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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 feel that the simplicity of the scene is what instills the fear. People trying to live their normal daily life while a killer is loose in the neighborhood. The 'shadow' of the bad man in black plays on our fear of the unknown. This type of film-making laid the groundwork for many thrillers to come.

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Dread.  Right from the start with the children singing this childlike song about a murderer, you know something is not right.  The parents not too worried about the safety of their children with a murderer on the loose. The little girl by herself, not being picked up at school like some of the other children, going home where she is almost run over by a car.  She bounces the ball towards the poster eerily leading us to the shadow of the man in the fedora. We all know what's coming!  

 

I find the absence of music in the five minutes ghostly.  Every sound we do hear seems louder and unexpected.

 

Quiet a powerful few moments.

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I haven't watched "M" in a bit and will look forward to examining this movie more closely this week.  I have wanted to purchase the Criterion edition for sometime.. it is one of the few I do not own.  I enjoy Lang's subtle commentary that even with supposed safety around "the cop" etc. and daylight.. that no one is safe.  Danger lurks around every corner. ..  I find this movie a great precursor to the the danger around children in "NIGHT OF THE HUNTER"....    

 

I've seen "M" twice and was surprised the second time by how much more of a punch to the gut (sorry, but that's what it was) it was the second time; maybe it took getting older, being around children, knowing more about the world in general to find just how scary it really is.  And watching this clip again yesterday, something was nagging at me during the children's song. I realized that it was "Night of the Hunter" - I kept thinking of the group of children there singing "hing hang hung", and little Pearl wanting to sing it too, not realizing that the song hit entirely too close to home.

 

By the way - this was the best print of "M" I've ever seen. Can't wait to watch the whole thing!

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I find it intriguing that not a single horrible thing happens in the opening clip and yet the feeling of dread is inescapable. It is the quintessence of German expressionism. Unsettling camera angles, contrast of light and shadow, as well as sharp contrasts in subject matter (such as the darling children and the horrible song or the ball and the poster) add to the angst, but it is the rhythm that seems to propel the action forward like a machine. It’s like watching an accident in the making. It is unmistakably (stereotypically) German; it is extraordinary in its precision but ironically horrifying in its lack of emotion.

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From an art history perspective, I immediately see German Expressionism in the jutting angularism, strong lines, long shadows, weird moody shadows that seem sick at noon, and alarming slashing strength.   I react strongly to the surprising athleticism of the camera work - it's very supple and almost invasively prying and spying into the bleak existence.   The camera's prying seems as unnerving to me as the murderer's shadow.   The robust camera becomes almost another symptom in a sick society.

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The word ominous comes to mind. I like how you never fully see the surroundings in there entirety. It makes it feel like something or someone is just out of shot watching. The sounds are very intense. I think it is interesting that the bell ringing and the cuckoo clock can have two different meanings, a warning for the children and adults and an alert for the murderer that it is time for his next victim. Very creepy. You want to watch and turn away at the same time.

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Very nicely said!  You really captured German expressionism for me.  One other thing that I found unnerving in the first scene of "M" and that was the lack of any background music.  We are so used to background filler music to soften (or heighten) the scenes without dialogue in old movies that it was eerie not to have any such distraction.  Especially could I have used a sop to ward off my growing feelings of discomfort.

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Everything about the opening scenes brings a sense of fear and foreboding. 

 

The children's song, the fear of the washerwomen and the stark silence bring a general sense of unease in what otherwise seems a quaint domestic setting.

 

The scene of the little girl walking home is also very strong. Again the use of background noise, the dark doorway, the poster all create an almost nightmare feeling in what is otherwise a regular scene. 

 

Finally with the appearance of the killer the shoe drops. 

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One thing that stood out for me about the beginning is the lack of music. Think of "Jaws" (yes, I know it's not noir but bear with me please) and the iconic music that is an audible cue for danger. In this opening the silence registered for me the same way ... no sound = something ominous is afoot. We had a couple of long stretches wherein the only sound was "background noise" such as traffic.

 

I read a few other comments along these lines and was chagrinned to realize that I had failed to recall the one mother's line that as long as she could hear them sing that dreadful song, at least she knew that they were okay.

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Dreadful fear is what I felt watching the opening scene. To have children apparently playing happily as they pay attention to the ghastly lyrics of the play-yard song is startling, as the lyrics unfold on the screen. The dark cement and the shadows seem more like a prison yard than a play area for children. The exhausted adults seem beaten by circumstance, only relieved by the thought of children. The woman washing laundry, once the cuckoo sings out, approaches the smoking stovetop to stir the contents of the pan: will she burn her hand? Perhaps a foreshadowing of how close her circumstances are to pain? The tense tempo of the sounds: the girl's rhythmic recitation of the song, the clock ticking, the ball bouncing...building up to something. The "almost" danger...the girl crossing the street, the man standing by the lamppost, the ball bouncing so close to the street...what dreadful thing will happen? A child playing by a poster with such an ominous message, and then, of course, the creepy shadow growing bigger as the stranger/man with conversation that children (now, anyway) are warned to run away from. Yet the little girl happily responds.  

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M is a master piece of Lang. From the beginning the climate is distressing... Evil begins to break into everyday life and viewers are led to feel the same as the mother who waits for her daughter... Photography, cameras and sound will accompany this atmosphere until a close-up of a shadow that is projected on the announcement confirms the presence of the killer and makes us fear the worst. The first thing we see killer is the shadow, and gigantic in the foreground, such as presence of evil, this shadow is a fundamental element that will configure one of the characteristics of film noir

 

 

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This opening scene was wonderful. It drew me in immediately. From the very start there was that ominous sense of forboding.

 

Right away, the children's rhyme/game was interesting because it indicated that one of the children in the neighborhood would be next, but, which one? The girl's mother was definetly aware of the murders but seemed to think nothing would happen to them. Both women seemed resigned to their way of life.  As the girl's mother was setting the table for dinner, she appeared to be looking forward to her child's return but, also, this scene was setting us up for the grief and pain she would ultimately suffer. The darker element of the neighborhood gave the feeling of impoverished situations. I preferred no music. The sounds of the cars, etc., was enough to make one feel they were right there. I noticed there were no fathers/husbands in the scene.

 

I feel the relation to the noir genre in this scene was the darkness of the photography which relates to the unpleasant underbelly of other people's lives.

 

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“Just you wait, it wont be long.” Those are the haunting words sung by a little girl in the opening sequence of M.  For me, those words represent a foreshadowing in what was to come in such a short period of time. The images flow in snapshots for the next five minutes, where the audience sees a semblance of normalcy; women are shown cleaning and cooking, children are playing, a bustling city life is follows, though that soon comes to a halt. A young child is innocently playing with her ball, then a dark shadow looms over her, and the poster about missing children. The opening sequences I believe were set up as a warning. I felt as though Lang does not even give the audience an opportunity to digest or taken in the surroundings or story. Right away we know something is not right, and I feel that this is what I traditionally believe noir to be; dark, mysterious, and leading breadcrumbs along the trail. 

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ONE word comes to mind as its an intro to the darkness to come. Its surely seeming like the light before the darkness to come. The lighting and camera angles are just very greatly done in that shot. It makes the abandoned vibe come to mind. These kids singing does make one feel for them as they are unaware of the dangers to come. Its the looming dread to come

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The opening sequence is interesting to me because everything is lit very clearly and the camera's focus is very clear as well. In most film noir films that I have seen, the camera plays with lots of shadows strategically placed to obscure the truth or characters faces but in this opening sequence, the horror is right out in the open, which makes it seem even more frightening when it appears as the shadow on the poster. Everyone is afraid of the dark, but when evil comes out in the daytime, it makes it seem like there's nowhere safe to hide.

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The opening shot is impressive and profound. It starts as a high angle shot, looking down on the children, as the washer woman is about to do, then it pans up to see the woman from a lowabgle shot as the children would see her. Without having viewed the film yet, I can imagine that this may be esablishing a theme of disconnect between adults an youth, perhaps one that the murderer will exploit?

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Horror and noir, especially in the early days, have a lot of similarities in style. This being a very early example of the genre, it's not specifically the same type of film as, say The Maltese Falcon. But stylistically it is firmly within the genre.

I agree - I would say that the film noir movies I have seen share a very fatalistic philosophy about life (that life is unfair, it will kick you when you're down, it doesn't matter how good a person you are you can get caught up in evil without even trying, you never know who you can trust in this world, etc.), whereas horror films generally end up with good guys vs. bad guys (and good wins.)

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I just watched the opening scene of M. I haven't seen this film, but I'm definitely hooked. I'm a sucker for great opening shots, and to start on the innocent children singing about such a gruesome thing offers a beautiful contrast. The next element that stood out to me is how the camera punches in on the woman as she opens her apartment door--very ominous. The repetition in sounds from the cuckoo clock and the bouncing ball also add to that level of intrigue and mystery, especially as those sounds hang over silence, without a score. Finally, the shadow of the man layered over the poster about the murderer is enough to cause nightmares. That little girl has no idea what's about to happen...

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I felt that the opening scene of M was very effective in establishing a very uncomfortable atmosphere.  It is made clear through the woman asking the children to stop singing their morbid song and later her conversation with the other woman in the apartment that there is something scary happening in their neighborhood.  The children's game (and accompanying song) are clearly some sort of "elimination" game.  The song is especially macabre, as it deals with a child murderer.  The woman in the apartment's fear indicates that there is a menace in their neighborhood who is specifically targeting children.  The other woman's nonchalant reply where she tries to calm the woman down by telling her that at least they can hear the children indicates that she, too is worried, but is trying to keep living her life.  It is a more sensible approach, but may also be a defense mechanism.  The lack of music or background noise in the film also lends to creating an uncomfortable atmosphere.  When the little girl is walking to school, it is painfully obvious that something is going to happen to her.  When we see the shadow and hear the girl say her name, our fears are realized: Something bad is going to happen to this child.  

 

Fritz Lang's choice to have a murderer who targets children was a very dark choice.  There are not many films that feature murderers who go after children or the elderly.  Specifically targeting the weak and vulnerable adds an extra layer of evil to the murderer. 

 

The beginning of M establishes many of the traits that are present in later film noir: black and white (there are very few color noir), high contrast lighting, death, the lack of music and vague dialogue which lends to the uncomfortable feeling of the film, and the style of cinematography.  In other genres, typically the foreground is in focus as that is the action of the film that matters.  In film noir, everything in the frame is in focus.  Often times, there will be characters speaking in the foreground, but there will also be action in the background.  Shots are framed to make sure that the real focus is on the action in the background, even if there are characters exchanging dialogue in the foreground. 

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That opening scene encompasses everything that film noir stands for: a gloomy sense of despondency and dread. Both of the adult characters are trapped in a working class environment where they must perform very hard work just to get by. The children appear to be happy on the surface, but the grisly song that they chant is not the sign of healthy interactive play. It dwells on the morbid and grotesque. They almost seem to get a "thrill" of sorts out of reveling in such macabre thoughts. Taken all together, these characters in this opening clip are not in a happy or productive environment. Perhaps the only redeeming factor is that both women seem to agree that knowing the children are safe gives them peace of mind...to a degree. There is still that lingering anxiety as an overtone.

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That's a great take-away from this opening. Maybe visually showing the characters as "confined" increases the tension that they feel knowing that there is a madman out there who would make their worst nightmares - harm coming to the children - come true? I always thought that a permeating sense of dread was at the heart of most noir stories.

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What I enjoy about the opening of M is the fact it uses many techniques of the German Expressionism movement. Using the lighting to contrast the action, the long flowing shots, long takes in the action, the absence of light. When our "man in black" shows up, you feel that sense of dread, because you know what will most likely happen, and the fact you can't see who it is, just a shadow. What's more horrifying, knowing the cat knocked over something, or hearing that random bump in the night in a dark house? That notion is reflected here with our man in black. A great opening!

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