Jump to content

 
Search In
  • More options...
Find results that contain...
Find results in...
Guest Richard Edwards

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

Recommended Posts

The children seem to be playing in a cement cell, observed by the adults from above. The opening scene is sinister, which is what the mood I think the director was trying to portray to the viewer. He established, in the first few seconds, the unease of an entire city.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I got an ominous feeling from the first few seconds of the opening due to the lighting and there being no other sound but the little girl's voice. When you hear what she is singing and then see the environment which these little kids are in it's very depressing. 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I always find tension when there is a discrepancy between what I am seeing and what I am feeling. This opening does that very well. Innocent fun such as children playing are juxtaposed with the morbid lyrics they sing and the stark, cold surroundings they play in. Right away, something isn't right. Before we even get to the gorgeous visuals of the man in shadow, there is a sense of unmistakable dread that builds up beautifully.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Abandoned. The perspective above the children, yet below the matronly character makes us feel uncomfortably stuck in a hemisphere not connected to either. Even more so, it is clear they are not connected to each other. When the camera pauses at her by the clothesline, and she leaves out the door, we are waiting, uncomfortably for her return.... when it doesn't happen, our concern increases to worry. Her absence, left us hanging, like the clothes. The children: abandoned. As we are left to look at nothing but those clothes, our attention is drawn to the fact that they are hanging ominously upside down. We imagine the possibility of a person in those clothes as they are, hanging there.  Abandoned, left to die.

The sounds are bothersome. Alarms, bells, and then the sudden horn honking. Noise pollution, however the second matronly character smiles at the sound of the alarm and church bells. We are confused by her relief.

Lastly, the shadow on the introduction of the "dark" character is in the film noir style. Mysterious by nature (no face or full identity yet) and we also know there is a past. We know there was a crime. We are worried for the innocence before him. 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

The bird's eye view and the expressionist lighting of the opening scene, when the children are playing in a circle, singing a creepy song about a sort of a Bogeyman, gives us an uneasy feeling of dormant danger, that immediately sets the mood of the film. Looking at the kids from above shows them smaller than they are and more fragile and gives the idea that they are quite unprotected. No wonder why this scene has become an archetypal cinematic moment of horror movies. Right after, Lang designed a perfectly made sequence that keeps rising the tension. The playground scene is followed by the worried portraits of a couple of working class housewives, who talk about the perpetrated crimes on minors by a killer on the loose. The last shot of one the mothers, mixed with expectations and fears, is combined with the facade of a public school. Then we see a cute blonde little girl playing around while going home. She bounces a ball against a pole where there's a sign warning and offering a reward of the murderer. The girl is already out of the frame. At this very moment, Lang comes up with a brilliant solve of the puzzle: should he have shown the real appearance of his character, M? No. He rather draws a powerful shadow that darkens the sign and outlines the main features of the murderer. The decision gets along brilliantly with the tones of expressionism. Shadows and oblique angles. Then M drops a line that makes us understand what's coming up. Then, by using this device, Lang obliges us to imagine what will be the doomed end of this little girl. These few scenes are just an outstanding set of cinematic and plot decisions that created an entire genre. 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I was struck with how many "tropes" I saw in the beginning scenes (and throughout the movie as well); for example, the children singing a mildly disturbing song in a foreboding way; the shadowy outline of the murderer over his own wanted poster; the tension of the mother slowly realizing something is horribly wrong; the deeply creepy whistling from the killer. These tropes are the building blocks of many modern horror and suspense movies, too many to name. It made me wonder--is this the first instances of these tropes? Where they informed by earlier appearances in German films? 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

the tension builds up i love how they do that makes u feel uneasy before anything has happened love the end

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

In the opening five minutes of M what we see is a mother who is laboring to care for her family ironically does not have time to look after her daughter. We see the women in the building sweating over laundry, carrying heavy baskets up narrow stairs, the washer woman even comments about the weight of the basket. We see the mother managing what is clearly the laundry of others while preparing a meal and managing her home. In contrast the children at the school are being picked up by well dressed men and women who have the time in the middle of the day to personally collect their children. Unsupervised the young girl steps out into the street and is nearly hit by a car. The police man has to look out for her in the absence of a parent. When this little sheep is well and truly separated from the flock we see the shadow of the wolf coming for his prey. There is an element here that equated poverty with real danger.

  • Like 3

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Apparently my first post did not make to the forum; so here's a re-post:

 

TCM Classic Movies – film noir

 

Discussion of the opening scene from M (1931) dir:  Fritz Lang; cast:  Peter Lorre, Ellen Widmann, Inge Landgut -

   I enjoy the suspense of film noir including newer movies in color performed and filmed in the noir style (The Horseman [2008]) comes to mind.  By comparison, this noir opening is more suspenseful and intends suspense by way of a shadow  asking for a name.

  Sometimes it's hard to understand what, or why, some action is happening like the kids playing a game of elimination.  They did not have toys and had to make do with things like tag and elimination.  In 2015, it's been 84 years since kids ever knew of the game, so it may be an aspect not as well understood these days as it was easy in the 1930s, especially for kids not in the money.

   This game can be any rhyme; the kids, apparently innocent of deliberation, have selected one of murder.  Danger is an inference.

   Only the information wanted poster directly reveals danger, while the shadow introduces imminent danger.  Every activity and dialogue leads to the imminence, but only the shadow falling on the poster confirms danger.  Uneasiness and concern are fulfilled when the shadow asks for a name.  Fate falls complete when the girl gives her name.

   My favorite scene in this opening is the pan from just above the game of elimination to just below the door into which the character who complains about the game, enters.  It sets mystery.

  As for other elements, the clocks chiming signal a change.  The reason why people wait at the school front steps is answered by the poster wanting information about the murders of children.  The parents are being protectors, except one mother, working hard to make money, and who apparently relies upon her daughter to come home for lunch by herself.  After all, she was even helped across the street by a policeman.  What could possibly go wrong at high noon?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Ominous.  For sure.  You just have this powerful feeling that something is going to happen - but when??

 

From the get-go, the absence of music and the "darkness" captured me.  It made me feel like it was always night and people walked around with flashlights.

The shot of the children with the "Bird's/God's eye view" like someone is watching over them (the spirits of the other children? the killer?) The children themselves don't look like they're having much fun.  They sing about a killer. They know what's happened. 

Then those very jarring sounds popping out of the silence.. the clock, bell, horns...  Even the bouncing ball - a child's toy - being bounced ever so loudly leading you to the shadow.. 

 

I love the way the camera moves, ex. the way it zooms right in to a medium shot on the mother as soon as she opens the door.

Also the mother herself, the way she seems.. I remember getting the feeling that something terrible was going to happen to her.  That she was going to be the one heartbroken..  The way she lovingly looks at the clock and tastes the soup.  You just knew that whoever she was expecting, wasn't going to make it.

 

Then we get to Elsie herself.  Leaving school she misses getting hit by a car, so we think "oh, she will be safe...."  
Watching the first few minutes of this makes me want to watch the whole thing again!  A reminder why Lang is one of my favourite directors!!

  • Like 1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

The opening scene of the children in the courtyard may be a bit more ominous to modern audiences than to the audiences of the time. Many urban families, particularly of the lower and low-middle socio-economic classes in the U.S., lived in buildings we called flats or tenements, much like the one in this German setting. Usually not much light came through, stairways were on the outside of buildings (as in the scene), people, particularly the women, yelled at each other's children. Until the woman carrying the laundry upstairs speaks of the murderer, this is just an ordinary day. 

 

She is the one who shakes us up letting us know not to get too comfortable with the ordinary.

 

If the movie had been made in Hollywood, say ten years later, the children might be singing a different rhyme and they'd likely be bathed in bright, harsh California light just to establish ordinariness before something (a warning of a murderer, say) happens to jar us into unease,

 

As for the laundress in her flat, she is overworked. Nothing to relieve her drudgery and we are still down in the gloom started by her neighbor's words as the laundress scrubs some item on the washboard. Her work will never be done. But, once again, our mood shifts as the sound of the clock brings a slight smile to her face. Something good is in her life. Once again, we (the viewers) have to readjust what we think we are seeing.

 

It happens again, later in the opening when the girl is about to cross the street into the path of a speeding car (in a school zone!) but is pulled back by a police officer. Then she goes on her way, bouncing a ball ...

 

These opening pulls back and forth making us ask what are we about to see, is it this or is it that, whether this is a creation by Lang or he solidified it with "M," it is his contribution. It is the instilling of a loss of equilibrium on the part of the viewer that signifies one is in for a good film noir.

  • Like 1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Without repeating the great ideas many others have already posted in this thread, one thing that I notice in particular is the function of the admonishing woman in settling any doubts the viewer has about the children's rhyme, much in the same way the shadow talking to the playing girl confirms our doubts about the child playing ball against the poster.

For example, we hear the children playing and think "Whoa, that's dark but maybe they're just doing what kids do" but the woman's comments pull us back and remind us that our first thought was correct. This acts to reinforce and strengthen the feeling of darkness and doom.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

In the opening sequence of M, I couldn't help but notice the use of a characteristic noir motif of cage-like bars in several places.  It could have been Lang's intention perhaps or just coincidence but these lines seem to suggest a foreshadowing of prison or jail bars, or just the concept of being trapped and at the mercy of someone on the outside.  First they can be seen in the railing across the veranda. Then the motif is repeated with a prominent view of the balustrade as the woman carrying the basket of clothes reaches the top of the stairs and again, in the straight vertical lines of backs of chairs in the mother's kitchen.  Wasn't this used in later noir films such as window mullions or venetian blinds casting shadows across a character's face? The clothesline spanning the veranda with its empty clothes pins even evokes barbed wire such as used in prison camps...or concentration camps.  

  • Like 1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

The opening shot is a God Shot, from God's POV, which is appropriate since the film is dealing with life and death.  The crime or the sin committed by the murderer is taking God's place in determining who lives and who dies.  If God is watching these children, why doesn't he protect and save them?

 

The nursery rhyme shows the innocence of the children who do not understand the meaning of the words they're saying and that danger is all around them.  Or does it show that children like to put themselves in danger and are attracted to it?

 

Camera moves to show a mother above them.  A parent acts like a God to their children.  We follow the mother in her chores to contrast the innocence of the kids with the dreary, mundane world of adult responsibilites.  Innocence is what attracts the murderer.  He isn't interested in the miserable, jaded adults.

 

The sound of the clock matches the school bell and is used as a transition between inside the apartment and outside the school.

 

The little girl is almost hit by a moving car.  Danger is all around us.

 

By bouncing the ball against the wanted poster shows the innocence, the naivete, of the girl.  It also brings our attention, our eye, to the poster which is an important plot point - a murderer is afoot.

 

The dark shadow of Peter Lorre reflects his black, evil nature.  It is chilling and ominous.  The image of the shadow is as sharp as the knife he uses to kill the children.  He likes her pretty ball.  He is attracted to the innocence of youth just as a shark is attracted to blood in the water.

 

"M" is important to film noir in its use of image and sound to convey the dark themes of the story, the darkness that lurks in the human soul.

  • Like 3

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Juxtaposition of innocence and menace, the camera hangs over the children playing as the shadow thrown against the poster does at the end of the sequence. The connotation of play and games shifting from a rhyme whose words are sung without apparent understanding to a simple ball - all absorbing and an opportunity for words that hold more menace but seem less dangerous.

  • Like 3

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

The scene of the mother setting the table on cue with the cuckoo clock is eerie, you just know her child is not coming home, you can kind of feel the loss circulating in the air of the kitchen instead of a home cooked meal...

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I loved the impact of the shadowy figure hovering above the young girl. It certainly drew me in and I can't wait to see the film on Friday.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Lang builds a chain of information through dialogue, sound and visuals to come to a shocking climax.

 

Lang gives the audience clues (visually and through dialogue) before the last shot which spells everything out... that allow us to infer that something terrible involves children. The first shot in itself is emphasis enough. 

 

What's particularly great about the opening is how within every shot, a piece of information is revealed that builds upon itself without revealing what is going on until the end

 

So you have the shot of children + the song = audience wonders why such a dreaded song is sung by children then Lang moves the camera away to connect to the woman whose words reveal more information for us - by way of inference (that this has been an issue before)

 

The next scene reveals more through dialogue as well as visuals...

 

Sound of the clock and immediate cut to the parents waiting outside of a public school not only reveals more information but now takes us to a different location...

 

Essentially, Lang starts from a point in geography and incrementally moves us elsewhere through the use of camera and sound, all the while revealing little clues through dialogue as he does so.

 

It is a masterful use of cinema in general, not just film noir. 

 

Lastly, the final "reveal shot" of the shadow has become a staple of film noir lighting. Hard light, and shadows.

  • Like 1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

The looming dread that the opening of M is able to provoke is due to the set up so aptly done by Lang. It is a child's song that is filled with dark words. We hear warnings from multiple sources that call out that something is about to happen, church bells, clocks, car horns, etc... It's the lightness of the child's face and the dark shadow of a man who leans in, almost too close. While the common daily activities of the of the unknowing parent smiles that their child will be home soon, or will she?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

What makes this scene so horrific and suspenseful? Many things have already been suggested at this forum.

I think dread is also conceived by the crosscutting between the mother at home and the girl leaving school. The knowledge that a child murderer is roaming the streets, fills the apparently innocent image of the working mother with fear. The same goes even more for the image of the girl leaving school unattended. Apparently, the mother has to work so hard that she cannot pick up the girl herself; and where is the father?

These two images, connected together while being situated in the context of a child murderer on te loose, add up to something very creepy. We know that if the girl is going to be spoken to or attacked by the killer, the mother, being at home and at work, cannot do anything to save her. So that makes the girl even more vulnerable when we see her walking the streets alone. It is as if fate is set in motion, without anybody - neither the mother or the viewer - being able to stop it.

Lang leaves some subtle suspense-accents in the images of the girl walking home: first, a policeman helping her to cross the street. A stranger, a man, but obviously someone who will not hurt her - a very powerful counterpoint to the killer. Lang increases the tension a bit by showing another man, reading a newspaper while standing at a lantern post; could he be the killer?, one briefly wonders. And then, finally, the girl meets the killer.

Immediately after the killer has talked to girl, Lang returns to the mother in her apartment (not included in the TCM-clip), a cut which prevents us from knowing what happens to the girl at the same time; so, while watching the mother setting the table, we fear for the girl's fate and know there is nothing anybody can do about it. Sheer horror, I would say.

  • Like 1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

 It's necessary for some things, like if you're looking at a character from a certain vantage point, and the camera is supposed to move a certain way and reveal some new visual information. It's probably not a good idea to have your script entirely set in stone direction-wise, but it's often crucial to describe how you see the scene in your head.

Screenwriters do not need to describe these things with angles etc. They use their descriptions to get what they seein their mind to the paper.  If you saw a low angle shot of a bully standing over his victim (the hero), you would describe the hero's POV as: " (The bully )  towers above him".  This is one reason writing a screneplay is so difficult and time consuming.  The scripts I have seen that do have these camera moves in them, are shooting scripts. These are scripts available from Amazon and others after the film has been released. If I am writing a screenplay to sell, I do not put camera movements in them. I might however, sometimes put them in if I am going to direct the film myself.

  • Like 1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I noticed a few things that set my nerves a tingling. The song, sung with such flat affect. The mother's shrill shouting. The comment about how "as long as you hear them singing, you know they are there", followed by silence from the children - and then the shrieking announcement of 12 from the strong cuckoo clock - bells and such much like the warning ones in A Christmas Carol before the arrival of the ghosts.

Car is silent, just the bouncing ball, and finally the sinister voice of the murderer. I was waiting for the silence as the ball was not returned...

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Good points. When looked at this way, one can also notice the starkness captured in many of these same shots. It adds that sense of emptiness and aloneness which adds to the overall dread.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now

© 2020 Turner Classic Movies Inc. A Time Warner Company. All Rights Reserved Terms of Use | Privacy Policy
×
×
  • Create New...