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Dr. Rich Edwards

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

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There are visual elements of Ministry of Fear that I should know more about.  Here they are posed as questions. 

 

What does time mean to the author, Graham Greene?  Having read his grim "whiskey priest" novels in college is not much help here, but from them we know that Greene's world view is that life is empty, in need of redemption.  Characters live solitary, lonely lives.  The question about time remains unanswered.  But perhaps we know something about Greene's characters and world view.  It's just a guess.

 

Next: In the movie, time is of the utmost importance.  I related Lang's use of the plain, circular pendulum in the opening credits - and the clock on the wall of Milland's room - to the circular design of M, in particular the circle of singing children, the breaking free from the circle as a victim in the game is chosen, as well as the ball that the child bounces against the posted warning about the killer.  Circles are constricting, but they also provide safety.  The motion of the circle, the ball, and the world we inhabit relates to time, and its forward motion.  This motion takes us into proximity with danger, while offering the possibility of freedom.  Again, just a guess.

 

The authority figure in Ministry of Fear who grants Milland his freedom comments that he's been meaning to speed up the clock in the cell.  What can speed up time?  Redemption?  The righting of a wrong, or of false judgment?  Without righting those wrongs, time tends to bind, to move slowly. 

 

Last question.  The clock in Milland's room is unusual.  There is carving around the face of the clock.  Instead of the rather standard Swiss Chalet (think Cukoo clocks), there are twin carvings of torches.  Thus, light, time, the weight of time's passing, and the possibility for freedom (which I link with light) are present.  It takes what seems a very long time for Milland to pass through the gates of what the viewer learns is an asylum.  We can't wait for the action to begin.  As in M, Lang takes care to get the ball rolling, so to speak.

 

I've seen Ministry of Fear a few times on television.  It seems that the hero remains confined in a number of ways until time reverses judgment and frees him.  But then again, with Greene and with this strange film noir, it's just a guess.

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The clock is a classic tension-building device (think High Noon and countless ticking bomb TV dramas).  I wonder how early the use of it here is?

The deep shadow and weird light angles are sooo noir.  A man stands in the door and his shadow appears on the wall beside him?  Shadows go where I want them!  

The pipe and bald head are stereotype shorthand that the Dr. is a psychiatrist.  The clenching and relaxing of the hands show inner tension.  There are bars on the window...

We get information about the past -- don't get involved in police business again-- in a way that raises questions.

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

 

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

Lang pans his camera to good effect in the opening of both movies, but in Ministry of Fear, almost the entire clip is confined to Ray Milland’s room, which gave me a claustrophobic sensation. We can see the clock and hear its ticking; music swells and the credits roll over a still shot of the clock; then we hear the ticking again as it fades and the camera pans to the right and then dollies back—all in Milland’s room.

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

We see and hear the clock in this clip, and Milland and his doctor discuss the passing of time, the slowness of the clock, its need to be fixed. Milland tells the doctor, “Now is a good time to think of it.” He also tells the doctor he wants to go to London. The doctor tries to dissuade him with the best argument I have ever heard: The Nazis are bombing the city. But Milland insists on going there. He wants to see faces and feel crowds of people passing him on the street. But I wondered why a doctor working in an insane asylum would agree so readily to Milland’s plan. I suspect that Milland is not cured, that the movie is one of his hallucinations.

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

Lang has all the elements of noir in one short sequence: great use of light and shadow, angst, foreboding, danger, war, insanity. Even the clock was a bit off. And what were those black statues on either side of it? I couldn’t tell whether they were people or eagles, but they cast dark shadows on the wall and seemed to watch Milland with malice the whole time. Anything is possible in this film world. I also thought of Doctor Caligari’s Cabinet, a silent movie that I haven’t seen in a really long time but would love to see again to compare the two films.

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I can see the similarities between the opening of M and Ministry of fear. The camera in both films is focused on one thing (children singing about the murderer in M) (the clock's pendulum moving back and forth in Ministry of fear). The sound is eerie in both openings with children singing and the clock ticking. As the films get going the camera moves out and we see more of the background (the mothers working and caring for their children in a run down apartment building in M)(the man sitting in a dark corner as an important man comes in to talk to him in Ministry of fear). Both films have eerie openings. I can see the expressionist influence on this film.

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Clocks in cinema make us wonder about the meaning of time: is it moving too fast or too slow? are we trying to run from it in spite of its inevitability, or are we anxiously waiting for something to happen? is time leaking or building up in the form of tension?

 

In Fritz Lang's Ministry of Fear's opening scene, as in most of films noir, all three second hypothesis concerning the treatment of time suggested by the questions above are usually explored to create the mood of the film: Lang's Ministry of Fear starts already in this tense pace and lets time take its time during the entire credits sequence. As we analysed, the begining of Fritz Lang's M also makes use of motifs of time and counting to build tension, but it does it slower: first we're introduced to the (innocent?) counting in the children's song, and only after we see the clock in the woman's appartement and start to listen to its ticking more attentively; there's something reasuring in the children's counting and in the ticking of the clock because, as it is said by the women, it is the children's silence that we should fear; therefore, visual and sound motifs of time are present but the feeling of time itself is only built by the accumulation/suppression of this elements (and consequently, tension is slowly being built up).

On the other hand, time is the protagonist of the opening of Ministry of Fear: since the first image of the film, we see the pendulum's movement, and we're literally hypnotized by it even before the begining of the story (as we'll see, hypnosis will play an important role in the film); the ticking sound is accompanied by Miklós Rózsa's dramatic music that stresses the menacing feeling; after the opening credits, the camera tilts up to reveal the clock and lets us alone with the countdown, and then zooms out to reveal the room and the character's shadow in the dark. Lang is here employing his expressionist heritage to create a particular noir ambiance, but we don't feel menaced by Ray Milland's shadow, as we have felt by the Peter Lorre's in M. Instead, both character and shadow are presented to us, and imediatly we identify with his feeling of wainting. The end of the counting at six o'clock is like the undoing of a spell, a awakening for both the viewer and the character. It was time that set him free, but only in the next sequence, through the conversation with the doctor and the asylum's sign outside, as he walks out from it, we'll understand from what he is being freed, even if we know that his freedom won't last (or this wouldn't be a film noir).

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Ministry of Fear indeed has all the stampings of a Fritz Lang film and one can easily see its connection to to "M".   First and foremost is the ticking clock and the large pendulum to it on the wall.  The close ups of the clock and constant ticking.  Similar the cukoo clock in M.  There is underlying commentary of the clock.

 

  • The clock is in an insane assylum, like almost to say it is the clock that drives the man insane. (it would me,  I hate constant ticking)
  • The ticking represents the imminent  dread.... foreshadowing what's to come
  • time is ticking away..  one must get out or all is lost.

It should be noted Lang makes use again of Expressionist camera angles, and use of darkness, shadow and dramatic lighting.  The sitting in the dark clutching the arms of the chair in high anxiety with the clock pendulum swinging is creepy and creates suspense.

 

Lang makes use of stark minimalist scenery almost Gothic in style.  Notice the large Gothic doors of the assylum .. almost reminiscent of Dracula's castle or a Gothic estate.  The overhead shots again like in M create the feeling that the characters are trapped.    

 

The drama that the man in question was in trouble with the law, and insane..  compels us to want to know more.  We are pulled into wanting to learn more about him.

 

FGE13 wroteThe 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

 

I have to disagree that the clock is not soothing in the least, with the shadows/ticking it is stress inducing, and relentless. There is nothing "normal" about being in an insane asylum.  Ray Milland is not "soothed" by the ticking of the clock in fact he is clutching his chair in clausterphobic frenzy counting the seconds to 6 pm when he can leave.  I also notice many have written "Ministry of Fears" similarity in style to the later Vincent Price horror film "Pit and the Pendulum" based on the short story by Edgar Allan Poe.  The huge pendulum of Ministry almost has that effect of slicing into you..  It plays on your sense of dread,  The large shadow of the pendulum on the wall in the close up shots magnifies the emphasis.   

 

MINISTRY OF FEAR is one of the few film noirs I have not watched, so I will look forward to watching the entire film later this evening. 

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The hat on the bed?  Oh, brother.  That's bad luck.  I am surprised any actor would allow it in the scene.

 

 

Beyond that, no one knows where this clock is.  Who is waiting and for what?  When you hear the phrase "a free man", you know it's not a jail cell, so where is this?  Who are these two men? 

 

The second clue comes when Ray Milland is warned about having a second run-in with the law.  So...what was the reason for the first encounter?  And where is he?  He's leaving and it looks like he's OK to go.

 

In addition to the mystery, we hear Milland say he wants to be around as many people as he can.  That is telling us that he has been isolated for a while, but why?

 

When we see the name on wall, we know something significant happened.

 

 

Both film openings are very foreboding.  Both are deliberate in the way they set us up to watch the story unfold.  Both "objects" are plain, everyday things - a clock in one and children playing in the other.  If these are common, why do we hold our breath knowing something bad is going to happen?

 

The lighting, the camera angles and the quiet in-between the sound is setting the mood. 

 

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I see the clock as a symbol of fate, inexorably ticking away and there's no escape from it. I also like how, during the opening credits, the Paramount logo, which itself is clock-like in appearance, fades out and then the swinging pendulum comes into view. Milland remains motionless and in total shadow until the doctor opens the door just as the hour is approaching, almost like they are two clockwork figures that start to move on the hour. The dark shadows, slightly off-kilter overhead shot, and theme of inescapable fate are all very much in the noir style. The sense of foreboding and doom is also palpable, just as it was in the opening scene of "M". The clock's ticking reminds me of the childrens' chanting -- both seem to predict something bad is about to happen.

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Ministry of Fear. When I saw it last year I thought it was a pretty decent movie. Maybe second-tier Lang, but that still makes it pretty essential.

 

The dim lighting and heightened shadows on the clock, staying on it for so long as the pendulum swings back and forth, bringing to mind punishment more than the passage of time. Maybe that's just all the Edgar Allan Poe I read as a kid, but I immediately felt a slight sense of unease, and subconsciously felt the setup was implying judgement of some kind.

The camera pulls back, keeping the clock very much highlighted, to show Ray Milland sitting in the dark, watching the clock. To him it means the arrival of his freedom. He's watching the clock count down to his release, watching it eat the hours left in his incarceration. A couple of synchronicities here; the doctor says 'not wasting any time, eh?' as Ray Milland packs. Ray Milland makes a comment about a sea of faces, contrasting that against the face of the clock.

 

One possibly unintentional mirroring here; after all the time looking at the clock, we watch Ray Milland exit the gates of the mental asylum. Are we to take it this is a cuckoo clock?

 

Things look bright for our hero, despite the grey darkness of the evening. But in practically every shot inside his room, that clock is centered and highlighted. The pendulum keeps swinging, slowly. Times change, and then change back. That judgement may still be waiting.

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Both films start off very minimally.  Both made me feel quite uneasy..   

Though there is a very dramatic piece of music being played during the credits, which M did not have.

We are shown a clock, camera zooms out and includes a window (freedom?).  The ticking of the clock, the swinging of the pendulum like time is running out-something ending..  But what?  For who?  We then see a figure sitting in a chair, completely in the shadows.  Who is this? Why is he there?

The only light comes from the window and then the opening of the door.  

The clock strikes and it is time for this person to go.  Something about the sound of the chimes...how very soft and muffled they were, but in a dark way. The look on his face as he realizes he is free is almost crazed.  Perhaps he watched that clock for a little too long?

In any case, this beginning makes me want to see where he goes, and if he should have stayed in that asylum after all?

 

 

bird's eye view, as Milland's character leaves the asylum

Is this person coming out of the asylum our hero? 

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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). 

 

 

I think it's nowhere near the best films Lang made, but it's still a much more solid thriller than most. And despite what other people around here have been saying, I really like Ray Milland.

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I found it interesting that the establishing shot was not the sign identifying the asylum, but rather one of the ticking clock in Ray's room. The monotonously repetitive loud ticking of the clock would be enough to drive me crazy, but judging solely from the way the room was furnished and by the way Ray was dressed, I would have guessed he was in a private home or a hotel, rather than a jail or an asylum. So, showing the asylum sign AFTER he leaves (coupled with the ominous advice to avoid any repeat incidents with the police) really puts a dark spin on the situation.

 

Oddly, when the clock struck six, I found myself wondering if it was 6 am or 6 pm. I decided it must be 6 pm, since Ray was already dressed in suit and tie, and his suitcase was packed (but not shut, which is what I would have done if I were truly in a hurry to get out of there, ha ha). I suppose the suitcase needed to be open so that the viewer would see it contained his clothing, to realize he was about to depart. I also found myself wondering why the pendulum of the clock had to be so large (reminiscent of the Edgar Allen Poe killing pendulum, which was big enough to slice a person in half).  

 

I wonder about things such as this because I know that the Director shows us what he wants us to see, in order to advance the story, so anything that seems to me to be especially emphasized is something that I view as a "clue." At this point in the movie, it is too soon to know where these clues will take us, but they have stirred up my interest.

 

- Tom Shawcross 

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Both openings are both sinister and captivating. The dark and Gothic feel from MOF makes for a gritty atmosphere and the music is ominous. The pendulum gives a sense of impending doom!

 

The shadow play is superb. We barely notice the protagonist in the room.

 

When the doctor speaks we can imagine the shadow cast on his face mirrors some internal struggle in the character.

 

The camera shots, the slow zoom and the panning  shot again give us the information at exactly the time the director wants us to have it.

 

This opening leaves us questioning what has happened, but I feel  M has the stronger opening scene of the two.

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This comparison is good for showing one of the differences between films from Europe and Hollywood--music. The lack of music in M creates a strong sense of realism, while Young's prelude for The Ministry of Fear establishes an opening mood that mixes in some positive sounds, a subtle indication to audiences that there will be a happy ending. Most striking is the orchestral clock sound. When it ends, we initially hear nothing, as if our ears are adjusting to a quieter setting. Then the ticking of the clock picks up with the same pulse as the music. But now it sound some barren, boring, and monotonous. Nice effect, but I am still partial to the gripping realism of M

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The opening scene of Ministry of Fear is quintessential Lang. The opening scene is stark and bare, not a lot going on, but it says so much. For me, the use of the pendulum clock instead of an alarm clock or mantel clock points to a countdown, and as the scene progresses, we learn it's a countdown to the Milland character being released from a asylum.

 

With in the first 3 minutes you can tell this is in the noir style. The over all scene is dark and forboding, the shawdows on the wall from the clock, the male lead partially covered in darkness lets the watcher know that Fred and Ginger aren't going to be dancing their way into each others hearts in this one.

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I agree with others on this site that like M Lang uses shadows and sounds to set the mood. It was interesting how the open door "shed light" on the main character, Neile ( Ray Milland). I also like the way that Lang revealed he was leaving an asylum.

 

The clock? I'm not sure. Could the swinging pendulum represent Ray Milland's joy and fear of reentering the world while also foreshadowing the highs and lows of his upcoming encounter with danger? Then, on a larger scale, could the clock be a reflection of the victories and losses taking place in world war 2 that was raging at the time? Either way I enjoyed reading others perception of the clock. It's great having so many eyes looking at the same thing to get different thoughts and ideas.

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To me the clock adds tension only after I see the shadow of Ray Milland sitting there watching it. Like he has been counting the time for awhile. Then when you see leave and the sign shows he was in an asylum the full insight hits. Then you are left with why he was there and is he really OK to leave?

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The clock on the wall, sitting in the shadows, with the pendulum swinging back and forth, ticking loudly, joined by the very intense music...is setting me up for something foreboding...but what?  Like in "M"  that clock was announcing that something dreadful was about to come.  When you pan back from the clock to see a man sitting in the dark watching the clock...what is he waiting for what is about to happen?  We find out that this man is about to leave this dark place after a long time...freedom.  He's ready to go, but with a warning from the other man take is slow, don't rush into anything.  Be careful of the getting involved with the police and of another charge.  What has happened before and what is coming after he leaves...an asylum?

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Like the opening of M, the opening of Ministry of Fear uses limited to no music (save for the opening credits of the latter) and uses chiaroscuro lighting techniques to create a sense of unease in the viewer. 

 

I like the way it is revealed that Ray Milland's character is leaving an asylum. It's done in such an understated, almost casual manner. The opening shows Ray anxious to leave where he is staying, and once he leaves, the camera pans to the name of the asylum. There's no dramatic music playing at this reveal, or any music for that matter. Lang just simply states that our main character left an asylum. 

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Haven't watch this movie... but there are definitely some similarities between "M" and "Ministry of Fear". Both start with very pattern movements and sounds. The child's singing in "M" and the ticking of the clock in "Ministry of Fear", all create a sense of creepiness and give the audience a feeling of something horrible is approaching. Very great preparation scenes, they immediately catch the audience's attention. Love "M", and I need to try out "Ministry of Fear"! 

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I agree that the clocks in both movies add tension to the scenes.  A sense of waiting but not knowing for what.  Good or bad.  The dark shadows give a sense of foreboding.  Ray Milland looked "on the edge".  You weren't sure if it was a good thing he was waiting for or something bad.  As the complete movie came, right after the clip, I went ahead and watched the whole thing.  I thought it was a very good spy thriller somewhat like Hitchcock's Saboteur.  In Saboteur you know Priscilla Lane is one of the good guys but in Ministry of Fear your not really sure you should trust Marjorie Reynolds.  Hillary Brooke was definitely a femme fatale.

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Ministry of Fear-  LOL - my first impression of this opening scene was how the swinging of the pendulum was keeping perfect time with the scary music!!  Does it mean something?  Who knows?

 

Pendulums swinging, to me, have always been a sign that something is about to happen, to end, to change.  I think this scene conveys that feeling nicely.  We have the use of a clock in the opening scene of M also, however the cuckoo clock gives us a sweet impression.  It is the signal to mom that her baby will be home soon from school as she happily prepares her afternoon snack.  We know that as time passes on this same clock, the feeling of dread begins to take over.  Not so for our pendulum clock which immediately conveys a different feel. Beyond the ominous music in the credits portion, we are in a dark and silent room.  The ominous and foreboding feeling is thick as the camera slowly pulls back ......what horrible thing is going confront us!!!??

 

Then we see the dark figure sitting quietly, watching the clock. He looks as if he dreads what is coming when the clock strikes and then we hear the footsteps coming down the hallway, What horrible thing is getting ready to befall this man sitting alone in the dark?  When the door opens the mood immediately changes.  We quickly realize that this man is leaving this place.  Does he dread his impending release?  It is not until our character begins discussing his future plans that we understand he is just happy to be leaving an obviously long/dark confinement.  The unexpected twist in the first minutes of this film is excellent and engaging.

 

We begin to understand the context of this release as the doctor accompanies him to the front gate. The doctor advised him to stay in a quiet area for a while, get a job and avoid any contact with police...no misbehavior.  Now we understand that this man has committed a crime but he is not being released from prison, there is one other alternative and as Ray Milland's character exits the facility our thoughts are confirmed.  He has been confined for committing some sort of crime and deemed insane at some point.  Is there any scarier criminal than the criminally insane?  Not in my book.

 

The viewer is immediately filled with questions at this point.....what did he do?  will he do it again? who will he do it to?  will he come to my house?   LOL.....Ray Milland can definitely make you believe he will!!!  

 

Ray Milland's expertise at playing the dark, thoughtful and manipulative personality cannot be overstated and it comes out in this film right away. He has done this personality type very well in a number of movies.....I know dial M for Murder came after this movie.....wondering if the Lost Weekend was before or after this movie I can certainly see the similarities in these roles.

 

We had no indication that he was happy or excited as he sat there in the dark. To me his reaction to the doctor's inquiries was a surprise and an indication that we have a dark character who intentionally hides things from people.  Lang's ability to manipulate the mind of the viewer right away with this twist is a masterful piece of work.  The viewer knows as soon as Milland's character leaves the gate that he/she is in for a major thrill ride.....

 

In this course we are examining "What is Noir?" Lang's manipulation of the viewer's mind to me is such an important part of the noir genre.....that subtlety of the darkness and sinister feel and then....the sudden twist.  It plays with one's mind and keeps the viewer on edge. What more sinister activity can there be than manipulating the minds of others? Beyond the manipulative characters that often appear in these movies we see the film creators themselves engaging in manipulation techniques! Could this be a part of the whole discovery of noir by the French critics so long ago? Lang is a master of manipulation in this film and Milland is the perfect actor for this role.  

 

Why do fans of noir view these films?  What is the fascination? Why would an audience be so thrilled by manipulative actors, characters and film techniques....be willing to be manipulated?  The ability and willingness of directors, actors, writers and film crews to "play" with the minds of the audience is one of the great traits of a good noir film in my mind. The subtlety and perception of dark acts, crimes, manipulation but not right there in your face....it just fascinates.  Beyond that....the psychology of the whole noir technique.

 

Most of us live boring and hum drum lives. Noir is an escape, a little vacation, if you will, from our dull existence for a while.  Not only that but noir gives us an opening to examine the darker side of life for a while.  We watch it because we are afraid, we want to see if there is a limit to human depravity, we are afraid we might go there ourselves......  When the film ends we go home, glad that we live our boring and hum drum lives......

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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In the opening scene of Ministry of Fear, the swinging pendulum and clock movement foreshadows something to come - something unknown, perhaps danger. Ray Milland is waiting for time, time is wasting. He watches the clock tick off minutes with an expression of suppressed anxiety.There is a sense of urgency to be released to be released. The ivy-covered wall outside the asylum show age and neglect - time waits for no one. In comparison, opens with a more subtle movement of time - the child circling clockwise while pointing her hand toward the children in the circle, landing on the one to be eliminated from the game. Much like a clock ticking off minutes to doom, And, the cuckoo clock signaling a shift in the monotonous movement of the day. Both films use clock/time to build suspense and foreshadow some inevitable evil.

 

In Ministry of Fear, Lang use of the clock with its sharp outlines evokes a feeling of doom. It is out of one's control.

 

The opening scene projects the dark, shadowy imagery, the hollow sounds, and the claustrophobic feel (barred windows, dark room, spiked gate) that I associate with film noir.

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Slowly getting through the credits while the pendulum swings. Closing in on almost 6 - is it day or night? Slowly pulling back through the dark room to Ray Milland in shadow.  Menace, wondering, and then... Very chipper man enters, all is well, Ray is being released, going to London to be around lots of people even though it's being heavily bombed... and he's leaving from where?  An asylum!

Very juicy going back and forth from dread to relief.  In M there was no relief.

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This is such a bleak beginning, as it was with "M".  There's almost an air of quiet despair from the former patient as if to say that he may be free of the asylum, but not of the life stretching ahead of him.  If he had truly been looking forward to leaving, his bags would've been fully packed, and he would've been pacing in order to leave -- not paying attention to a clock that's a few minutes off.  Besides, since when do doctors ever show up on time?  Especially when it's time to discharge a patient.

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