a few seconds later when he is not there?  The shadow of Lorre on the sign reminds me of the shadow of Nosferatu on the wall approaching -evil this way comes.

 
a motion picture with an often grim urban setting, photographed in somber tones and permeated by a feeling of disillusionment, pessimism, and despair.

 

 

 

 

 

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Guest Julianne CeCe

The dark beauty of the opening scene is how ordinary it is; children playing, women working, clocks chiming - nothing to see here, business as usual. But of course, as in all film noir, ordinary is the illusion, the cover story - darkness, mayhem and madness are never far away, and may strike at any time. And it does - a child not returning home from school is a strike of black lightning igniting darkness all around. Knowing the darkness can strike anyone, anywhere, at any time, is exactly what draws us in  - there but for the grace of the gods goes any one of us - and that is Lang's genius use of noir. 

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Guest Guest

Much has been written about Fritz Lang's influential employment of audio in his earliest sound pictures -- the sound of the cuckoo clocks, church bells et al. in M (1931) seem to forecast the chaos that awaits the film's characters.

 

That's probably true, though in this case, considering that it is his first venture into sound, it's exceptionally noticeable-- he's a master of the visual who also has a good grasp of how to build tension with sound.

 

Though really, I just love your username. High fives. 

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Guest Marge

Children are our most valuable possession, any threat is terrifying.  Brings home the point that life can change in the blink of an eye. 

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Guest Radkosmos

Definitely dreadful and grim.   I love how the cop escorts the girl across the street but the "man in black" clearly walk amongst everyone.  The fact that even with protection around, this man really goes by unnoticed, only his shadow invoking the dread.  Masterful

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Guest Sarah

As a lover of classic films, but one who has never really ventured out into film noir, I found the opening scene of Fritz Lang's "M" to be highly captivating. I loved the opening especially, in which the children's little rhyme is heard before we actually see anything. For me, that set the noir tone right away. The use of shadows and the lack of music also contributed to the eerie feeling in this scene. It made me feel like something unexpected could happen at any moment, and when the cuckoo clock sounded, my heart jumped. That is perfect for a supsense film. I loved how all we see of the man who met Elsie at the poster was his shadow. Again, shadows help to create the noir feeling.

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