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Guest Richard Edwards

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

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At first we see the children about to play, with the song being a gruesome one, but one which points to how one of them will be "it" once the selection is completed just as one will be a victim when the game is over. One grown-up only hears the gruesome lyric and complains while another tells her that it's at least good to hear them, just as it's good to hear the warning of a vehicle horn when used properly. These are the sounds of a busy city, but dangers can lurk behind every corner, every tree, every pole.

The scene is a perfect example of a frequent Lang theme - the inevitability of fate - one of those children will be chosen by the fiend. While a policeman is seen helping the child cross the busy street, they can't be everywhere and fate will get you if that's its whim. You can't escape it, not even as you stand there reading a post warning you of its very presence.

 

 

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All of the sounds (cuckoo clock, bells, car horns, even the bouncing ball) blended in to create a sense of building doom, stopping when Peter Lorre appears, For Whom the Bell Tolls...

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Shadows & exaggerated camera angles, and the foreshadowing of things to come.

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This one may or may not mean anything, but I was struck by all the verticals in the shots- hanging things like laundry, dish towels, kitchen utensils, clock chimes, draperies, staircase and landing railings. For me it evokes a helpless, somber feel- Even if you had no text to accompany it, you would anticipate a dark event to disturb it all.

Absolutely. I can't believe you picked this up as well. I don't know if it means anything but it certainly caught my attention.

I've never come across some visual elements that evoked a sense of doom and  a dark ominous tone and heaviness to the atmosphere .From the beginning shot of the children at that  angle,their shadows on the ground, up to the metal  railings on the deck, the clothespins, the stairwell posts and spindles.All leading into the apartment and her collection of kitchen tools on the rear wall certainly are setting the mood for what's to follow !

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Chills... Is what I felt watching the clip and an immediate need to call my daughter. Lang's camera angles puts you right in the scene. the stark surroundings, the woman struggling up the stairs, the mother scrubbing cloths then setting the table with such care makes you feel sorry for them already. The scenes jump and I think Lang keeps you on the edge with the distraction that are kind of irritating- the kids chanting, the bouncing ball even the clock. I read on Wikapedia "Lang considered M to be his favorite of his own films because of the social criticism in the film. In 1937, he told a reporter that he made the film "to warn mothers about neglecting children" more chills...

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Lang uses some interesting lingering shots to build tension; one example is right at the start of the clip, when the housefrau scolds the children for playing their game about the child murderer.  She berates the children because of the danger they are in from the killer, but then turns away from them, leaving them unsupervised in the courtyard.  The camera remains for an unsettling length of time on the empty balcony she has left, letting the loss of a guardian (literally an overseer) sink in.

 

The viewer is left as unsupervised as the children throughout the film, often gazing at a wall (as in the moment the killer's shadow on the poster is all we can see as he speaks to Elsie) or a prop (as later, we watch the toy balloon escape), creating a real sense of tension.  We wait for someone who can take a protective hand to let us see what is happening, to understand what exactly is going on, to give us back some control of the situation.  Like the children in the film, we are powerless.

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Yes, very good use of shadow, especially with the clever use of shadow over the wanted poster.

 

I was curious if the song that the children sing is an actual rhyme sung by German children in the past. I found several possible links to potentially related German songs and games in "Der Fuchs Geht" and "Wer hat Angst vorm Schwarzen Mann?" Not necessarily completely relevant, but children's songs have always had an omnious streak, such as "Ring Around the Rosie" (which I just read may not have anything to do with an outbreak of the plague) or "It's Raining, It's Pouring" (which could relate to a head-injury).

 

I agree with others that have mentioned the juxapostion of innocence and danger, it seems very interesting that children are singing such a song and may, in fact, be much more aware of the omnious setting within the film than the adults acknowledge.

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The surrounding  dreariness that  is displayed. Both women struggling in their lives.The  innocence  of the  children - they  are playing no matter that the  game is about a murderer.The children are not seeing the  dark-side of life.

 The women are tired,and have been defeated by their circumstances in life. But the  mother raises her head when the clock chimes and  you  know she is  anticipating something.  
The next scene is that of a child and you  know  something is  going to  happen.   I thought the  car would hit  her and I jumped but the director let us have a little hope for  a minute longer and them we see the shadow and we know that something bad will happen. Despair, joy and  evil are all presented in this  short  clip.                      
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From having seen so many films where children's voices are the first things the audience hears, my mind immediately thinks that something bad will happen. Especially with Lang's opening the children's voices are heard over a black screen before their source is seen. 

 

So much foreshadowing and flashback is played out in these few moments. Foreshadowing comes in the form of the children singing a dark song, Mrs. Beckman and another laundress discussing  that hearing the children sing lets them know the children are alive, the wanted poster for a murderer who has not been caught.  Mrs. Beckman and the laundress also discussing the recent murders and even the wanted poster can act as a flashback letting the audience know why this man is so evil and wanted by the law. All the warning signs of what is about to unfold are there in these few minutes of the opening scene. 

 

Lang's camera work, his quick panning around the courtyard and into Mrs. Beckman's apartment and then quick editing and panning to the streets in the city, create fantastic tension. The camera work and editing beautifully grab the viewers attention they leave the viewers wanting to know what will happen next. The sounds of the car horns, the church bells, and the children's voices are sounds of fear, panic, dread, trouble, time running out, moments of a life left to live, and innocence. These sounds give way to more tension then actual dialogue or even the actions of the characters. The power of suggestion and the unknowing and the sounds come together to create wonderful suspension and tension. They also work wonderfully to pull in the viewer. 

 

Possibly the most disturbing and chilling of all sounds and scenes is when the murderer is writing a letter to a newspaper describing how he is not done with his killing all the while whistling a cheerful song. You know right away that something is not right with this person who can be gruesome and whistle a cheerful song at the same time. 

 

The opening scene sets the tone for noirs to come with its dark contrasts of light and dark to set an ominous, menacing tone, The audience is shown a world where innocence (to an extent) was still known and that innocence is disturbed by one person and lives are brought together and people become known through this disturbance. 

 

 

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The blank screen with the children reciting the song about the murderer sets the tone for the movie. The innocence of the children contrasts with the morbid subject of the rhyme. Even after the woman scolds them about singing it, they ignore and continue. The sound of heavy footsteps on the stairs only to have the woman come into frame is something Hitchcock would use time and again. The church bells almost sound like a funeral dirge and the crowd of parents waiting to meet the children at the school hints that's something's not quite right. The lighting definitely plays a part. It's supposed to be high noon but everything is rather dark, as if a pall has been cast over the neighborhood. As Elsie walks down the street, there are shadows and ominous hints, the dark doorway, the man leaning against the post reading a newspaper (is he?) looks a little suspicious and her bouncing the ball against the reward poster all have a foreboding feel. The appearance of the shadow of the man in black and his seemingly non-threatening question also add to the tension. 

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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. 

For me, the realization that Elsie's fate is sealed came when she passed the man leaning against the lamp post.  He's only in the shot for seconds.  He doesn't appear to be paying attention to what is going on around him and yet one gets the idea he's taking it all in.  To me, the fact that he almost seems unnoticed stands out.  Writers and directors don't put these details in for no reason.

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This opening scene is poignant. The piercing sound of the cuckoo clock in the home of the washer woman, breaking her drudgery and bleak existence with anticipation that her daughter will soon be home from school. Immediately this is followed by the jarring shrill of the school bell and a shot of parents together but standing so very alone waiting for their children outside of the school. We don't see parents and children together, they're of two different worlds. 

 

Mom is wearing a very heavy apron preparing a meal for her daughter. The apron is a metaphor will not protect her from the pain she will soon be facing. Her daughter almost gets hit by a car, a foreshadowing of the child's death. As she bounces her ball down the street, she passes an open door leading to darkness. She is oblivious and not threatened. Reaching the "Who Is The Murderer" poster a man begins to talk to her but we only see his ominous shadow. We know what is going to happen.  :o

 

 

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Film noire thrives on mood and Lang has established it from the very start, not just by revealing the nature of the crime we are to fear, but, in the tradition of German Expressionism, by symbolism as well.

 

The opening scene is disturbing and also fatalistic.  For most of us nothing is worse than contemplating children as the targets of violent crime.  Just as we're already uncomfortable about what we know we're about to see, the inimitable Peter Lorre "casts his shadow."  What other actor could have the same effect?  After hearing his sinister character speak in this first scene, could anyone have not embraced sound as a huge addition to the art of cinema?

 

 

 

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Ringing of bells, clocks, etc leads from one scene to another. Each bell gets louder, more harsh, and tension builds.

 

Reading many of the comments about the children, I've replayed the scene in my head. What strikes me is the children are not just seen from above, but the place they're playing is cold and drab. Lang isolates them against featureless ground, making them seem more disconnected from the events and people around them.

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The beginning of M clearly sets the stage for what is to come.  I was struck not only by the song that the children were singing, but the fact that (at least for the first few moments of the film) while they were singing it they are entirely alone.  In fact for much of this opening adults are at a removed distant if not entirely absent.  The only adults around are either high above their children, as is the case with the two mothers, or come about only after the children have narrowly avoided danger as in the case of the policeman.  As someone else pointed out above, most of the adults in the opening seem to be not even paying attention to the children around them.  Lang does a terrific job of creating a feeling that the children are at risk simply by removing a few elements.  Adults are too far away to help and we can feel how exposed the children are.

 

Lang uses silence in this opening too, the effect of which is that when there are sounds (clocks, bells, car horns, etc) they are even more jarring and menacing.  Interestingly many of the sound effects used in the opening are sounds that are used to get someone's attention or alert them.  The clock chimes to alert us to the time, bells toll to alert us to events, car horns honk to alert us to danger or approaching danger.  Perhaps this was Lang's way of continuing to put us on edge by using sounds that our subconscious would recognize as signals to pay attention

 

I was struck too by the use of light and shadow.  Even though the scene takes place during a sunny day there is a sense of menace.  The shadows are long and pointed and even the cuckoo clocks looks devilish.  And this is what I think makes this opening even more frightening...it is a lovely sunny day and yet something is wrong, children are being stalked by a man in black.  This isn't come murderer stalking back alleys at the dead of night, this is a man who can walk about in the daylight and talk kindly to little girls on the corner with no one any the wiser.

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Menacing, stark, bare floors and images, the angles as Lang pans up is of many people, living dreary lives of hard work and unforgiving montony. The clock striking is both joyous but harsh, it is a moment of the child returning and a break from the job - so a sense of lightness in the stark life, but it also sounds of warning for things yet to come. The bells and horns can be both sounds of movement and life progressing or sudden trouble and tragedy coming - the child is saved by the horn and the police, yet as the child moves on and we see the wanted poster we are reminded of the song at the beginning AND THEN the shadow of the man - who is pleasant to the child and engages her, but then asks her name and at that moment we suspect we know the next victim.

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The opening scene is stark and cold. The children are in an environment that affords them no pleasure or entertainment. The somber woman commands them to stop from behind a railing that looks like a fence topped by a clothesline that looks like barbed wire. Life in general is too much for her. No love. Alone. Too hard. The shadows accent the figures adding gloom. The towering shadow of the murderer commands the composition while every trace of the child, visually and audibly, is absent. The desperate message is clear.

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Two Important Words for my own viewing:
Ignorance and Vulnerability


There was a strong establishment of a few key themes within the first four minutes of the film.
-the innocence (ignorance?) and vulnerability of children
-the potential futility of keeping children safe in a perpetually advancing world
-the evil people lurking amidst the good
-burden of being a stable provider or parent


The film begins with a children's song that centres on the theme of murder. The line, "He'll make mincemeat out of you!" suggests that the children find the concept of being taken 'out' by the Man in Black lighthearted and playful even as they cannot fully appreciate the gravity of their words.

The woman who is seen above yelling at the children provides a strong contrast to the children's innocent yet macabre singing. The woman above yells with a harsh and angry-sounding tone, establishing a sense that the adult world is one that is consistently aware of (and vigilant against) danger that the children don't yet understand in their own experience. The children clearly don't understand what they are saying in terms of the adult conception of the horror of murder--the children are ignorant to the danger that lurks in their midst; this helps the film immediately establish a sense of vulnerability. Further subtle examples of "vulnerability" include the laundering woman's bare hands on the harsh metallic surface of the washboard, the shot of the child stepping into traffic without looking as a car narrowly avoids hitting her, and the clock's hands on the time 'noon' which literally slices the clock into a portion, reinforcing superficially at least, that someone's day is about to be cut in two at the hands of a murderer.

When the second woman says that as long as the children are singing, at least we know they're still alive, the futility of trying to keep children protected at all times comes to the forefront as a theme. The yelling laundry-carrier refrains to the children that she is always telling them to stop their repeated song, however as soon as the woman leaves the balcony, the children begin singing again.
Whether she knows it or not, the futility of trying to keep the children from singing (or even in a sense completely invulnerable from victimization) is futile because she is unable to stop the children from singing. Her failure to cease the singing also represents a failure to stop herself from being reminded that the children are vulnerable no matter what she tries to do. 

As the camera enters the apartment stairwell, the first woman labours to carry the heavy load of the laundry up the stairs without assistance. She is muttering to herself about the weight of the laundry as she climbs. The woman's inability to stop the children from singing about approaching death, paired with the woman's obstacle ridden solo climb upstairs, suggests that the balance between keeping children safe from the outside world as well as from themselves is difficult when the responsibilities of work and providing for children also take precedent. As the woman does chores, climbs, and complains about the 'weight' of her heavy burden, the spectator is left with the sense that the woman is doing her best and yet that may not be good enough to ensure the safety of the children. 

As the clip ends and the child innocently bounces a ball against the notice of recent victims, names, and police futility, the killer's dark shadow rises prominently onto the German word "Murderer" to highlight the work in darkness. As we now know the names of the recent victims, our hearing Elsie Beckmann's name spoken aloud followed by a fade to darkness tells us that Elsie is likely to be lost now too...
 

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The errie opening begins with the perspective of the children, who have typically turned a threatening reality into a gruesome singsong in the vein of "Ring around the rosie."  One child is singled out in the song, just as, shortly after, the camera follows a single child.  The song has already alerted the audience that fate has chosen this child for a nasty end.

 

The camera angle in the last scene is also from from the perspective of the child, looking up at the sign, which becomes still more ominous when we are suddenly looking up at the sillouhette of a man.

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The shock of children singing a horrible song like that, while defying an adult, is an attention-getter by any measurement.

 

The ticking clock, the continued singing -- those elements and more heighten the tension.  And then the school girl bouncing the ball off the poster about a murderer is confronted by a shadowy figure in silhouette -- presumably the child killer himself.

 

After that opening, it is impossible not to keep watching. 

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The shadows, panning, and use of sound make M a good example of film noir. The mood is heavy and tired. What should be afternoon appears to be night, deep shadows cover much of the screen. Like other noir films, there are still small gestures that lighten up the heaviness if for mere seconds. The mother smiling to herself as she tenderly sets the table. Enjoying what for some could be considered a chore. The silhouette of the mysterious man over the Wanted poster puts the audience in state of dread. The subject matter makes M a very difficult film to watch, but the director's mastery of his craft leaves you in awe.

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Tension and anxiety are the two words that come to mind.  In addition to the sound and shadows, Lang’s camera placement, camera movement, and editing contributes to the tension and anxiety.  The camera in the opening scene is almost like someone lurking in the shadows observing the children and the two women.  The scene between the two women at the top of the staircase appears as if someone is watching their conversation, especially where the camera dollies in to a closer shot during the conversation.  Likewise, the camera is “following” the little girl bouncing the ball in the street.  Is it the murderer that following her?  The camera work combined with sound, shadows, and dialogue all add to the tension and anxiety of the scene.

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It strikes me that the parents waiting at the school are all well-dressed and prosperous-looking while the working-class mothers (with no men at home?) are too weary and busy to pick up their children, leaving them vulnerable to M.  The neighborhood is so claustrophobic and barren and while there's the illusion of safety (police, nurturing mother, waiting parents), the murderer can approach children without fear of detection or intervention.   This reveals that the safeguards are a facade and exposes how inadequate the traditional social systems and institutions are for protecting the most vulnerable.   (This foreshadows the true "heroes" of the film, the underworld denizens who know the world that M lives in, a dark world that is intruding into the daylight, in true noir fashion.) 

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The opening scene conveys a sense of foreboding, starting slowly with the children playing, the women washing, the clock striking, bells ringing. All of these things contribute to the feeling of dread. As the clock strikes, the woman has a look of anticipation on her face as she awaits the arrival of her child. As the child exits the school building she avoids being struck by the car only to encounter the shadowy figure of a man who has nothing but harm in mind. The cinematography is perfect in this opening scene providing the appropriate atmosphere for the rest of the film.

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