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


Guest Richard Edwards

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I enjoyed the clip. I haven't seen this movie before so it  made me want to see more. I thought that the way Lang used simple sounds and no music was great. These were sounds to help make it sound like any normal day, but it also made me feel like something was brewing right from the beginning. It kept me hooked wanting to know more about what was going on. I also liked how he lured you in by first watching a group of children playing innocently and then by the grownups being on edge by the song that they are singing and all the events happening around them. It gave a feeling of unease. 

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Once, while attending a showing and talk of the film Double Indemnity, I remember the film historian telling us that true film noir always began with a flashback...but I note here that there is none.

 

 

That sounds like someone stretching to find connective tissue. There are tons of films noir that use no flashbacks. Hearing that would have made me less likely to listen to anything else that guy said.

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The only aspect I feel the need to add to the fine observations above is that children themselves are not all innocence.  As anyone who reflects upion his or her own chldhood knows, children can be--and often are--cruel to one another.  Each time the girl leading the song points her finger to show that child is "out," that is hurtful.  But, like all else, there are degrees of "hurtfulness;"  the form that they use at the start of "M" is innocuous in comparison to the murder of Elsie Beckmann, who seems to be more innocent than some of the others.

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Welcome to TCM's Summer of Darkness message board and the discussion space that students of Into the Darkness: Investigating Film Noir will use to discuss the great movies of film noir. Today you will have received your first Daily Dose of Darkness: the opening film clip from Fritz Lang's M. Please reply to any of the questions posed in the Daily Dose post, or bring up new topics or observations about that film's opening as we explore M as a precursor to the first films noir in Hollywood. Remember, M (1931) predates by a decade The Maltese Falcon (1941). So while it is not considered film noir per se, M is an important cinematic precursor that contributed to the development of the noir style.

To me,gangster/horror/film noir...all are cut from the same cloth...having their roots grounded in German Expressionism. So there are many earlier films I've viewed ,that I find important in the development of the film noir genre/style. "M" is clearly one of those.
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Did anyone else notice that both of the women looked particularly somber. But the woman upstairs that was washing clothes, as she was setting the table, almost sort of had a little bit of a smile on her face. That jumped out to me right away. I assume that she is the mother of the little girl walking home from school and she is the only thing in her life that would make her actually smile. And now I have a sense of doom because obviously something sinister is about to happen to the little girl.

 

Visually really beautiful.

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The first word that comes to mind is order.  Throughout his opening Fritz Lang works to establish, in the viewer’s mind, a sense of order.  The order is twisted however to impress upon the audience that this is a darker world than the one which he inhabits.

The opening shot of the children is a high-angle shot giving the viewer an adult perspective of the children.  The children are arranged in a circle, a symbol of order, and they are playing a game, similar to ring-around-the rosy.  But the nursery rhyme is twisted and dark.  The camera pans down slightly then up, a child’s point of view to an adult laundress.  She admonishes the children then proceeds about her perfunctory duty, once again establishing the order of the world we’re viewing.

When the laundress’ meet the camera gives level to both adults establishing them as equals, the sardonic line “If they’re singing we know they’re alive” is delivered yet we the audience don’t hear any children.  Immediately we thing, “Are the children ok?”

Next we see the second laundress washing clothes and preparing a meal, exactly what we the audience expect her to do.  The cuckoo clock chimes simultaneously with the community clock further establishing a precise order to things in this world. 

As the community clock chimes, Lang uses another high-angle shot to show the expectant parents in front of the school he’s balanced the darker clothed parents on the left against the lighter clothed on the right.  The central figure is dark with a light hat.  The streets are clean, a police officer escorts the young lady across the street more signs of an orderly society.

We see the mother preparing the table she uses a napkin rink, circular a sign of order; she cleans only two plates one for her and her expectant daughter.  At this point I wondered where a third plate was for the child’s father. Perhaps he is at work.  This would be in keeping with the orderly way of things, women at home washing, children playing and in school, men at work.

Finally, Lang shows the child innocently bouncing a ball, again circular orderly.  Panning to the poster the viewer learns that there is darkness in the order a murder, and he cuts away as the dark shadow descends across the orderly world

Throughout these shots Lang’s sound design is used to isolate the viewer in each scene.  No sound draws the viewer away from the characters.  There is no sound track other than the normal orderly sounds the viewer would expect to hear were he there in the scene with the characters.  Even as the girl bounces the ball down the street, we here only the sound of the ball bouncing no street noise.

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Fritz Lang’s M begins with innocent children standing in a circle and a girl in the middle reciting a “counting-out rhyme” in the way American children might use “eeny meeny miney moe” for  the ostensibly random selection of one member of a group to be “it” or “out.”  In the Lang film, however, the rhyme has a grisly and ominous meaning: it would have reminded German audiences in 1931 of the real-life capture and execution in 1925 of a serial killer named Fritz Haarmann.  In the wake of the Haarmann case, a popular operetta song (“Wait a while, wait a while, soon happiness will come to you”) was rewritten into a grisly rhyme about the killer (“Wait a while, wait a while, soon Haarmann will also come for you, and with his little cleaver he’ll make liverwurst out of you.”).  This was adapted in the film to substitute “the man in black” for Haarmann’s name and “ground meat” for liverwurst.   In the context of the rhyme in the film, the little girl’s statement “You’re out” is tantamount to “You’re dead.”  This opening scene thus evokes the recent memory of a real serial killer in Germany and introduces the idea of imminent and random menace identified now only as “the man in black.”

While the children’s play is innocent (and they might even be exhilarated by the gruesome image), to the woman on the balcony above them even the innocent evocation of a serial killer is no laughing matter.  Her admonition to the children has only a temporary effect though: as Lang’s camera lingers on the balcony and the woman disappears up the stairs, we hear the counting-out rhyme begin again off screen in the courtyard below.  In the ensuing exchange between the two women at the apartment door, it becomes clear that the first woman connects the children’s rhyme with “that murderer.”  But is she referring to the Haarmann case or to some current, real threat?  The second woman encourages the first woman to let the children go on with their game.  “As long as we can hear ‘em singing, at least we know they’re still there.”  This sets up an expectation that silence at some future point will have an ominous meaning.

Once the first woman leaves, there is no further dialogue in the apartment where the second woman is scrubbing laundry.  She ceases her labor when the cuckoo clock strikes 12 o’clock noon and a bell in the distance rings twelve times.  (It is not clear whether it is a church bell or one associated with a school or public building, but it is clearly functioning as a clock.)  With a look of anticipation on her face, she begins final preparations for a lunch for two people.  The cut to the school suggests that she is preparing for her child to come home from school for lunch.  Later we will learn that this is Frau Beckmann, the mother of Elsie Beckmann.

The scene in front of the school emphasizes that the city is a noisy, sometimes dangerous place, where a speeding car could hit a schoolgirl who is not careful or lacks assistance in crossing a busy street.  And finally we see the culmination of this whole opening sequence.  There is a serial killer at large on the streets of Berlin.  As Elsie bounces her ball against a reward poster that explains the situation, a shadow falls across the poster.  The head of “the man in black” falls squarely across the word “murderer” in the text of the poster, and the voice of the shadow asks Elsie her name.  In retrospect now, it seems likely that the woman on the stairs was referring to the killer at large as “that murderer.”  And now the “man in black” has come for Elsie.

Elements that point to film noir style:  oblique lines and oblique camera angles, typical of German Expressionist style, used in the scenes at the apartment building; chiaroscuro effects in the scene at the reward poster, where neither character appears in the scene, only the shadow of the killer on the poster text and the bouncing ball representing Elsie while their dialogue is heard in voice-over.

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I love how the children warn us (and themselves) against the passing of time, as they sing, in a few minutes, he'll be there. "Just you wait, it won't be long. The man in black will soon be here."

But at the same time, their own game reproduces the movement of a clock, thus illustrating visually the passage of time, suggesting how the time when "he will be there" is coming right up, in a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy...

This first shot almost begins a countdown in the viewer's minds, which makes all the following come quite naturally, as it was announced, and the viewer then expects it, in a way (it's not diegetic, of course the killer does not come because the girls call him, but he appears in the movie right after his coming was announced, both verbally and visually).

 

Another aspect of noir in this sequence is how its urban setting exerts some pressure on the people who live in it : we see the children play in a close courtyard, then an empty, lifeless, staircase...

A few seconds after that, we see how the city is dangerous to a child, reckless cars threatening any kid who would play outside a courtyard.

Thus, when the monster appears, it's almost as if his shadow came out of the poster itself. The city has, in a way, summoned its killer.

 

One last thing that comes to mind is the social aspect of this setting : the children are obviously from modest families, their mothers work hard, carrying heavy loads of laundry... That's why little Elsie has to walk home alone in a dangerous environment. Poverty and lack of money are themes one often runs into with film noir.

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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?

 

The apron was the first "odd" thing to jump out at me, it seemed so out of place for what she was doing. I had thought of it being a butcher's apron as well. That (for some reason) more than any of the sounds, or lack of sound leading up to it, did more for me when it came to feeling there was impending danger on the horizon.

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I have never watched this movie before but after seeing the clip I am very excited to see it on Friday! I felt a sense of dread as the scene opened with the children singing their macabre little song and the exchange of the two women. The camera angle suggested a hidden menace lurking just off screen and the drudgery and fear of the working women inspired a depressed, helpless feeling. As if tragedy was imminent but could not be averted. And all of this in just the first few moments of the film! Genius!

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Awkward, Tense, Foreboding, and fear are just a few words that describe the atmosphere in the opening scene of "M"


The sounds of the clock, the bells, and the car horns add to a feeling of a possible coming of madness, insanity and dread.


The camera movements, are deliberate, and at times jerky, and also add to a feeling of anxiety, and discomfort, fear, and insanity


The ways that "M" is an important contribution to Film Noir, are The sense, and feeling of discomfort, and fear, a loss of innocence and stylistically, in the camera angles, shadows, and chiaroscuro 


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When I think of film noir (and I've seen quite a few) I think symbolism.  I see the cities, known for their bright lights, only reaching just so far as light abruptly turns to shadow.   I think of cigarette smoke, fog, and dark corners, where bad things happen.  Characters have sinister motives, secrets, and hidden agendas.  Even the hero/heroine is often tainted by something in his/her past.  Detectives, reporters and femme fatales flood the screen with their presence.


In this opening clip we see victims - children - playing and singing in their sweet, child-like manner a morbid song.  This in itself strikes an eerie (strange and frightening) note to the first minute of the film.  They stand in a circle, with the girl in the middle pointing  from one to another, just like the hands on a clock.  The children drop out one by one and the scene sets up the plot.   A kidnapper/killer is on the loose and the community is well aware, though the children do not seem to recognize the seriousness of the situation.  They are naive, and probably fascinated with the excitement of it all.  They continue being children, though everyone else is tense, on edge, fearful of an unknown danger lurking about.  Their time as children may be running out, as (one by one) they are disappearing.  Who is next?  The camera moves from looking down at the children, to looking up at a woman on a balcony.  Transition from the carefree world of the children to the nervous, yet seemingly mundane world of the adults.


Upstairs in a rundown apartment, a woman is hard at work.  I imagine the drudgery of her life, the poverty she is surrounded in, has made her look the way she does - tired and plain.  The silence is suspenseful as she goes about her work, but cut by the sudden chiming of a cuckoo clock.  Something is about to happen?  Someone's time is up!  


School lets out and one has to wonder why a little girl is left to walk home alone, especially with "the man in black" still at large.  Is the working woman her mother?  If so, has the murder scare drug on so long that the woman has put it down as a way of life, forgetting caution?  I have not seen this movie, so these are the questions in my mind as I watch this clip.


We are introduced to a seemingly sinister character right as the clip finishes.  The little girl bounces her ball against a column,where we are informed of a high reward for the "man in black."  (Again, the child is being a child, though the bouncing of the ball against the reward poster seems to symbolize that childish disregard, as I said previously, for the danger.)  Enter:  the shadow of a man.  He approaches the girl and we are left to assume that one more child has fallen prey to the killer.  (Perfect use of the element of darkness to introduce a villain.)


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Interesting that the children (like children everywhere) were playing a game about death and being cut up like mincemeat.  Even though scolded, they resumed their game off camera.  The young girl at the end of the clip escapes getting hit by a vehicle and is escorted across the street by a policeman yet ends up meeting the murderer and we know what her fate will be.  I also found it interesting that no music was used.  Just the normal sounds of children playing, traffic, the clock ringing noon at the apartment and school, etc.

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I have not seen the movie – YET, and the clip and comments certainly leave me wanting to see what happens next. Apart from agreeing with much of the comments on the great angles and lengthy pauses of the camera, the lighting and shadows and sounds creating terrific suspense apprehension, fear and foreshadowing, what struck me the most was the smile on the woman (mother?) when the church bell rang and the clock went off. It was an eerie smile…one that at first seemed a smile of relief with the bell and then turned sinister with the cuckoo ringing of clock. After reading the comment about the apron possibly being a butcher’s and the minced meat reference in the song, I wonder if there’s a connection…

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Total Creepfest. From the children singing about "The Man in Black" to the woman struggling up the stairs where she is met by another woman wearing an apron reminiscent of the morgue or an abattoir. The audience soon learns she is the mother of a child who is loved. 

 

Is the child safe? Of course not. The first we see her, she narrowly avoids being run over by a car only to talk to a shadowy stranger. "My name is Elsie Beckmann." First name, last name - just like those written on the poster regarding missing children who have met some kind of criminal fate.

 

 

 

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Definitely opens with ominous intent: the shadows in which a monster might hide, the children's song, the lonely lady waiting for a child to come home, the child herself narrowly missing being hit by the car, and finally the shadow coming full circle to claim (?) a new victim. 

 

And all in four tense minutes! 

 

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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.

 

Yes the lack of any green play area for the children was depressing.  

This is a poor community and the women were working hard just to keep the house orderly.  The mother looked very tired, but she put extra effort into the child's lunch.  A napkin ring and hot soup lunch for just the child.  There was no place setting for the mom.  The child is also well dressed and has a toy which the children in the courtyard don't have.  She's a cherished item by the mother.  The only way we can feel dread for the child is if we first see how important she is to someone else.  

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The children's singing reminded me of the scene in THE BIRDS in which Tippi Hedron sits on a bench outside the school while the birds gather on the jungle jim behind her and the children sing the rhythmic, repetitive, anxiety-inducing song. Coincidence? The master learned, too.

 

Another reference: the bouncing ball. I thought it was from THE THIRD MAN, but I may be wrong. I remember a boy standing on a landing while his ball bounces down the hallway steps. It was a discomforting scene. More rhythm and repetition.

 

Finally, the girl's mother is wearing what looks like a butcher's (or barber's- Sweeney Todd, anyone?) leather apron when she opens the door. The food cooking on the stove made me think of Hansel and Gretel.

 

Strange how all of these "codes" appeared in the first few minutes of a classic film. Shakespeare is full of trite quotations, too.

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I like that many of you are bringing up the relationship of German Expressionism and its influence on not just film noir, but the horror genre. I think that many horror films in the 1930s and 1940s contributed to the film style, and German films of the 1920s and 1930s were a big influence on horror films in general. It is hard for me to imagine the look of Universal's great horror films of the 1930s without thinking about the debt to German expressionism. Also, think about films like the work Jacques Tourneur did for Val Lewton in the early 1940s - I see a film like the film noir classic Out of the Past (one of Tourneur's masterpieces) in a continuum that includes his work on films such as Cat People (1942). Keep bringing up new clues to help us on this investigation! Lots of films and ideas we need to sift through. 

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Is the children's song familiar to anyone? I've never heard it before; perhaps it is a part of German culture. In America, we have a similar song, which begins, "Eeny Meeny Miny Moe, catch a tiger by the toe." While the song is certainly indicative of the movie's content, it also symbolizes the innocence of the children. They are merely playing, not really understanding the meaning of the song's lyrics (I hope!).

 

I enjoyed the mother's expression when the clock chimes. She knows her daughter is on her way home for lunch, and that makes her happy.

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I think Lang immediately starts off with the unease using that morbid children's song.  And the kids all seem so somber... that, and the little girl is singing and pointing at each child, as if foreshadowing some gruesome end for one or more of them.

Then there's the darkness, and the contrast of the film.  Visually it's fairly stark and the angles of the stairs and building as the woman carries her basket of laundry up the stairs. 

I love the use of the shadow as the clip ends.  Ominous and foreboding and not revealing who it is.  Plus the actor's tone of voice, very creepy, almost a wheedling tone "what a pretty ball, and what's your name?"

I am greatly looking forward to seeing the whole movie.  After I post this, I'm heading up to my DVR to clear space for Friday's movies, as I will be elsewhere on Friday (the cable provider at that location doesn't carry TCM or offer it with my package, but that's what DVR's are for!!)

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Is the children's song familiar to anyone? I've never heard it before; perhaps it is a part of German culture. In America, we have a similar song, which begins, "Eeny Meeny Miny Moe, catch a tiger by the toe." While the song is certainly indicative of the movie's content, it also symbolizes the innocence of the children. They are merely playing, not really understanding the meaning of the song's lyrics (I hope!).

 

The song made me think of "Lizzy Bordon Took an Ax and gave her mother 40 wacks and when she saw what she had done gave her father 41" or something like that a ryming song with a sinester intent. A foreshadowing of things to come with German lyrics. BHH

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"I love how the children warn us (and themselves) against the passing of time, as they sing, in a few minutes, he'll be there. "Just you wait, it won't be long. The man in black will soon be here."


But at the same time, their own game reproduces the movement of a clock, thus illustrating visually the passage of time, suggesting how the time when "he will be there" is coming right up, in a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy...


This first shot almost begins a countdown in the viewer's minds, which makes all the following come quite naturally, as it was announced, and the viewer then expects it, in a way (it's not diegetic, of course the killer does not come because the girls call him, but he appears in the movie right after his coming was announced, both verbally and visually)."


 


—This is a great observation, cinephage. The clock has begun ticking.  It seems particularly interesting that it's children, not the adults, that have started the clock. In fact, an adult scolds them.  Their innocence makes them vulnerable, yet they seem to be summoning death to them.  You can see existential themes emerging already.  


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The movie starts with the ominous lyrics over total darkness for a moment before the children are revealed in a high-angle shot, maybe suggesting that the dark ideas at play in the song are bigger and more powerful than the children.  The two parents seem kind of complacent to me, one wanting to keep the murderer out of mind and the other saying to leave the children to their own devices. 

 

Any structures on the screen tower over the people, and the way the little girl throws her ball up against the pole high enough that it leaves the frame accentuates this.  It's made clear when the girl first steps into the street that this city can't be safe for children who are alone, which raises the question of how that police officer could have thought it was a good idea to let her go off by herself (which I think is probably what Lang was going for, considering what you'd see later watching the whole film).  The use of an urban environment as something restrictive that breeds paranoia, and casting a character in mystery by obscuring their introduction is where I see influence on future films noir.

 

I find this movie deeply troubling.  The paranoia and suspense are a big part of that, but it does so much more to make you feel bad.

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