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


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Tick tock, tick tock! In both M and Ministry of Fear you are watching the clock, counting time as much as the characters are. You feel as if you are holding your breath, waiting for life to start post asylum, or the moment someone will stop a murder. It is tense and hooks you completely into the movie, causing you to want to stay until the end. Both openings make you feel as if time is ticking away in anticipation of something momentous.

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Victor Young's bombastic music under the florid typeface of the credits in the opening clip of "Ministry of Fear" places this Fritz Lang film a world away from the lone child's voice heard over a blank screen that opens the same director's "M," filmed more than a decade earlier and a continent away.

 

The films share a certain starkness in their opening shots, but while "M" continues in this spare visual style, "Ministry of Fear" shows us a different world once the protaganist has left the cell of his asylum.

 

The ticking clock, shadowed by daylight in "M" seems to denote the safe haven of the mother's kitchen where she waits for the daughter who will never come home.  It is a cruel harbinger of death.  Conversely, the ticking clock in "Ministry of Fear," shadowed, even gargoyled by darkness, is the countdown to a reprieve, a return to life. 

 

Both films are dark, low contrast affairs, though the earlier film shows its German Expressionist roots more overtly that the later work.

 

"M" and "Minstry of Fear" have murder in their backstory, and both present more murder as they unspool.  "Ministry of Fear" seems to have, and this will sound strange when talking about films noir,  a lighter touch.  Perhaps the fact that "M" was filmed in Germany and uses subtitles accounts for some of the stridency of the style.  In contrast, "Ministry of Fear" seems to have an almost Hitchcockian tone in spots.

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Even before the film proper begins, there is the clock.  It fills the screen behind the text of the title sequence.   The music has a slow, ponderous tempo, set down by the tympani, that matches the pendulum swings even as the other instruments perform tension-building runs and builds and crescendos above it.  The music is in a minor key and  never resolves, but cross-fades with the ticks of the clock until they are all that is left.  I’m already feeling the danger and am vigilant.  The camera moves sideways away from clock revealing a barred window behind which is an obviously painted exterior backdrop. We don’t have reality to cling to.  The “M” first sequence of the children playing , I believe, does exactly the same thing. The steady tempo of the game song is a similar device. The sparseness of the setting tells us this is a dream-like, fictive place.    Breath bated.  Hackles up.

 

Similar also are the high contrast shadows.  These appear even deeper black, the contrast higher than in “M”.  The room is full of bars: window, walls, bedstead.  The objects are  few and awkwardly placed. The dialogue sends our attention back to the clock.  Dull, heavy metal, the weights could be bodies in canvas bundles dipped in lead, the disc could cut, (reminding me of a horror-upon-horror-laden short story by Franz Kafka), it is attached to a weapon with a rapier tip.  Are those cloaked Death figures on either side of the clock face ?  The Doctor says he’s been meaning to speed it up.  Is that possible in a place like this?  Think not.   The clock chimes, Milland is stock-still in the chair; he raises his hands a short way above the chair arms with great effort, curls his fingers into soft fists, jerks them up as if breaking shackles, and is free.  This is not Naturalism.  He can now move, and swiftly,  His voice has a natural rhythm.

 

A crane shot looks over the outer wall as Dr. and patient slowly move toward the creaking gate as it slowly opens.  Dialogue reveals that Milland has performed a criminal act of some kind and must beware of the police.  He leaves the gate, walks away.  His measured footfalls match the cadence set by the clock.   He passes a sign that tells us that he has just left an insane asylum.  He is criminally insane.  Perhaps a menace.  Peter Lorre. But Millan seemed so hopeful and innocent just moments ago...

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I immediately feel as though I'm being hypnotized by the clock pendulum in the opening scene. Once you realize you're not alone in the room you begin to wonder why sit and watch the clock.. what will happen when it chimes the hour?

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The swinging pendulum is there before the opening title and credits. The room is so dark that you don't realize anyone is in the room. The light from the opened door takes a slow moment to project some light on Ray Millard's face. Time and the passing of time plays an  important role in the opening of Ministry of Fear and M. The line that seems to have the most weight was not to have another police encounter. I agree with the post from athing305 "with a Hitchcockian tone" 

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The simularities between the opening of Ministry of Darkness and the opening of M for me was the silence. Lang uses sounds such as the ticking to great effect. I will say that M made me feel dread whereas Ministry made me feel mysterious (an odd emotion I know). We feel as though this man was not locked up but recovering but the shadow cast by our man in the chair makes me feel there is something sinister lurking underneath his demeanor. When we see he is leaving an asylum it becomes a little clearer to us the viewer, just like the reveal of the murderer,s shadow in M. Lang in my opinion does this slow burn mystery stuff really really well. As far as a contribution this scene has made to film noir in general, I would have to say it is the idea of a "split" personality in our protagonist- where we arent sure if he is a bad guy or a good guy.

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Similarities between this opening and that of M:  The quiet.  And Ray Milland's walk, similar to that of the little girl - both going somewhere, but it's an unknown somewhere.  The doctor and Milland talk of the clock, an uninteresting detail, just as the laundrywomen were involved in their uninteresting laundry.

The clock ticks through the opening credits and after.  It has our focus, our undivided attention.  The lighting creates shadows that show almost more prominently than the pendulum and weights.  

This darkness and shadowing continues through the rest of the opening:  Milland's face is shadowed until the clock finishes striking.  The area inside the gate is dark and shadowy.  The wall outside the asylum is dark and shadowy.  Film noir's use of lighting and shadow always shows a stark constrast.  We see the overall dark tones, and when something is shown with more light, it pulls our attention more strongly.

 

 

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Ciao.

 

-- How would you compare the opening of M to the opening of Ministry of Fear?

Both movies let us in to the story with a series of clues until we get the most significant one: in M is the police poster bulletin about a series of child murders; in Ministry of Fear is the sign outside the building, Lembridge Asylum. They also have in common the using of a clear sound effect, not disturbed by the environment.

 

-- Describe in your own words how Fritz Lang uses the clock in this scene as a major element to set mood and atmosphere.

In the very first part of the opening we can clearly see the clock, but we hear the background music following its ticking with the drums/kettledrums. Once we get into the story, after the titles, the music fades out and the ticking of the pendulum fades in. We are close to 6, a man is waiting in a room, close to a luggage. Is it finally time to leave?

 

-- In what ways can this opening scene from Ministry of Fear be considered as an important contribution to the film noir style?

There's a use of dramatic tone of the light, music and sound. It's like dark and light, bad and good. 

 

Roberto

 

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The opening scene of Fritz Lang’s Ministry of Fear shows the last few minutes of waiting as Stephen Neale (Ray Milland) prepares to leave the asylum where he has spent the last two years in connection with an unexplained matter that involved a police charge.  As the clock completes striking 6 pm, Neale stands from his chair, closes his packed bag, and proceeds to leave the asylum.  After two years of staring at the face of the clock, he tells his doctor he is eager to be pushed and jammed by the biggest crowds he can find in London, where a “sea of faces will be a good tonic.”  As the gate of Lembridge Asylum opens and Neale steps back into freedom, Dr. Norton admonishes him to avoid any future involvement with the police, as a second charge “would not be easy.”  As experienced moviegoers, we now suspect that some sort of trouble and involvement with the police must be waiting around the corner for Neale.  So, after two years of anticipation, measured out by the tick tock of the clock in the credit sequence, Neale begins his new life with positive thoughts about immersing himself in society again.  The viewer is left in suspense about how this story is going to go wrong.  At this point, the viewer does not know exactly why Neale was sent to the asylum or what his treatment was.  Even though he is played by the sympathetic Ray Milland, there could still be questions about whether his reintegration into society is a good thing.  Lang uses the clock in this opening scene, echoed and reinforced by Victor Young’s musical score, as a sort of countdown clock to mark the beginning of the action when Neale is released from Lembridge Asylum.

 

In comparing the opening of Ministry of Fear with the opening sequence of M, I now see things I missed before.  The earlier film also also opens with anticipation.  The first word spoken in M is “warte” (wait).  The circle of children is shot from a high angle.  Even though there are only seven in the circle, one could view them as a sort of clock face.  The girl in the middle is rotating in a clockwise fashion as she recites the counting-down rhyme, using her extended arm and finger as a sort of clock hand, rhythmically counting down as she points to one child for each syllable until the final syllable determines who is “out.”  And, according to the words of the rhyme, being “out” means that the man in black will come and make “Schabefleisch” (ground meat) out of the one selected.  The clock motif reappears shortly in the apartment of Frau Beckmann.  The sound of the cuckoo clock striking 12 noon, echoed by the nearby bells in the city, signals that she can put down her backbreaking work and finish preparing the noonday meal in anticipation of Elsie’s return from school.  The scene in front of the school shows other parents waiting with anticipation for their children  to emerge.  Just as when Neale emerges from the safe confines of the Lembridge Asylym, the real action begins in M when the children emerge from the protective confines of the school onto the busy streets of Berlin.  The scene ends when the finger of fate lands on Elsie as her path home from school crosses that of the man in black, who will soon become her murderer.

 

A final note on Ministry of Fear:  In a later scene, the tick tock of the clock in Neale’s room at the asylum is echoed by the rhythmic tapping of the “blind” man’s cane on the train station platform before he enters the compartment he will share with Neale.  Then the man turns out not to be any more blind than the “blind” beggars in M who can actually see and help track down the murderer.

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The dark, mysterious music along with the ticking clock and the very dark lighting leave the viewer with an uneasy foreboding of whats to come.  Milland is sitting in a very dark room and seeming to be watching the pendulum swinging on the clock which reads a few minutes before six.  When the door opens Milland seems almost afraid and certainly apprehensive about what is occurring.  The viewers do not have any idea of what is the transpiring until they see the Lembridge Sanitarium sign as Milland is leaving the asylum.

 

The suspense in the opening of this film is intense.  The doctor's comments to the departing Milland let you know that he had done something against the law that caused him to be committed to the sanitarium.

 

The ticking clock makes you think that Milland has been incarcerated for a long period of time and how difficult it must be to pass time by watching the pendulum swing.  That in itself might be enough to drive one mad.

 

The darkness of the film and the focus on learning more about the character contribute to the noir style.

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Well, you just can't discuss Fritz Lang without referencing his use of shadow and sound (or lack thereof). The high contrast lighting/shadow is for another post; I'd like to talk about his use of sound. In this clip, the clock ticks with the movement of the pendulum, but the sound stops when the intro music stops. What we are left with is uncompromising silence. This technique is also used in M with the whistle. This ability to make the audience squirm through silence is perhaps my favorite technique of Lang's. Few directors (and musicians) truly realize the power of space and silence. 

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The minor chord music fades as the pendulum takes over the rhythm and we see Ministry of Fear is "Directed by Fritz Lang." Minor key=bad, clock pendulum=bad. This is going to be a doubly bad movie.

 

One thing that strikes me about this opening is the use of a porter at the gate to Lembridge Asylum. It reminds me of the scene from MacBeth where the porter sees himself as the porter of Hell gate that lets people in "to the everlasting bonfire." Here, on the other hand, there is no comic relief as the porter is letting people out of Hell, and the warden gives Ray Milland "One parting thought. Don't get involved with the police in any way." 

 

The clock is something that Milland is obsessed with as he grips the arms of his chair finding it "interesting to watch the last minute crawl by." The ticking let's viewers know it is just a matter of time before Milland gets "involved with the police" and it isn't going to be good.
 

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By the time Lang had directed Ministry of Fear, he had been in the United States for about eight years, having been a citizen for less than five. He had made eight American films prior. Working within a new system of styles, studios, and censorship explains the major differences between the openings of M and Ministry.

 

There is that sense of urgency created by the clock, but the sweeping score of doom is not understated like M’s sound design and use of silence. American films tend more towards scoring and explicit conveyance of tone through music, it’s not subtle. The tick tock of the clock is the closest he gets to M. Any sound, no matter how quiet, if repeated over and over will grate on any sense of peace. A clock ticking symbolizes time in a variety of ways, and in this case it represents the time waited in anticipation of freedom from an asylum, isolated and stifling. Prisons and mental institutions isolate people whether in solitary confinement or separate wards in an attempt to have them relinquish any feelings of anger, violence, or deep depression but isolation often has the opposite effect, making them even more mad (in both senses of the word).

 

Another difference is in the lighting. M was almost painfully and harshly lit as we are introduced to a tenement building, everything is gray with dark diagonals. Ministry starts in almost complete darkness as the asylum patient waits eerily in the dark for his release.

 

There are definite signs of his Expressionist roots, and I imagine when Lang served in World War I and was treated for shell shock (now PTSD), he had seen the inside of an asylum or two.

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How would you compare the opening of M to the opening of Ministry of Fear?

-- Describe in your own words how Fritz Lang uses the clock in this scene as a major element to set mood and atmosphere. 

-- In what ways can this opening scene from Ministry of Fear be considered as an important contribution to the film noir style?

 

The tone of M and Ministry of Fear are similar, but achieved differently.  The children's horrifying song vs. a ponderous clock.  But clocks appear in M, MOF, and Metropolis as central symbols, all negative or at least leaning toward the negative and foreboding.  Milland's character states how it has been his only companion in a sense and he wants to get around people and away from the solitude of the asylum, even if it means being in blitzed London.  The clock's striking noon then represents his freedom, as if a change in moment in time can really change one's consciousness or condition.  Legally, maybe, but not really.  So the clock represents entrapment at some level.

 

I notice that noir often start with slow pans of rooms or interiors, as opposed to expansive panoramas or people's faces or action scenes.  Rooms can be homey but they can also be claustrophic, dark, enclosing, menacing, which is what is going on here.  We don't know from the start this is an asylum but we have to guess that it is not just this man's home, his own place by choice.  There is some kind of imprisonment going on, and we see Milland lift his arms from the chair and drop them down, as if he can't move.  I want to watch this whole film now, as it is one I have missed to this point.

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I have not seen Ministry of Fear, but the opening sequence definitely piqued my interest. I agree that the use of shadow and light is not as stark as in M; the sharp contrast in M as well as Metropolis, which was also directed by Lang is jarring.

 

Ministry opens with the sound of the ticking clock; fortunately, the sound is gradually eliminated, which allows the viewer to relax. I agree with another writer who said if the sound had gone on much longer it would grate on the viewer's nerves thus causing the viewer to miss some of the other subtleties in the opening scene. I appreciate the use of music to help to set the tone of the scene as well and, frankly, miss the use of music in today's films to set a film's tone. 

 

Although Milland's character is eager to leave the asylum, I also get a sense that he is unsettled at leaving surroundings which are familiar to him and may find himself unnerved in London by the closeness of the city and its people.

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I think that Lang used the imagery of clocks and the concept of time quite a bit throughout his films. In Metropolis when Freder relieves the exhausted man at the Machine, the hands that he must manipulate resemble the hands of a clock. The faster the machine makes him move, the more we sense that time is running out.

 

Time is also a theme throughout M. The cuckoo clock first alerts us at the beginning of the film that something is amiss. Later one of the criminal element, a thief is seen with six watches. Where to start looking for the murderer? Nearer to the climax of the film, we hear the sound of the clock in the square tolling at the same time that the officer must adjust and wind the clocks in the bank to avoid the police alarm being rung. And then there is a verbal countdown of minutes after the alarm is sounded. In a race to find Beckert, the organization of criminals and beggars frantically search before the police arrive. When Beckert is finally apprehended, there is a grandfather clock behind him and the hands fall at the exact moment that he is caught. The significance of these sounds is emphasized because they occur after lengthy periods of silence as there is no film score.

 

In these films, as in the beginning of Ministry of Fear, the clock is meant to increase the tension and anxiety of the viewer and heighten our fear of the passage of time.

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The imagery of the clock certainly lends itself to many interpretations. At the most basic and obvious level, we anticipate the impending "something is going to happen." We aren't sure yet what that something is, but it becomes obvious that Milland's character is about to complete his sentence (or in this case, treatment) at a hospital/asylum. I was reminded of a similar clock image in High Noon with the ticking and constant return to the main street clock counting down the ominous arrival of the gang bent on revenge against Gary Cooper's stoic marshall. Maybe even a more modern Western can fit into the noir genre?

 

Until we view the movie completely, we aren't really sure why Milland was in the asylum. The doctor's advice to avoid future problems with the police infers it may have been a criminal act (with an insanity defense keeping him from hard time in a penitentiary), but we aren't sure. Further recommendation to avoid a crowded, noisy, bombing target of London suggests Milland may have some psychological issues not entirely "cured". The Lorre character in M seemed more sinister, at least in these opening moments.

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Neal is a free man ,for him to see and to ear the last sound of the clock was a joy, but the Dr. warned him to be out of trouble ,plus adding the squeaking sound of the door. I noticed  the shadows and lightening of the shots. 

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Wk 2 Ministry of Fear

 

-- How would you compare the opening of M to the opening of Ministry of Fear? In “M”, the children’s elimination game suggests something bad is happening, and will continue to happen, as people are eliminated, one by one.  The little girl in the center is like the clock, her bobbing arm and finger like a pendulum, ticking off those who will be eliminated.  In “Ministry of Fear”, the ominous chord underscoring the Paramount Logo dictates that something bad is going to happen in this movie. The cross dissolve into the starkly lit, ticking pendulum clock supports this and suggests that time may be running out. Then, a stronger ominous chord and the titles “Ministry of Fear” fade up, displayed in a font that suggests old English and/or the Nazi regime’s lettering style.  By the time this film was released I’m pretty sure that everyone had a good idea to what this “Ministry of Fear” referred.  Time is running out. But for whom? As the scene continues, light streams in from the hallway as a man enters the room.  The suggestion being that the “light” is outside.

 

Describe in your own words how Fritz Lang uses the clock in this scene as a major element to set mood and atmosphere. Time is running out, or something is coming to an end.  We do not see the face of the clock until the camera pulls back at the end of the credits.  When the last title fades, the minute hand moves forward, one tick, and then the ticking fades into the background as the camera pulls back and reveals the scene.  The clock’s ticking may have faded, but this passage of time and the reminder of it is still right there in the background, looming, the pendulum moving. As the scene unfolds, we learn that time: how much has passed, how much remains, is tantamount to the Ray Milland character.  The clock is his nemesis.  It’s in a place in the room where he can’t escape seeing it.

 

 

-- In what ways can this opening scene from Ministry of Fear be considered as an important contribution to the film noir style?   Some obvious elements would be the deep contrast lighting with an abundance of shadows.  Also, part of the suspense is we, as the audience, are literally being kept in the dark about the actual proceedings.  Where are we?  It doesn’t look like a prison.  It could be a hospital, but no one’s in white.  When the other man walks him to the exit, the camera is high, revealing what looks like beautiful landscaping.  Looks like a classy place.  The top of the gate tells a different story: sharp spikes at the top of the gate: no one’s getting out of here without permission.  Finally, only when Milland actually leaves do we see where we are, and where he was: the Lembridge Asylum, the three-dimensional words seemingly growing out of the wall almost pulse from inside the wall itself, like they, too, are pushing to get out. This effect is much more creepy than flat lettering would’ve been.  Plus the use of the word "Asylum" is very strong, not "Sanitarium," not "Hospital".  Also, the music helps us along, with ominous chords and flourishes at just the right moment to heighten the dramatic effect of the visual.

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MINISTRY OF FEAR: Me and my shadow.

In M the clock represents mortality while the near-cuckoo in this scene symbolizes freedom. When his releaser opens the door Milan goes from full shadow to half. Cured in shadowed isolation, he now craves crowds.

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The opening images of the clock alone, relentlessly ticking, the very contrasty lighting which seems to accentuate the blade-like pendulum with it's swishing black shadow, the film score playing over the image with it's deep, disturbing motifs -- all create feelings of a dark, enclosed, mechanistic world where there is no escape from what, doom? When the camera pulls back we see the setting for the clock -- a low-ceilinged, unlit, sparely furnished room, and a man sitting rigidly staring at the clock. A second man enters and as they converse we discover the seated man is waiting for the last moment of his incarceration. He grips the arms of the chair as if he is a man strapped into the electric chair awaiting his death. Instead, he is now free to leave and rejoin the outside world. The next scene is a cut to the two men walking to the institution's front gate. Even this scene is framed tightly, with the camera slightly above the men. As the gate opens it creaks loudly, as if this is rarely done. The formerly incarcerated man is warned to never be involved with the police again, and we see on the wall, as he walks away, he has been in an asylum. These first three-plus minutes of film create an archetypal Film Noir world -- claustrophobic, dark, as opposed to light, a relentless sense of no real escape from a world beyond one's control.

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Susprising as I am a big fan of both Lang and Greene but this one has never really touched me much

 

-- How would you compare the opening of to the opening of Ministry of Fear?

They are both trying to create a feeling of all pervading dread but M does so in a wide range of ways that put you right in the setting and make you feel like society as a whole is under attack. Ministry of Fear does so with a handful of quite cliched ways, the ticking clock suggesting a countdown to something, the shadows, the germanic font, and never reaches the same level of involvement.

 

-- Describe in your own words how Fritz Lang uses the clock in this scene as a major element to set mood and atmosphere. 

Lang holds on the clock during the necessary business of the credits leaving the audience crying out for a release from it's relentless ticking enabling us to identify with Milland's character's desire for release.  It's not totally effectively done in my view but it does foster audience identification and create a sense of impatient tension.

 

-- In what ways can this opening scene from Ministry of Fear be considered as an important contribution to the film noir style?

 

The shadowy visuals and the idea of the imprisoned protagonist on a quest to make amends or clear something up but terrified of being returned to the institution are quite firmly noir tropes

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At the beginning of this film we see a huge clock in the room with a man counting the ticks until freedom. He had been sitting in darkness eagerly awaiting the time to leave the asylum. In the film, M we see the children in a circle with a little girl in the center counting the words to a taboo song. In the apartment we see a clock counting down the time for lunch. The mother eager awaiting the appearance of her daughter. The daughter steps and bouncing of a ball is also counting down to her fate. The man in black eager awaiting his time with the daughter.

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This film and M both contained German Expressionism. There is high contrast between black and white and clear shadows on the pendulum. The clock reminded me of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Pit and the Pendulum". The character is waiting for the pendulum to swing down and finally slice him in half and the wait is so agonizing that near the end the character begs the pendulum to hit him so that the waiting and anticipation will end. The protagonist is clearly waiting for something to happen and is going mad with the waiting, shown by the way he grabbed the arms of his chair. What I most enjoyed was the fact that the audience wasn't sure what was going on with this character until the gate where we heard the doctor tell the protagonist to stay away from the police and as he walks away we see that he was in an asylum. 

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