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


Guest Richard Edwards

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Guest Rabbit

A note about the subtitle translation of the kid's song, as this is one I haven't seen before-- usually it's, 

 

"Just you wait a little while/The Nasty Man in Black will come/ And with his little chopper/ He will chop you up!"

 

This one says, 

 

"Just you wait/ It won't be long/ The man in black will soon be here/ And with his cleaver blade so true/ He'll make mincemeat out of you!"pre

 

I kind of wish I had hit on this one when I was doing a stage adaptation of this in high school, as i scans a bit better. Anyway, the delicious creepiness of the scene has already been commented upon by most of the others. The one thing I hadn't noticed previous was how Elsie almost steps into traffic, before she runs into the killer. Combined with how the kids are happy to keep singing the song out of earshot, it's a nice support of how these kids don't really know enough to protect themselves, nor can they be responsible for themselves. Their protection is in the hands of the adults around them. But yeah, the tension build here is really excellent; I love how the mother's movements are so slow, so languid, so peaceful... she is exceedingly careful in her preparations for her daughter to come home, with this sweet smile just plastered on her face. It's an almost enforced tranquility. 

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Guest Michael Gallegos

Discussion of the opening scene from M (1931) dir:  Fritz Lang; cast:  Peter Lorre, Ellen Widmann, Inge Landgut -

   I enjoy the suspense of film noir including newer movies in color performed and filmed in the noir style (The Horseman [2008]) comes to mind.  By comparison, this noir opening is more suspenseful and seems to intend that what is shown adds up to a shadow asking for a name.

  Sometimes it's hard to understand what is or why, some action is happening like the kids playing a game of elimination.  They did not have toys and had to make do with things like tag and elimination.  In 2015, it's been 84 years since kids ever knew of the game, so it may be an aspect not as well understood these days as it was easy in the 1930s, especially for kids not in the money.

   This game can be any rhyme; the kids, apparently innocent of deliberation, have selected one of murder.

   Only the information wanted poster directly reveals danger, while the shadow introduces imminent danger.  Every activity and dialogue leads to the imminence, but only the shadow falling on the poster confirms suspicions.  Uneasiness and concern are fulfilled when the shadow asks for a name.  Fate falls complete when the girl gives her name.

   My favorite scene in this opening is the pan from just above the game of elimination to just below the door into which the character who complains about the game, enters.

  As for other elements, the clocks chiming signal a change.  The reason why people wait at the school front steps is answered by the poster wanting information about the murders of children.  The parents are being protectors, except one mother, working hard to make money, and who apparently relies upon her daughter to come home for lunch by herself.  After all, she was even helped across the street by a policeman ... what danger could rise at high noon?

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Guest Shirley

Just one correction -- the line is not "As long as we can hear em singing, at least we know they're alive"; it is "...at least we know they're there"

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Guest John Ranta

The scene builds a sense of tension, as if we're waiting for something. There's nothing alive (besides the people) in the scene, all is concrete and wood and metal. The kids' song, and then the discussion between the two women both hint of a child going missing. It's ironic how kids will turn a murder into a nursery rhyme, focusing on it yet trivializing it at the same time. The shot of all the parents, waiting outside the schule to collect their children hints at threats, and protectiveness. When the young girl steps off the sidewalk and is almost run over, we jump, feeling the danger to the young girl. As we read the reward poster, juxtaposed with the innocent girl bouncing her ball off the wall, we're waiting for something bad to intrude.

 

Lang uses shadows (a film noir trope) to make us feel that all is not bright and sunny, first with the kids playing in the courtyard (lit sharply from the side), and then to introduce us to the threatening strange man, who remains disembodied and mysterious. 

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The opening scene for me evokes a sense of impending doom with the tired women seemingly beat down with their day to day tasks and the worries of a killer on the loose which are hieghtened by the unknowingness of children singing their macabre song. 

With just the right amount of sounds and silence. The foreshadowing of eventual doom seem to play out with the policeman saving young Elsie only to find her bouncing her ball off of the "wanted for murder sign" and her conversation with the shadowy Lorre.

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Guest Colton829

The very first thing I noticed was the song that the children should be very terrifying for a kid but this also shows their innocence as they have real grasp of crime or loss of life yet. There is a looming sense of fear in this town, which was revealed very early on by the conversation between the two women who are just grateful their children are still alive. At that moment, we have no idea why the children would be in any danger at all, making the posted sign in town later, along with the first shadow-y glimpse of Lorre, much more effective. Four minutes in and I am already seeing scenes that other movies, much later, would borrow. 

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Guest James Spencer

Greetings Film Noir Class.  I'm truly delighted that TCM has decided to host this online thought-provoking class.  I myself have taught film noir specifically to senior citizen classes in Orange County.  I'm thankful for the opportunity to share thoughts with you.

 

On the opening of Fritz Lang's "M" (1931) in my opinion is definitely pre-cursor to film noir and one must remember film noir's link to German Expressionism in use of dramatic lighting, shadow, stark sets, and overall mood.  

 

Like many of the other posts: I find the absence of musical score in the opening scene eerie and creates increased tension. To me the menacing and dark song the children sing marks a world of "lost innocence", a world of disillusionment (we see this with the mother's response) and we must remember this movie came out only 2 years before Hitler became chancellor of the Weimar Republic... The German with subtext alone marks an eerie fortellng of things to come. 

 

Noir-esque symbolism so beautifully marks this movie.  The children sing of "The man in black"... Black (noir) always representing evil, darkness and creating the mood of suspense. The black and white over color..  kids in stark grey tones and the brilliant camera angle of shooting the children from above..  creates the psychological idea that the children are caught.. prey in a web. ... not safe.  Lang does an amazing job in his use of camera angles to create the dangerous mood of things to come.  The camera lingering on the upstairs walkway with the clothes hanging creates a feeling of lonliness and abandonment.  

 

 

The next scene with the mother climbing up the stairs huffing -syntex that "Life is indeed hard" no joy, stark. 

 

I have watched this movie several times in my life but always find new things that catch my eye.  When the woman gives the laundry to the other woman... did anyone notice the pronounced Cross shape in the back window with the lace curtains? It says to me an underlying feeling of purgatory "We have to bare our burdens like the Christ."   The cuckoo clock creates the intense feeling that time is running out (and the world is indeed cuckoo).  The clock also announced that a child is due home from school..

 

Cut to the school.  The girl leaving .. almost gets run over by car, police helps, but then as she is bouncing the ball on the street she passes ominous figures (man in black leaning against lamppost) then the cut of the poster about the murder...  creates more tension. The ball hitting the poster over and over is a precursor to another murder. The camera lingers there for quite a long time.  Then the forboding use of shadow of man in black. ...asking the girls name.

 

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

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Guest MahoganyMatt

I find it interesting just how ominous everything seems to be. What a way to kick off "Noir Summer" with something that clearly holds a lot of the trademarks for the Noir film opening. The darkness and shadowing, the children singing a morbid song, and even the little girl's initial brush with death as a car nearly strikes her on her way to school. All leading up to a shadowy figure, casting onto (what is presumably) his "wanted" poster, as he engages a new potential victim for the first time. 

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Guest Lucia

Turning something innocent - a nursery rhyme - into a threat sends a powerful message: no one is safe, even the children. The opening scene also plays with the supposed innocence of children: the lyrics of the nursery rhyme are utterly cruel - for the children who listen to it and for their parents who overhear it as well...

Repetitions struck me in this excerpt: the singing little girl is told to stop, but she doesn't. She keeps singing. Little Elsie in the end throws her ball again and again on the poster while we learn more about the murderer. The information we get about the murderer says he probably killed twice and we guess he's not going to stop. There's a sort of pattern here.

Silence is used as a threat: when the two ladies talk, one of them says that as long as they can hear the children sing, they know they're there, but the children have already stopped siniging at this point...

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Guest Jennifer Townsend

Some words that come to mind in this scene are relentless (the song that will not stop, the doemstic labor that mus be done) and inevitable (the fate of the small and the vulnerable).

 

Stylistically the strong diagonals of the spaces empty of human form create unease: The empty walkway above the children, the empty stairway as the woman makes her slow way upstairs, and finally the empty doorway the child passes on the street. Brilliant use of sound in both on and offscreen space.

 

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Guest Eddie Cortalano

Since I've never seen this Lang movie, I'm going to go on the assumption that this film meets all the criteria for what is considered Film Noir. And the opening sequence with brooding, dark, foreboding music and the jaded children singing using deadly lyrics in a seemingly playful way, does set a mood and tone for what's to come!!

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Guest Linda

Having never seen this film, I fully expected a body to fall out of the laundry basket. Especially after children singing, comments of murder and weight of basket. But the little girl stopping to read a message, with the normal everyday sounds of the city and life in the background; and the shadow of evil so close no body can see him was overwhelming.

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Guest Linda

Having never seen this film, I fully expected a body to fall out of the laundry basket. Especially after children singing, comments of murder and weight of basket. But the little girl stopping to read a message, with the normal everyday sounds of the city and life in the background; and the shadow of evil so close no body can see him was overwhelming.

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Guest Linda

Having never seen this film, I fully expected a body to fall out of the laundry basket. Especially after children singing, comments of murder and weight of basket. But the little girl stopping to read a message, with the normal everyday sounds of the city and life in the background; and the shadow of evil so close no body can see him was overwhelming.

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Guest Linda

Having never seen this film, I fully expected a body to fall out of the laundry basket. Especially after children singing, comments of murder and weight of basket. But the little girl stopping to read a message, with the normal everyday sounds of the city and life in the background; and the shadow of evil so close no body can see him was overwhelming.

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Guest Christine

I feel this opening scene does a fantastic job of building up tension. At the very beginning, the screen is black for a second while we can only hear the child singing. About 1 minute later, when the woman is carrying the laundry up the stairs, we see only the stairs with the sound of her walking up them, until she walks into our view. We hear things, but we can't see them right away which builds up our anticipation. In this scene, the children are singing/playing a game about the murderer and at the end of the scene, a little girl seems to have no problem talking to a stranger which to me conveys that the children are pretty nonchalant about a murderer at large. This creates tension for the audience. Can't wait to watch the whole film later this week.

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Guest Doug L

The opening minutes of "M" repeatedly invoke a common definition of "creepy:" a person or situation that might or might not be dangerous, creating a feeling of unease. Consider the elements:

  • An adorable little girl sings about murder.
  • The girl's mother lovingly sets supper for two, so we see she has no other loved one but the girl.
  • Coming out of school, the girl almost steps in front of a bus.
  • As the girl walks down the street, the camera stays close so we can't see what might or might not threaten her outside the frame.
  • Peter Lorre enters as only a shadow, paying what might be the wrong kind of attention to the girl.

These creepy sequences certainly create a noir feeling of unease.

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Now that I am a registered user, here is my post again

 

I find it interesting just how ominous everything seems to be. What a way to kick off "Noir Summer" with something that clearly holds a lot of the trademarks for the Noir film opening. The darkness and shadowing, the children singing a morbid song, and even the little girl's initial brush with death as a car nearly strikes her on her way to school. All leading up to a shadowy figure, casting onto (what is presumably) his "wanted" poster, as he engages a new potential victim for the first time.

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Guest Sean Furey

I am thrilled to be a part of this neat film class with TCM. i have always loved this type of film. This is just the class to dive deeper into the shadows to learn more! 

 

I have viewed this scene before in the past but not the full opening. But right away it opens up with kids in a circle and a girl singing a nursery rhyme about the murders that have just happened.  The little girl is (not knowing what will happen next) is singing about what will happen next. The mother asking the girl to stop singing the rhyme about death, while the mother's friend makes a key point about its causing no harm and it lets them know that the kids are still alive.  And during this time the camera just stayed on a frame and the kids stopped singing...in some ways that was kind of alarming.

 

 The opening scene was almost a short film. Then the scene moves to the mother cooking dinner and then down the street where the little girl gets out of school for the afternoon. And the tension just builds. We see the mother putting dishes for two on the table, then it cuts to the girl walking down the street bouncing her ball. We the audience know that something might happen but the camera follows the girl to a sign, which she starts to bounce on the sign. We read about the murders and how many times they have happened so far. Then to our right only in shadow we see a man with a hat talk to this little girl and telling her she has a pretty ball but also asking her name. The little girl gives her name and we know that is the end of the little girl's life, while her mother is making dinner for her after school.

 

There were many elements of Hitchcock in this opening scene. Creating the mood of the entire film.

-Sean

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Guest Gyrofrog

...We hear things, but we can't see them right away which builds up our anticipation....

The sounds all tend to be pretty loud, too (the singing, the scolding, the clock, the car horn). And then when the villain does show up, we don't hear him.  His shadow creeps in, and only after that we hear his voice.

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The lack of titles, ; ie; name of film, director actors etc,  helps to not destroy the imagery,  The children playing in the closed in Courtyard, and the juxtaposition of the old ladies doing wash, and worrying, One says," if their singing, at least they know, their alive,"

​   As soon as they leave the safety of the  tenement, and go to school,   they  are in danger,  I suspect they don't understand whats been going on, Adults probably hiding  truth form them as much as possible.  One girl stops at the wrong place at the wrong time.

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Guest Bruce

The opening seen contrasts the oblivious innocence of the children with the defeated and fearful resignation of the women, particularly the woman in the apartment.  In a weary work-a-day world, her scant joy comes from her child as she anticipates her return from school.  Lang plays on this emotion as he places the child in jeopardy.

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Guest Kathleen Wentworth

As screenwriters, how could this scene, "The Nasty Man in Black", opening sequence for "M" be written without stage directions to convey the same off kilter expectations of an innocent nursery ryhme conveying creepiness and scariness? Generally, how can we write these Film Noir elements into our scripts without crossing the forbidden director's line? GO:

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Guest Kristal

It's interesting that unlike most Film Noir, the beginning clip of "M" isn't set in the typical shadowy world. Instead, it uses the children, innocents, to portray the wrong in this world, ie through the song at the beginning and playing near the poster. Through the use of innocents, the director then introduces the shadow world when the murderer is seen as a menacing shadow on the poster.

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