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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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Screenwriters do not need to describe these things with angles etc. 

 

They don't need to, but they can. There's no hard and fast rule for writing a script, other than it be good. Different writers write in different styles. The director can change things, of course, but a writer is free to put into the script any description that he or she thinks will help sell the vision to the reader.

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Juxtaposition always does it for me:

 

  • the children playing and having fun in a bleak, barren concrete yard
  • The innocence of the children and the content of the song they are singing
  • the comment "as long as you can hear them" followed by their silence
  • a policeman there to assist a child who almost gets hurt, but oblivious to the murderer down the block
  • the child bouncing a ball down the street in daylight, confronted by an ominous sign and an even more ominous shadow

What makes scenes like this more effective is the pace - deliberate, not rushed, as well as the spacing of components. First there is the isolation of the group of children, and eventually, the separation of one girl. It's noon, not late at night, and we are used to taking bright sunny afternoons for granted as being safe havens. But the monster is hiding in plain sight.

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The opening sequence of "M" I believe exemplifies film noir aesthetics environmentally. A sense of impending death permeates even children's games, not in an attempt to rationalize fatalism, but simply as an appropriation of an honestly dark reality. Death races by barely missing the little girl whose only fault is in a split second of carelessness when crossing the street. A policeman only as far away as the other side of the street (with assumedly reckless carelessness or unforgivable ineptitude) fails to stop a kidnapping in broad daylight. So, quite typically for a film noir opening, we are brought into a world in which death stalks the ground. 

 

I was struck by (and hope to make an interesting conversation out of) a certain sense of mysticism, I guess, in the logic of this opening which I (maybe totally incorrectly) don't really feel persists in post-war noir. The spooky little game the little girl leads serves as an incantation, bringing a dark other-worldly presence into her world. She bounces her ball against a sign that can be interpreted as an idol of the monster, her careless irreverence for this evil then summons that actual evil entity, which like demons of ancient lore is not a man, but presents itself in the guise, the basic form of a man, in this case, for us, only a shadow that appears to be human.

 

My impressions from many of the post-war noir films I've seen is that death, danger, horror are elements throttled more unbiasedly upon the characters in the film, are more work-related hazards that simply come with the territory of being alive in the western world. 

 

Y'all smell what I smell here?

 

GC

 

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The black screen at the very first of the opening, forces the viewer to focus on the unsettling lyrics of the song the child is singing. Of course right away, as many have said, the innocent children playing a game about being murdered one by one leaves you feeling creeped out, for lack of a better phrase. There is lots of foreshadowing going on up until the moment of the murderer meeting his first victim of the film. It was interesting seeing this 1931 film for the first time after seeing so many modern movies that utilize many of the same foreshadowing techniques. One in particular, is seeing the little girl nearly being run over while walking home from school. I feel like in so many suspenseful thrillers today, that technique is used to give the audience a false sense of security right before that "safe" character is in fact, lead into imminent danger. Now, wizened viewers know not to assume the character has escaped harm, but rather the opposite, that their worse fate is still to come. 

I did feel very helpless and sickened for the mother who is already worried about the children in light of this murderer on the loose, and happily anticipating her daughter's safe arrival from school. It is definitely not an easy opening scene to watch!

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I agree.  Showing the little girl in danger of getting hit by a car foreshadowed her being in even more violent danger.  As she bounces the ball mindlessly against the missing children poster, we know she is bound to be the next victim.  Seeing only the shadow of the killer approach the little girl completely immerses us in this dark story. 

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In the first few minutes of the opening scene, you get  the sense that your not alone, kinda like a heavy cloud hovering over you. The bleakness of the lack of the light in the scene (typical noir style) echoes the same sense. The lack of light and grimness of the scene is bold and is mostly reflected in the few seconds in the clip of the empty dingy staircase, where the camera waits patiently and for subject to enter the frame (behavior of stalker like characteristics). The camera is above, emphasizing on how small and helpless in stature and vulnerability of this group of children. The only sound you hear is of a little girl chanting of sorts in a sing song voice and the words are of a child killer coming after children-that is part of the children's game. The second the scene opens on this film you hear the child’s voice and you find yourself visually searching for the source of the voice in every clip until you see the children playing. The eerieness of the hollow song that carries up to the balcony level, where the children are scolded for signing by a passing mother is the only sound you hear that stops the chanting. After the scolding the chanting game soon starts up again after the mom leaves. In my mind this action symbols that even after a warning the children taunt fate and they are more or less clueless to evils of which they  sign about. This scene is dark in tone and lightning, you hear no children laughing like they would be if playing and most likely they would be flooded in light from a sunny day but on the other hand all the children together and with the moms nearby, safety is represented.

In this forum I read a post that pointed out that the formation of the children are in a circle like a clock. That reference, the cuckoo clock and bells tolling, signify to me that time is important, as if time is running out. The parents waiting in front of the school for the children are focused on the doors and they not talking in which indications signs of intensity,seriousness waiting but the doors never open and the children never reach the awaiting parents. Very clever message sent from the director! The following scene is of a little girl walking that almost gets ran over but is warned by a car honk and is saved by a policeman, (or maybe he was a crossing guard) takes her hand and leads her across the street to safety. I haven't watched more than the first for minutes of this film but there sees to be a pattern developing, there is a warning before the evil happens and I may even guess that after the warning and before the evil there is an apparent of false safety before the evil happens. Example 1: the little girl almost gets ran over by the car that honks: warning, the policeman takes her hand and leads her across the street: false safety, the shadow of a man: potential evil. Example 2: mom yells down to kids to stop singing that awful chant: warning, the other mother sets the first mother at ease by indicting that she they should be thankful that the have their children: safety, the tolling bells and the front doors to the school still closed: potential evil.

The little girl with the ball is the first cheery and warm image we see in the film up to this point. She is happily bouncing her ball against a light post on a reward poster about missing/murdered children, in the background people are walking by her and going about their own business. They only person that stops to talk her is a man wearing a hat. We are left in suspense because we don't see his face just  his shadowy silhouette reflecting on the reward children murder poster, suggesting he is linked to it. In this engagement the little girl answers the strangers question and gives her personal information and tells him her name. I think we just meet the child murderer.....

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The children singing reminds me very much of Gunter Grass' "The Tin Drum". In that novel children sing 'Where's the witch. black as pitch" and it sets a scene for the surprise or evil that's coming. I thing we can get the same sense fro  this scene in "M".

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From the get go I am entranced.  Starting with that awful song about being "chopped up" being sung by the children, so creatively placed in a circle as to suggest, like the sound of the cuckoo clock, that time is of the essence.  As if time is running out on their lives. The dark lighting, the high camera angles focusing on looking down on just how "small" they are.  The noises such as the cuckoo clock, the ringing of the bell, the honking of the horns give me a sense of impending danger.  From the start where they do not show the man's face, I am reminded of Humphrey Bogart in Dark Passage, where in the first 30 min.or so of the beginning of the film, you never see his face and my mind wanders...in many different places wondering who this man is..what is about to happen.  I then get that sense of what is about to happen when the little girl is playing with her ball on the light pole where the "Reward" sign for the missing children sets.

 

I can't wait to see this film, because just watching the first 5 minutes has my spine tingling! 

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The looming dread in the first few minutes of this film are enough to fill you with anxiety.  The children singing, the woman yelling at them to stop, tells the audience the children are naive about the circumstances occurring in their neighbourhood, but the adults are quite nervous.  The lighting is set in a way that casts eerie shadows everywhere; the cuckoo clock, the long shadows of the children... and of course the man's shadow on the poster.  I am excited to see the rest of this week's daily doses and the movie in it's entirety.

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I found in the clip that the elimination of the children at play is associated with the "elimination" by the man in black of previous children and what we re lead to believe, also the "elimination" of the chlld playng with the ball.  The other event that stuck me initially was the poverty element in the clip.  The mother, supposidly waiting for her child to return home for lunch, but does she return? I also find it interesting that still today, we deal with these same issues and that this noir style is not so different for events of our day.

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i have to admit, this is the first time i've ever seen (or any part of it), so i suppose it's best to begin with the intro scene. from what's going on here, the residents live in an urban working class area. the longshot of the balcony railing shows a house in need of repair. but it seems like there is little money for repairs, let alone things like games and books. thus, the children must come up with their own amusement, even if it does seem a bit morbid. the mother (i think that was the woman carrying up the load of laundry) goes about her routine, fixing a snack for her daughter who is due home from school, unaware of what occurs in the city streets (the sound of traffic, etc.). the bouncing of the ball against the wall echoes the sound of slow footsteps foretells the arrival of a stranger, and while the policeman assists Elsie across the street he seems oblivious to the real danger lurking nearby. even though it's the middle of the afternoon, Lang warns the viewer that danger can strike at any time of day. 

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I was strucked by the shadows in the opening shot of M. The quick fade-in to this opening shot from black may symbolize that the “man in black” metaphorically hovers over the children. Then we enter the scene where children's well-lit faces crowd the frame, but shadows interspersed among the children haunt what otherwise might have been thought of as a safe space.  Additionally, the shadows connect this onscreen space with the implied blackness of offscreen space the “man in black,” resides. When the killer finally appears the shadow seems to lurk somewhere just outside the frame.

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The one thing that got me is when the mother is preparing lunch for herself and her daughter just like she does everyday.  Only this is the day that her daughter will never come home.

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Although it's supposed to be around noon when the children are playing, their shadows are long and the lighting is very dim. While the mothers seem concerned/loving, the fact that a child should be walking home alone from school while there's a murderer about seems mystifying, a tragedy waiting to happen. Peter Lorre's shadow appearing over the German word "murderer" almost seems campy now but in 1931 was probably chilling.

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The opening scene creates the darkness and angularity so familiar to noir. Shadows, dark stairwells, the

vertical lines of the railings mirroring the linear circle of children - disconnected, yet somehow

together and vulnerable. The overall feeling is one of alienation and unease. The dark shadow of the man

in wait of a victim is quite expected at this point.

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When I saw that M was the first film of the course, I shuddered.  Even though I love film noir, I've avoided viewing Fritz Lang's noir classic simply because of the topic.  I have such a visceral reaction to children being harmed in any way, and so almost decided to forget the course entirely.

 

However, I was intrigued - already this wonderful course is challenging me in ways that I couldn't fathom - and so I'll continue onward!  

 

Apprehension and concern are the two words that spring to mind when watching M's opening scene.  The slow, deliberate pacing of the characters' movements, from the children's game, to the exhausted mother struggling upstairs with her heavy load, to the careful tracking of the little girl's last walk.  The beautiful little movements of the mother as she prepares a meal for a child we know she'll never see again.  There's the inevitable tension, slowly rising, as the little girl carelessly walks to the poster - and her fate.  I like how Lang carried the moment forward, with the repetitive bouncing of the ball - indeed, the entire scene is filled with repetitive movements.

 

I was also struck by the tonal quality of the film, which is really exquisite!  The film looks as though it were shot today and not over 80 years ago.  

 

The style of film noir demands an opening that catches our immediate attention.  A signature feature of noir is the concise approach to storytelling.  The pacing is usually fast clips of terse movement, where pacing travels a the speed of that getaway car.  Yet Lang chooses a different way to begin his film masterpiece - going against the grain -  in order to ensnare his audience.  If I didn't want to see the film before, there's certainly no way I can avoid seeing it now!  The film contributes a new way of seeing noir, encouraging us to view a repulsive topic because of the particular choice of cinematic elements.

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The first few minutes of M conveys a feeling of weariness, not quite hopelessness (the adults are working, the children are playing) but it’s the kind of tiredness that makes people sloppy in their choices. (the mother who doesn't pick up her daughter but takes the time to set a nice table.) The use of the camera movement in the opening minutes brings the audience into the story, and it also communicates the tremendous stress the murderer has brought upon the community. Simply genius.

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The use of shadows makes the opening scene feel eerie with the anticipation of something very creepy about to happen.  Very noir.

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In the early moments of Fritz Lang's 1931 film, M, a child's singing breaks the silence (i.e. black screen) and we are looking at children playing a game of elimination like 'musical chairs'.  Then, we look up and see a mother scolding her daughter to stop singing the song of a suspected murdering pedophile.  The child stops but starts again as soon as her mother walks away.  Could we be this murdering pedophile awakened by the child's singing and then watching what is happening, looking for a victim and then waiting to act? 

 

The shadows and silences (no music) and normal sounds such as cars, clocks and bouncing ball set up an atmosphere of the unknown and create tension. We see many parents waiting quietly to pick up their children from school.  We are alerted to a girl on her way home saying bye to her friends, not paying attention as she crosses the street and almost gets hit by a car.  A policeman helps her cross back onto the 'right' path.  Instead of going straight home, she bounces her ball as she strays back onto the 'wrong' path and stops to bounce her ball off of a police poster which warns of missing children and foul play.  Then, we see a shadow of a stranger in profile and is talking to her and we know she should not be talking to and fear that it is too late as she gives her name cheerfully.

 

The opening of M can be considered an important contribution to Film Noir for the contrasts of:  stillness versus use of regular sounds and noises in life; of shadows/darkness versus midday/light; alertness versus focus on one's own thoughts.

 

Josephine

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The scene starts of comically with the kids making the awful song part of their game.  After that there is an amazing string of ineffective authority figures.  The irate mother can yell at the children, but we know they'll continue to sing the song.  Mrs. Irate then retreats into the building and the camera lingers on the porch railing.  First of the obstructed foregrounds (I think there are two) that is a common Film Noir element.  Their living quarters is a prison.

 

Mrs. Irate carries her burden up the stairs.  Stairways are almost as common in Film Noir as wet sidewalks. She encounters the exhausted Mrs. Beckmann who's too exhausted to reprimand the children.  Her statement about hearing their voices sounded rote.  She's lost the fire of Mrs. Irate.

 

Her one joy is Elsa, the clock strikes and it means Elsa's coming homing.  The clock sound establishes Elsa's simultaneously leaving school.  She almost steps into traffic and one authority figure, the policeman shows up. Helpful but late.

 

She bounces her ball and passes a man reading the paper.  An adult who could help, but won't.  We see the poster another example of authority doing what little it can. The shadow crosses the poster.  We all know it's him.  The shadow lengthens and widens across the poster.  We all know where it's going.  The mothers, fathers, police can't protect the innocent from the evil.

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M is a memorable film, though horrific in its implications. I've never paid as much attention to the introduction until now, even after watching it in a film course.

 

What strikes me most is the lack of background music, or white noise as you could put it. The sound that Lang does use is startling, almost jarring in the ordinariness of the Society we're viewing. The clock, the chanting, the ball, they all jar us out of the sense of normalcy that these depictions should make us feel.

 

Aside from the sound, everything in this opening feels wrong. It's nothing tangible, but the camera lingering too long, the sound, the chiaroscuro (play of dark and light) across the scenes makes the whole thing feel eerie. And it culminates in the dark shadow dominating the unseen little girl. Lang truly knew how to unsettle his audience.

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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.

Excellent contributions here, Jandy. Your observations about the absence of music don't seem like 'projections' of our present sensibility at all--I agree with your implicit suggestion that the use of generally 'live' (sometimes called "Diegetic") sound makes everything on screen seem so much more present and realistic--it is almost as if we are observers on a train with a set but immovable path. We are traveling toward a horrible destination without anything like music to distract us. unable to do anything but watch as Elsie Beckmann is taken by the shadow. Thanks for the thought provoking comments!

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For me, the opening scene evokes feelings of foreboding and struggle and love. We see hard-working people trying to live their lives against a backdrop of unspeakable danger. I agree with the previous comments that the children's innocence inoculates them from the lyrics of the song they're singing. I like how Lang juxtaposes adults who hate the song because the reality frightens them.

I'm intrigued by the comments about the mother. I agree that there's irony in her setting a nice table, but not going to pick up her child from school when there's a murderer on the loose. Great observation!

I think the bells are warnings. The cuckoo clock is a warning for the mother - the school bell is a warning for the children.

The shadow of M over the poster is brilliant because it's so frustratingly frightening. We know he's the murderer, but we don't know who he is. And it's so sinister how he slowly bends down toward the little girl as he speaks to her.

As for the scene's contribution to film noir, I would guess that the subject of child murder pushed the boundaries of film noir beyond anti-heroes in love with bad girls.

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Within the first 5 minutes, you are subjected to the feeling of dread by the song children are singing. You are feel the angush of the mother trying to stop the children singing the grusome song but with clever camera work you see that she is above them with no visiable way down and the use of the railing you feel that she is in a prison. She can only lament to her friend that the children always sing that song. In classic Film Noir the b/w offers stark realism.

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Great posts here on Fritz Lang's "M"! Regarding the sound or better the absence of music in the opening minutes, I would suggest to you to watch and listen again very carefully those scenes. You have to bear in mind, that we are here at the turn from silent to sound movies. "M" was Fritz Lang's first sound movie. The sound movies before were mainly musicals (or "Filmoperette", as being called in Germany then), although you also have the great German anti-war film "Westfront 1918", directed by G. W. Pabst (here I talk mainly about the situation in Germany). The sound in those first sound movies was too loud, or too bad when dialogue had been recorded. Lang, however, had something different in mind. He wanted to make intelligent use of the possibilities of sound. For instance, he told journalists, when somebody is sitting in a cafe, full of people, everything is loud. But, the instance, one particular person is thinking about something intensively, this person does not realize what is going on around him and does not listen to the surrounding sound. That's where Lang cut of the sound, suddenly there is silence for a moment. Or, to enhance the dramatic effect of the school clock, he reduced all other sounds and noises. You can find a similar use of sound in Alfred Hitchcock's first sound film "Blackmail" (1929), too. Think of the scene, where the model, who previously killed the artist, who wanted to rape her, sitting at the table and the people around are talking about the murder. She is only understanding the word "murder", which is repeated several times. By this, Hitch is demonstrating her guilty conscience and fear of being discovered of having murdered the artist. You will hardly find any such movie where the sound is being used in a similar intelligent way being made afterwards. By the way, we could dicuss the films directed by Hitch also as Film Noirs, couldn't we?

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