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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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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.

 .

Yes! I saw those same similarities watching the M clip.

 

The little boy in THE THIRD MAN was so 'creepy', this little girl is so cute. Just shows how a director can make what we'd normally consider a cute child into a 'creepy' one if set in the right situation. The little boy in THE THIRD MAN seems to be accusing the innocent protagonist of murder.

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Just the sound of Lorre's voice in shadow is enough to create uneasiness....nevermind the fact,a little girl is the subject he's speaking to. Definitely creepy.

(on a side note: always wanted to see him play "Igor"

in Frankenstein,or a character in any number of Universal Horror films. Lorre is one of my fav actors,and he really did hate being typecast,but with his face and speech delivery...he was just so perfect for certain roles.)

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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…

. im going to have to watch clip again, I didn't even recognize that when it happened. Love this discussion, glad I'm taking this class! :)

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Never seen the film. Look forward to it. Do believe precursor to film noir. Dark drama, would not call it horror at all. German influence adds to feeling of darkness and dread.

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Having never fully understood the concept of "film noir" this is a great place to start!

 

Although I have never seen the film, the opening sequence indeed sets the tone of the film. Much like others have said you can feel the heaviness and darkness of the film. At first I thought the children were in a school yard, only to have the camera pan up and out to show an apartment complex. Even with the lady yelling at the children, later you see that she still has some concern for their well being, which you later discovery that concern was well warranted. The use of shadows and character activity help to convey the bigger story that will unfold that a script does not need to say.  

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Hearing the children sing, I feel set the eeriness of the dark town. The little song represents the potential outburst of violence to come, especially with a high angle shot of the children- representing that they maybe potential victims to a form of this supernatural evil figure that they are singing about and the woman is showed in low angle shot representing her authority and that she may end up being right at the end by scolding the children not to sing the "cursed song". 

 

The children seem to be isolated from the adults. For example, while they are singing, the women are up stairs doing chores and such- the children are "unguarded". Also the the little girl who was crossing the street was in potential danger as the cars were coming; she could have been run over but for once an adult, the policeman, came to her rescue and helped her cross for school. And as the little girl (same one I believe) was playing with a ball and bouncing it off of the Wanted/Reward sign pillar which was announcing that a reward will be granted if someone turns in a child murderer and that two pairs of siblings were murdered the same way believably by this particular murderer and then we see a silhouette of a man in a hat and a trench coat telling the little girl that she has a pretty ball and asks her what her name is and she answers him, and as we all know she broke the first rule of the "Stranger Danger" code of conduct. 

 

Primitively, this scene sets the atmosphere and the mood of the whole film in general for me as I have never seen it. From the feeling of the atmosphere and the mood witnessed,  I believe this movie will be geared towards stories of pedophilia, stalking and crimes against children specifically by this silhouetted man in particular. 

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Visually, the one thing that strikes me, is that Lang uses a very stark set to begin his film.  There are really no added decorations, or props that are involved.  The lighting from above and right allows for long shadows.  There are also on ambient sounds which we would expect to hear (birds, traffic, other people, etc.)  Also the camera angle seems to be a medium shot above and to the left, opposite the lighting source.  This gives the viewer an "oppressive" feel, as well as emotionally limiting the viewer to the action on screen.  It then leaves us to wonder what is happening outside of the camera's view.

 

The starkness of the scene continues as the camera follows the woman with the basket up the stairs and to the door.  There is nothing on the walls.  Things which would give the set a feeling of "home" or security.  All we see is wash hanging on a line.  Even the interior set of the apartment does not lend any comfort to the viewer. 

 

This constant feeling of foreboding or at least, hightened awareness is augmented by the artifical sounds in front of the school and the following street scene.  Lang uses the cuckoo clock as a segue to the chime of the town's clock, which brings us back to the exterior shot of the school and street.  Again, there are no ambient sounds, but rather Lang emphisizes the "warning" sound of the car horn as the little girl steps of the curb.

 

Finally, the use of shadows returns as the girl bounces the ball against the poster announcing the murder of multiple children from the town.  By not showing the man himself, but rather the shadow of the man as he speaks to the little girl, our sense of fear is hightened.  The viewer has the feeling that by not seeing this character, but only his shadow upon the news of the murders, that this man is sinister.

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Creepy came to mind from the question prompt. Starting with the silent soundtrack and the children's counting rhyme about the man in black (Death) coming to kill you. Then everything builds from there.

 

And to the other prompt, the shadow as first and only encounter with the main antagonist is a precursor to a whole vocabulary of shadows yet to come in film noir.

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What really struck me visually about this clip is the lack of an natural imagery. Everything is concrete, harsh, unforgiving, and drab. There's nothing "soft" about the images displayed; more or less just cold harsh reality.

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The opening shot is, of course, not a shot at all, but a black screen with a child's voice chanting a macabre "choosing" song about a serial murderer of children.  This disconcerting opening continues as the children are presented in a ring surrounded by shadows in an indistinct but definitely malevolence-scented location. The juxtaposition of the innocent young girl surrounded by shadows and singing about a still at-large fiend is an unsettling introduction to the film.  

 

The mother who interrupts the child's play with her shouts is also in seen in a dark shadow-filled rough-hewn balcony, dressed in non-descript clothing drudging through the laundry chores.

The first interior shot is of an empty, unremarkable staircase.  As the shot continues, the mother on the balcony appears lugging up a basket of laundry to a door on the next floor.  The interior of the apartment is the most fully dressed set.  This, along with the obvious pleasure the mother takes anticipating her daughter's arrival for lunch, helps indicate the normalcy of this safe haven.

 

Otherwise, the viewer is kept unsettled by the inability to identify the spare, almost bare, landscape of the film.  Nothing, save the mother's kitchen, looks real. The outdoor settings seem to have had no attempt to make them seem anything but sparse stage sets.  After the suspense of the near accident of the girl saved by the policeman, the monotony of the muddily-lit street scene dolly shot of the child walking from school to the kiosk is broken only by menacingly deep black open doorways.  The girl reaching the kiosk gives us a moment of relief.  Nothing has happened to her. Yet.

 

The films clip seesaws back and forth between menace and safety. Aided by the dark, portentous shadows of German Expressionism, the penetrating, surprising sound track; the cuckoo clock, the squealing brakes, the child's song, and the oily voice of the murderer himself, presents danger, constant and unexpected, lurking nearby.  Safety is signified by the upstairs mother, the saving police officer, and the ball bouncing repetitively off the kiosk.

 

All the viewer needs to know about the tone and content of the film is seen in this brief, unnerving clip.  The shadow on the kiosk of Lorre leaning over talking to the girl clues the audience that the first child lately singing her paean to murder will soon likely have another victim to sing about.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I' haven't seen the film yet. I hope to catch it on time Friday morning. The opening sequence does cut to the chase of what the film is about. The plot is obvious the minute the group of school children are shown playing and singing an inappropriate song that is already "ripped from the headlines" in their own neighborhood. The mother of the little girl berates her for signing the song as the mother goes along her business with her daily housework while waiting for the child to come home from school. The cuckoo clock is shown to indicate the time that the children are dismissed from school, as usual. Then, the child is playing with her ball, hitting it on what is to be a reward poster for the man in black. Finally, a mysterious figure pops up in a shadow, and the rest its to be expected. This is a straightforward opening sequence.

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I found this the perfect clip to begin with. The clips opens with the children singing and playing, but the song they sing is sinister and tells the story of a murder, foreshadowing what will come. At first we are unsure of whether the murder is true, or a nursery rhyme. When one of the mothers discusses her telling the children not sing that song, the other mother replies that at least they know they are still there. It is at this point that the audience is finds out that there has been a murder recently, and by her reply, we can assume it was of a child or children. The next few shots show children getting off school and a young girl walking home, we can assume this it he daughter of the second mother as she was preparing dinner when the school bell rang and the scene changed to the school. The little girl walks home playing with a ball. The camera shifts from a long shot of the school and the children leaving, so a medium shot of the girl playing with the ball, at the girl's level. As she throws the ball in the air, the camera slowly pans up reveal a poster that would be eye level with an adult. The poster advertises an award for the capture of a murderer who has kidnapped 4 children. The last shot we see is the dark shadow of a man's silhouette appear and tell the little girl that he likes the ball she is playing with. Lang's framing here is exceptional as we read the poster and the shadow approaches from the right of the screen, covering half the poster. We are led to believe that 1) the little girl is in danger and 2) the shadow belongs to the killer, before he speaks to the girl about the ball she is playing with. 

The shadowy corners, long shots, and pans help us to identify this film as an early noir. This is coupled with the stark setting of the working class tenements where the children play and the mother cleans and the streets the children walk on. This demonstrates both the noir feel and clues us into the socioeconomic condition of the neighborhood these murders take place in.  

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We get the impression something is wrong, or at least off, from watching the children playing a game while singing a song about a man in black who is going to find you and "make mincemeat out of you", in spite of the housekeeper's insistence they refrain from singing that song. The picture becomes more developed when the housekeeper complains of their singing, saying "...as if we haven't heard enough of that murderer already..." to which the laundry woman replies, "As long as we can hear 'em singing, at least we know they're still there." We now know that there is a murderer loose in this town, but there is still one more piece to the puzzle. In the next scene, Elsie stops in front of a wanted poster on the street for an unknown assailant allegedly killing children around the neighborhood. And now we have all the information we need. This murderer specifically targets children. The clip brilliantly ends with the shadow of an unseen man appearing against the poster and speaking to the child, implying that this is the killer.

 

It's easy to see where this film, and this opening, have influenced films noir. Not only is the mise-en-scene, with the long shadows, very similar to many Noir films, but it sets the whole film up by giving the audience the information they need to understand the situation the villagers are in. Even if many Noir films don't give us all of that information that quickly, they do set us up in for what is about to happen by having something happen that sets everything in motion, and making us curious as to what really just happened. In "Double Indemnity", we see Neff driving up to his office in a lot of pain, implying he just got away from something really bad, and begins a confession into a Dictaphone. Now the audience is all eyes (and ears). In "Touch of Evil", the famous long tracking shot sets up the film by showing the bomb being put into the car, and the car drives off past the Vargases, the main characters, who then witness and react to the explosion.

 

The sound design of the film, with the echoing voices of the childrens' song as well as the cuckoo clock and the hustle and bustle of people on the street, make us feel much more grounded in the scene, while also making the whole thing feel much more surreal and even dreamlike. All of the details feel very magnified, and, with what we already know about this town, we know that what is about to follow will be extremely unnerving at the very least.

 

 

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The images we see are mundane in themselves, children playing, women doing laundry, city streets.  As a collective though, the scene's pacing, accompanying sound, lighting and script, start for us the story in our own minds, before we even know what the plot of this movie is.  All we do know with certainty, is that no good can come.

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The words I'd use to describe the scene are stark, bleak, and tired but uneasy and tense.  

Visually the apartment building is devoid of decoration with the exception of the cuckoo clock, which reminds the mother of her daughter's return.  The only dialogue is in reference to the murders - via the children's song, the two mothers reference and then the killer himself.  

The pace is slow, the people are either still or walk slowly, indicative that the tension of the murders has sapped them of life and happiness, and instilled dread.  The woman snapping at the children about their song emphasizes the edge everyone is on, but her struggle to take the laundry up the stairs shows how it has drained her.  The horn of the car at the school warns us that the children (and Elsie in particular) are under threat of harm,  The only one active is Elsie, which makes her stand out as innocent as well as vulnerable to the attentions of the killer.

This bleak and ominous atmosphere is very noir-ish; it injects anticipation of dread events.  Elsie's absence is stressed by the dining table with a single empty chair, positioned away from the table to indicate a void.  More subtly, shadows are forming a cross over her place at the table.  Additionally,  our first sighting of the killer as a shadow over the poster describing his prior crimes, serves as exposition as well as emphasizes his dark side and the doom he brings, and foreshadows Elsie's fate.

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The opening scene from Fritz Lang's M (1931) conveys the mood of mysteriousness. As a viewer we do not know why the children sing the chant they do or why it bothers the older woman when they sing it. As the scene progresses and the small talk between the two women takes place the only insight the audience has is that the children are in danger. One of the older women comments that it doesn't bother her that the children are singing that chant just as long as she can hear them. It builds up into the mystery of what crime has taken place that has put the children in the neighborhood in danger. Towards the end of the opening scene the camera follows a little girl bouncing her ball down the street until she stops at a flyer on the wall where she bounces the ball against. At this moment the mystery of the crime is unveiled and entails children that have gone missing recently and offering a reward to anyone with information. A shadow of a man in a hat appears on the flyer almost hinting that this could possibly be the one committing these heinous crimes. His face is never shown which only adds on more to the already unknown. it keeps the audience on the edge not knowing what the face of "evil" looks like. This is especially important to the film noir style because the audience isn't suppose to know what exactly is going on until the end of the film when they'll be able to tie it all together. 

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I thought it was interesting how Lang altered the vantage points of the scenes as they changed from one to an other. Looking down from above to the scene of the children singing their deadly song, shifting to the strong diagonal of the bottom of the overhanging porch, then to the corner view of the in-house staircase, the cropped views of the 2 women, and the close-up of the German clock all create a shifting sense of place, causing the viewer to develop a set of expectations about what might happen, and when.

 

Again as we see the featured child, she seems to stand a slightly disorienting plane -- a subtle diagonal -- that allows the  viewer to become subconsciously off balance. The ball bouncing against the  message on the sign post introduces a close-up shot that spot lights the ominous message. I thought the choice of type style was interesting as it derived from a Black letter style suggesting some heightened evil by the appearance of the letters in the words. For the era, the type could have just as easily been a san serif, but seeing the message in an older more historical style amps up the tension of the communication.

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All the specifically "noir" conventions seem to have been noted on this thread and elsewhere.  Of course, these were not classic conventions at the time this film was shot.  With Lang and others, German Expressionism was transitioning into what became known as Film Noir as it was transported out of Germany into other parts of the world. "M" lays no claim to being conventionally realistic; it's settings, grayscale, sound score, cinematography, acting style, etc. are carefully chosen and controlled, thus keeping  the audience's responses circumscribed like tightly-packed cattle driven down a chute to darkness and death.

 

There is, in my view, at least in the first 5 minutes, one sequence that is not stripped to bare-bones essentials. The woman in the upstairs apartment has made a (to me) touching effort to bring light and beauty into that bleak place.  The contents of the china cupboard, the harmony of the placement of objects; above all, the only music we have heard  so far being sung by the bird in the cuckoo clock.  At that sound her whole body softens.  Look at the way she turns to look up at the clock, lyrical, fluid, everything softens, and we know she is thinking of her child, anticipating the girl's arrival. The preparing and testing of the meal, setting the table, everything suffused in soft light and love, setting us up for a tragic loss we will share in.    

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The opening scene from Fritz Lang's M (1931) conveys the mood of mysteriousness. As a viewer we do not know why the children sing the chant they do or why it bothers the older woman when they sing it. As the scene progresses and the small talk between the two women takes place the only insight the audience has is that the children are in danger. One of the older women comments that it doesn't bother her that the children are singing that chant just as long as she can hear them. It builds up into the mystery of what crime has taken place that has put the children in the neighborhood in danger. Towards the end of the opening scene the camera follows a little girl bouncing her ball down the street until she stops at a flyer on the wall where she bounces the ball against. At this moment the mystery of the crime is unveiled and entails children that have gone missing recently and offering a reward to anyone with information. A shadow of a man in a hat appears on the flyer almost hinting that this could possibly be the one committing these heinous crimes. His face is never shown which only adds on more to the already unknown. it keeps the audience on the edge not knowing what the face of "evil" looks like. This is especially important to the film noir style because the audience isn't suppose to know what exactly is going on until the end of the film when they'll be able to tie it all together. 

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What strikes me the most is the various POV's throughout the opening scene. It feels as though we are watching from the eyes of the protagonist throughout most of the opening. He is watching the children playing, then watching the woman on the balcony. It seems as though he has followed her inside to the stairs, where he continues to watch as the woman rings the doorbell and speaks to the mother, outside watching school let out for lunch, etc. I felt this throughout, until he makes himself a part of the action by speaking with the young girl.  Even then he is a shadow.

It gave me a sense that he is "always watching", invisible to those around him, making everyone a potential victim.

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I loved the juxtaposition presented in the opening scene.  The routine and banality of everyday life, mixed with children singing about murder and a child innocently bouncing a ball off of a wanted poster concerning the murder of children.  There are hints of darkness in the opening, but many scenes take place in the sunlight.  A dark doorway here, an ominous shadow there; Lang doesn't show the audience much, but it's "less is more," or in other words, by giving us a small morsel of darkness, it's more appetizing than as if he gave us a meal.

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