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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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“M”-the first four minutes.

Stark.  Real.  Uncluttered.  The children play in a courtyard filled with what seems to be shafts of light creating long perpendicular shadows, the effect is that this is the result of a mix between light directly from an atrium-like opening above and some additional light punching in through an alleyway.  We know it is daytime but the effect is almost twilight.  Unsettling.  The children are oblivious to the real meaning of their gamesong.  We know from their chant that there is a man in black hacking up victims with a cleaver.  The camera pans up as the older woman tells them to stop.  Her fear is real. The camera seems to be the eyes of someone watching from across the courtyard.  The camera remains on the vacant porch above in silence.  A sound gap ensues.  We hear nothing.  Not a bird, not traffic in the distance, not other sounds from within the tenements or the courtyard.  Will the next thing we hear be a child screaming?  No.  They just resume their singsong. Lang uses the then new medium of sound on film amazingly here.  He creates a tasty moment of suspense by the absence of it.  The next scene has the woman climbing the steps, her voice echoing through the hall.  Again, there are no extraneous sounds, only their voices.  Is someone observing them still, focusing on them so intently that he hears nothing else?  The light again comes from above, this time resembling the kind that floods through a skylight.  As the mother opens the door to her flat, the camera does an abrupt move in, lurching closer quickly, as if someone is risking discovery by impulsively trying to get a better look.  The mother is not afraid about the children’s song.  She pooh-poohs her neighbor, and once she closes her door and we see her alone and inside her flat, things seem quiet, safe, away from prying eyes.  We hear street sounds now, a variety of things.  Before she closed her door she says to her neighbor, “as long as we can hear them singing…at least we know they’re still there.”  Someone pointed this out in comments.  That she says this when the children are no longer audible on the soundtrack is telling-- she seems totally OK with it.  She is waiting for her daughter to come home from school, unescorted, with a murderer on the loose.  She displays zero apprehension.  She lovingly sets the table, carefully wiping her daughters dish (not her own) and placing her daughter’s napkin in a napkin ring.  She does not afford the same luxury for herself.  Her napkin is sans ring.  It’s clear she loves her daughter and is warmed by her imminent arrival.  Why isn’t she worried about her?  Perhaps this is a judgement on the “it happens only to other people” mentality  The next shot is of the school.  Who is that woman in a cloche hat inside the door?  Creepy.  Anyway, Elsie averts danger twice.  Once she gets out of the way of an oncoming car, and then a policeman helps her across the street.  This whole scenario is timely.  Children get abducted in broad daylight, even with a police presence down the street!  Nothing has changed.  As Elsie walks down the sidewalk bouncing her ball, we hear some street sounds and the footsteps of people passing by.  As Elsie bounces her ball on the “Murder” poster, the footsteps fade; none are heard during the ball bouncing on the poster. Is the prolonged bouncing of the ball on the question “Who is the murderer?” provocative to the killer?  Apparently, it is.  In lieu of shouting “I am. I am. Here! Here!” his shadow comes into view.  Our suspicions are confirmed.  Danger lurks.  As he leans forward, his image seems to overpower her.  She tells him her name.  She is his.  We’re off and running with what promises to be a compelling narrative.  What a setup!

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Sorry. Double post and I can't seem to delete it on the mobile version. Will try when I can get to a full computer later. (Or a mod/admin can feel free to remove this.)

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What stuck me most was the tone of the child's voice at the beginning. You think of children playing a nursery rhyme game as sounding happy. Her voice was not a cheerful sing-songy one but ominous and almost monotonous. Nothing about the scene was joyful children playing in the courtyard either in her voice or the rest of the children's body language.

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Lang creates a growing sense of unease by opening with a slice-of-life scene in a neighborhood, with street sounds and the chant of the child reciting a grim rhyme unsettling one parent and no doubt others in the apartment building. Dialogue conveys the basis of a vague fear as housewives attempt to carry on as normal. That routine continues as the young girl with the ball heads off to school, the camera following her until it rests upon the poster warning the populace that a slayer of children is at large and that caution should be taken at all turns. The shadow of the man speaking to the girl appears on the poster, and the audience becomes aware that the tranquility of the community has been shattered by the killer's appearance. The opening scene of M introduces us, with sound, dialogue, visuals and all of the filmic technique at Lang's command, especially the lighting, to a world uncomfortably close to danger.

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As many have already noted, Lang's use of sound AND silence establishes the sense of dread and unease that is to be expected in a film about a child murderer.

The children playing a game using a rhyme about the murderer also establishes that things are not what they would seem on the surface; an ongoing theme in noir films.

This juxtaposition of childish innocence and lurking violence was also used in the opening to THE WILD BUNCH where a laughing group of children were playing a game that turned out to be a fight between a scorpion and a bunch of fire ants.

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The opening scene made me anxious because of the absence of music; I just heard an empty silence punctuated by the everyday sounds of life.  I actually jumped when the car horn blew at little Elsa.  My mind expects music to accompany a film, so no music, no orchestra made me feel like I was watching from a window.

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What sounds like a children's game is far from it. But the parents sound completely resigned to the situation--as long as they know where the kids are...

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I personally thought the killer was going to get the woman after she got in her apartment. Her concern over the children singing that song and then deciding that "at least they knew they were there" seemed to me to be a set-up for her murder. I've never seen this film, (obviously), and am very intrigued by it. In a few select words, I'd describe it as "creepy" and "ominous". 

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Two children have already been eliminated by the little girl's pointing hand. The mother's face transforms with anticipatory joy as the cuckoo clock's hands signal the arrival of her child from a school where well-dressed parents wait to escort their children home. That most basic need of being kept safe is disappearing before the shadow is even cast. Every mother's worst fear.

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The beginning of the film is indeed creepy. The song is much more creepy than any we used to sing while we played. The subject matter of murdered children seems much more sinister than any noir films I have known but I have not seen the entire film. I do want to see the film that may have started this genre and how it evolves.

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The absence of music establishes an immediate tone for the picture, imbuing it with a certain "reality" that makes the developing suspense all the more unsettling. The singing school children, the cookoo clock, the honking cars all work in tandem with the cross cutting between the peaceful, domestic setting of a mother preparing dinner for her daughter and the urban city where danger is constant presence. This, coupled with Lang's use of shadow (which clearly had an indelible impact on later noir pictures), establishes a wonderfully disorienting feeling of foreboding and doom. Can't wait to see what happens next! 

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Filming the game and song from above establishes the vulnerability of the children.  Lingering angular shots of railings and stairwells, as well as lengthening shadows, make everyday objects seem ominous.  Noir films often use offbeat angles and shadows to establish unsettled mood.  The "pretty ball" bounced against the kiosk displaying the wanted poster becomes an object of dread when the shadow appears.   

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The comment from the woman in the kitchen to the laundry woman "Well at least if they're singing we know they're alive" certainly set the mood for me, what an eerie unsettling statement.

Completely agree. You took the words right out of my mouth.

 

Seems like Lang is going for tension. We see it in the laundry lady's comment about telling the kids to stop...and in the silhouette of the man in the hat speaking to Elsie.

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The woman carrying the load of laundry reflects & foreshadows the burden of the fear felt in the town. Imagine how heavy it will be when they have to carry the next child victim. I loved the sweetness of the mother setting the table, stirring the pot as she waits for little Elsie. Elsie is almost hit by a car, then helped across the street by a policeman; but he is not there when the man is black appears.

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Completely agree. You took the words right out of my mouth.

 

Seems like Lang is going for tension. We see it in the laundry lady's comment about telling the kids to stop...and in the silhouette of the man in the hat speaking to Elsie.

I, too, am in agreement.  The tension is established by the lyrics to the children's song - it's gruesome, but it's part of game that innocent children are playing.  I am always particularly bothered by children as victims, so I found the opening scene unsettling - but not having seen M before, I definitely want to watch it in its entirety.  And the perpetrator's shadow solidified tense, fearful moment that you, the viewer, know will end badly.  Very well done, Fritz Lang.

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I personally thought the killer was going to get the woman after she got in her apartment. Her concern over the children singing that song and then deciding that "at least they knew they were there" seemed to me to be a set-up for her murder. I've never seen this film, (obviously), and am very intrigued by it. In a few select words, I'd describe it as "creepy" and "ominous". 

At first I thought the same thing, then as the story unfolds a bit, and you realize that children are the criminal's victims.  Creepy would be my word, as well.

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Sorry I am so late posting for the class.  I noticed another post that described my feelings of burden during the opening scene.  It also struck me that the children do not seem fearful only the mothers.  There seems to be only one moment in the clip that isn't foreboding and that is when the mother is setting the table.  Even this becomes twisted since the child  may never come home.

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VERY GLOOMY START REFLECTED IN CAMERA MOVEMENT AND OVERHEAD SHOT TOWERING OVER CHILDREN. THE SHADDOW OVER THE "WANTED" SIGN WAS AN EXCELLENT TOUCH. ALL THIS LEADS ME TO BELIEVE I WILL BE INTRIGUED.

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The ever-present shadows, the unharmonious sounds jangle the nerves creating high anxiety and even dread. The children's naïveté, bound up as they are in their own world, provides a sharp contrast to the grounded working class women, the mindful policeman, the hurrying motorists & finally the (literally) darkest shadow appears (as if from no where)

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The ever-present shadows, the unharmonious sounds jangle the nerves creating high anxiety and even dread. The children's naïveté, bound up as they are in their own world, provides a sharp contrast to the grounded working class women, the mindful policeman, the hurrying motorists & finally the (literally) darkest shadow appears (as if from no where)

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As previously stated, the shadows, lighting, the feeling of dread as depicted in that "awful song" the children are singing all add to the suspense of the film. We seem to understand that it is only a matter of time before something bad is about to happen and we are either anticipating it or horrified by the notion of whatever it might be.

 

Interesting film for it's time.

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Lang, in just a few minutes takes the viewer from the innocence of a children's "nursery-rhyme" to a cry for help in the form of the wanted poster, crossed by an ominous shadow. The children playing a game and singing a song about a man in black who will chop up his victim.For the children, and the viewers, this is a typical childhood activity, until the protests of the washerwoman and her conversation with her friend suggest that this is real, not a simple children's chant for amusement. Lang suggests a separation between the children and adults, through the attitude towards the crime - the children neutralize fear through the chant but the adults are unable to escape the relaity of the threat. The two levels, the bars on the railing, play versus work, all underline the the two worlds. Even the poster seeking information is placed up high, not at a child's eye level but at that of an adult. The viewer, now knowing the situation, is kept on edge as the mother prepares lunch in anticipation of her child coming home from school, a policeman helps a child across the street and as we follow the child bouncing her ball on the sidewalk and finally against the poster, Lang re-emphasises for the viewer that the murderer's deeds are still conatined within the child's world of play and are not seen as threatening as they are by the adults.

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Despair, Hopelessness and Fear.

 

From the settings conditions and the haunting children's song, to the nonchalant way the one woman reacted to the other when mentioning the murderer on the loose. 

 

"As long as they are singing, we know they are still there"

 

How sad of a statement when looked at in the opening of a film bound to have tragedy within it. 

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I'm way behind here but the darkness draws me in. And nothing scares me more than the haunting children's song in the building of the movie. 

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The foreshadowing of something going wrong to me is the children using a rhyme about a butcher to eliminate each other from the game. The girl's mother working to better her child, loving placing the napkin on the table just so, while she is talking to the stranger ( like the man in the rhyme) & the disobedience of the children.

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