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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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Contrast was what impressed me most. The children singing that gruesome song, the light and shadow play was intriguing and so technically advanced for the time. And the camera shot up to the balcony just set the whole tone for me. 

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The establishing shot filled with starkness from the kids limited play area to the clothes they wore, let you know this is not going to be a comedy.The beginning of scene made me feel that this was a look at "normal" life for these people. Kids go about the business of playing, parents go about the business of working & worrying about their children. It did make me wonder why the concern over a kid's song. Then watching the little girl throwing her ball into the air as she walked down the street, and we read the poster right in front of her, created anxiety and tension. And then the shadow....

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The SOUND made me realize immediately that we were on a sound-stage.  I just felt a tad too manipulated by this opening.

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The opening scene of Fritz Lang's M didn't unsettle me at first. The children playing the game that started the scene reminded me of Grimms' fairy tales. The children aren't even aware of the import of their words.

I agree - it can be difficult to separate out our knowledge that this is a movie about a child murderer from the details of the opening scenes, but I agree that the initial shot in itself isn't creepy. It only becomes troublesome in the context of the mothers' conversation and the wanted poster.

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Not a frame of the film clip that Professor Edwards excerpted is without meaning.

 

The ordinariness of the first moments of “M” resonates with an aspect of Film Noir that one could almost term necessary.

 

Like ordinary sunrises, ordinary morning cups of coffee, ordinary conversations among neighbors, an ordinary man and woman laughing together when set in film noir cannot remain so. But film noir must proceed from the ordinary. Ordinariness shields us from fear and desperation, and perhaps at times it may even discount the need for hope. Ordinariness is a balm. But ordinariness cannot bring lasting relief. At least not in film noir.  Of course, by continuing the ordinariness, the director will commit a crime if allowed to continue… the crime of boring us to death!

 

Even the title,“M”, seems ordinary. What is more ordinary than the capital letter “M”? We don’t even know what “M” means unless perhaps we have seen previews or otherwise know what the story is about.

 

The clip opens with children playing a game in a plain setting, a gray courtyard, with a lot of space and a girl at the center singing a song. What could be more innocent or ordinary than that? That is until we note that the song the lovely little girl is singing is a song about a murderer. And then it is a game where children are removed one by one from the group by the girl when she sings the song and points to the child to be removed. Later we find that there is a serial child murderer on the loose who “removes” children one by one. But we don’t know that yet.

 

Note the high camera angle as we watch the children at play. Then the camera angle switches from high to low as a a woman scolds the children from a level above them for singing such a song.  On this level the woman is toiling amidst a clothesline, gathering wash. Innocence starts to diminish because the woman is working hard whilst the children are at play. She is disturbed by the content of the song in the game. She knows something the audience doesn’t know yet. She leaves as she mutters her displeasure at hearing the same song over and over, reminding her of something. The woman is gone from the scene and only the low camera angle remains on the level where the woman stood, but the voice of the singing child below is still heard. Apparently something is not going away. But what?

 

The woman struggles up a staircase with this laundry. The staircase has shadows and the walls are grimy. Note the sound of the doorbell, which is benign and ordinary. The woman delivers the laundry basket to Mrs. Beckmann, the mother of a child who will be murdered. There is an ironic exchange of dialogue between the two women.

 

After the woman complains about the children’s song to her, Mrs. Beckmann says,

 

“As long as we can hear them singing, at least we know they’re still here.”

 

An ominous remark if there ever was one. And the other woman agrees and leaves.

 

The cuckoo clock strikes twelve and Mrs. Beckmann thinks about her daughter who is about to be released from school. Note how menacing the shadow the wooden cuckoo makes on the wall. There is a convergence of the cuckoo clock sound with the gong of a church (or school?) bell as the scene suddenly shifts to the front of a public school with a crowd of parents waiting for their children to come through the doors into their safe arms. There is the honking of horns from the automobiles. A typical, ordinary city scene.

 

A quick return to Mrs. Beckmann’s apartment where she goes about her happy routine of setting the table for her daughter’s meal.

 

Back to the school again and little Elsie Beckmann is without an adult to safeguard her. She doesn’t look as she steps into the street and a car just misses hitting her. But that is “ordinary danger”, and we are reminded that unaccompanied children are vulnerable. A policeman steps in to help Elsie cross the street bringing some relief as ordinariness returns. The scene shifts back to Elsie’s mother and the sound of the plates being set on the table. She is still smiling because she thinks of her beautiful little daughter, the very thought of whom takes her away from the drudgery of her housework, and brings happiness to her.

 

In a medium shot, Elsie is bouncing her ball on the sidewalk; she casts a long shadow from the sidewalk to the wall. Maybe the steady sound of the bounce of her ball is her heartbeat, her life force.

 

She stops and bounces the ball off a sign that announces a reward for information about missing children. Now this swirls what has come before into a whirlpool of something, dread, menace and the unknown drawing us further in.  A dark shadow appears over the sign, that of a male figure wearing a fedora who is looking down at Elsie. It is a powerful pull now and we are caught. This “specter” says, like the Big Bad Wolf, “What a pretty ball you have there.” But this is no fairytale.

 

He asks the little girl her name. “Elsie Beckmann!” she answers in a strong confident voice and then the image fades to black.

 

One other thing I’d like to mention and that is that serendipitously, on YouTube, an interview of Fritz Lang by William Friedkin (1974) followed a complete version of “M” that I had watched. Mr. Lang said something about fate, which protagonists in film noir often feel victimized by.

 

Fritz Lang: “Fate is something which you make out of your life.”

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the opening sequence with the shadows and barren setting remind me of a Salvatore Dali painting. everything looks surreal, lonely and 3D. there is no light only dark and darker. The children play a game with no fear of reality or danger. they are seemingly innocent although singing the rhyme in a taunting way. the mothers have fear of the known and voice it but still carry on with their everyday life. the lack of music mixed with the shadows and dark, implies a starkness and adds to the ominous atmosphere. The emphasis of the everyday sounds seems to be ticking off time and leading us towards something dangerous. the mother has fear but not enough to stop her daily lunch routine and pick her child up at school. the child is unaware of reality and has no fear of the bad man she sang about or she would have hurried home from school. The director, thru this opening, shows us the danger and gives us the fear the mother and child should feel.

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One of the first things that struck me was the compete absence of music. The soundtrack is only filled with those sounds that the characters in the film would hear. If this film was made today, it would most likely have foreboding background music that would build throughout the scene. Combined with stark black and white cinematography, it's almost like reading a newspaper. The camera is fluid in some shots however most are straightforward medium shots directly at those on screen. 

 

The other main characteristic is the ordinary mixed with the seedy underbelly of the city. Opening with children doing something as innocent as just reciting a nursery rhyme to pick the "it" for the game, it's something everyone has done at some point on their lives, even almost 85 years after this has been made. An annoyed mother asks them to quiet down, and at first you're lead to believe it's because she objects to the lyrics based solely on personal taste reasons. We are then given almost a throwaway line of dialogue about how "if we can hear them, we know they're there". Moving directly to a bunch of parents waiting outside the school, this seemingly ordinary scene takes on a new sense of menace. A child is almost hit by a car, another sign of danger even though it's something that again probably happens every day, We finally end on the dark shadow towering over the little girl playing with her ball, the shadow striking across a public notice about a man wanted for the disappearance and murder of children on two separate occasions. Instead of increasingly foreboding music, this opening revels in the psychological build-up of menace that is slowly creeping into everyday, ordinary life, a notable feature of the noir style

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What really struck me about this scene was how effectively it built up an aura of foreboding.  From the start, something seems off.  Visually, there is something a bit unsettling about the way the camera is gazing down on the children and the grey, featureless area in which they are playing.  The fact that the children are so still and that no one is making a sound except for the little girl chanting the song makes the scene a bit unnatural and causes the viewer to really focus on the disturbing words of the chant.  

 

For me, however, the tension really begins to grow after we have learned that there is a child murderer on the loose.  Juxtaposing the laundress with the child walking home from school creates a great sense of tension.  I love how Lang establishes the connection between the two character without ever needing to state that they are mother and daughter.  It is enough that he connects them first sonically with the chiming of the cuckoo clock blending into the tolling of the noon bells, and then by the woman setting out two place settings at her table after we see the children exiting the school.

 

The normalcy of the mother's activities and the affection with which she performs the tasks of preparing lunch are in stark contrast to the perilous walk home for her daughter.  We see how many parents are waiting to meet their child, but Elsie has to walk alone.  Her journey is dangerous from the first moment we see her, when she nearly gets hit by a car.  Then the rhythmic bouncing of the ball as she walks brings back to mind the rhythm of the child's song heard at the start of the film, increasing the feeling that danger is coming.  We begin to sense that Elsie, who seems oblivious to the danger lurking just ahead, will not reach the mother who loves her.

 

Then comes the moment that is the most noir to me: the shadowy silhouette of the man on the poster about the child murderer.  As the scene progresses the shadow steadily takes up more and more of the frame, until we feel that poor Elsie has been swallowed up by the shadow.

 

 

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So many great responses already!

 

But the opening shot is so essential as we look down on these children playing the same way the mother eventually does from the balcony. We play the role of parent, watching these kids and hoping they're okay. But they sing a song of murder and death which immediately creates unease and a possible foreshadowing of what's to come.

 

Then we have a brief conversation between the two mothers, where one says "as long as hear them sing, they're okay" - yet as the shot lingers on the mother and the washboard, we no longer hear them singing like we did before. Even though they were told not to, having that comment followed by silence is yet another feeling of unease. Are they ok? Where did they go?

 

Lastly is the iconic shot of young Elsie Beckmann innocently bouncing the ball against the streetpost, where a detailed reward is issued to find the MURDERER. When suddenly we get the man's shadow, whom we automatically assume is the murderer himself. It's all in silhouette, and that shadow along with the hat are two staples of film noir going forward. He is looming over young Elsie - similar to how the mother (and our initial vantage point) looked over the children earlier. There is no sounds other than the normalcy of the city. No heightened dramatic effects whatsoever. How can young Elsie distinguish this polite murderer over anyone else? That innocence being taken advantage of creates the largest sense of unease as the clip fades to black.

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The first word that came to my mind, when I started watching the opening scene, was the word - ominous.

 

What added all the more to the eerie aspect of the scene, was the chanting of the little girl. And in spite of the seemingly mundane routine, the scene was supposed to display; one could not help but feel the insidious danger that was lurking in the streets as the little girl left her school. Perhaps the haunting quality, that perennial fear that makes one look behind their back to make sure there was no one following you; is what makes it fit into the noir genre. Its not so much as what transpires, but the lasting effects that lingers, song after the movie/scene has ended.

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The children’s game presents the essence of the threat that awaits them in the larger world just outside this protected courtyard.  It is a game that both fascinates and frightens them because at heart, it is a game of elimination (whoever is “it,” the “victim” of chance, is ousted).  Furthermore, as the lyrics indicate, it is a man in black with a cleaver who is the threat, both details foreshadowing Hans Beckert’s (Peter Lorre’s) clothing and knife. Thanks to the overhead camera shot, the innocent children are unaware of us “spying” on them as they play (as will be the case with Beckert observing his victims).  Strong shadows, resulting from lighting from the left, reinforce the sense of threat.  The sense of unease is further reinforced when the camera moves up to the balcony where the woman screams at the kids to “stop singing that awful song.”  This suggests that the “man in black” is a threat to the adult’s world as well, as eventually becomes the case (the economic livelihood of the underworld as well as the police, guardians of the established social order).  The children’s innocence and vulnerability are emphasized by them ignoring her admonition, continuing the game after she disappears.  In the next scene, the heavy shadows to the right and left of the stairway and the sounds of a woman struggling create unease and fear before we discover it is the same woman trundling up the stairs with the load of laundry.  Her conversation with the woman to whom she delivers the laundry (Elsie Beckmann’s mother) reinforces her distaste for the children’s song, and also links it to the series of children murdered recently, adding another layer of fear to the scene. Frau Beckmann momentarily dispels it, however, by rationally explaining that as long as they can hear them singing, they know they’re safe.  This sense of domestic tranquility and safety is reinforced as we observe her carrying out a series of domestic chores, capped off by tasting the soup on the stove.  The cookoo clock and the church bells strike noon and the shot of the parents waiting in front of the school clarify why Frau Beckmann is preparing the soup.  The sense of threat returns when we see Elsie Beckmann step off the curb as an unseen approaching bus honks.  Tranquility is restored as a traffic policeman talks to her, takes her hand and accompanies her across the street.  This alternating between security and threat continues as Frau Beckmann puts Elsie’s napkin and soup bowl on the table, and Elsie bounces a ball as she walks down the sidewalk.  However, the sense of threat greatly intensifies when Elsie bounces the ball off a sign post which asks “Who is the Murderer?” and we read details of the prior murder of other children.  Fear becomes utterly palpable when the shadow in profile of a man in a bowler hat appears over the murder announcement, tells Elsie she has a beautiful ball and asks her name.  The “man in black” in the children’s song has now materialized.

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The overwhelming feeling I get from the opening scene of "M" is tension. The children are playing but do not seem to be happy or really having fun.  The repeated chanting of a very dark text certainly has more effect on the viewer than the words do to the children. The setting of the table for lunch is a disturbing death warrant and very chilling. Nothing good is afoot. The resignation to darkness is confirmed with the sentiment "at least we know they are still alive if they are singing." The smile on the mother's face in anticipation of her beloved daughter returning home for lunch is heartbreaking and chilling. Ominous indeed. The lighting and scene composition only add to the vortext of tension in anticipation about what will come next.   

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Tension, ominous, foreboding...everything has been said to describe this movie scene...how about intense and sinister?

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... than nothing. Which is exactly what happens in the opening of M. Brilliantly written, directed, shot, and acted nothing, but nothing happens. That is why the scene is more frightening than any cheap CGI jump scare could ever be. The Man in Black is referenced, and remains an ominous presence, but never appears. By the end of the scene, the Man in Black hasn't done anything. It leaves how bad it will be when he does strike to the imagination. It plays to the instinctive human fear of the unknown.

 

What you don't know can hurt you.

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The first thing I noticed obviously was the song the children were singing, foreshadowing bad things to come. And I'm not sure how intentional this is but the circle of children appear to be in darkness possibly symbolizing what has been happening to other children. And there is all sorts of subtle ways that Lang builds tension with the creeping camera movements and sounds of clocks and footsteps and bouncing balls. A very unnerving opening scene. I know that has already been mentioned but the absence of music really adds to this scene as well. I also love the very end of this scene. Particularly the way Peter Lorre's shadow seems to tower over the small girl and then moves in as if he's an animal devouring his prey. 

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The first thing I noticed what was I wasn't hearing. The initial image reminded me of a city but I didn't hear cars or honks or the sort. I heard nothing - and then children. The absence of sound, I think, sets the stage for foreboding. We're at the mercy of the director and the movie - without even the sound of munching popcorn to connect us back to our own reality. So when the children start singing, the silence is pierced by a high pitched song of death and violence. The silence is full - and tension filled and is like a shadow ontop, or maybe underpinning, the rest of the shadows in the film. Very nicely done. 

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About Film M:

 

Fritz Lang is a great Director. However, this film is from the the beginning of his career, so the pace of the film is very slow. I speak German, so I enjoyed the film. The opening scene of the Film with children singing a song about the man chopping head, camera moving form the top, the lighting, then the camera panning through the stair sets the tone for the Film Noir.

 

Peter Lore is a good Actor. But I felt that his actions were sometimes conspicuous. Also, the public could detect him sooner than the Police!!

 

I followed the hot discussion of two Officers at the Police Station about the color of her cloths. That's not right because, when the Police Dept starts investigation with the family member of the missing girl, they always ask for her photograph and the description of the cloths she was wearing.

 

Just one note: In one scene, the cukoo clock didn't work (no sound) at the top of the hour. The mother looked at it.

 

Chai Vaidya

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During the scene where the child is almost hit by a car and then attended to by the policeman, followed by passerbys on the sidewalk: 

 

Was the film sped up here? Seemed to move a little fast, ramping up a little tension as me move towards the wanted poster. 

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A sense of foreboding pervades the opening of M. The high angle shot of the children playing that opens the film emphasizes their vulnerability, and, at the same time, puts us in the uncomfortable position of eavesdropper.  The children make a rhyming game out of the murderer's exploits, and it involves choosing someone to be "out" - an innocent, but macabre parallel to the murderer choosing his victims.  The theme of children's vulnerability is repeated when we see Elsie almost step into oncoming traffic.  She is helped across the street by a policeman - this also establishes her trust in adults.

While the children in the courtyard turn the murderer's story into a form of play, the woman carrying the clothes basket is clearly stressed by it.  She scolds the children for the content of their song.  She is as weighted down by thoughts of the murderer, Lang seems to be saying, as she is by the clothes basket she struggles to carry up the stairs.

Mrs. Beckmann's reaction is a little different.  When the first woman complains about the children's song, Mrs. Beckmann's reply is "As long as we can hear them singing, at least we know they're still there."  But, ironically, Mrs. Beckmann can't hear them singing.  Ensconced in her flat, busy with her chores, her ordered world dominated by a cuckoo clock, she is cut off from the dark world outside.

Elsie, though, is in that world.  Blithely bouncing her ball down a sidewalk filled with the fleeting shadows of passersby, amid a cacophony of street noises, she stops before a pillar with a wanted poster that underlines that this is a world where bad things can happen to unsuspecting children.

We first see Beckert as a dark and sinister shadow projected on a wanted poster, directly over the words "Der Morder" (or "The Killer.)

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I tend to think of the entire film.  When I first saw M it caught me.  The way the children were taken away.  The scene where the child was given a balloon and then later you see the balloon floating in the air, you know he has killed her.  The entire film is atmospheric, creepy, and keeps you on edge.

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- What seems wrong about this place? - Even though a working class city is depicted there is a sense of something just not quite right about the life of the community and its that it doesn't feel like a community. None of the adults on the street are engaging one another, everyone is scurrying about as if fleeing for the safety of their homes.

 

- Do we have any warning signs of trouble to come? - Apart from the ominouse song the children are singing I found it foreboding that the parents were huddled around waiting for their children to get out of school. There is unspoken panic there amongst the quiet group.

 

- Sound - I love the minimal use of sound and more so the lack of background noise and music. By highlighting key sound components Lang tells the story here in the opening in a way that you could close your eyes and understand what is going on while still feeling the sense of unease and tension he's created. The jarring sounds of the kids singing, cuckoo clock, bells and honks versus the innocent and quieter sounds of the mother doing laundry, setting the plates and ultimately the bouncing ball all create a tension that builds when all the sounds drops out and we're left with the killer's voice. Ultimately the sound accentuates the tense mood of the visuals all built up to the shadow of the killer entering frame. Creepy!

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I really enjoyed the parallel between the children's song and the song that we often hear children singing, "Ring around the rosey," which is about something almost as horrific as a child murderer.

 

Also, the way that the older woman reacted to the children's song gives an instant tension-you can hear in her voice the inner monologue about how frightened she was, particularly for the children, and how badly she wanted them to be safe.  At least that's how I heard it.

 

I, too, found the lack of ambient sound frightening-it reminded me of the jarring experience I had when first watching "The Birds" and realizing that there was no music, at all.  I never realized how used to soundtracks I was until that movie, and the utter silence between screeches of bird calls still freaks me out.

 

Something I thought might have some significance later was the shot of the landing at the top of the stairs.  The shot seemed to linger just a little too long without anyone in it, as though to show us something to remember later on.  I would really like to watch further and see if my hunch on this is correct!

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You know, this opening made me wonder whether the trope of little kids singing their nursery rhyme songs and other such children's songs really slowly for horror was originated in this film.  I'm sure the idea has been around for a long time, but this seems to be setting the standard for creepy children's songs.

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Three words come to mind in the opening scene of "M"....

 

Threatening - Extracted from the words of the childrens' song.  The reward poster informs us early that murder has taken place.

Relentless - There's a sense that the threat won't end by use of repetition of the song and the womens' conversation about it.

Innocence - The children are not aware of the seriousness of the song's words.  The child steps off the curb into danger without realizing any consequences.  The child engages freely in conversation with the stranger and trusts too easily. 

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This film has always been a favorite of mine - it's so deliciously dark!  I love through the fluid camera movements, Lang not only introduces us to the murderer, but we also gain a sense of dread when introduced to the mother of the eventual victim.  You know that since she's SO eagerly anticipating her child's return from school that tragedy will strike.

 

But he also tells a story without a direct narrative.  We find out that a child killer is on the loose through a child's ghoulish schoolyard song, two offhand remarks and a poster affixed to a pole.  It's this simplicity, along with the natural (yet jarring) sounds of the neighborhood that make us uneasy from the start.

 

In regard to why M could be considered an important contribution to the film noir style, it's obvious that the clever and sinister use of shadows and silhouettes are a huge factor, and also the grim storyline.  (Like, SUPER grim especially for the time.)

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