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Daily Dose #1: The Nasty Man in Black (The Opening Scene of Fritz Lang's M)


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I think a good word for this scene would be ominous. From the line "The man in black will soon be here" in the children's song to the laundry woman saying "As long as we can hear 'em singing, at least we know they're still there" and culminating with the shot of the shadow being cast over the poster regarding the murderer all give the entire scene an ominous feeling. The sound design is entirely composed of diegetic sounds. There is no sound that does not have a source in the world of the film itself. No musical score, no narration and no sound effects. What this does in my opinion is add to the ominous mood by way of adding by subtracting. By only including real world and actual sound it feels more like a documentary than a film, making it's sense of danger and tension all the more palpable. The sounds when they do occur also are a stark contrast to the otherwise relative silence which also helps set the ominous and unsettling mood because we take notice of them and are used in a way that is meant to startle us and make us feel at unease. All of these things as well as its use of shadows can be considered important contributions to the film noir style.

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An amazing opening to an amazing movie!

I love Fritz Lang's use of black and white film and lighting to create the contrast in themes of light and dark, innocents and evil.

The opening shot is confusing at first. It puts the viewer in total darkness with the "Just you wait, it won't be long," a foreboding address spoken (or in my case in subtitles) simply but with impact. 

Then the street scene pans as the child's "elimination game" is being played by a group of innocent children standing in a circle in almost blinding daylight as the child in the middle chants: "The man in black will soon be here, with his cleaver's blade so true. He'll make mincemeat out of you! You're out."

The children who are "out" step outside the circle, eerily silent, as the little girl continues.

A woman from the housing complex walkway above them yells down, telling them to stop singing, as if making them stop singing the song would change the reality that there are children missing and a killer in their midst.

The camera follows her as she struggles with her load of laundry, her "heavy burden," as she climbs the stairs to the other woman who is washing the laundry in her apartment. The woman in the apartment is resigned to the fact that it will change nothing to stop their singing and tells her to leave the children alone, "As long as we can hear 'em singing," she says, "At least we know they are still there."

The clock strikes noon on the clock in the apartment and the woman stops working. The camera cuts to the parents awaiting the children leaving the public school. The parents waiting are nicely dressed, some in furs, obviously not domestic workers like the first two women. The camera cuts back to the woman in the apartment as she lovingly lays out place settings for two, and the viewer knows by the juxtaposition of the shots that they must be for her child and herself.

The next shot is a little girl stepping off the curb and almost being struck by a passing vehicle. It is alarming as the car honks and she jumps back. She is so vulnerable, in contrast to the children whose parents who were waiting outside to escort their children, she is so small and all alone. A policeman helps her cross the street.

Because the camera cuts from the little girl to the mother in the apartment and back again, we understand that she is the woman's daughter. We know the girl is loved but that the mother cannot go to meet the child because she needs to work.

The little girl begins to bounce a ball as she walks, carefree and absorbed in her game, exposed in the bright sunlight, completely unaware of any danger. 

The ball is old and dingy, and she bounces it against a reward poster on a pole as we read that children in the area have been abducted. (We already know there is a killer because of the suggestion of the opening song, the conversation between the two women earlier and the dark introduction. The poster just confirms it and gives some more detail about the children that have disappeared.)

The little girl is not reading the poster. She is oblivious, innocent to danger that is as plain as the sign on the post. As we read the notice, the dark shadow of a man in a hat falls across the poster. We immediately know it is him, the killer, the "Man in black will soon be here" is now here. He is the shadow on the poster. The embodiment of evil. The "shadow" addresses the child, saying, "What a pretty ball you have. What is your name."

We know she is in trouble already. We know the ball is old and dingy and not "pretty." We know he is the killer. We know her mother is not there to save her. Even though the street sounds let us know there are people and cars passing, no one is paying attention in broad daylight to this exchange.

We hear the little girl tell the man her name with complete trust and enthusiasm. We don't even have to see her to know she is completely naive to the danger that awaits her. She has not been warned. She doesn't see it coming...but we do.

 

I love this movie, and it is such a perfect example of film noir and the influence of German Impressionist Filmmaking. The symbolism, the artistic use of lighting and setting are all used to create mood and tell the story, giving us shots full of unspoken information. I love when I am manipulated this way in film! It makes the movie have so many layers of drama - the straightforward storyline with all the layers upon layers of symbolism and allusion. Wonderful!

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This is a delightfully dark opening scene.

 

The children are shot from above -- perhaps to underscore how small and vulnerable they are?  They waste no time introducing the idea of a murderer to the audience  -- by having the girl sing a song, it immediately connects in our minds the murderer to the children, that they are the ones in peril here.

 

As someone else pointed out, there is no sound here that doesn't exist within the world of the movie, whether it is the girl singing, the woman scolding, or the horns honking. The silence is effective at creating a forboding feeling in the viewer.

 

However, my favorite part is the lighting, the creation of the long shadows, especially as Elsie bounces her ball down the street.  She may have escaped being hit by the car, but we know she's clearly in danger from the man in the hat.  Within the context of this one scene, choosing to shoot the shadow rather than the person creates mystery and emphasizes the idea that monsters can look like anything and could be anyone.

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So many have already dissected the technique of the film. Lorre is great as the killer.  I so wanted the crowd to get their revenge on him (sort of Lord of the Flies) but he gets away with it.  Ah well.

I liked Elsa's bouncing ball against the wanted poster, liked the long shadows and liked the street people hunting the killer down, but didn't like the ending of the film.

German is not my favorite language. Having to read the subtitles most of the time takes away from the cinematography  and the creepiness of the anticipation.  The abandoned ball rolling to a stop, and the balloon floating away were both excellent emotional devices to underscore that another child had been killed.  Now the movies are obsessed with graphic depictions leaving nothing to the imagination, but in this film, the imagination works on the psyche.  Hitchcock knew this well.

Still, if the criticism of much Film Noir is its cynicism, this one arguing for mercy is then more expressionistic.

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I love this open as it set's it mood, location, tension seamlessly. Lang's extended hold of a the scene after the mother shouts at the children and exits adds such subtle tension. The cut from the kitchen too the school is a foreshadowing device linking to mother to the daughter. The daughter ironically bounces her ball off of the wanted poster, and there, in shadow, to add a higher level of tension, is our murderer. One realizes that the mother who scolded the children has cursed herself to the fate of that"cursed song"

 

This is a beautiful example of how to bring the viewer into the scene and the experience effectively and rapidly.

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I love this open as it set's it mood, location, tension seamlessly. Lang's extended hold of a the scene after the mother shouts at the children and exits adds such subtle tension. The cut from the kitchen too the school is a foreshadowing device linking to mother to the daughter. The daughter ironically bounces her ball off of the wanted poster, and there, in shadow, to add a higher level of tension, is our murderer. One realizes that the mother who scolded the children has cursed herself to the fate of that"cursed song"

 

This is a beautiful example of how to bring the viewer into the scene and the experience effectively and rapidly.

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My apologies. I was wrong. The woman who scolds the children is not the mother, the mother is who she hands the basket too. I wonder if the heaviness of the laundry basket and the fact that she hands it off to the mother is symbolic?

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My apologies. I was wrong. The woman who scolds the children is not the mother, the mother is who she hands the basket too. I wonder if the heaviness of the laundry basket and the fact that she hands it off to the mother is symbolic?

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I am a little late to this game, but have been following the videos and posts.  In terms of this opening sequence, I think the camera angle on the children, the words to their song, and the way the camera stays on "empty" space after or before a person is in the scene adds so much that goes beyond a verbal description to create mood and tone.  The fact that the mother scolds the children but they keep singing says something about human nature and depravity or a fascination with evil we don't fully understand--even as children.  I mean, that's why we like film noir in the first place, right?  Most of the other posters have said what I had been thinking.  I look forward to watching the whole film. 

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Wow.  I'm really looking forward to watching this movie.  

 

The nursery rhyme sets a dark tone from the very beginning, something I haven't seen a lot of in movies over the years, but something that it seems people are trying to bring back into movies.  Although it's a different genre, "horror" movies in recent years have focused on children frequently.  I suppose it's because anything perpetrated against a child seems to be the worst of the worst.

 

For me it's also indicative of children always listening.  I wasn't there (lol) but I would assume back in the day parents/caretakers didn't warn children of such things and probably talked about it in hushed tones together.  These children probably picked up the stories listening, when adults thought they weren't being heard.

 

The arrival of the "enemy" as a shadow at the end, while the notice is being translated on the screen, is pretty creepy.  

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The ticking clock suggests that as time moves on, evil will eventually rear its ugly head. The timing of the bouncing ball, the repetitiveness of it, suggests that eventualy some bad event will occur. The children are playing but do not sound nor appear happy, full of life. They convey a certain sadness or foreboding.

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The children playing their game, singing the erie song. Just as the little girl sets a child out of the game, the killer picks his victim(s) one at a time, this is foreshasowed right out of the gate.

 

The viewers are set up right away that this is not going to be pleasant. An ugly killer is out to pick out children one at a time.

 

The women reflect the fear any mother has about the well being of their child.

 

The women are working as launderers suggesting a working class neighborhood.

 

The clock sets the end of school day. Parents are waiting for their kids. A little girl is helped by a cop to cross the street.

 

The innocent child plays with her ball, leading us to the wanted announcement on the wall about the killer and as the ball bounces against the announcement the large shadow is casts against it.

 

Meet the monster in his shadow. He is every man. Faceless. And above all he sounds so kind, caring and polite.

 

Everything is normal, but just off center. Uncanny. Uneasy. Unsettling.

 

Master class filmmaking by the best of his generation Fritz Lang.

 

The contributions by Lang are:

Quick set up. Questions arise: What is hapenning? Why are the kids singing the song? Why is the woman upset about the sing? Who is the dark man? Then his shadow fills the screen. Shasows are cornerstone of noir. There are always hard contrasts in noir, charactersare in and out of shadow, but mostly lurking in them.

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Ominous characterizes the initial scene. And each initial sequence reinforces the sense of foreboding: the children playing the dark game, the woman telling them to stop singing, the clock striking the minutes/hour (especially the lower tone of the second "bird"), the woman anticipating the arrival of her child to the meal, the child bouncing the ball against the sign asking for help identifying the killer -- and mentioning the already missing children -- and, finally, the shadow of the man/killer as he closes in on his prey (the child).

 

I think the progression through each scene that is really an additional layer of information that, in combination, reveals the dark nature of the story may be a significant contribution to film noir.

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Fritz Lang is coming out of the German Expressionist movement, and that movement, born in Weimar Germany, is a crucial ingredient in what would become film noir.  Lang himself did some films in Hollywood that are classified as noir.  

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A children's song...innocent in their eyes. Just like Ring Around the Rosie, the song has dark undertones but tells a true story. I immediately found myself wondering why it was a song whereby it chooses children who are "out." It quickly becomes clear, the children who are "out" are dead children. The song is repeated by the children, and the tension with the repeating (it angers the woman) clearly indicating serial killings.

 

Children play a central role in the opening. They are present in every scene as the woman carrying the laundry is pregnant. We know where our focus is to be placed. Something horrible is happening to children. There also is something being said here, a commentary, in terms of numbers of children. The pregnant woman is not young and she, as well as the other woman, are worn out. There is somehow (though I can't explain how) a feeling of a large number of children. I believe the number of children will play central to the plot of the movie in some way.

 

Finally, the children victims are of the working class, as noted in the Daily Dose posting. The black and white lighting is meant to bring forth the dinginess of their lives. The lighting creates shadows that are ominous indicating nasty things hide in shadows. The shadows become a precursor to the appearance of the name - the killer - at the end of the scene.

Film noir is typically a genre of movie that takes place in the shadows. The genre plays with shadows and sounds to set tension, indicate bad things to come, and give a sense of "aloneness" of the characters -- the situation involves the immediate characters and the rest of the world seemingly falls away. Film noir is never bright, sunny, or cheery. The women are broads who've known a rough life, and the men teeter on dangerousness.

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We were supposed to decide on a word, and mine was "foreboding," not very original but that was the sense from very beginning camera angle downward on the children, and the lyrics to their song (instead of Eenie-meenie-mino-mo), the mothers being scolding, somber, and wistful, the parents standing outside of the school (presumably waiting but it looked like a tomb, and they stand so still), the little girl almost being run over.  When I think of Lang I think of the clock hands in Metropolis being held up by the worker underground, so I always think of clocks in regard to him, and here even the cuckoo clock is part of the foreboding.

 

In terms of the other question, how is this like "early noir," I would never have put it together with my understanding of noir, but one similiarity I think of is shadows.  When I think of noir I think of shadows, in a couple of ways.  Shadows are not the thing or even "at physical" thing, only an image with no physicality.  They have no features; in noir, we do not always see the person, but the back or the shadow of the person. Secondly, the black and white of noir cinematography is dependent on shadows for variety.

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The song that the children sing i perfect exposition for the film. They tell the take of the child killer coming for them, yet they are oblivious to the songs true meaning because of their innocence. The innocence of the children is also highlighted through Elsa playing with her ball against the wanted poster.

 

However, the parents/laundress know the evils of the world and this song shows the tension and anxiousness they have for their innocent children.  

 

The bouncing of the ball, the ticking of time and the chime of the cuckoo clock all foreshadow that we are leading to a particular point in time where something dreadful will happen.

 

Lang's use of contrast and shadows was clearly inspired by the expressionism of the Weimar period, but is also in contrast with his previous work such as Metropolis. The scale and design are still very much his style and yet this film feels darker and more ominous by composition.

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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. 

I think that line of dialogue was the key one for me on this watch, the introduction material said to pay attention to the sound design and also how the film establishes its mood.  For me what that line does is that it establishes a situation where you are constantly listening out for proof that the children are ok. It is not a situation where bad events are rare and will accompanied by a shocking noise, bad events are ever present and silence or anything that isn't active proof that the kids are ok can create worrying uncertainty.   It creates a mood of dread and expectation out of nothing, if we do not have proof the kids are ok at any given moment then they might not be, so that the arrival of the shadowy Lorre is actually a release to the tension that has been created by the gloom. 

 

For a director in 1931 to be doing such sophisticated things with sound, working with sound from outside the visuals and indeed it's absence is stunning. But then Lang is one of the very best.

 

The other thing I really liked was the pause on the image of the balcony with the washing lines and railings almost making it seem like a battlements or prison fence, the adults inside and isolated from the things they should be protecting the children seemingly making a game out of the rash of child murders with their song. 

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So many wonderful comments! I really have nothing I could add. The opening scene reminds me of a key scene in "The Third Man" where a child begins to cry out "murderer" at Joseph Cotton who is then chased by a mob. 

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This scene nicely sets up the appearance of a normal day/place/time with clues that everything is all about fall apart and invites you in for the ride. The scene foreshadows (I assume) the gloom and doom coming for either the children or the women from the man in black. The repetition of the children's song sets the watcher's nerves on edge just like the pregnant woman. It's especially unsettling because of it's sinister lyrics - aiding to set the tone of things to come. 

 

In addition, as we see only women and children, this scene tells us that these are working class, not wealthy or privileged folks, and that we will be dealing with an entity that preys upon the vulnerable or weak. 

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Word: Disturbing

 

Disturbing because it takes "Don't talk to strangers" to a whole other level. The shot upward to the laundry woman is an excursion into the adult world. The modest but neat apartment shows that people in this neighborhood are poor but with dignity. The empty plate, the empty attic room, the stairs foreshadow the imminent loss of life. Shot of the cuckoo clock induces anxiety. The murderer is a shadow (in black), a balloon-like figure juxtaposed to the ball. How he establishes a relationship with Elsie is just creepy.

 

The song that the little girl is singing at the beginning is a dark revision of the actual song about the Butcher of Dusseldorf in the 1920s. The original song translates as "Wait, wait only a little while, then he will come for you, too, Haarmann with his little hatchet, and he will make mincemeat out of you." The tune that the faceless murderer whistles is from Peer Gynt.

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