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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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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?

 

 

This one statement on the boards stuck with me as I read through the conversation. When watching TCM with my friends or family, from time to time we play the "modern cast' game that Hollywood seems to be bent on particularly in the recent decade. And one actor came to mind that would give me similiar trepidation - Brad Dourif in the Lorre role.

 

Beyond that thought, the first word that came to me was 'spare' - nothing that was not needed. Knowing this was holds importance as an early sound film, I think the opening benefits from benig free to handle sound texture without being subject to an audience expectations. Typical sound design even 5-6 years later would have a very different effect.

 

With that last shot on the clip, we know (we think) what is going to happen. It's the feeling of powerlessness which is striking. I found myself thinking about the Loeb-Leopold case in 1924 while watching this and wondering if Lang tackled that (given Hitchcock did) and I think I will go do some research tomorrow to find out.

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What word or combination of words best conveys the mood that Fritz Lang is trying to create in this opening scene?

 

Fritz Lang’s opening scene quickly puts his audience in an uneasy mood with the song that the children are singing (it reminds me of the “Freddy Kreuger Song”) followed by a sense of parental anxiety, then a paranoia for the man in black, and lastly an overwhelming sense of terror when the ominous shadow of the man in black appears over the missing children poster. It makes you want to yell, “Don’t talk to Him! Run!” to child standing in front of the poster.

 

In what ways can the opening of M be considered as an important contribution to the film noir style?

 

To me, the opening of M is an important contribution to the film noir style because it sets up the visual look and tone for many more noir films that would follow it. It uses the same German Expressionism that would influence silent horror films and film noir, it has a visually stunning use of dramatically shadowed lighting, and it follows a psychologically expressive approach to visual compositions.

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The shot of the mother calling down to the children from the balcony suggests that the mother is imprisoned in her life. She is helpless to help her child. She is seen calling down from behind what appears to be bars and barb wire.

 

Lang establishes a sense of foreboding or impending doom through the song, the child nearly wandering into the street, and finally the murderer's shadow. The viewer is left with the expectation that the child will be killed.

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The main word I'd chose to describe this opening scene is anxious. From the moment the uptight woman pleads for the children to "stop singing that awful song!" to the young girl jolting in fear to the loud car horn, this opening seems to be a series of intense and fearful moments. Contrasted with the final moments of silence and subtle sounds of the girl's ball hitting the post, the shadowy figure's presence is that much louder. 

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I am amazed at how immediate and insistent the sense of menace is.  Some of it is obviously attributable to the gruesome counting rhyme delivered over the opening black screen, the initial lurking view of the children, the anxious testiness of the laundress. But there is also that dreary, gray luminance that must be day—but doesn’t really look it.  And then all those shadows at the back of everything and out which the murderer himself seems to have been conjured.

            Our clip ends with a close-up of a large white poster asking, “Who is the murderer?” And Lang provides the answer in a glimpse of his silhouette in black replacing the over-sized interrogative. He presents him as cast shadow. An outline of absent aspect. Invisible until projected upon a plane of substance. He was always there—in the background, in the shadows—on our minds.

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The most memorable and expressive shot from the opening of M for me is unfortunately not included in the clip posted on Youtube. It comes a minute or two later, with Frau Beckmann waiting for Elsie to come home. There's a lingering cutaway to a cuckoo clock hanging on the wall of the apartment. The clock is off-center in the frame, but an intense light to the left causes the clock to cast a deep shadow that is perfectly centered in the frame. The significance of the passing time on the psychology of Frau Beckmann as she waits for Elsie (knowing full well by this point that something is wrong) is conveyed by the heavy shadow of the clock. It tells you all you need to know about Frau Beckmann's state of mind, and the increasing certainty that her daughter is dead.

 

Noir is a deeply psychological film style, as is German Expressionism, and the clock shot is emblematic of the way that internal psychology is expressed through set mise-en-scene in these genres and styles.

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The opening begins with a pitch black screen, we can only hear a young girl saying, "it won't be long" This foreshadows a bleak situation. As the screen reveals a group of children playing a game, the young girl continues with a rather grim song. Even though the young girl is reprimanded by a woman, she continues as soon as the woman goes out of sight. This displays children being children and that the children do not see the full gravity of the situation of the murderer at large. The way that the apartment complex is built creates a feeling of hollowness. The lack of non-diegetic sounds allows us to hone in on the words of the young girl, the sounds of the woman's heavy footsteps, the cuckoo clock, and church bell. As soon as the other woman hears the cuckoo clock, she is delighted because most likely her child is coming home from school. The sound of a young girl bouncing a ball allows us to hear and see a carefree child playing and not really paying attention to her surroundings. As a shadowy figure engages in a conversation with her, the conversation starts innocently enough, but the shadowy figure conveys a bleak outcome for the young girl. 

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Regarding the puzzling fact that the little girl is walking home alone in this climate of unease.

 

I noticed that the people (who we only saw from behind) waiting on the sidewalk outside the school were all very well dressed in furs, crisp formal clothing and expensive hats - which indicated that only affluent people have the luxury of watching their children closely - while poor drudges like the washer-woman / mother have to forgo such parental "luxuries" and trust that the community at large and law enforcement (evidenced by the policeman) will be a sufficient shield to protect the child from the dark forces in the city. 

 

To me that scene in front of the school including the glimpse a little later the well-dressed idle man who has all the time in the world to lean on a lamp post and read his newspaper indicates even more separation. Separation between poor working stiffs and affluent people who have more time to call their own - to read newspapers, collect their children from school and stay engaged with events in the city. 

 

As has been discussed there is physical separation between the children and the adults in the apartment building evidenced by them being on different levels with physical barriers in between such as railings, stairs, clotheslines and hanging laundry (the work-related items that physically take their parents into a separate dimension by absorbing all their attention).

 

To further emphasize the separation inside the apartment community the only patch of sunlight that we saw was shining directly into Momma's washtub - clearly emphasizing the primary object of her focus - the work and chores, which must be completed at the expense of everything else. 

 

In the courtyard of the apartment building there was no evidence of natural elements, no sunlight, no vegetation, no breeze even - the washing hangs limp on the line it does not sway and even when we glimpse exterior windows from inside - the only view is the wall of an adjacent building - no sky, sun or tree, just more of the same. These people, the underclass, exist in a muted, twilight world, tentatively connected to the hubbub of the city at large that we will see next in the street scene.

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I also think the use of children is important. The children reflect innocence and noir oftentimes represents the loss of innocence and is an expression of the loss of innocence in the real world due to war, depression, persecution, etc. They are singing the song without really understanding the reality of its meaning. As seen from the wanted poster, at least two of the children have lost their innocence and obviously there will be more.  

 

There's also a great juxtaposition between the mother doing the wash and preparing the meal cut with the children leaving school. The mother seems to be putting great care in getting everything ready for her daughter while at the same time, she's oblivious to the danger that her daughter is in. First, she almost gets hit by a car and then she encounters the man in black.

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Lang uses the innocence of a child's game to portray a evil undertone of missing children and siblings. You know that something doesn't fit right away with the opening song and mood. The use of shadows and sounds of the city help create film noir.

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You definitely start to get a feel of what the movie will be like from the first 4 minutes. Dark. Dreary. Ominous. As soon as the first words appear on the screen, you get a sense that things are going to get bad pretty quickly. "Just you wait, it won't be long."

 

Also, it seems to me that Lang is attempting to say that these kids are being cared for, but perhaps not enough to keep them safe? They are singing the "you're gonna get murdered next" game and get yelled at for it. But just in passing and from above their level. This also wasn't the first time they were told to stop. One mother is concerned about the song, but is told that as long as they can hear them singing then it's ok. Concerned mother agrees. Not really the proper steps one should take if there is a child killer on the loose.

 

We kind of see this again when the girl attempts to cross the street. When she tries it on her own, she almost gets run over. She only safely makes it across the street with the help of an adult. When she goes down the street bouncing the ball, she is the only one walking in that direction. Everyone else, all adults from the looks of it, pay her no mind and continue walking in the opposite direction. Even the creepy guy in the hat on the light post has his back towards her almost signifying that she is on her own. 

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One thing I noticed was that there was no background music that played during the first minutes of the film. Usually music is heard to set a scene/emotion of love, comedy, or suspense but this was missing in this film. Instead Lang uses real noises that everyone would hear during their normal everyday life: children singing outside, car horns, a cuckoo clock. When explaining the nature of the crime, Lang shows the audience a poster that says that children are missing and have been murdered and has the child bounce a ball, a simple everyday act, on the poster in which I feel shows the innocence of the child not knowing or caring that a murderer is on the loose. Then Lang introduces his murderer with just a silhouette shadow of the murderer on the word murderer in the poster. 

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The sight and sounds from the children and their game sets the tone right away.  A child pointing one by one at every other child, while reciting a disturbing (and yet, to them, innocent) tale.  The girl walking home from school alone while posters of child abductions hang on the telephone poles heightens the awareness that evil is lurking.

I was also struck by the care the mother gave to setting the table and the joy she expressed knowing her daughter was on her way home for lunch.  

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the use of children for me was surprising since when I think of film noir I think grown ups like typical noir male character and the femme fatales( unless thinking about the neo-noir throw back 2006 movie Brick). seeing the children made the whole thing seem more terrifying. I cant wait to see the movie on Friday. 

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The first scene is my introduction to this film as I have not yet seen it, but I have heard about its plot.

 

Some initial thoughts:

  • Right away I feel like a voyeur glimpsing into these characters' lives which adds to the creepiness factor. We are overlooking the children playing a game. We watch the woman climb the stairs all the while keeping a distance. It's as though the director is placing us in the shoes of the "man in black".
  • The fact that a child's sweet voice singing a violent rhyme highlights their innocence. They are oblivious to the dangers around them. In fact they have no sense of danger. It isn't unlike how children today sing "Ring Around the Rosies" which is about the plague, but they are unaware of the rhyme's gloominess.
  • The lack of a soundtrack (which is how most films begin). Here, we only here natural sounds of the neighborhood.
  • No title cards, cast overview. The viewer goes straight into the action.
  • The viewing audience can immediately sense the tension on the first woman as she yells at the children to stop singing.
  • I get the sense that the second woman is mother to Elsie Beckmann, and she is expecting Elsie home for lunch.

 

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I think what is vital to establishing the mood of the film is the lack of extraneous sound.  There is no ominous music.  There are no background sounds from traffic or people.  There is one sound we hear, a voice or a bell.  That one sound moves to the next with no overlay.  The lack of sound combined with the use of shadow and camera viewpoint establish from the beginning the darkness and dread to follow.

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Instantly I got the impression from the kids that something wrong is going on in the neighborhood. It was almost as if the kids where embracing it, in their own way.I also felt the concerns of the woman in the balcony, as her fears lingered in the air.High alert methods were in high demand for safety reasons.As we go on to other scenes of the film for example, the woman is climbing up the stairs, the cinematographer is giving me awareness of all the shadowing in every room is to be acknowledged,as we go along it's obvious that not every woman is so concerned on the matter itself, but more aware of her every day duties, but concerns rise as the cuckoo clock rages through the air.I got the impression that the kids are really not worried or feel there safety can be taken at any moment at all.

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The opening moments of M establish a sense of foreboding in a number of ways. We know immediately from the children's song (and the woman's reaction to it) that there is a child murderer on the loose. The use of shadows and vertical and horizontal lines (the bannister, wash lines, staircase), signify tension. We know that the washer woman is waiting for her child to come home. Her lethargic drudgery is broken only by the sound of the cuckoo clock, heralding the return of her daughter from school. That sound elicits a smile of such joy; her expression is exquisite. Clearly, her child is the light of her life. She tastes the soup to ensure it's seasoned just the way Elsie likes it. She sets the table with loving care and wipes Elsie's bowl. When we see the child on the street bouncing her ball against the poster about the child murders--and then see the shadow of a stranger appear on the poster--we can safely assume Elsie will not be coming home. It is all masterfully done.

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During the Renaissance, they used the term dis-ease as an explanation of disease. the first 5 minutes of M is dis-ease. From the children signing the horrible song as if nothing can happen to them, even though they are the victims, to the 1st mother yelling at the children to stop. The song and singing it is sick. the second mother just wants to hear the song to ensure the children are safe. But children are not taken in large groups of singing children. The man in black must find chidren alone. Parents go school to pick of their children, because they are afraid of the dis-ease. the second mother stays at home because of work, but she tries to make the best of a poor position. She does not feel the dis-ease as she awaits the arrival of her daughter. The child will not return to sing any reassurances.

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Forgive me for coming to this late in the day, so if this has been discussed, I apologize!

 

I find the lack of music in the opening of the film ominous, but I wonder if we're supposed to, or if that's something we're projecting to the film from our modern vantage point. Fully-scored sound movies wouldn't become common until 1933's King Kong, and many movies from that era lack non-diagetic music. In fact, M's use of ambient sound like cars passing in the street is kind of groundbreaking, but it's interesting that even there, Lang doesn't use ambient sound that necessarily sounds believable to modern ears. He uses car horns, but not engine/street noise.

 

He's also got a surprisingly mobile camera for 1931. Lots of floating, zooming, tracking, all of which is very effective.

 

The ominous quality to me comes a lot from the absences, and the way the sound he does use fills those absences. The opening phrases over a black screen. The mother leaving the balcony empty, followed by the child's voice continuing the song into her absence. and of course, the shadow of the killer, but not the killer himself, showing up on the poster. His shadow's confidence belies the much more timid and nervous man he'll turn out to be once we see more of him than his shadow. It's as if the killer's shadow is more powerful than the man in the light, an interesting thought as we begin to look at a genre known for its shadows.

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The word that I would use to describe this opening scene is "suspense" because while we know that something bad is going to happen we don't yet know why or how. Others have mentioned the long shot of the empty balcony but I wanted to add to this conversation. I think it is interesting that this shot is accompanied with the child counting. The empty balcony gives a feeling of alienation and loneliness and the child's counting seems to be a countdown. It makes me think that the balcony is foreshadowing the feelings of the Elsie's mother and the child's chant is counting down to her alienation and loneliness.

 

I also thought the juxtaposition of the attitudes of the mother and daughter was interesting because the mother seems excited to have her daughter home. She takes extra care on her daughter's dishes and her smiles shows that she enjoys and values her daughter. The daughter, however, seems to be taking her sweet time getting home. She is more concerned with playing with her ball then she is about getting home, seeing her mother and eating lunch. This juxtaposition could just be that of the perspective of an adult and a child but it also seems to be juxtaposition of their understanding of life. The mother seems to realize that her daughter is not always going to be there but Elsie hasn't figured that out yet, so doesn't cherish their time together as much as her mother. 

 

Finally, I thought it was interesting that Elsie passes an open but darkened door right before she reaches the notice about the child murder. That door seems to foreshadowing the danger she is in. 

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The only thing I have to add is how quickly the audience is "let in on" what's going on: (1) the children's song, (2) the conversation between the two women, and (3) the notice--all are very direct. It feels rather clipped--muched like the dialogue one finds in hard-boiled detective stories OR the just-the-facts approach of newspaper articles.

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Love the interplay and juxtaposition of silence and overwhelming, ominous sound of the bell, cuckoo clock and car horns! They truly signal a foreboding and inevitability of what happens next. I especially enjoy the establishing shot of the kids playing. The high angle camera shot provides a type of God's eye, omnipresent but non-interventionist view. And the final looming shadow of the murderer is masterfully done! 

 

Three words to describe it can only be: Ominous, Eerie and Arresting

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The opening does a wonderful job establishing the setting.  Lang shows us the victims and their tormentor, and then openly asks who the man is. The idea that the murderer could be anybody is given to us as well. The nursery rhyme tells the audience that the children are aware of what is happening, to the consternation of the woman.  

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I've never seen the film before, but it does strike me that at this point the villian is literally a shadow falling over the city and its inhabitants.

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