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


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M and Ministry of Fear both have very empty opening shots which give a sense of kenophobia and claustrophobia like the unreality of a nightmare. Both clocks give thier respective watchers an anticipation of something good. In M the anxiety builds with the inevitability of what will come and we know exactly what horror awaits Elsie. But in Ministry of Fear the shadows are lessened, Ray Milland relaxes and is released from his confinement, we have a foreshadowing of trouble ahead (London is being bombed and he is warned to not get in anymore trouble with the police) but we are left with many questions.

 

-How does Fritz Lang use the clock in this scene as a major element to set mood and atmosphere?

The pendulum is hypnotic and relentless, Lang keeps only the clock in frame all through the titles, making us impatient for something more to happen. It has a hold over Ray Milland and we become eager to see him free of it.

 

Ministry of Fear's opening scene contributes to noir style with shadowy atmosphere, tension, suspence and mystery. The way Lang's sets are cleverly designed to make you feel uneasy; the closeness and height of the garden hedges, the paving stones and the imposing gate with the ominous spikes give a feeling of claustrophobia.

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

 

Both films withhold context for several minutes. In the opening of M, you begin with the creepy song from the kids, the conversation that is suggestive but not entirely clear, and then the revelation of the warning poster, almost as a side note, makes the main crux of the scene clear.

 

Ministry of Fear has a similar structure in its opening. The pendulum (it's hard to avoid a Poe reference) is slow and foreboding, followed by a semi-cryptic conversation, and ending with the revelation that the setting was an asylum all along. 

 

Both openings but the viewer on guard, make the viewer uncomfortable with slow, lingering shots. Not knowing exactly what's going on makes the viewer uneasy, and in that unease is born curiosity and a kind of dark excitement. 

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The relentless ticking of the clock in the opening of MOF. Is it bringing freedom? or counting down to an execution? a reckoning?

 

It is repetitive and unrelenting, as were the chants of the children in M. Like a water torture: drip, drip, drip. The silence in which it ticks is oppressive: we are uncomfortable with the extended length of the silence. The camera barely moves - another silence of sorts, giving us no new information.

 

We don't know WHY he stares fixedly to that clock: is he willing it to go slower? or faster? dreading its inexorable movement forward: tick, tick, tick.

 

Once the tension is broken by the arrival of the doctor, we now begin to wonder about the man's story. Where is he? Why is he in such a rush to go? What "police business" was he involved in? and finally, What criminally insane thing did he do to be sent there?

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I loved the movement of the camera in the beginning. The close up on the clock, and the way it zooms out to reveal there is someone actually in the room is effectively creepy. It hints that the person is not well in the head.

 

I think it parallel's M's opening... scene opens with the camera moving around, then there's a conversation to set the tone (the maids in M, and the doctor/Neale here), and then an ominous reveal at the end of the scene in both films (the mystery man in M, and the asylum sign here).

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In the beginning sequence of Lang's Ministry of Fear, the clock's swinging of the pendulum creates a sense of unease and anticipation. The main character, Stephen Neale, is anxiously awaiting his release from a mental institution; he stares at the clock with a wild look in his eye, grasping his hands in disquieted hesitation. Additionally, much like the literary device of iambic pentameter, the sound coming from the clock also mimics the sound of a human heartbeat, with the stressed, unstressed rhythm. The audience can substitute the tangible static of the pendulum with Neale's own heartbeat, loud and unsettling. As in his film M, Lang masters building an atmosphere of a foreboding nature with the use of simple sounds, such as the bouncing of a ball and the ticking of a clock.

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Much like the opening of M, Lang uses everyday sounds absent of score to build tension beginning with the ticking and toll of the clock.  Interestingly, the reveal of the asylum is accompanied practically by silence (only footsteps) rather than dramatic strings.  In both openings, the cues for our reactions and responses and removed and we are left simply with honest reaction.  Where music is absent, sound still plays an essential role.  We wait eternal seconds in silence to hear what the waiting by the clock was about - freedom.  There are also interesting references to the type of life Neale should live that incorporate sound.  His doctor recommends a "quiet town" over London.  Neale says he wants to "hear people talk and laugh" but later assures the doctor, "quiet life from here on."  

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Lang uses a long take on that clock, and as someone already observed, the ticking gets a little freaky after a while. This must be like what the character felt like--a bit like the character in Poe's 'A Tell-tale Heart', where the monotony is enough to drive a person mad even if he isn't mad already. 

 

That helps us strengthen an identification with Ray Milland, who is a character that we might otherwise find difficult to relate to--a convicted murderer in an insane asylum. The best way to ask an audience to relate to a character is to use subjective camera and sound. The ticking of the clock echoes and echoes for us as it must for Milland.

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This was fFilm Noir in the use of stark contrast and close up pov on solely the pendulum and then the clock. The tight view later expanded to include the room and finally the man waiting there. The viewer is introduced to each element slowly and deliberately being able to consider each aspect of the scene. It also seemed to me that the pendulum did not maintain a steady beat. The pendulum seemed to set the pace for the film to follow, one of a relentless march to an inevitable conclusion.

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The main keys that build the tension are not over the edge: is the pendulum, the misterious man, the motivation of that character going out from an asylum. The suspense grows as we are presented to more and more elements. There is not a clear plot yet, but what we can see is enough to make us be with all our attention on what's happening on the screen. At 'M' this tension is similar once the elements are introduced with patience and strategy.


The cinematography has a lot of German expressionist style, and the clock is just the main key to make us understand that that man is a log time inside the institution. What can we expect from him once he is on the streets? What kind of motivation is ahead now? What will happen the next minute? Just like on "M", these are major questions of this first sequence of the movie.


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Normally, a ticking clock is a symbol of a countdown to something bad happening. The inexorable swinging pendulum, the minute hand moving ever forward, and the chimes when the clock reaches the hour are all things an audience expects to herald something bad. Is this man counting down the seconds to his execution?

 

The expectation is so strong that even when it's revealed that the man is being released, it still feels like something bad is happening. When he promises to stay away from the police and live a quiet life, the audience knows that's not going to happen. (It may help that in this particular case, the audience was watching this as part of a course on film noir, which is not a genre in which people successfully lead quiet lives for long.

 

As an aside, I think the line "I've always meant to have that thing speeded up" is funny.

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  • 2 weeks later...

In Ministry of Fear The ticking clock represents the minutes counting down until Ray Milland’s character is released from the asylum. They are scary and unpleasant places which everyon doesn’t want to stay. Fritz Lang is a master of staging atmosphere of dread.

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The high-contrast lighting,the movement of the clock's pendulum swinging back and forth,and the film's eerie music comes together in such a way that it causes anxiety in the audience as in the film "M." However, the slight difference was the fear that something was going to happen to someone else---the children in "M,"so you wait in anticipation for the 'I knew it, I told you so!' moment to occur; this film,invoked more tension, in that, you didn't know what or to whom it was going to happen to, at the opening---I loved it!I also thought that it was pure creative genius in having the camera slowly move up to the face of a ticking clock just as the minute hand clicks up another minute,how intense was that?! Utilizing the element of time was brilliant. Who doesn't think about time? Every second and every minute the clock ticks it is moving us forward from what will become our past, into what will soon be our future--who knows what the future will bring;be it good or bad? I think it was a vital element to the opening, and to have the camera pan to Milland sitting in a darkened room watching the minutes ticking away to an old grandfather clock; assisted in solidifying the feeling Lang wanted to solicit from his viewers of this intense, internal grappling this character was experiencing at that moment. We now know (at least get an idea) that this gentleman has come through what must have been quite an ordeal, as he sits there contemplating on what possibilities may lay ahead for him,so do we.I also think that Lang chose this particular clock because we associate anything 'old ' to things of wisdom; and an old grandfather clock would certainly make us feel that this man has had a lot of time to reflect about the past and hopefully will embark upon the future with greater insight. Milland's hesitation to get up from his chair as the clock bongs on the hour he has anticipated would come to make him a "free man," gives us the indication that he is approaching his future with both fear and uncertainty. The fact that he does get up let's us know that he has learned to face life's ambiguities with courage. A pan of the camera of the barred window in his room, helps us to understand his eagerness to get out and experience life again as it truly is. However, I wonder how prepared he is to go out and face the world again because of the look on the doctor's smiling,cordial face turning to a look of hopeful concern for his future as Milland is walking away, not to mention,the closeup of the outside wall's graphic sign starkly revealing that this man is leaving an 'asylum'.

 

This film is important to the film noir, in how it uses people and objects as essential tools to telling the story of what the audience is about to see.

 

 

S

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This opening to Ministry of Fear captures the very essence of film noir lighting, cinematography, and mood- in only about 2 minutes no less! It is evident that Friz Lang is behind such a choreographed scene, being one of the early godfathers of what film noir came to be after all.

 

The last shot in the scene showing that the protagonist has just exited an asylum is the perfect finish to such a great scene. It’s very rare to (although more common today) to see a protagonist come from such a background even in film noir, which is more ripe with criminals than vulnerable asylum patients (more common with females than males in the noir genre).  

 

It is not surprising that there would be a comparison between the similarities and differences between M  and Ministry of Fear, both directed by Lang.

 

In M, there is a multitude of bustling sounds to onset the ominous chiming of the clock, while in Ministry of Fear, there is only slow ticking of the clock in the foreground. In M, the clock is only heard when it strikes noon, signaling the release of children from school (and the beginning of the end for Elsie Beckmann), whereas ticking can be heard all throughout clip in Ministry of Fear. It’s very clear that the ticking as the well the darkness in the solitary room is unnerving to Neale, played by Ray Milland.

 

So it is not surprising that when the clock strikes 6, Neale describes a strong yearning for some of the sounds and elements in M: “sea of faces,” crowds, “people talking and laughing,” especially “after [constant ticking of] that clock.” It is rather ironic that Neale’s object of torment be the object of his torment, as well as relief and freedom. On the flipside, it can also be argued that the clock could’ve been the only thing keeping Neale sane, since he wouldn’t have been able to keep track of time (and his release) otherwise and would’ve been stuck in a room of deafening silence. 

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I think that the opening of “Ministry of Fear” is a great example of noir. Like Lang’s “M”, the ticking of the clock and swinging of the pendulum creates suspense and a sense of counting down to the impending drama that is coming up. In “M”, the children made up a “clock” that showed who will be next and there was also the ordinary chiming of the clock that normally is an insignificant daily occurrence. In both movies, the clock seems to evoke a sense of dread coming up. The atmosphere of the room is foreboding and gloomy. The steady ticking of the clock seems to amplify this feeling. It makes you feel like you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop. I think the fact that the clock is running slow adds to the tension of the scene. When the doctor comes in and sets up the scene, we find out what is going on and a hint of the complications that are set to arise for the protagonist. The end scene with the shadowy, dark scenery are elements that are very familiar in film noir. I love how they zoom in on the asylum sign. It’s the perfect way to set the stage for what's to come.

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