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Daily Dose of Darkness #7: The Swinging Pendulum (The Opening Scene of Ministry of Fear)


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We continue this week's Daily Dose theme "First Words on Film Noir" with the opening scene of Fritz Lang's Ministry of Fear (1944), as it was first discussed by Borde and Chaumeton in the first book-length of film noir, A Panorama of American Film Noir. This Daily Dose will be delivered to you on Wednesday morning June 10. Let the discussion begin!

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M seemed to jump right into the tension in a much quicker fashion. In the opening of Ministry, I got the sense of a man being sprung from a cage (clocks and springs?) and the striking of the clock signifies the opening of a cage. But the cage is opening into the unknown. Because of its unknown element, the director of the asylum advises slowly entering into the next phase of life, but in the inmate's mind, there is time to be made upOnly time will tell what peril he will encounter as a result of his choices. In M there's a child murderer on the loose! We see the exact peril from the get go.

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Q1: In "M" Fritz used waning signs, we know something is wrong by the screeching train sound and we anticipate the train's fury. The smokestack spews anger. Here too, in "Ministry of Fear" we are warned that just below Neale's surface a ticking time bomb is about to explode. 

 

Neale's hand gestures grasping at air, humanize his dreadful wait as he is transfixed on the ticking clock.  The Dr's smoking pipe (reminiscent of the stoked steam engine of "M",) warns us just before we catch a glimpse of the true nature of his wait, he has been in an asyulym.

 

Q2: Fritz uses the clock to set atmosphere (atmos FEAR) and mood as it is the centerpiece of Neale's room and magnifies his wait. When the Dr. arrives he mentions that it could have been sped up, establishing that he has control over Neale's life, but that is about to change when he springs from his passive seated position to action. The clock rings appropriately at just that moment. But, when we see the sign, we jump in fear, Neale is a loose canon.

 

Q3: Fritz's use of dark profile in the opening scene of Neale paints a dark picture of the human condition we are about to witness and prepares us for the deeper study, this is the essence of Noir. He prepares us and is in deep opposition to the light, bright subject matter of status quo cinema.

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Like M 13 years earlier, Lang uses lack of sound to captivate and disturb. The silence is eerie, broken only by the staccato ticking of the clock. Even outside, we hear only their footsteps, and then the creaking asylum door as the protagonist leaves. There is almost no ambient sound, as he leaves this stifled world. He wants to go to London to hear noise, talking and laughter. Voices signify life, silence is deadly.

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The pendulum clicks like a beating heart under the dramatic opening score (the music alone signals you are in for a foreboding experience) but it's the series of gradual reveals that I liked.

 

  • Tight shot of the clock with aural focus on the ticking. Heartbeat? Bomb?
  • Clock about to strike 12 - a deadline for...something. But what?
  • The slow pan back to reveal what we think is an office...why is that man sitting in the dark?
  • The door opens and human engagement comes in the form of a man accompanied by the light from beyond the room...a chance to escape something? We now notice the bars on the window - this is not a bleak office. Is it a prison cell?
  • Milland is mesmerized by the clock and as we switch POV, it looks like he's restricted to that chair. But he's not bound or tied. Is he scared to move? Scared of the man coming in?
  • The overhead shot shows us as he leaves that this is not a prison yard - not with those lush hedges and gardens - but there is a barred gate. Is he at an embassy? Did he seek asylum, or perhaps he was detained as a prisoner? He's warned to avoid another encounter with the authorities, so it must be the latter.
  • As he walks down the road, the reveal is that he's in a mental institution. Why? How long? Why is he being released at midnight? Where is he headed?

Lang says a lot without having to resort to explicit dialogue or narration. In M we were taken from the odd children's game to the bleak boarding house women, and the clock announced an event (school is out in M, here it is Milland's release from the asylum). We are led to draw our own conclusions, and in our eagerness to do so we likely do not guess the truth. I didn't expect this place to be an asylum, nor did I expect the midday street scene in M to reveal the killer hiding in plain sight.

 

I think my favorite one-line explanation of film noir is "things are not as they seem". Lang is very skilled at playing that game.

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The long lingering shots don't work that well as they are too obvious. It is the expressionist lighting and the score that drum up the tension.

I agree that the lighting and the score by Milas Rozsa builds the tension, but the long shot of the pendulum the slow moving to the face, are as equally important in building the tension.  For a time, you wonder if they are coming to get Milland to hang him, then as you see more of the room, you lose that, but wonder what he has done.  Without the long shots there would not have been as  much tension.

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The rhythmic ticking of the clock in opening sequence of MOF echoes the counting song of the children in the opening of M.  The overhead shot of Milland leaving the asylum also says "Fritz Lang" and mimics camera shots in the previous film.   The lighting and composition in Lang's work make  the most seemingly mundane scenes fraught with drama and foreboding.

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An opening scene that shows a man seated in a bedroom, wearing a suit and watching a clock, is gripping in itself, but all the other revelations packed into those first 3 1/2 minutes -- the knowledge that the character watching the clock has been in trouble with the law and is at an asylum -- compels the viewer to keep watching. As a viewer, you want to follow that man down the street to see what happens next.

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This is another opening that prefers expressionism to realism. There are credits over the first image, pans, a zoom out, a crane shot, and the high contrast lighting. At point I'm wondering what distinguishes noir from expressionism, or if noir is just type of expressionist film. 

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The focus on the clock, even as the opening credits roll, begins the tension and curiosity right from the start. "What's it mean?" is the central thought that draws you in before the first scene even begins. I thought the silence of this opening was different than the opening of "M" where we had the voice of a child/children singing the 'horrible song' that foreshadowed the theme of that story. The silence, the clock and darkness of this beginning had a more dark, introspective feeling to it. Especially while the camera pulled back and we see the dark shadowed figure of Ray Milland staring down the swinging pendulum of clock, keeping time? keeping him imprisoned? We find out as the doctor (not known til later) opens the door illuminating him and releasing him from his internal dark prison into the bright world. 
"M"'s opening was wide open and less claustrophobic than this one which was closed and introspective, producing more of a trapped kind of feeling.

"Is he really free/cured?" we think as the camera pulls back more into the outside world and we see he has left an asylum. A place that fills the viewers  head with many assumptions and further draws us in to find out what kind of person he is and what he has done.

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In both "M" and "Ministry of Fear" there is a build up of tension but in "M'' it is slower.  In "Ministry of Fear" the opening showing the ticking clock, along with the music, builds the tension at a quicker pace.  Milland is seated totally in shadow until he is revealed by the light from an open door.  He looks as though he is ready to spring from the chair.  When 6:00 arrives he gets up and the tension is diminished but not quite broken.  I noticed that Lang did not use the sound of a clock striking the time.  Perhaps that would have completely broken the tension.

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It's like M, except when we see that there's a "crazy" person about, we realize that he's our protagonist (and the viewer doesn't realize what exactly the man has done, unlike in M, where we know he's a child murderer).

 

The clock sets atmosphere in that it has sort of a soothing, hypnotizing effect.  It gives them impression of a normal, everyday setting when in fact it's an insane asylum.

 

It's an important contribution to film noir style in that it turns the viewers' expectation on their heads when it comes to who they're rooting for as a protagonist.  Most heroes aren't so "weak" as to be in an insane asylum.

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A few things thought of while viewing this and after (reading what people say) 

 

-the ticking clock was almost like Poe's The Tell Tail Heart and The Pit and the Pendulum

 

-Right before the clock turned to a new hour we see Ray's hands begin to tighten (that makes me think he might have had some electric shock therapy?) 

 

-Why and how did Ray get into Police Business?

 

-I feel that we might see clocks though out this film as a sign/theme

 

 

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In both movies, Lang is using a minimalist approach to put the viewer on edge.  In M the courtyard is barren, and the child's voice is sharp with a harsh echo.  In Ministry of Fear the clock is the only thing to look at.  Instead of a disquieting sound, we have only the slight tick of the clock and the eerie music.  The fact that the clock is surrounding by so much negative space and is backed by harsh shadows from the directional light creates an even more unsettling vibe.

 

When the camera tracks back we get to see just how big the clock is -- it dominates the wall.  Time is a very important factor.  The clock never leaves the frame except for a medium shot of Milland in a strange expression of elation with an almost maniacal tension.   The man is initially in shadow, an instant mystery.  Who is he?  Where is he?  Why is he watching the clock?  The conversation is too vague to give us an exact sense of place, we only know that London is being bombed and the protagonist wants to go there -- the risk is worth it.

 

In M, Lang does an excellent job of giving us a sense of place in the apartment complex.  The stairs are long enough to make the climb carrying the laundry basket an unpleasant chore.  The woman at the wash basin (Elsie's mother) is weary but has a schedule as evidenced by how she expects her daughter at a certain time.  The way she sets the table shows us the fastidious nature of her role as a mother and housewife.

 

In Ministry of Fear, I found the scene where Milland is leaving the asylum to be interesting. As he pauses at the gate for his final conversation, the tight framing gives a claustrophobic sense.  His freedom is held is check for just a moment longer.  Framed between the stone wall, the psychiatrist and the guard, Milland is told "not to get involved with the police again."  It is a warning backed up by the visuals of confinement.  Only when he walks out of the frame does the mise-en-scene become more open as the camera pans to follow him and reveal the name of institution. 

 

Lang clearly understands the psychological use of shadow, positive/negative space, sound, and boiling down information to create a sharp, specific emotional response.  Having never seen Ministry of Fear, I am looking forward to comparing this work to M.  Has Lang refined his approach?  What has evolved, what is new, what part of his style has survived without any alterations?

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So, I watched this film last night...I'll confess that I wasn't a huge fan of it (though I typically love Lang's films). 

 

Onto the opening scene: 

 

Both M and Ministry of Fear use the lack of non-diegetic sound to build tension. Like with M, the lack of non-diegetic sound forces you to focus in the diegetic sounds that exist (the clock, the creaking of the asylum gate) and gives you the sense that something creepy is going on. That said, Ministry of Fear cheats a bit with the music from the credits. After watching the credits, we already know what what sort of move it's going to be. And when we meet the protagonist, we know that he will be subject to many things outside of his control and that many of the events that unfold will not be in his favor (this seems to be a theme in his life as well, as we learn more about his past). The presence of the clock in the opening scene reminds us that there are certain things necessarily outside the scope of our control (the passing of time). It also give us the sense that the clock is counting down to something, perhaps the revealing of the protagonist's fate to himself. 

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Both the opening of M & the opening of Ministry of Fear have an initial stillness to them before the cameras move around and pull back. Both films utilize shadows and light to set the stage for what is to come.


 


I think the uneasy ambience of each film is similar. both are eerie and you just feel off kilter watching them. Like you low something is coming but aren't sure when.


 


With the latter you can tell that the calm and stillness is temporary. 


 


Fritz Lang uses the clock in this scene as a major element to set mood and atmosphere in that it is the most lit object in the room and it's in the center of the opening shot. By doing this you can tell that the passage of time, the elements of time with regard to waiting and anticipating are important element sod the film.


 


The opening scene from Ministry of Fear is considered as an important contribution to the film noir style in that the use of shadows, light and space are important. The fact that there is a open floor space between Milland's desk and the clock is telling. The fact that the clock is at the center of the opening signifies that it is almost a character itself. This use of common elements to propel atmosphere and plot is used in noir films later on. also, the way Milland is in the dark and speaking is also indicative of the style of noir.


 


I's almost like an ethereal state is existing until the clock chimes at midnight.


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The clock is fantastic. By starting close, focusing on how loud it is (and adding dramatic music), tension automatically fills the air. We know something is up! But then, when the camera pulls out, and we realize how quiet the actual room is - that sets up an awesome contrast. The rest of the clip is quiet. But we know that the protagonist isn't. Even in a quiet or in noise, Neale is the center of turmoil. We're setup to carry what we know about Neale wherever we go, knowing that the silence and calm around him is not something he carries within him (or that he'll experience once he's somewhere else).  

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The opening scene is symbolic in many ways. It entices fear and trepidation. you get the sense that there is some one sneaking up behind you with a knife, going directly into your back. The pendulum swinging back and forth only makes the anxiety within you stronger. The pendulum has always been one of those elements that we contribute to fear, it's very apropos to use this in the beginning of the movies that's titled Ministry of Fear - does it not. With film noir you want to be scared and on the edge of your seat not knowing exactly whats coming, the suspense of the opening scene really captivates the essence of film noir in my opinion. 


I remember back when I was in orchestra and we played a piece called Pit and the Pendulum based on the story by Edgar Allan Poe. I worked my but off trying to get the piece just so and to bring the emotions that the work of music elicits. Just seeing the beginning where the pendulum swings to and fro it strangely brings good memories.


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My original thought was hey prison is not too bad, window, bed, lots of room, but then I got to see

exactly where he was when he left the building. Brought the clock into the forefront for me, the ticking would drive me insane. No pun intended.

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The way Lang uses the clock and the swinging pendulum evokes a sense of fear and of foreboding. We immediately get the impression that time is running out, that we are hurtling towards some dark doom (all of which is aided by the dark, atmospheric set). Furthermore, the character sitting there, in the dark, staring at the clock also adds to the sense of foreboding as we immediately get the impression that something is wrong with this character; that he must be crazy (of which is culminated in the fact that the character leaves an asylum). Lastly, the clock adds a sense of mystery. We sense the doom, we sense that something is going to happen, but the clock keeps us guessing as to when and where, and to most importantly - what is going to happen.

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My original thought was hey prison is not too bad, window, bed, lots of room, but then I got to see

exactly where he was when he left the building. Brought the clock into the forefront for me, the ticking would drive me insane. No pun intended.

 

Haha, you know, the clock also gives us a sense that the place had driven the character mad! All in all, it heightens that feeling of craziness associated with an asylum.

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I found the opening of this film to be very stark and foreboding.  The never ending movement of the pendulum (on the clock), the unstoppable ticking, then the ominous music begins as the credits are shown. All of that really got my heart ticking!

 

As in M the movie begins with only the sounds of the scene, a clock ticking in this film and children singing in M.  There is no dialogue until later.  A clock plays a significant role in both films, here literally ticking away the time and in M the cuckoo clock sounds the time for the children being released from school to head home for lunch. The "real" action begins after we see the clock in both films.

 

As Ray Milland sits watching the clock I felt the isolation, the being alone, that he must have experienced.  The lighting, the sounds, the music the shots, the setting all came together to create a mood of loneliness. I'm not surprised he wanted to get lost in a crowd.

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