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


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There's a quite big dissonance between the first seconds of the film and the rest of the opening scene. First, we see a dreadful pendulum, shades on the wall, the music and titles are setting the mood also. We expect someting bad to happen, we expect to see or feel fear. But we surely don't see any of it later - we can see a man, Neale, who's is being released from the asylum. Yes, the clock is still his enemy, Neale identifies it with his confinement and time he spent there for doing an act of mercy to the one he loved, his terminally sick wife. He's watching "the last minute to crawl by after so many of them". When the clock strikes 6 - Neale smiles. He is a free man, finally! No time to lose then, Neale packs his luggage and wants to leave the asylum as quick as possible. The doctor advises him to go to some quiet town, get a job there, simply to rest, but Neale feels he was resting to much and he wants some action. He's sick and tired of being isolated and lonely - he wants to leave immediately. Neale wants to meet people, wants to see them talking, laughing, literally wants to be "pushed and jammed by the biggest crowds" he can find. No more tick tock! He is full of hope and when the gate creaks, Neale smiles and breathes deeply. No more scary and merciless clock, no more dreadful asylum - Neale leaves everything behind that old gate. Doctor tells him not to get into trouble. I don't think Neale is afraid of the outside world - he surely does not want to go back to the asylum. 

 

The opening of "M" is gloomy and terrifying, the opening of "Ministry of Fear"... brings hope. And we start to wonder about the title... Maybe something bad will happen to this nice gentleman? We were hoping this time Fortune will be on his side, but... there would be no movie if everything was ok... ;) Neal leaves the asylum and enters a dark alley. Maybe this darkness is a portent of impending doom? 

 

Neale is a tragic protagonist - he is not a villain, but he did something illegal, even if his motives were noble. He is a classic victim of circumstances, a man who tries to grab his luck and mostly fails. If something goes wrong, it he meets some difficulties, the presence of any clock with pendulum could bring him to despair and madness. The clock as the symbol of time and place he wants to forget, the memory which might pursue him every time he feels unsafe. The fear of losing everything again...

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There is a buildup of signs that tells a story. We are expexted to feel the dread. It is though somewhat surprising that this scene ends in relief. That relief is shown in the expressions of the main character. His emotions interact with the clock spelling out the message. It is then the wardens farewell message that swings the pendelum back to the possible dread. Lang expressionism again but this time the shadows "interfere" strongly with the contrasty structures, a more "noirish" atmosphere.

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There is often something monotonous going on in the backgrounds of Films' Noir opening credit sequences. From the moment the camera fades in to the shot of the clock's pendulum, to the point where Neale says, "You know, it's interesting to watch the last minute crawl by..." is actually a little OVER a minute. This makes the Doctor's quip of "I've always meant to have that thing speeded up." just that much more ironic. (Although, I doubt film makers in those days anticipated online viewers with time counters!)

 

In the opening to "M" there are fairly monotonous visages into lower-middleclass Urban German life. The opening to "Ministry of Fear" on the other hand gives us a clock that is obviously counting down to the anticipation of some event that is time-sensitive. However, the church bells in "M" siginifying that school is out for children can be paralleled to the clock in "Ministry of Fear" striking six and signifying the release of Stephen Neale from his captivity.

 

Film Noir often has a morally abiguous, or otherwise-flawed heroes. In the opening scene of "Ministry of Fear", nothing is explained. However, our protagonist is institutionalized in an asylum, but the reason(s) are not known to us. He obviously had some "trouble with the police" which led to him being there, but outside that, we don't know what flaws our protagonist has. Having not-yet watched the entire film, I can assume that Neale's past will be revealed to us through flash back sequences or other glimpses into events leading up to his stay in the asylum.

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Not having seen too many of Lang's films, I am very impressed with how skillfully he establishes a clear, vivid mood and tone in the opening scenes of both "M" and "Ministry of Fear." Specifically his use of shadowing and the absence of music (beyond the title credits). The lack of score does a fantastic job of highlighting the natural sounds of the world the characters inhabit, making them seem ominous and foreboding. The ticking clock is a case in point. Otherwise an innocuous sound, in Lang's hands it builds tension and signals potential doom--in "M" the child's death, in "Ministry of Fear" Neale's release from an asylum and the imminent drama that is soon to unfold.

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Both M and Ministry of Fear have stark beginnings, however M has much more stark symbolism and use of art. The fear for the children is immediate in M. The feel in Ministry of Fear seems a bit more relaxed, a passive feeling of oppression rather than alarm, yet Lang still uses the heavy imagery like the pendulum swinging, the dark and heavy feel of it, as the lighting shoots the shadows of the swinging arm and the weights on the wall behind. The lighting is subdued even then. When the scene opens up, we see a man siting in the darkened room. The camera spans the room to see the bars on the window with very little light from outside. It is evening. There is a checker board lying on its side - a game, like the elimination game in M that the children play, checkers is also an elimination game, but it has been put away and will be left behind.

The door opens and light floods in from the outside in the hall as the administrator comes in. Neal sits, prisoner of the clock. He waits until the final chime of the clock before he rises, finally a free man. The clock, the bars on the windows, the darkness in the room, all speak to his "time" he has served in the asylum. Even the threat of bombings in London doesn't change his resolve to have noise and crowds just to get away from the memory of that clock.

The clock signals his release in this movie. The cuckoo clock in M also represents a release - the children are released from school, the mother is released from her work. In Ministry of Fear, it marks his release, but moreover it represents his bondage, so it is more of an oppressive feel. It is not a cuckoo clock in Ministry of Fear. There is no happy sound when the clock strikes the hour, just the sonorous chimes that sound, mournful, subdued, and in shadow.

But even after his release, the scene is subdued and quiet, at least until he gets well past the gates of the asylum.

As a film noir contribution, this film sets a depressed scene, a man in an asylum accused of the mercy killing of his wife. He is innocent, but the system has punished him anyway. He is considered an ex-con. Lang's heavy stylistic approach to the subject, with a great cast, lots of plot twists and turns and people turning out not to be who they say they are, make this a great example of film noir. It has a happy ending, where many don't, almost in contrast with most of the films' darker endings. Ministry of Fear deals with Nazis, espionage, betrayal. All with beautiful people, with stylish clothes and lavish  apartments. There is a preponderance of stripes used throughout the movie - lots of pin stripes and diagonal striped ties. The bad guys always have the striped ties in this movie! The bird  in a birdcage seen in an early scene is great foreshadowing for a scene later in the movie where an important clue is found. There are the signs around London warning the people "Don't Help the Enemy" and "Warning: Be On Your Guard." So much fun to find these things, knowing the director chose these items to appear with great care and forethought. It has so many wonderful layers to dig through and makes watching it multiple times a pleasure - like a murder investigation - sorting through the treasure trove of clues the film maker leaves us to find!

 

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I believe this is the first Daily Dose clip where the opening credits have been left in - and for good reason. The swining pendulum, and more importantly for me, the ominous and dark mood of the score, linger heavily. It's foreshadowing of dread hits you over the head, and the clock signals it may not take long.

 

It is the clock that our revealed protagonist has been staring at for years now, enjoying his last night crawl by until midnight hits and he is released. As we get that overhead shot in M of the kids playing and rhyming about a murderer, we get a similar overhead angle of a supposed murderer being released from the asylum in Ministry of Fear. Clocks play a role in both films as well, with kids being released from school in M. Both instances of release are typically a positive occasion - but not in film noir. 

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

 

They are similar in the sense that they open with a scene that is not immediately clear, but quickly progresses to a point that one feels either highly disturbed (as in M) or curious (as in Ministry)

 

 

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

 

The use of a clock in any scene will introduce the element of anticipation of something that is yet to come. The sudden opening of the door, with seconds yet to go, obviously startles, momentarily. The clock clicking down to Midnight in this scene, followed by Milland's statement of relief: "Free!" is somewhat contrasted by the dim lighting of the room in which he sits, and it isn't entirely clear where he is, until he actually leaves the sanitarium, and we realize that his sense of relief at being free is not likely to be permanent 

 

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

 

The visual darkness, the uncertainty of the scene itself, the unsettled demeanor of the characters, the abruptness with which the scene changes; these are hallmarks of the film noir style

   
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I think using the pendulum of the clock is an excellent opening sequence for film noir.  The steady swinging combined with the shadows on the wall foretell something to dread.  Then we see the entire clock with a man watching.  The pendulum is no longer the focus of the scene, but remains an integral part.  The clock tells us time is passing, has perhaps passed by this man, or stood still for him.  Being released from behind the gates begins the passage of time once again.  What he does with that restored time remains to be seen.

 

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The Ministry of Fear: Echoes of Lang’s Own Trauma

With the raging fire of the train’s furnace in M and the relentless motion of the clock pendulum in The Ministry of Fear, Lang wastes no time in setting the stage for what appears to be an implicit message about the human condition and tyranny--the tyranny of time, forces of nature, and human evil. Against a soundtrack heavy with doom, Lang overlays these dark elements with an even more menacing one—title pages done in a printing font favored by the Nazi propaganda machine. This font would have been immediately recognizable to 1944 audiences. For Lang, this cinematic veneer functioned on a deeply personal level, according to one bio source. Lang had met human evil face-to-face in the form of Hitler's henchman, Joseph Goebbels.

 

In 1933, Lang was living in Germany when he was summoned by Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda (“Minister of Fear”?). Goebbels wanted Lang, who had established himself as a film maker, to take charge of producing the Third Reich’s propaganda films. Lang described the stress of this “interview” by recalling how he had stared nervously at the clock in Goebbels' office, mentally counting the minutes until he could flee. Lang did just that after declining the offer. He rushed home, packed a few items (including his wife’s jewelry in lieu of non-available cash) and immediately left the country.

 

Another aspect of Lang’s life is inherent in The Ministry of Fear and portrays a different kind of tyranny, that of mental illness. Austrian by birth, Lang had fought and been wounded in WWI. He also suffered from severe “shell-shock” (PTSD). In Ray Milland’s character, seen as the sanitarium patient in the darkened room, Lang must have created a memory portrait of himself--struggling to heal, to recover from harrowing psychological and physical wounds. All the while watching, watching that clock.

 

I didn't know this info about Lang, i completely understand his use of ticking clocks. Thanks for the history!

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The Ministry of Fear: Echoes of Lang’s Own Trauma

With the raging fire of the train’s furnace in M and the relentless motion of the clock pendulum in The Ministry of Fear, Lang wastes no time in setting the stage for what appears to be an implicit message about the human condition and tyranny--the tyranny of time, forces of nature, and human evil. Against a soundtrack heavy with doom, Lang overlays these dark elements with an even more menacing one—title pages done in a printing font favored by the Nazi propaganda machine. This font would have been immediately recognizable to 1944 audiences. For Lang, this cinematic veneer functioned on a deeply personal level, according to one bio source. Lang had met human evil face-to-face in the form of Hitler's henchman, Joseph Goebbels.

 

In 1933, Lang was living in Germany when he was summoned by Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda (“Minister of Fear”?). Goebbels wanted Lang, who had established himself as a film maker, to take charge of producing the Third Reich’s propaganda films. Lang described the stress of this “interview” by recalling how he had stared nervously at the clock in Goebbels' office, mentally counting the minutes until he could flee. Lang did just that after declining the offer. He rushed home, packed a few items (including his wife’s jewelry in lieu of non-available cash) and immediately left the country.

 

Another aspect of Lang’s life is inherent in The Ministry of Fear and portrays a different kind of tyranny, that of mental illness. Austrian by birth, Lang had fought and been wounded in WWI. He also suffered from severe “shell-shock” (PTSD). In Ray Milland’s character, seen as the sanitarium patient in the darkened room, Lang must have created a memory portrait of himself--struggling to heal, to recover from harrowing psychological and physical wounds. All the while watching, watching that clock.

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Gotta love the bullet hole through the closed door and it's shaft of light in the darkness. For any interested it's homage in the noir-ish Western Keoma (1976) and again in Neo Noir Blood Simple (1985)

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As others have said, the use of the clock is similar to M in where an everyday, ordinary object, is imbued with tension and darkness. Something that is normally seen and used in everyday life can be scarier than the most imaginative monster that would not exist in the real world. The opening credits are plastered over the clock, as it swings endlessly back and forth. After the company logo fades out, we're left with only the clock for several seconds before the words "Ministry of Fear" arrive with a striking chord. The word "fear" remains on the mind as the remainder of the credits play out. The clock dominates the frame, even when the camera pulls back to show us Ray Milland, sitting in the dark, watching the clock. It remains in the frame for a full two minutes into the film before we see a shot without it. It continues to dominate the frame, even in the background, as it appears overly large and ornate.

 

We get a sense that Milland has passed many a night, just staring at the clock, as it is directly across from his bed. He spends his nights watching the unceasing march of time, time that has been stolen from him, that he will never get back, all in the presence of this clock which is constantly staring back at him, a reminder of what he has lost. When his psychiatrist appears, we hear the elation in his voice, that he has finally been granted his freedom, ad we're thankful with him, to be able to be out of the line of sight of the clock which has dominated the film for the entire opening. He wants to be around people, and you continue to get a sense of the loneliness his life has been. He's willing to even go to London, a city in the middle of a war, with nightly bombings, which would seem to be a step up from existence alone with the clock. As he walks away we finally see that he has been in an asylum all this time, and perhaps the man we were thankful to see go free, may not be ready to be let loose on the city.

 

Lang continues to use the composition of darkness and light from the German Expressionist style, which was used in M as well. Someone had commented that instead of being released on a bright, sunny morning, Milland obtains his freedom on a dark day, overcast, perhaps with the doom that is to come. He sits in a darkened room, awaiting his freedom, allowing himself to be swallowed in it, perhaps not wanting to be out in the light. Based solely on this opening, I'm looking forward to see this film in its entirety.

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Both the opening to M and the Ministry of Fear use clocks. The measured tick tock that can bring calm can also be monotonous torture for someone whose only interaction is that sound. I get the idea of its use, but it can be overused and lose its effectiveness if one is not careful. In M, the sounds that are juxtaposed are the warnings of clock and horns, to the pleasant sound, but creepy words of a children's song. Here we have no sound versus the continued click click click. Each click, as it approaches release time, seems to linger longer and longer. It's maddening how long it is to wait for the clock to sound six times. The element of the clock lets the viewer know that our lead has served his time, but has time served him? Strange place for a man to be serving time and then the bomb drops and you realize that he's been in an asylum. Yep, he's cuckoo.

 

What I like about the contribution is that in addition to the theatrical elements that are a classic film noir setup, there is the psychological factor that enhances this film. I think that film noir is an intellectual art form. Which is why so many people enjoy and are fascinated by it.

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The opening scene in M and the Ministry of Fears use dark shadows, bleak sets and different camera angles.  Both lead the viewer into the premise of the movie but with many questions.  There are elements that lead to the question "What's next?" The viewer is hooked at the very beginning to find out just what is going to happen as the plot of both exposes just enough beautifully in the first few minutes to totally engage the viewer.  

"  

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Fritz Lang sets a noir 'mood & atmosphere' using the clock as a hypnotist uses a swinging pendulum to put one in a trance.   Clearly, Neale is in such an hypnotic state, as the doctor enters the room saying "Oh... there you are!" as if Neale should have left his room already.

 

As Neale sits in his chair, he continues staring at the clock and listening to its voice - its chimes. 
He then acts as if the clock is controlling him.  He subtly leans forward, then slowly raises his hands off the chair in menacing fashion - as if he is fighting the urge to commit a "horror with his hands".   

He then appears to snap out of it, and forces his hands back to rest.   Yet, as he leaves the room, he glances over the doctor's right shoulder and he is once again - entranced by the clock.   Entranced, as he returns to the outside world, and one guesses, a very, very, noir world.

 

I love the use of sound that accompanies our view of the clock.   During the opening credits, the music that accompanies the tic-tock is loud, ominous, looming.  This music is a clear warning:  beware the clock.   In contrast, during the room scene, there is absolute silence.  The tic-tock  is ever so soft, almost imperceptible.    We have now entered the world of noir, where danger is lurking, but hidden in the shadows of noir.

 

 

 

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Clocks, again, time is a constraint, we feel the pressure of an ongoing repeating sound, and the character's comment about watching a minute pass is understated since he has been incarcerated and is waiting to be freed.

 

The high angle as he leaves the asylum, is the omnipotent position, seeing all, and the squeak of the gate gives us a glimpse of the imperfection of man's creations. We are pushed into a medium shot to hear the doctor provide a warning, to which the Ray Milland character responds " a quiet life for me" which is in juxtaposition of his earlier declaration that by going to London he can be surrounded by crowds and laughter.

 

The noir touch, to grab the viewer in the first moments, employing devices from POV, to voice over, narration, to a noisy man made object, all of which leads the viewer immediately to question, to wonder and become involved, cannot be understated. In my opinion, anytime a movie can take the act of delivering entertainment to passive viewers, and shift the the viewer into that of an active participant, is the true beauty that film noir offers.

 

As a result, individuals can question characters, motives, societies, and governments, and most of all secrets.

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I haven't seen Ministry of Fear yet, but I really liked the opening sequence (I love Ray Milland--he can be so very creepy).

 

To begin with, I liked that just as my mind was going "How long do I have to watch this stupid clock tick?", Milland came in to frame and it was like "Oh, wow--this guy has just been sitting there watching the clock tick for god knows how long." It put my own reaction (enough with the clock!) in direct contrast to his (sitting still and watching).

 

Also, it's basically a sure-fire way to build suspense and foreboding by having someone sit so unnaturally still, watching something. It just seems . . . wrong. And it seems to suggest mental unbalance, which is ironic given that we immediately see him being released.

 

I think that there's a darkly comic element to when he says "A free man!", as if the mere passing of time (in fact, reaching a certain hour on the clock) has turned him into someone fit for society. The way he's gripping the arm rest is nicely ambiguous to me: it could be that this guy is still crazy OR it could be the impatience of an unjustly imprisoned man, waiting for his suffering to be over.

 

The low lighting also adds to the atmosphere, as anytime someone is just sitting in a dark or underlit space it seems very unnatural and suspicious. I like the way that the lighting casts a shadow behind Milland that seems to loom over him, like he's still in the grip of some kind of darkness.

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There’s definitely that feeling of anticipation in both movies, that we’re waiting for something to happen, but no creepy little kids playing a scary game in this one. Though, how much creepier can you get than a mental asylum at midnight? The clock in both movies demonstrates the passing of time; in M the dread that something bad has occurred as the mother waits and waits for her daughter and with each passing minute the realization for all of us that the worst has occurred.  While in this movie, the passing of time brings a good turn of events for the character-freedom after a long incarceration.  The character is eager and hopeful to go (if not entirely stable), but we as viewers realize he’s incredibly vulnerable in a sense like the school children in M in that he has no protection against the evils of the world. He has no real plans, no safe place, no one waiting to take him home, no support, just him and his suitcase.  What’s waiting for him outside the asylum walls? I couldn’t help but have a chuckle regarding the psychiatrist.  Apparently no planning whatsoever occurred to ensure the success of this man in the next phase of his life as he is released after years in an institution.  Instead the doctor merely provides some last minute somewhat useless and superior advice as he basically washes his hands of his patient at the stroke of midnight.  Hey, thanks there, Doc. Then proceeds to mosey off to smoke his pipe some more and wear his tweed jacket as he hangs out in his office at the asylum in the middle of the night.   ;) Anyway, this indifference could be a sign of the times regarding how mental health/illness was addressed back then or it could be a crucial lesson for us to learn, that sometimes those we expect to know best and help us/prepare us (police and parents in M; the doctor in this movie) either don’t or can’t protect us from the darkness of the real world.

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

 

The opening scene from Ministry of Fear is an important contribution to the film noir style because right from the get co, with just a few short seconds into the film, various questions start popping up. Such as why is ray Milland alone in the corner of a dark room looking at a clock? Is he waiting for someone? The statement the man makes when he enters the room that Milland is in sparks questions,"I have always meant to have that sped up" (referring to the clock). As the scene goes on, the man who entered earlier starts asking Milland's character what he plans on doing and Milland states he wants to surround himself with people. Why? Has he been secluded from people for a long time? If so, why and for what reason? Where is he? As Milland leaves the building he walks past a sign that reads Lembridge Aylum. That answers the question of where he was but is the key to another door full of questions regarding to how, when, why, and who.

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I think the ticking clock in both films builds anticipation.  What is going to happen?  

I see film noir characteristics in that the room where he is waiting is dark, there are shadows of barren tree branches on the gates of the asylum that appear haunting, and the street that he is released to his disturbingly quiet -no street sounds or people walking by.

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In Jungian psychology, there is a concept called "enantiadromia" which he explains as: "In the philosophy of Heraclitus it [enantiodromia] is used to designate the play of opposites in the course of events—the view that everything that exists turns into its opposite."  (see: He bases in on a ancient concept in Greek philosophy, as noted, and it also features importantly in Confucian thought, as the I Ching, the ancient Chinese oracle and philosophical text, is largely based on a similar concept.

     So while the ticking of the clock adds tension, anticipation, and even apprehension, dread and foreboding, it also see it as a thesis for what our protagonist will be suffering. 

    When I first saw the opening scene, first the ticking clock, then the man sitting on the bed staring at the clock, I had the feeling of "what is he waiting for?"  Because of the title of the film, and it's idea of "fear", I thought he may be waiting to be executed by criminals (he obviously was not in a prison) or to be put on trial.  I thought it must be something negative.  But it turns out that he is in an insane asylum, and is to be released.

     So the clock, then, gives us the visual thesis of the film: enantiadromia, the moving of a thing to its opposite, then back again, over and over again. 

    So how is that shown in the film?

    We have a man who was mentaly ill and locked up.  We see him at the end of that period, he is now to become the opposite: mentally balanced (cured) and to be set free.  A movement to the opposite.  But throughout the film he is constantly returning to his being insane.  He sees things, no one believes him.  He doesn't believe himself sometime.  So he is constantly being pushed between being seen as sane or crazy, sane or crazy.  It takes a cake that wasn't blown up to prove that he is not crazy.

     So, in a way, the swinging pendulum tells us something about the how the story will be developed: the protagonist will have to go back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, like the pendulum of the clock, until the conflict causing people to doubt him is resolved.

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(Sorry if this has already been mentioned in a post before this one).

 

The swinging pendulum of the clock also somewhat evokes hypnosis for me, which is interesting when you consider that this man is being sent out into the world. Were the doctor not played so lightly, I'd almost suspect that the Milland character had been "trained" to do something.

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- Both films start with only a single person or object making sound
  (after opening music in the case of “Ministry Of Fear”).  There is
  very little overlap of sounds.
  -- In “M” the children are not singing when the woman climbs the
     stairs, the scrubbing stops when the clock chimes, the ball stops
     bouncing when the man speaks
  -- In “Ministry Of Fear, the ticking of the clock almost disappears
     when the dialogue starts, the gate creaking and the shuffling of
     feet on the ground take center stage in our senses—dialogue
     starts after they step through the gate

- The clock chiming at the top of the hour in both movies signifies a
  change in situation.

- This opening propels the viewer from the past into a new reality
  almost immediately.

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Style-wise, this has many of the same elements as the opening of M - sparsely furnished set, high contrast lighting, the use of very specific sounds.  But the mood for me was entirely different.  M was full of dread, an almost tangible heaviness and darkness.  You got the feeling of moving out of normalcy into chaos.  This one seems the opposite, the patient is being released, the doctor is cheerful and seems sure things will turn out well for Ray Milland.  And he (Milland) is excited and hopeful for the future, ready to put the darkness behind him and start his life again. 

 

I can't wait to see the full movie to see how this opening gets turned into noir!

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