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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 think Lang is starting the film with an unsettling mood. Children singing a dark song, parents sharing a general concern for the children, a distressing flier, and a mysterious shadow of a man who fits the flier's description talking to a child; all these things add to the discomfort.

 

I think this film is influential to film noir with its use of shadows/lighting and the general emphasis of uncertainty/mystery as the plot of the film begins to unfold in the intro. The film begins with a dreadful mood without the audience entirely understand the reason. Once we realize the reason for the concern (children being kidnapped), we are introduced to a character speaking to a child. We assume this is the killer although there is no real confirmation except for the coincidence of his shadow on the flier. Although we assume this man is the killer, we do not even get to see his face, a basic aspect of anyone's identity. And all this all happens in the intro alone!

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I first thought of how group games/think affects us as young as those children shown - the two either awaiting their turn at the game or shocked at the lyrics.  The char woman climbing the stairs for all her toiling to hand off the load of items and the shock of one unlucky soul who apparently did not pay heed to the lyrics or poster - willing shared her name and the the shot of Peter Lorries larger than life silhouette - murder death kill ensues.

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The  framing, camera angles, and setting all seem to externalize the powerlessness/vulnerability of the characters inhabiting this bleak cityscape. The opening shot looks down upon the children, indicating their vulnerability. Once the camera moves away from these children, it looks up at the mother, which would appear to place her in a position of power. However, the restrictive mise en scene deprives her of such power, as she appears to be almost crushed by the railing and ceiling. The balcony becomes as restrictive as a prison cell. The interior shots in general frame the adults in such a way, stripping them of their power and home of its comforts. Consequently, we are able to visualize these characters' sense of dread. In the same way, the diegetic soundtrack immerses viewers within the restrictive environment. If the soundtrack were extradiegetic, we would be alerted to the controlling presence of the filmmakers.

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Watching the 4 minutes of the movie opening the main mood that was conveyed in my opinion was that of tension. The idea that there is the child kidnapper and possibly murderer on the loose is frightening for anyone with children.

 

There is the contrast from the kids who don't seem to be frightened even though they are the ones at risk, whereas the first lady seems fraught because of the unknown possibilities that may happen. 

 

With the long segments of the clip containing silence with lots happening visually that also ratchets up the tension in my mind. The clock and school bells bring to our awareness the fact of time and its importance to us as humans. The time though is what everyone is waiting on. How much time until this man in black strikes again or if he'll be caught.

 

I don't have much experience with film noir but I feel that this is an important opening because it shows the ways that mood can be set with using script, visual or background noises. This film pulls you in immediately and sets up the tone of the movie.

 

It uses visuals as well in the set-up of the entire plot of the movie with very limited dialogue which can be considered important in the realm of film noir because it does so eloquently and vibrantly. Only a few sentences from the two women but still you have a sense of the direction of the movie.

 

Mark

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Old enough to remember the First World War, a toiling mother finds the morbid lyrics of the children's song disturbing. But to the little ones, oblivious to the horrors of mankind, life is but a dream. The innocence of youth is contrapuntally offset by the darkest parts of the adult human psyche. Grave warnings, pasted onto kiosks, are overlooked by little Elsie Beckmann, who innocently plays ball, until the silhouette of a man shadows the offer of a reward. This mysterious figure addresses tiny Elsie in tones more fitting for a child.

Thus we see the opening scenes from Fritz Lang's 1931 thriller from Germany, simply titled 'M'. This film is arguably one of Lang's best, making skillful use of the new audio technology, and this movie can be considered part of the apex of Lang's career, along with 'Metropolis. 

After fleeing a Europe overrun by Nazi Germany, Lang found safety in the USA, but unfortunately he never adapted to the way that films were shot in Hollywood, where the director's creative dreams were often dashed by an over-powerful producer. (Hitchcock noticed this himself when he came to the USA, and solved the problem by creating his own production company.)

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While the lighting with the introduction of The Man In Black as a shadow on his own reward poster is stellar, Peter Lorre's distinct voice amps up the creepiness. 

 

The children singing does a great job of establishing how they are both aware and unaware of what is going on. But that point is really driven home by the girl bouncing the ball off the very same poster unaware of the horror that is coming.

 

The sequence is chilling but it also hooks the viewer in quickly. 

 

I've seen the movie three times now and honestly I had never noticed the group of kids in the very beginning were lined up as stations on a clock until it was pointed out. That's a great catch!

 

 

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Shadows.

The children's innocence and joy allow them to treat death as a game but the old wash-women are either repulsed by it or resigned to it. Because the (presumed) predator is introduced as a shadow, Elsie's (and everyone else's) shadow seem to represent their mortality and darker nature (and not poor lighting techniques of early film).

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Creepiness. That's the strong emotion that director Fritz Lang is able to elicit from the very instant that the children's voices fade up from black - this is clearly a cinematic world where things aren't safe. And this primal fear of the familiar is something that would eventually cast it's long shadow over Lang's noir output for the next three decades in both Germany and America. 

 

Through his heady mix of expressionist cinematography, stern camera moves, and unflinching morality, watching this scene almost makes you feel as if the German auteur is grabbing hold of your head and forcing you to watch this ticking time bomb of tragedy. It's really a horrific set-up to a film that doesn't get much brighter, and the sheer weight that each little whistle or interaction is delivered with is enough to carry full on films of their own. I especially love the cuckoo clock in this sequence, as it comes at such a deafening moment of silence that it's more than enough to grab a jump from the audience. The whole thing is wound so tightly by the end that it's almost as if Lang had let go of our heads at some point and we are now the ones caught up in the frantic pace all on our own.

 

Having just recently seen M on the big screen with an eager crowd, the power of this opening scene still speaks volumes with very little sound. Even now, 84 years later, Lang has the viewers right where he wants them. Now that's a true sign of powerful cinema.

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The opening scene is contradictory, where the viewer initially sees an innocent game between children, is something much more brutal and deathly. The cameras high angle looks down on the children, not only creates a view of helplessness, but one of a deathly and ominous presence. When the mother disappears from the verandah, the viewer is aware that someone continues to watch the children. Whilst inside the house,there is a feeling of restriction and entrapment. The narrow staircase, verandah and the mother figures are evidence to protect the children, the viewer realises this is not the case.

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What, M is not considered film noir? For me, film noir has as essential elements the shadows (even in noir shot in the California desert, they still manage to use shadows in the narrative), and creepy/voyeuristic camera work that gives away measured clues. So what do we first see of Peter Lorre? Why, his shadow... across his own warning poster!

 

Of course, Fritz Lang went on to become a successful noir director in Hollywood. I had the pleasure of watching a Fritz Lang retrospective series 15 years ago in Portland, OR. Still some of the best films I've seen... and they played as double features, even better!

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It's interesting, and somewhat of a statement on how advanced filmmaking/storytelling was in 1930, that there's no protagonist in this film.

 

It could be said that Lorre's character is such, but, truly, he's the antagonist. Brave move on Lang's part.

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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.

Agree noir seems to be in it's truest element in either commercial/industrial or desolate landscapes.

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What struck me was the foreshadowing; the children's game with its random selection vs. the seemingly random selection of the murderer's next victim.  It could be anyone and there is no safety in numbers.  The mother's fear and pain also foreshadow the murder.  Hundreds will continue to live in fear, wondering who's next.

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The opening scene of this film really sucks you in, making you want to know more. Who is the murderer and who will be next? You get a feeling of dread as you watch the little girl bounce her ball down the street knowing that she could possibly be next.

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The opening scene of this film really sucks you in, making you want to know more. Who is the murderer and who will be next? You get a feeling of dread as you watch the little girl bounce her ball down the street knowing that she could possibly be next.

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The way the camera follows the characters really draws the viewers into the scene. We're intrigued and feel a sense of unease at the same tome. The contrast between the innocence of the children and the sinister words of the rhyme in captivates the audience. We hope the children aren't drawing danger upon themselves.

 

I also like the way that the safety of the little girl, Elsie, while with the police officer is shattered moments later while innocently playing with her ball.

 

The use of shadow is very effective when we see the outline of the man appear over the poster appealing for help for his previous victims.

 

All in all this opening scene really encourages the viewer to want to see more.

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The rhythmic sound of the bouncing ball creates an echo, almost like a heartbeat. It really makes time stand still and makes the viewer feel nervous for what is about to happen to the innocent young Elsie.

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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 got the impression that the kids are really not worried or feel there safety can be taken at any moment at all.

Yes, I thought the same thing. The children playing the "death" game, ignoring the woman's fears. The careless way Elsie stepped into the street, and then bouncing the ball off of the poster as if she's almost mocking it. Interesting observation!

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The whole scene builds up to that shadow. I'm always surprised at just how much we know after four minutes. We have this sense of unease (the morbid song sung by the kids, the obvious tension of the laundry women) that finally pays of with the printed announcment of the hunt for the killer. The minute that shadow appears, we know exactly who it is. There's no question in the mind of the audience that we've been introduced to the person responsible for the disappearances on the poster and that he's found his next victim.

I love how effecient it is. In four minutes, we know the story, have been introduced to the killer, and have a very good sense of the horror to come. There's nothing extraneous here, and despite getting a good amount of exposition, nothing feels like exposition.

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Lang tells us from the opening scenes that there will be no happy ending here.  Presumably happy children are signing a song about the Black Man who will mincemeat out of you and one by one, players are eliminated. Such foreshadowing.  In such a short period of time, the director shows us the hardworking mother of a child, who ekes out a living washing clothes for other people.  The clock strikes twelve, a faint smile comes to her lips, and she stops her task to make sure the soup is just right for her little one.  She wipes her child's dish but not her own, typical of a mother who cares more for her child than herself.  The little girl leaves school and steps into the street - again a foreshadowing of what will happen. And, yet, like in the song, the Black Man cometh in a looming shadow over the little girl Elsie; his fedora probably shading his face.  The year was 1931 and I cannot help but wonder if Lang was also foreshadowing what was to happen in Germany, with the black shirts and Nazi party gaining power. Indeed, the Black Man cometh in 1932, eliminating people one by one.  Both Lang and Peter Lorre fled the Nazis.  Interesting.

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I agree with the statements about the children, the innocence they have in the face of true horror, and not having a clue about it. This reminds me of us as kids, singing 'ring o roses' as children and not having the faintest clue it was about the Black Death. This and the Structure of the scene, with high cameras and shadowy angles makes the watcher fearful of their safety. Unlike the washerwomen/mothers who are stuck in their drudgery and routine and only annoyed at the children's song. When Lang moves onto the school, we know that we are about to witness a clue, and that only builds the tension. So, fear, dread, apprehension and then we hear that voice.

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I really like M, though it is hard to watch at times. This opening clip really gets this film going. The children singing about the murderer, the hard working mother hears the clock sound and its time for her daughter to come home from school. Shots go from the mother preparing for her daughter's arrival to the sweet little girl walking home playing. When she stops to play ball by the sign offering a reward of the murderer. Just a mans shadow is shown as he talks to her. This builds so much suspense and anxiety in the audience.

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In this opening clip, the shot that, for me, sums up the darkness (the "noir!") and emptiness of this world of "M" is the shot of the corner of the dark and empty stairwell at 1:10 minutes into the clip. You know it's going to be a stark and unforgiving world we're entering into when the camera focuses on this scene.

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