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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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As many of you also noted, the children's song reminded me of the numerous children's songs in horror movies, no doubt influenced by Lang, I agree that this could be the start of this, overused trope. 

The girl walks into the street and is almost hit by a car and a policemen has to protect her. The theme of protecting the vulnerable seems to come up in Film Noir a lot, A woman or a child is in danger, a precious item is stolen, I wonder how important this is. 

The world is a dark and dangerous place, and there are people in it who need help, protection of some kind. 

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The overall background silence punctuated by the abrupt sounds of the children singing, the clock, the horn and the bouncing ball gave me a feeling of the emptiness of the lives of the people we were watching.  The two women are low income, living in a tenement with very little in their lives of any value other than their children.  Mixing the sound track with the gloomy visuals and the children’s rhyme made them seem vulnerable, the perfect targets for a predator or serial killer.  Add to that Peter Lore's wonderfully creepy voice and I'm hooked.   I also had a laugh thinking of how many times the writers of the CBS series Criminal Minds have tried to recycle this exact opening sequence.

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Darkness best describes the mood to me in the opening scene. The song the children are singing happily has a dark tone.  When we see the "Murderer" it in shadows and just after we see a mother getting ready for her daughter's return from school.

Fritz Lang is amazing at setting us up for Film Noir aka black cinema.  I love the shadows and basic feel of fear, joy, hardship, unawareness all in the first few minutes. 

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[My first post to the class! I'm already two days late, but I think I have enough time to catch up...]

There's many good observations already on this board about Lang's use of camera angles, lighting (and shadows), lack of musical scoring, etc--all of which relate to the development of our sense of what constitutes a Noir film. 

We could go on a long time discussing those, and many have already. What I want to note, briefly, is the game the children are playing. The game itself--someone in the middle of a circle of children, counting off and choosing a new "loser" in each round--foreshadows Beckert's style of predation: the random choice of a child, alone and vulnerable. It's as if the children, who have made up a game and sing-song in response to Beckert's crimes (already well underway), know that they are random targets of a malevolent being. But by turning a truly frightening aspect of it--who is next?  "Just-you-wait-it-won't-be long/the-man-in-black-will-soon-be-here", the children play with this fear in order find some sort of understanding in a horror that seemingly has no understanding, and by doing so confront it in their own way. They appear calm in the face of it, while the two mothers (i.e., the Adults) are beside themselves in fear.

The Adults seem powerless to catch the Monster, but the children are still unaware of this--the girl heading home from school is more cognizant of the danger of crossing a busy street than a random murderer, as she bounces her ball against a wanted poster. And she trusts the shadow of Beckert, kindly asking a question of her, because Beckert is an Adult. And Adults are to be trusted.

This is the opening darkness of M, and it lays the foundation for what we consider a classic characteristic of Noir: in the midst of our average daily lives, something evil lurks.

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As I was watching the clip I could feel the uneasiness of the adults to the song the kids were singing, knowing that there was a murder on the loose.  You could sense the feeling that something evil was about to happen, especially the way the clip ended.

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 As others have pointed out, the children's game definitely foreshadows the events to come. The imagery and sound represent the essence of film noir in microcosm:

 

(a) The "fun" of the game (derived from the release of suspense) is based on a random selection (who will be next?). Unlike the "fun" of a roller coaster ride, where there's fun in being scared by the unexpected, resulting in laughter (release of tension), the fun of this game - being unexpectedly selected - doesn't result in any type of release of tension at all. In fact, the tension is amplified by the sharp retort of the Adult (outsider) who is all too aware of the symbolism behind the song and game.

 

( B) The somber monotone of the singsong delivery flattens the otherwise normal activity of children playing - other than the young girl singing, there is no laughter, no giggling or high frivolity. The children are playing, but the sense of play is off key (much like the sense of normalcy in a film noir world). The irony of this presentation also adds tension, because it broadcasts a sense that things are not as they appear to be.

 

© Certainly the innocence of children playing a simple game of "call and response" is undermined by the sound of what the little girl is singing. Omit the English subtitles and the soundtrack and the viewer is watching, from a slightly omniscient (objective, removed) POV, a circle of children counting rhythmically, with a selection made, a child removed, and the game resumed. Add the soundtrack, and the significance of the recitation hits the viewer hard. Again, the unexpected in what appears to be an otherwise normal milieu.

This also points out the significance sound can often have in film noir - either as the tense counterpoint that belies what is otherwise everyday, humdrum, stereotypical or as a undercurrent that amplifies the tension the visuals are introducing (deepening shadows, vast empty expanses stretching ahead of the viewer).

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The opening of "M" fits perfectly with elements of film noir; pessimism, fatalism and menace. Lang's camera displays a common urban setting (tenement with hanging clothes) and children playing in the street.. Lang immediately introduces a foreboding sense by having the children sing about a horrendous murderer. The wash matron impatiently yells at the children to stop singing that terrible song. The matron and the mother's conversation about the children's singing has fatalistic undertones. Lang further introduces the possibility of menace when little Elsie bounces her ball on the grim "Wanted" poster and we see the shadow of a man trying to get her attention. It took my breath away.

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I like the way that Lorre's shadow arrives at the scene or our reading just after we do. It's like the belated arrival of my own shadow on the surface of the 'Wanted" poster that I'm reading as the little girl bounces the ball. This reminds me of the scene in Psycho where Norman Bates is peeping-in on Janet Leigh as she undresses. Just as Hitchcock made me feel as creepy as Bates, so too does Lang make me feel creepy for standing next to Elsie. 

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Really excited for this noir summer, particularly after watching this first clip. I have seen very few classic films and even fewer films noir but I'm a movie lover, so I'm looking forward to exploring this genre.

 

As others have mentioned, this opening very much reminded me of horror - and made me wonder if there will be lots of moments of overlap between the two genres as the course progesses. Horror is my favorite genre of film, so I loved this deliciously creepy opening. It really hooks you - I've never seen the film and these first few minutes really made me want to immediately keep watching.

 

I did notice the sound in this clip. It starts out simply enough but, as more sounds are introduced, they become more jarring and disorienting. They definitely help set the ominous mood of what I imagine to be a very dark movie.

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My first viewing of the film "M" truly shocked me.  I was taken aback immediately by the beginning sequences of this film-not to mention Lorre's incredible monologue toward the end of the movie.  I have never witnessed this passion from him again in the many movies that I have watched with him.  I was absolutely floored, and immediately purchased a copy of the movie for my collection from the TCM shop.  This is truly a gripping movie and although an early movie by Lang a powerful show of his talent.

 

The lack of background music or other "natural" sounds is certainly something that grabs your attention immediately.  It leaves me with a fatalistic feeling.  The children singing their song is akin to the proverbial "self fulfilling prophecy". They of course being children have no understanding of the seriousness of the recent murders in their town, but the lack of emotion and feeling in their song and play, gives the viewer a sense of dread from the beginning.

 

The lack of obedience from the little girl at the insistence of the woman with the laundry provides not the feeling of an impetuous child as we would expect normally from such disobedience, but more a sense of inevitability i.e. "death is at the door", and the reality that it this "awful man in black" is not going away, even though we insist that he does.  The children's game to me is only a frightening conveyance of the message to the viewer of what he/she is about to witness.  It is done quite well in this particular movie, and I honestly being a great fan of film noir, have separated this out as noir at a higher level and almost into horror, just because of the feelings Lang is able to invoke.  Quite amazing.

 

The viewer is confronted immediately with the "monster" that we all just knew was under our bed or in our closet when we were children.  It is truly gripping and frightening.  The stark reality of a violent death of a child at the hands of a mad man is only heightened by the starkness of the black and white film.  It has always been fascinating to me how much black and white affects a film's feel.  Although filmmakers at that time had no choice in the matter, it has turned out to be of huge consequence in the feel of a film.

 

We are then moved from the interaction between the two women, we sense their grave concern for the safety of their children and we of course now begin to understand that there is a sick serial killer on the loose.  Our clip ends with the friendly confrontation of the innocent child by the "awful man in black" and the knowledge that there will be no one to save this child as so often happens in movies.  The reality that no hero will come to the rescue for this innocent creature creates the overall mood and gripping trauma that this movie will soon be visiting upon each viewer.

 

M has been one of the great surprises for me as far as classic film, and trust me, I am hard to surprise and a demanding viewer and critic. 

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My take on M:

It was interesting to watch the chilling performance by Peter Lorre in what was his first major film. The scene that stands out in my mind is when one of his intended young victims is whisked away by her mother; the expression on his face reveals the inner-turmoil going on within.

 

What really caught my attention, though, was viewing life in Germany of 1931 during the Great Depression. Any parent can relate to the fear raised by the deaths of those children and I noticed the reactions — in some cases over-reactions and downright panic of crowds to anyone who raised suspicion — of the public to the newspaper reports. I couldn’t help but compare those reactions to mass media coverage of murder cases today and also considered how, within a very few years, Germany would transition into terror of a different nature. In fact, director Fritz Lang and Lorre would both leave Germany by the end of 1933 and eventually pursue their film careers in the U.S.

 

Of trivia interest, Lorre’s IMDB biography noted that his image from “M” appears to have been used for anti-semitic posters in Germany to promote “The Eternal Jew” (1940).

 

To what modern day film would I compare “M?” Tough call, and this may be a stretch, but my answer would be “Silence of the Lambs.” My reason is insight of the very different mindsets of Hannibal Lecter and Hans Beckert … not to mention the performances of Anthony Hopkins and Peter Lorre.   

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From the start, the viewer is being warned about the arrival of the man in black. We encounter a terrorized community, where the adults are desensitized, yet still afraid (they are made uncomfortable by the children's referential song), and where the children have easily incorporated the notion of a murderer into their play. The use of light and shadow here is mesmerizing - there seem to be too many dark corners near the children when we first see them. There is darkness cast over the staircase, and of course, the appearance of the man himself; only shadow. The shots have a strange incongruent blocking feel to them, almost as if nothing is where it should be. Lang has the camera follow the little girl, which heightens the sense of impending danger. The soundscape is eery - almost too quiet initially, which then serves to highlight the building tension of diagetic sound. The elements that most reminded me of the noir style were the extensive use of shadow, the initial foreshadowing of dark events (children's song), and the immediate sense of a society in crisis.

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As many of you have reflected, Lang's use of menial sounds, such as the echoes of children playing and the bouncing ball, builds the foreboding foreground of the film. Additionally, Lang contrasts the banal dun with strategic moments of silence, which only adds to the to the ominous setting. For instance, after the laundress scolds the children for reciting the macabre rhyme, there is a juncture of stillness that haunts the audience for several seconds; the polarity of sound and silence at this particular point in time foreshadows the eventual horrors that occur later in the film.

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I have always claimed that M may have the greatest sound design of all time, both because of the use of sound effects and the use of silence. It is haunting.

 

The sounds that create the mood of the beginning of the film, though, are all so mundane in their own right: laundry scrubbing, cuckoo clock announcing the hour, kids playing, balls bouncing. There is nothing special about this day or this setting, except you still get that feeling of dread permeating the whole thing. You know something bad will happen to the kids (they tell us in the first 3 seconds from the kids voices) and it is going to happen in a normal, non-special town (the Anytown U.S.A. that will recur over and over again in film noir).

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I'm a behind in this class already. I've never seen M; the opening scene is very powerful. 

 

On thing I noticed was the woman in the apartment has many nice things that I wouldn't expect in that setting: the cuckoo clock, china  and even napkin rings. I wonder if she has recently fallen on bad times and is trying to maintain a semblance of her older, more affluent life.  

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Forbidding seems to best convey the mood for Fritz Lang's opening scene.  With the innocent children singing about the murderer while playing their games and the hard working adults toiling at their jobs while dreading the thought of a serial killer on the loose. We are within just a few minutes of time thrust into a world of fear and dread only to be confronted with or at least the shadow of the murderer stalking his next victim.  M's contribution to film noir style would be establishing an environment full of dark shadows, low key lighting and characters dealing with fear and loathing.

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The striking thing about M is the incredible sound design. Its simplicity and focus on mundane, everyday sounds give you this sinking feeling in your stomach because deep down, you know that darkness is coming. The whole film feels modern in its subject matter and its structure. You continuously are blown away that this was made in 1931. You also can't talk about this film without mentioning Peter Lorre's incredibly nuanced performance. Yes, he's a monster. Yes, he represents the lowest of low. However, at the end, you can't help but feel just a little bad for him as he is being tried by the blood hungry mob of people. It's all just remarkable.

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Despite having children playing and people working, going about their everyday business, not everything is as it seems, there's something dark and evil just beneath the surface of normalcy. Or maybe there’s really no such thing as normalcy, it’s just something we’ve made up for the sake of self preservation when the real normal is that evil things and evil people exist everywhere. The children’s playing seems sweet until we realize what game they are playing, what words the girl is saying. And of course they're young and innocent and most likely they don't truly understand, but still, as an observer, it's really disturbing and sinister that this is the game they've chosen to play, indicating that even children this young have already been impacted by the cruelties of life, the seeds of cynicism have been planted and as a result, they distance themselves from horror and violence by making a game of it (something we perfect as adults via humor, jokes, etc).  Meanwhile meeting Elsie seems a stark contrast to the first group of children.  Her absolute beauty, joy and sunny personality transcends 80+ years and despite clothing and hairstyle, she’s still the epitome of the perfect child today. Her innocence and uncomplicated happiness of playing with the ball is felt.  She’s such a joy that as we flash to her mother preparing her lunch and eagerly awaiting her return from school, even this woman, obviously beaten down by and burdened by the heaviness, hardship and ugliness of her life is in awe of this one pure, hopeful and beautiful thing she has. And with the foreshadowing of the man lurking nearby, who speaks to Elsie, we realize something this beautiful, perfect and gentle is probably not long for this dark world. It brought to my mind the Robert Frost verse (also referenced in the Outsiders) that “Nothing gold can stay.”  

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Fritz Lang is a German Expressionist, at that time, a staple of the modern art movement. It was all about critiquing modern life and conveying the unease of modern society. In paintings, this was done with harsh shapes and colors and grotesque subject matter. The poster for "M" exemplifies this, ugly yellows and reds on a grotesque hand. Films, without color, find new ways of conveying this unease. Visually, this is evidenced in Lang's blocking and camera angles. The first shot is from above where most of the kids' faces cannot be seen clearly and they are all just standing there motionless. It isn't kids playing and laughing, they're like statues. When the camera pans to the balcony where the mother is doing laundry, the shot is slightly off and the rail almost completely obscures her body. We don't see someone's full body and face clearly until two minutes in.

 

Next, Lang must use sound (this being his first talking picture). The opening has no score, no music with an overt message like in American films. For unease, we would normally hear music in a minor scale with a clear sense of doom, but there is no music. First, we hear a child singing an obscene song about a grotesque murderer, then we hear the harsh sounding voice of a German mother. Not all German people have harsh accents, but the language is considered one of the more unpleasant sounding ones. Then we hear her trudging up the stairs then the normal sounds of a home, a shrill bell, a door closing and then the more notable sound design begins: a cuckoo clock, a school bell, a church bell, and car horns. These are all sounds we associate with an alert, something is happening somewhere, I have to be somewhere, or something is wrong. Then we are back to the silence of the home, and finally to the little girl who will likely be the killer’s next victim. Sounds of innocence like a bouncing ball, and a polite conversation between a little girl and a shadow. In a modern horror film, silence is the sign that something is coming (a jump scare) which is followed by loud noises and then silence again, which is Lang’s formula to a tee.

 

If I could sum up the feelings of this opening scene in a phrase: Silence is not peace. Most people like quiet, but quietness is more like decreased volume, a moment of rest. Silence means no sound. In a city, silence is not an option; there are cars driving by, kids screaming outside, sirens, and dogs barking. The moment a city person goes to the country, the isolation which results in real silence causes unease. The people featured who experience “silence” are not in peace in any way. They live impoverished, difficult lives in a crumbling nation with a killer on the loose. In this case, silence is chaos, silence means trouble is coming (just as much as the warning sounds do). Silence means the kids aren’t singing, the police aren’t patrolling, and the bells aren’t ringing.

 

Lang makes it very clear this an ordinary working class city neighborhood. In the first thirty seconds, the camera focuses exclusively on a group of children. It is obvious they are on some kind of blacktop next to a tenement building which we see later, but it looks like a gray void squished between two buildings. Every shot seems tight as the woman goes up the narrow staircase and as the second woman washes clothes in her small apartment. The sky is not even shown in those first four minutes. There are windows and sunlight, but out the windows are just more tenement buildings. This one is gray, and some of the walls have shadows that look like singe marks (war-damaged perhaps?). The women and children dress in drab clothes and in no way, are they glamorous - it is all compact, rough, and laborious. There is nothing soft and comforting about this area, though it is clear that the second woman, as she washes clothes and sets the table, tries to provide a coziness to her space.

 

In the larger context of noir, there are certain trends evident. There is the general sense of unease, the gray symbolism, and a sexual component. For that last one, it’s seen in sex crimes or femme fatales, and in this case, it involves a killer who preys on children for reasons left vague (though I think they say “sexual crimes” in the film). Furthermore, film noir has glamorous elements, but the working class is often a focus, especially the roles of the criminal underworld in their everyday reality. Lastly, the moral ambiguity is an inescapable component of film noir. In the opening scene of this film, the killer is not a large, frothing-at-the-mouth monster but just a shadow (he could be anyone) who speaks in a polite non-threatening manner to a little girl, who, either due to her naivete or to his docile appearance, speaks right back. And considering the people involved in the official and unofficial investigation of this killer, grayness of character is not an overstatement.

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I think that the most striking image is of Peter Lorre's shadow over the wanted posted for murders committed while going after another child at the same time.  The use of shadows in this shows this to be a percusor to film noir.

 

There also seems to be a strong undercurrent of paranoia and claustrophobia.  It seems like the whole city is going to explode.

 

Also, I did notice the sounds that seemed to break the silence in many occassions. Peter Lorre's whistling also fits the profile.

 

Paul

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What struck me was the juxtaposition of innocence in the children's actions (playing together in a circle) with the menacing words (about a murderer) in the song they were singing! Also, while nothing other than the hat gives a clue to identity, the man's shadow on the "wanted for murder" poster leads me to believe that 1) he's THE murderer, and 2) he's about to murder the little girl with the ball whose mother is waiting with a meal. In addition, while the actions of everyone suggests normal, daytime activities, the lighting suggests a dark mood - it was hard for me not to feel like it was night and the moon was out...

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Menacing would be the word I use to describe the opening scene. A veiled threat exists from the onset, only to become tangible when the shadow man speaks.

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Clearly, the mood Lang conveyed in this opening scene is one of grim foreboding. The visual of the children is the only benign image and it is quickly "contaminated" by the lyrics of the song being sung. There is an obvious message that the world of the children is not one immune to the harsh realities of the environment in which they live, and subject to invasion by evil from without and, ironically, upon the innocent invitation of a child who unhesitatingly gives the stranger her name.

 

The opening of M has all the classic elements of film noir style: establishing an uneasiness in the ambience and so forth, as mentioned in the daily dose. With respect to the sounds, they serve as the cosmetic of normalcy in the neighborhood. In spite of the Wanted poster, and what might be a significant reward, there is a decided lack of urgency in the people on the street to do something about the unsolved murder; apathetically, they figure some of them will be victimized and others will not, and, in the words of the second lady in the scene, it's a good thing that the children can be heard singing, and the problem somehow does not exist because it is not (yet) personal to them. The singing girl, herself, is a part of this normalcy, so unconcerned, it seems, that the Wanted poster is somehow less important than the post itself, which is allowing the girl to bounce her ball off of it. When she is approached by the shadowy man, we all know this is likely to change, and we cease to hear any sounds of normalcy

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What struck me was the use of light and dark. The children playing in the darkened lower floor, the dark and light shading of the stair's wall, and the shadow of the killer on the poster.

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