Guest Richard Edwards

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

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The scene is void of pleasure and consists of a life of mechanism and redundancy. There is little pleasure for adults and what pleasure they do take is taken in small forms that is very personal. For instance,the women setting the table ,the readjustment of placing the utensils on the table, a seen of neatness yet very humble.  The use of shadows conveys a pending doom of menace for any unsuspecting children, even though the little girl is right beneath the sign.

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I love the way the mood is set in the beggining of the film, the darkness is all over the place even in something so innocent like children singning. And the "Nasty man in black" is one of the creepiest presentation of a character i've seen, that shadow will hunt my dreams... Terrifying and beautiful!

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The first word that comets my mind: innocence.

 

By which I also mean vulnerability. The children in the scene are blithely unaware of the evils that surround them. They sing a song about a serial killer, not unlike the one that is tormenting the community. For them, it has no relevance; it's just a fun little rhyming song that enhances their game. (Think of "Ring Around the Rosies" -- children have sung that song for hundreds of years without the slightest awareness that it's about the plague.) The passing pregnant woman tells them to quit singing, because the lyrics are getting on her nerves. For the kids, she's likely just one more restrictive authority figure who tells them not to do something for no good reason -- which is why they resume singing as soon as she is out of earshot.

 

One thing of note about the opening shot is that M starts very much the same way as Macbeth. The children are loosely gathered in a circle, chanting, which in a subconscious way makes the viewer (this one, anyway) think of a witches' coven, uttering curses that will spell doom. Of course, these kids aren't witches, they're innocents, but it's as if they are invoking some power of evil, andI think that's what gets to us as viewers.

 

For Elsie's mother, Mrs. Beckmann, the song means something else entirely: it means those kids are safe. Her own little Elsie is not among those children, of course; she's at school, and her safety is of course a matter of concern. The cuckoo clock announces it is noon; the mother is happy. Good, now my little Elsie will be home.

 

Something else strikes me though, looking at just this scene: I think Mrs. Beckmann is a single mother. There is no indication of a Mr. Beckmann who, of course. could be away at work; but there's no indication of him at the film's end, either, when we see Mrs. Beckmann in court. I think it may be that it's just mother and child, that Elsie may be all this hard-working woman has. Note how properly she sets the table (for only two) for their little meal together.

 

But -- there's also a sense of poverty, of limitation. Why doesn't Mrs. Beckmann pick up Elsie along with the other parents? Maybe she can't afford a car, maybe the school isn't that far away, maybe the parents in this tenement home simply believe in safety in numbers, of children walking home together. At any rate, Elsie is clearly on the mind of her mother whenever she is out of sight.

 

At the public school, that sense of vulnerability returns. Elsie leaves school and nearly gets hit by a car as she steps into the street; a police officer thankfully intercedes. Like the kids singing the song, Elsie isn't alert to the dangers of the world, the local man going around killing kids is not something that preys on her mind. She bounces her ball against a warning poster, which she likely isn't old enough to read just yet -- and, of course, a seemingly kindly man enters her life, and she trusts him completely.

 

P.S. I suppose someone here has mentioned it, but there's a great song by Randy Newman that was based on M. Here's a

.

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The word that comes to mind for me is actually 'separate.'  The world of the children and the world of the adults are presented in contrast.  We open on the children, seen from a high angle; they are playing a game with a very creepy song that doesn't bother them at all--they're playing.  Then we look upward (as a child would) to the world of the adults, and our first adult is very worried and further unsettled by the careless singing of the song.  The carefree nature of the children is again contrasted by the care the mother takes in setting the table.

We move to the school about to dismiss for the day, and the adults are standing outside waiting to pick up their children.  Again, there is separation--we don't actually see the concerned parents and the carefree children reunited.  We quickly move to a child alone.

A horn brings the girl out of her own world--pay attention, you need to be careful.  But then what can be less careful than walking down the sidewalk throwing a ball to yourself?  Not even looking where she's walking, much less for any other danger. 

As she begins to bounce her ball against the sign, the two worlds are brought back together--the carefree child and the concerned, fearful adults, represented by the words of the sign.  At last the worlds are connected--the shadow cast on the adults' sign and the voice speaking to the child are one in the same.

 

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The words that come to mind are innocence versus experience. We have children turning horrible events into a game as a way to comprehend what is taking place in the world. They are too innocent to fully understand that they are in danger so they invent a game to deal with it, similar to "Ring Around the Rosy" coming from children during The Black Plague. The mothers, however, have experience and therefore are disgusted and horrified at the game that the children are playing. Another example is the girl playing ball against the wanted poster for the child murderer. She uses the poster as a game, a way to play ball with herself, while the adults watching the film are reading the poster and learning about missing children and that there is a criminal on the loose.

Also, it seems the director is making a good use of senses other than sight. For example, we heard sounds before we saw where the sounds came from. We heard the song the children sing before we see the children. We heard the cuckoo clock ring before we saw the clock and the time. We heard the bus honk before we saw it drive by. It seems senses other than sight are important. We don't see the murderer but we know he is nearby by his voice and his shadow.

The opening seems to contribute to the style of film noir in that we know there is a crime. A criminal is on the loose and children are being kidnapped. Also the use of lighting for the killer's shadow. 

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Lang keeps an unusually angled distance from his subject in the beginning shots of 'M.'  The near-circle of the young girls also is off-kilter and not quite right; a couple of children are outliers, watching but not participating.  The visual elements are angular and vaguely reminiscent of those early silent films, such as "Dr. Calgari."  The film is not only without "normal" assortments of people, but almost airless and stifling, here—not until we visit the laundress's kitchen does that change.  Sounds accumulate but never quite mimic a realistic environment (not that any film really does, but these sounds are highly selective—again removing the action from its context and the filmic narrator from the events).  The absence of music during these long takes add an uneasiness, too, and subtly tells the viewer that time is significant but not determinable—music makes order and controls time.  The relentlessness of sub/consequent actions is a notion that is central to film noir.  The clock, for example, works this way, and is a reminder of order that is balanced by the arbitrary and stipulated along with a more "natural order" of child's play (the children's game is regulated but the girl in the middle really is in charge).  The clock also harks back to the near-circle of children but reminds the viewer of a fundamental order—or the belief in one that might not be what the viewer wants of expects.  Of course, in all of this are those acute angles, stripes, and high-relief lights and shadows that are iconic elements of films noir.  Through the beginning of this opening, the viewer gets third-party information, only:  women distressed, a posted sign.  The last cut does bring up the question about point of view:  Who is seeing this shadow?

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One thing that struck me was when the woman said to leave the children alone, at least as long as you heard them, you knew they were alright. And that moment you notice... you don't hear them anymore.

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The words?  "Tense" and "airless."  Also, "detached."  Here is my original post—I posted elsewhere, first:

Lang keeps an unusually angled distance from his subject in the beginning shots of 'M.'  The near-circle of the young girls also is off-kilter and not quite right; a couple of children are outliers, watching but not participating.  The visual elements are angular and vaguely reminiscent of those early silent films, such as "Dr. Calgari."  The film is not only without "normal" assortments of people, but almost airless and stifling, here—not until we visit the laundress's kitchen does that change.  

 

Daily sounds (more like "signs of sounds") accumulate but never quite mimic a realistic environment (not that any film really does, but these sounds are highly selective—again removing the action from its context and the filmic narrator from the events).  The absence of music, too, subtly tells the viewer that time is significant but not determinable—music makes order and controls time.  The relentlessness of sub/consequent actions is a notion that is central to film noir.  The clock, for example, works this way, and is a reminder of order that is balanced by the arbitrary and stipulated along with a more "natural order" of child's play (the children's game is regulated but the girl in the middle really is in charge).  The clock also harks back to the near-circle of children but reminds the viewer of a fundamental order—or the belief in one that might not be what the viewer wants of expects.  Of course, in all of this are those acute angles, stripes, and high-relief lights and shadows that are iconic elements of films noir.

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One thing that struck me was when the woman said to leave the children alone, at least as long as you heard them, you knew they were alright. And that moment you notice... you don't hear them anymore!


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. A murderer is on the loose and the children of the building are playing pretty much unsupervised. The dark dangerous music vs. the jovial song of the children is unnerving to me. The mothers, doing their daily chores, are relying on the idea that as long as the kids sound happy they are ok. But the "happy" game the children are playing foreshadows events to come. You get the idea that a "that couldn't happen to me" feeling permeates those living in the building. Whatever happens next you know it won't be good.

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Eerie is certainly a word that comes to mind in describing the opening scene of Fritz Lang's M. First we are introduced to a group of children who are singing a song about the killer. Then the song becomes reality when we see the killer's shadow looking at the girl reading the wanted poster.

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I sensed certain "vulnerability" in the children due to the camera angle making thme look smaller as you look down on them from a higher perspective. Then the pan up to th ebalcony tends to linger just a micro-second longer on the shadows leading to the balcony, giving you an unsettling feeling of something being signifigant to the shadows, but you just can't see it yet. Also, after the woman tells the children to stop singing that song, the camera lingers on the empty balcony ofr another unsettling micro-second, leaving you again with a sense of expectation-like something else is afoot, but you just dont konw what yet. The clocks chiming at 12:00 to me just signals a foreboding hour-typically midnight, but in this case it's the middle of the day. Again I sensed a feeling of expectation when the people were waiting at the school. Just standing there...waiting. For what, besides the release of the children? The feeling of expectation was offset by the scene of the woman setting the table. She was in nohurry at all. To me it threw a wrench into the building up of expectation which just made me more off-kilter, in a good way! Why was she not bothered by her surroundings yet all around here seemed to be people just a bit on edge and waiting for someething more to happen?! Great use of the man's shadow on the poster, again keeping the viewer off-balbance by not showing his true form. And the way he talks just sends shivers down my spine!

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Nervousness was the first word that popped into my mind. Maybe it's because I've seen the movie before, but to me there is a sense of foreboding as soon as we see the small circle of children and hear the girl in the middle making a game out of chanting a gruesome song about a child snatcher. What adds to that is the starkness of the set. The set is void of all decorations, and the only movement within the frame is that of the little girl in the middle, who, in her version of "Duck, Duck, Goose," almost seems to be choosing "the man in black's [sic]" next victim. In fact, the little lopsided circle of children, may really be a representation of the murderer's past and future victims, with the two little girls in one corner of the frame and the boy who is "out" representing the three children who have already gone missing, which we learn of at the close of the opening scene.

 

Like most children, the ones on the screen are in their own world and are oblivious to the fact that the song they are singing is not a mere ditty, but an actual reminder of the danger that awaits them on the city streets, of which the adults in their lives are extremely aware.

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Elements of M are clearly important in contributing to the style of film noir. Bleak, black and white subject matter sets quite a somber tone as a little girl sings her grizzly rhyme about a man in black, that can reduce you to mincement. Special camera angles, like the low camera angle of the balcony with the women on it, is yet another film noir essence. This bleak, uncomfortable mood is reinforced fully, by a mother setting the lunch table as her little girl walks home from school. On the little girls walk home, she encounters a poster displayed on her walk which quickly monopolizes the entire screen with the large letters that say murder in any language. The dark shadow of who we believe the murderer may be is slowly cast on the poster itself and, he begins to talk to the little girl. Whew, the mood the set and the games begin.

 

In addition, the topic is one that society normally does not broach, the murder of children. This unthinkable topic is approached with a stylistic sparseness that is very dark.

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The song was creepy. It 's set the tone of the movie dark and silence .Where innocence and careless went along with the story "as long as we can still heard them". It's not much difference what's happening  than in real life .We sent our children to the school thinking a safe place and bang!!The Director was genius to set the mood- children playing-middle class- poor suburb.

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Frankly, I am very glad that this course has started with European antecedents to to American Film Noir.  Like everything else in the Americas, Film Noir started off as an immigrant and was modified by the peculiarities of the American environment.  Thanks for this!

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Just realised I didn't answer the actual set questions on this one.

 

I think a lot of the best words and phrases have been chosen over and over by now, so I'll go with Disconnection between words and actions, There is an almost perverse disconnect between the situations and the characters responses.  The children are in mortal danger but use the danger as the basis for a rhyming game.  The adults understand the danger and are filled with dread but still leave their children on the streets because they are so beaten down by volume of mundane jobs they as adults have to do even though those tasks would become even more meaningless if something happened to their child. They say thinhgs about knowing the children are safe as long as you can hear the singing but then stop hearing the singing and carry on with housework. There is a gulf between their actions and their knowledge and fear as well as a gulf between them and the kids.  Finally there is the ending with Lorre and the child, where Lorre seems to actively come to the child in friendship and concern in the way that the parents were unable to but this obviously masks his true motives. There is again a massive gap between words and actions which creates an all pervasive mood of distrust for you the viewer,

 

It's a vital contribution to Noir style, Huston and Dymtryk apart a lot of the small number of directors who produced more than one really key noirs were german immigrants (Lang, Wilder, Siodmak) and a lot of what they brought to the screen tonewise was formed in the German cinema of the 20s and 30s.  The war and the holocaust obviously massively impacted on their world view and contributed to their work of the late 40s and early 50s but there was also a continuity in the way Lang in particular views society (powerless to do good in the face of mundane evil) from early 30s films like M and The Testament of Dr Mabuse to his early American social criticism of You Only Live Once and Fury and through to his post war Noirs like Beyond a Reasonable Doubt.

 

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I've seen multiple instances of children as victims of foul play in contemporary films. As a parent, this always frightens or shocks me. This opening sequence sets up yet another instance of this convention in the thriller genre of cinema seems. However, this film is probably the Historic predecessor of movies like "Silence of the Lambs" or "Seven" and probably lays the groundwork of other films that tackle that particular subject matter.

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The sense of impending doom is what is most apparent from the opening scene of Lang's M.  As soon as the scene opens with the eerie rhyme that the children recite, we know that things aren't going to end well.  And then of course the appearance of that dark shadow confirms it.

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eerie. I had never heard of this film prior to this course so I'm thankful for that. The one thing I notice about foreign film makers in general is that they don't rely on gimmicks , they don't use a lot of cliched speech. In the opening scenes that really could have been in room of children anywhere playing a silly little game, yes the song was demented and twisted but I good imagined kids today doing the exacted same thing. The woman screaming at them to stop it, did we all have the one neighbor as a kid who didn't like kids being foolish? The talk between the women..any concern parent would say those words as long as I hear them I know they are alright. Foreign filmmakers tacke tough targets sometimes with a realism that aren't scene in an American film. I thought M was an excellent noir but also serves as a benchmark for later crime dramas. Anyone else?

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The feeling of dread increases steadily for me as the clip moves from the children playing their game through the depiction of the women with the laundry. I believe that the evidence of mundane daily chores and events emphasizes that when tragedy strikes it doesn't play favorites and that there is no guarantee of safety ever. Not seeing the face of the silhouette speaking to the child at the end of the clip shows how anonymous danger can be.

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There is a sense of both sympathy and dread. The opening shows a world where people are living in fear, but also they take great care of their children. And yet, don't be so foolish as to think anyone is safe from harm or from death. It's only a step away (as when the car is rushing down the street) or a tic of the clock away. Death wears a big hat.

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The first thing I noticed was the lack of a music score. Music is one of the clues that tells us how to feel, but with its absence, we're left with a sense of unease. It's an unsettling feeling and a brave choice for a director.

 

I also liked the clothesline with the nightgowns hanging upside down with the arms raised over the heads, as if waving for help, or like an homage to the missing children.

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The mood is dark, eerie. The beginnig words are of a certain sort of satanic song of a boogie man sort of person that takes children and murders them. The comtributes to the film noir style by presenting that feeling of suspense and dreariness. The film shots are dark and gives a feeling of dispair. You know something bad is going to happen. 

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