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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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The one word that describes the opening scenes would be- foreboding.

Fritz Lang uses shots without people to set the stage; empty stairs. unexpected sounds, shadows across thewritten word. Only the most innocent would enter this darken pit.

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"Just wait, it went be long" *scene of tar kids in an angle that give us the atmosphere that someone is watching from a second floor could be the man in black or not. the director introduce us more to the black more with the camera moving into tube building and sit us down seeing the misery or poor condition that is in there contrasting with the youngness of the kids.

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The lyrics of the song sung by the children in the opening scene are very daunting and depict the mindset of the children at that point in time. The sounds are very distinct - the tapping of the ball, the tolling of the bells, the honking, the conversation between the two women, that give an ominous feeling. The director has brought a contrast in the lighting to bring about darkness and brightness sometimes, and he has played with the shadows skilfully. The shadow looming of the man on the column in the end leaves a very eerie feeling.

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I think you make good points Linni - so much of this opening sequence is about tension.  The sound certainly adds to it, but I was most struck by the longer takes and mobile camera following the children that added a watching, suspenseful feeling.

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I just want to start off by saying that as someone who had to search out for this film a long time ago, and watched it on the internet all grainy and low quality, I am SO appreciative of the quality of the clip. Now in terms of the content, I think the tension in the city is quickly established. The children are not worried much, but the adults are. The scene with the parents waiting outside the school for their children really drives this point. I also think that Fritz Lang's great storytelling skills are on full display in this clip, as he gives the audience almost everything we need to know without having to say it. For example, we get the strong implication that Elsie is the daughter of the lady working at home, who has the ominous line of "As long as we can hear 'em singing, at least we know they're still there". Additionally, Elsie playing with her ball leads us to the poster on the street giving us additional information about the crimes that have taken place in this city. Finally, the shot of the man in black is my favorite part of the scene. This use of shadows would become film noir's calling card. Although you don't see the man in black, you can sense just how creepy he is, even by the tone of his voice. It's a great setup for the film. 

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I have never seen “M,” being somewhat of a neophyte on the subject of Film Noir.

 

 

I think perhaps the reason the film uses only one letter in its title “M,” which I believe stands for murderer (mörder), is to let the viewer know that more is coming. “M” will be fully realized as “Murderer (Morder)” by the end.

 

My first impression when seeing the children playing their sing-song game, obviously oblivious to the lyrics therein, was to think of Hansel and Gretel walking unknowingly into The Witch’s sweet house trap. Children unaware of a forthcoming evil. ~ Margaret

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All the noir elements are present ... acute camera angles/points of view, deep shadows, startling sounds, juxtapositioning, the sense of foreboding (the calm before the storm), the view beginning with the larger world and narrowing down to the child's world, the repetitive singing of the song about the "Black Man" (read bogeyman) coming to get you, the tension created by the feeling that something's going to happen ... and it isn't going to be good, the ominous shadow of the ostensible evil in the silhouette on the warning posted on the lamp pole, and the manner in which the figure represented by the silhouette speaks to the child. All of these elements and more contribute to a mood of darkness, impending danger and doom, and an inevitability of it all.

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Two words for Lang's noir world:  Unspeakable Danger!

First the children's seemingly innocent game, played to the tune of a fairly gruesome song that eliminates players by chosing them as the next one to be turned into mincemeat.  Du bist raus!  Notice that two children are already standing outside the circle, so twice before someone has fallen prey.  We see the third.

Next, the first woman's vocal objection to the words of the song.  She's heard enough about the murderer already.  She obviously knows about the danger and, for her, to speak of it, or sing of it, makes it more real.

The mother is perhaps even more vulnerable to the danger, as her observation that "if we hear them singing, at least we know they're still there" suggests.  Her attempt to pluck a silver lining from this cloud also suggests that she can't even let herself think about the danger, let alone speak of it.

Little Elsa is shown walking through a world of danger that does not announce itself to her with words.  A honking horn tells her she is in danger in the street, and a cop silently helps her across the street.  (Where was he a minute later?  One must ask.)  When she finally bounces her ball against the reward poster, the audience knows what the unspeakable danger is, and just how unspeakable it really is.  But the camera pans up from her silently, and there is no indication that she actually read the poster, or even could.  When the danger presents itself to her, in the form of Lorre's shadow, it is anything but menacing.  To her, not to us because we've seen the rest of the opening.  As an aside, Lorre is much scarier in German than in English.  Here it is probably because he is trying not to be menacing.

All of these revelations come superimposed on scenes of life progressing normally.  Children at play.  Women tending to the laundry.  A mother preparing lunch for her daughter.  Parents waiting to walk their chidren home from school.  People walking along the sidewalks.  The soundtrack derives from this environment:  the horn of danger; bells to signify comings and goings (and perhaps that evey time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings); clock chimes to remind us of the words of the game "it won't be long" and to start the countdown for Elsa's expected arrival home.

For most of the sequence these are the only sounds other than very sparse dialogue.  But when the camera pans to the reward poster, the violins start.  It's as if Lang were saying "OK you're ready now.  The movie can begin. And this is what it's about.  This is my dark world."

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Lang did everything right to set a tone of fear and dread. There's something about the use of silence that creates a sense of foreboding. I can't help but think that the placement of the camera, as well as the angles, just off in the distant make me think that you're looking at the scene through the murderer's eyes. Really inventive stuff. Lang's use of shadows and lighting, and the ability to create a dark atmosphere and such a sense of impending doom at the outset of the film had to contribute greatly to the film noir style.

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Dreadful foreboding begins with shadows, even in the semi darkness of the opening shot.

The changing camera angles are disquieting. Shooting down on the singing children is ominous, while flat and straight is the normal.

The sharp sound of the clock is meant to startle the observer - and forecast more of the same to come.

Lang is a master of telling an entire prologue in 5 minutes.

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To my mind while many of the visual elements remind us of noir, this is more likely due to the common ancestors (i.e. German Expressionism).  M moves this film language along into a crime genre (we can't call it film noir yet because it doesn't exist yet).  In fact, the opening owes more to the horror genre than anything else.  Someone mentioned early Hitchcock and there is some commonality there as well, though I wouldn't say Hitch led to Lang or vice versa.  At some point they doubtless influenced each other.  This opening builds tension and dread, which is not unique to noir.  What makes this a proto-noir comes later.

 

What I see that we will see in later noirs is not only the visual cues but the fact that the film establishes the normality of the world in which the story lives.  Most noir could happen anywhere, and happen to anyone.  That is something I see in M, as opposed to the element of the supernatural that we know from most early horror.  Hitchcock did this as well, his everyman characters are one of us.  Compare M to Hitch's The Lodger.  The antagonist isn't a monster, he is a man who lives near us.  A broken, terrible man but a man nonetheless.

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I thought the opening had a foreboding calmness to it. The sound design featured a lot of repetition of sounds, such as the cuckoo clock, car horns, and ball bouncing. Peter Lorre's shadow seems to hang over the film even before it literally enters the frame by the way the girls sing the song about him and the women discuss him. The girls singing reminds me of the way murderers become celebrities, a theme covered in later films like Bonnie and Clyde, Badlands, and Natural Born Killers. 

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I haven't seen M in its entirety and I am already creeped out. The children singing that awful song versus the innocent actions that accompany it, first caught my attention. Skip to the girl bouncing her ball along the busy road...another innocent action but danger is steps away. I can't not mention the use of shadows and how they creep up unexpectedly as the scenes progress. I can't wait to see the entire film!

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Hello Noir Cohort!


 


The noir use of shadow is most prominent when Peter Lorre comes into the scene, or rather, his shadow.  The homage to Murnau's 'Nosferatur' (1922) is unmistakable:


Fritz Lang would have been familiar with this film and the larger sequence of German Expressionism (Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the Golem, etc.)  Sonically, I'm interested in the element of the voice in this scene from 'M.'  We are shown a variety of different voices.  Most of the dialogue in the scene pertain to the use of voices.  The children sing, the woman with the laundry basket attempts to use her own voice to silence them by yelling, and all we hear of Peter Lorre's character is his voice albeit tethered to some ominous shadow cast on the very poster that exhibits the evil of his crimes.  This scene is interesting in relation to what film scholar Michel Chion calls the "acousmetre," or what is often referred to as the disembodied voice.  This technique was popularized by Lang himself later in 'Das Testament Des Dr. Mabuse' (1933). Especially from 6:50 on:  

What we have in this first scene is something like that, but we know the sound to be connected to something already esablished on-screen.  I think that the sound is being used to stretch the frame.  In the scene with the children, we see them singing and playing that game in reference to the child-killer.  The camera moves up and away, but we can still hear them singing.  They are still a presence in the diagesis through their sound, their off-screen sound in particular.  Later, when we first see Pter Lorre's shadow, his off-screen voice implies his off-screen presence.  We see only the the darkness he casts, and sound expands the scope of the scene by creating an off-screen space.
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"As long as we can hear 'em singing, at least we know they're still there." 

This sentence not only is the one that best conveys the mood that Fritz Lang is trying to create in the opening scene of M - the imminent danger around us in our everyday lives, the shadows of evil lurking our children's songs -, but it also is a statement about cinema itself, concerning one of the most important paradoxes (or powers) of film aesthetics: how to show what is invisible, or how the invisible can have an impact on what is visible in the screen?

This opening scene is all about the construction of the off-screen space, that privileged dimension of the development of tension so particular to the film-noir movie genre. It's is curious that M does not open with any of the scenic or dramatic elements that usually open a film-noir movie (for example, a loner in a dark and deserted town, late at night, or in a manly environment of vice, crime and corruption), but it rather opens in daylight, in a crowded open space, with children playing and women doing the housework. Yet, Lang employs in this brief sequence several of the cinematic strategies that will later define this movie genre, especially in what concerns the treatment of the off-screen space by the use of shadow and sound effects: not the children's song that overtly comments and announces the diegesis, as the sentence mentioned above also does, but also the repetitive sound effects (the clock and the bouncing of the ball) that instill tension in the image, and the sentences exchanged by the young girl off-screen and "the shadow" on the image. 

And what a bitter irony is here being prepared! As the woman says, it is when we stop hearing that we should be afraid - which means that the absence of a specific sound is even more threatening that the presence of an evident sound such as a scream -, and I can't stop thinking of the mastery of Lang literally giving form to the invisible and showing it on a poster announcing the search of the man whose shadow is projected on it.

Awesome post.  I'm also interested in the off-screen in 'M,' in particular that looming anxiety that pervades the urban cityscape materialized in noir by shadow.  

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The assumed killer's shadow looming over the little girl in front of the Wanted Poster. While there is no face on the poster he boldly adds his profile directly to the poster for anyone who cares to "see." All be will be revealed when I see the movie this Friday but I dare say the girl never made it home for lunch. 

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I have seen M multiple times and am actually working on a book on the films of Fritz Lang (one of my primary reasons for taking this class). The opening uses image brilliantly to further the story. The intercutting between the mother and young Elsie Beckmann beginning with the mother's smile at the chiming cuckoo clock to the dismissal bell at school, the mother setting the table and Elsie heading home. Words are not necessary to build a relationship between the mother and Elsie and dramatic irony gives the scene a more tragic sense as the mother smiles and happily prepares for her daughter to come home, but we the audience are aware of her current peril as Peter Lorre's shadow descends ominously over her. I won't spoil how the rest of the scene plays out for those who haven't seen it but it is superb and riveting.

 

Lang was often referred to as the Master of Darkness or the Master of Shadows and you can see even in these few shots that he is not afraid to douse his sets liberally in shadow which certainly adds to the foreboding tone. This is also a great example of a stylistic technique that bridges the gap between German Expressionism and American Film Noir.

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What stood out to me was that there was very little dialogue, yet there is still strong tension and forboding present through elements such as the shadows, the cuckoos of the clock, the church bells and the car horns, the little girl walking by herself, the bouncing of the ball, the reward poster, and finally only the shadow of a strange man coming up and talking to the little girl, Elsie. 

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Like the others have said, the first five minutes of M can be summed up with the word “dread”.  With the first words of dialogue with the children’s song and the women’s discussion about hearing the children, we have a sense of foreboding.  It is only a matter of time before the murder picks his next victim.  It’s a testament to Lang’s skill that this was his first sound film because he uses sound so effectively, with the clock, the bells, the rhythm of Elsie’s bouncing ball, and even the street sounds.  What sticks out to me, though, is the children’s song.  Imagine sitting in a dark theater with the plain black screen and hearing the little girl say, “Just you wait, it won’t be long.”  Even without the follow-up of “The man in black will soon be here with his clever blade so true”, those lines create anticipation and help set up the tense mood.  Lang’s use of shadows, especially Peter Lorre’s, also helps the feeling of dread.  When we see it creep across the reward poster, we know, even without seeing the man’s face that the murderer is here, and he has chosen his next victim. 

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The way Lang has these innocent kids singing such a foreboding song creates a feeling of unease. The way he uses an overhead shot to capture the whole group and the slow steady pans to focus on certain characters is masterful, and when the film cuts to the scene where the little girl is bouncing her ball down the busy street I knew something bad was going to happen.

What I was most intrigued about was the lack of music. Many films use music as the key to creating a haunting scene, yet Lang only employs the voice of the characters, and the sounds that emanate around them. In my opinion this added to the opening. Instead of using music to cue the audience in on when something is going to happen, Lang makes use of camera movements and shadows and sounds (such as the clock) to create a feeling of oncoming dread.

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Right from the fade in, Lang ensures that the viewer is unsettled by the neighborhood depicted in M.

 

The vulnerability of the children is captured by the bird's-eye-view shot. Singing innocently about a child killer, they form a circle that roughly resembles a clock. Only time will tell which of them is the next one taken out of the game. Lang continues this symbolism with the cuckoo clock chiming 12 noon in Mrs. Brennerman's apartment. Just like the children's song, it is a jarring announcement. The medium close-ups on her domestic activities and her kind face suggest that she is a loving parent. Now that we empathize with her, Lang cuts between her preparing lunch (with a smile across her face) and daughter Elsie making her way home from school. What is coming next is a foregone conclusion. Not even the other man in black, the kindly police officer, can protect her from what lies ahead.

 

The shadow of the Man in Black cast across the reward poster is a fascinating film noir study. Note how the Man moves into the frame from the right of the frame, kinetics that emphasize his villainy (a contrast to Elsie and the housewife neighbor who move from left to right across the frame). The shadowy figure pauses so that he and his fedora are seemingly captioned by the word "Morder." Little Elsie's presence is implied by the visual/auditory repetition of her ball hitting the poster -- yet another rythmic timing device that is full of foreboding.

 

By the end of this sequence, viewers know that a serial killer is on the rampage in Fritz Lang's M.

 

 

 

 

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I have never seen "M" and this tantalizing little snippet has whetted my appetite! The lack of music, the tick-tock bouncing of the ball, the approach of the sinister shadow--each element combines to fill one with dread, as well as anticipation! I just watched Fritz Lang's "Fury" the other night for the first time, and now I want to see more of his work! Thank you, TCM, for making this possible!

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