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


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I collect old clocks, and I notice them in movies, and I'm here to tell you that the clock in this movie is one of the very few cinematic clocks that ticks correctly. For a pendulum clock to keep good time, or just to keep ticking, the pendulum must swing evenly from one side to the other. When you hear a clock ticking unevenly it's because the set dresser has plopped a clock down somewhere without actually setting it up to run, and it won't run long.

 

I'd never seen this movie before, but I was disposed to like it in the first few seconds because they went to the trouble of setting the clock up correctly.

 

Did anybody else notice that enormous shrubbery arbor just inside the gate of the asylum as Neal was being released? That was no slight thing to build. What do you think it meant?

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The first striking moment for me was the set direction in which we see our protagonist from behind looking out toward the open door. Instead of casting shadows to create mood, Lang casts a light from the open door. Milliand's character is currently seated in darkness representing his current mental state and his yearning to move forward toward a brighter future as represented by the open door.

 

I want to say there are two sides to this character. Right away, I noticed that once we finally see his face, only half is shown in full light; the other half in dark shadow. We also see him mostly in profile, so we really haven't gotten a full look at his face in a bright light. Considering he's leaving an asylum, I would liken the pendulum to represent his sanity. He may either swing one way or the other. Perhaps he may later need to decide between good and evil.

 

In M, the scene begins with children standing in a circle while the young girl points and chants the morbid chime as she rotates. This fits the pattern of a clock. As she completes the rotation, she chimes for one child to be out of the rotation. As the film continues, there are many shots of ticking clocks chiming the hour.

 

Considering this powerful symbol, perhaps at a certain hour (6:00) we can expect a major event to occur later in this film Ministry of Fear

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James, I am in agreement with your assessment of the pendulum clock giving an impression of pit and the pendulum.  I had that very same thought, it added to my sense of what is going to happen to this guy when that clock strikes.;......creeeeepy!!

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 1.)    In the opening of M,  the repetitious singing of the children serves to build mood, suspense, and tension.  Lang uses the tick-tock of the clock in Ray Milland's room to accomplish the same effect.  As the clock ticks and we see Millans waiting anxiously in the chair,  we wonder what will happen....what possibly could happen next ?  Will he be free when the clock tolls 6 or will something occur, something terrible and unforeseen that will, at the last minute, prevent him from leaving.

 

          In the opening scene of M,  Lang uses the children's rhythmic singing and play to accomplish the same effect.  The singing goes on for some time and we, as the viewer, wonder what is going to happen...what can possibly happen ?  In the case of M,  the tension is not released as in the close of the opening scene in Ministry of Fear.  Instead when we seen the little girl playing with the ball and then we see the wanted poster followed by the silhouette of someone watching the girl,  Lang accomplishes the opposite effect   Now the tension has been ratcheded up.

 

 

2. )  The ticking of the clock serves to start the scene with instant tension.  What aids Lang in using the clock to create mood and atmosphere is that we do not know what the ticking clock is "ticking" or advancing towards.  Is Milland's character waiting for jury to deliberate his fate  ?  Is this scene taking place in a hospital and he's waiting to hear word on a sick loved one ? His wife perhaps ?  We simply don't know until the other character (his psychiatrist, we presume)  begins to speak. Then, Lang slowly and carefully provides the details. The audience is still left in the dark until we see the sign on the brick wall stating that he is exiting an asylum.

 

 

3.)  The scene is an important contribution to the film noir style because is adheres to the noir formula as laid out in analysis of the era.  Lang starts the ticking clock immediately at the film's start while the production credits are still displaying.  We are dragged into action immediately.  We are pulled into a dark world of a man awaiting some fate we know nothing about yet. The world gets darker as we see him leaving the prison and Lang starts the film will some ominous tone of what is to come.

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I haven't watched the film, but this scene and some search I did intrigued me so I plan to do it very soon.

 

This opening scene is typical of Lang. He is an expressionist director; for him it's the objects, the lighting and the expressions that matter most, not characters and dialogues. After all, Lang started his career in the silent era and throughout his career he used dialogues only to put more emphasis in what the scenery, the sound and the expressions depict. He knows how to use sound, however, as the orchestral music combined with the swinging of the clock make it clear that what you're about to see will be at least thrilling and dark.

 

The clock swinging has been used as a way to hypnotize, and that's what Lang wants to do in his own special way, make the audience be engrossed by the picture. It also implies that time will have its part in the film. It's already important for our unknown protagonist, who has spent two years in an asylum for an unknown reason and may or may not be all right after being released. He seems hopeful and ready to start a new life, but we can sure tell it's not going to be so easy.

 

This opening seems similar to that of M, as Lang is once more using objects, shadows and sound to begin a thrilling picture. Darkness, danger and ambiguity seem to be a part of a Lang's film universe, and that's exactly the case in both and this picture, as well as other films Lang made, such as The Woman in the Window or Scarlet Street. If there is one director responsible for the influence German expressionism and his ideas had on film noir, it's certainly him.

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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.

And why released at 6 pm? Leaves him very little time to get to Londan and find a hotel room--especially during the blackout.

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The use of sound, light and shadow to create anxiety have been discussed, but also the deep focus photography Lang uses throughout the opening practically drags the viewer into the film. There's also the high camera angle as Milland enters the asylum courtyard, making him look very small, but by the time he reaches the exiting gate the camera is on the same level with the character, giving the impression of him being on equal footing with the outside world he is about to enter.

 

I don't know how much further discussion this particular Lang film will get, but he uses many techniques throughout to intimidate both the lead character and the viewer. To mention just a couple there are the impossibly over-sized shears brandished by Dan Duryea and then there's the darkened room with the only light coming from bullet holes in the door.

 

Finally I call attention to the quoting of Lang's opening by Jonathan Demme in "Last Embrace," a neo-noir quite different in theme from "Ministry Of Fear," but one that is striking in its homage to both Lang and Hitchcock without being obvious about it.

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M and MOF are similar in that the opening shots are of clocks. But in MOF the camera quickly shifts to the clock face and one can see that it is a few minutes till six o'clock. The dialogue quickly establishes that something will end and something will start at six o'clock. When it becomes clear that Milland will be released and the film will be about his new future. Therefore, the first scene is more upbeat than the first scene in M. This first tension is resolved quickly and the film moves on more quickly. The initial tension lingers in M.

 

The mood in MOF is lighter when one sees that the past is over but one wonders what the future holds for Milland. The overall atmosphere is still dark as one can see from lighting and shadow effects but the psychological atmosphere is less forbidding and there is hope that the "bad" is behind and that "good" is in the future. But knowing the Noir style one knows that it will quickly turn dark again. The clock serves a dual purpose in that it sets a mood of promise/hope but at the same time sets a mood of mystery and foreboeding (sp ?).

 

The opening scene does not convey the reason for the lock up of Milland and as he is well dressed and is at least middle class, this will not be a film about thugs and gutter criminals but rather about white collar crime.As he leaves we find out he has been confined to a criminal ward in an mental asylum so this will be a real psychological film, as are all Noir films but this one promises to be a bouble barreled one--the regular below the surface psychological elements implicit in the Noir style, on top of a character that has obvious psychological issues.

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Time is something, we all, at one time or another, complain about. Time either goes by too slowly or too fast. For example, we want to speed time up when we are anxious to receive results from an exam, or slow time down when we are on vacation. One can, also, waste time and then wish it could be taken back. We are the servants of time.

 

In the instance of the clock, the deliberate ticking and montonous swing of the pendulum symbolizes how time controls us and make us captives until that moment comes when the clock signals the end of our waiting. Time says, "you can go now". Permission.

 

As with Ray Milland's character; he can hardly bear the anticipation. The clock finally chimes the exact hour... releasing him from his confinement; however, not a second before. When Milland leaves the asylum he remarks that he wants to go to London to be with people and experience life again. It would appear that he wants to compensate for lost time....even though the Blitz is raging.

 

In the case of M, the train speeds our characters to their uncertainty.... almost to the point where one wants to slow down and take more time for them to arrive at their destination.

 

Being a very visual person, I loved the shadowing and lighting in this clip. Here the photography is crucial for setting the tone and mood which are both dark and brooding; two elements that, in my opinion are key to defining the noir style.

 

The psychiatrist mentions that this was Milland's character's first mistake (killing his wife) and a second mistake would be unfortunate. The audience will take that hint and anticipate a suspenseful journey for him? Did he really kill his wife?

 

I will watch Ministry of Fear on Friday's programming with relish.

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I thought M to be much more foreboding. The shadow passing over the wanted poster while a child is bouncing her ball against it was much creepier.

 

The use of the clock as it marks time then clicks forward a minute built anticipation that was felt by the prisoner when it finally chimed 6:00. 3 minutes on the clock pass on 55 seconds of film. The doctor talks about speeding up the clock. Lang's purpose? Any thoughts?

 

I felt the Noir style ellements are well balanced but not as heavy handed as in M. More subtle but with a balanced use of Noir style lighting, framing, traveling shots and composition creating an insane man's anticipation for London.

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Like the beginning of “M,” the opening of “Ministry of Fear” has what I would describe as a surreal quality to it.  As with “M,” the cinematography is incredible with its eerie shadows and unique angles.  The cinematographer of “M” was Fritz Arno Wagner.  The cinematographer of “Ministry of Fear” was Henry Sharp.  One has to surmise that Fritz Lang, the director, influenced the cinematography of both movies. 

 

There are some melodramatic hand gestures by Ray Milland, but somehow it fits. The storyline is melodramatic, too.  The character has some pretty nice “digs” for an asylum; and the idea that he wants to go to London, which is undergoing the “Blitz,” is a little bizarre.  But then where would someone leaving an asylum want to go?….

 

I’ll be going to my TV set on Friday at 9:00 a.m.  :)

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I Have equated Noir to several points in my head so far.

 

Films prior to Noir it was fairly easy to pinpoint The Heroes and the Villains. The Good and The Bad. With Noir I picture the characters , much like Gene Kelly, dancing around in the rain dancing along the fine line between good and evil, jumping and sometimes falling on either side and occasionally falling on one of the sides that had quicksand and disappearing into the darkness.

 

Noir for me is a bit of a winding rubber band of fear apprehension and terror. In this Dose today From Lang it is very similar to M as the clock starts the tension...the rubber band slowly winding. We see Milland from the back..In shadow...a gentleman walks in...is he a dr.? a friend? brisk little chit chat. Dropping hints on what it may be...giving us many possibles to mull over as we listen. Then the Clock strikes...and he says.."freedom".. from what? A prison? Led us to believe he was incarcerated. as follow outside .the shadows...the darkness...as he starts to walk.. and we see the Business Sign.. An Asylum. Giving us a quick 180 in our minds in the first 4 minutes.

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Okay......I watched the Nora Prentiss movie last night.  This was the first time I have seen this movie.....beyond the noir aspects of the film, I feel this film should have had a secondary title....

 

Portrait of an Idiot.....LOL

 

I could hardly believe that these two just walked into it, eyes wide open.  Nora understands that this is not going to turn out good and tries to fend the doctor off as long as possible, but of course she ends up giving in to her emotions.  I DO NOT see her as a femme fatale in this movie, nor do I think it should be characterized as a "woman's movie" as I have heard in commentary.  Quite the opposite...it should be characterized as a study into the mind of two self destructive people.

 

The doctor.....Dr Idiot, neglected by his wife, is fascinated by an attractive woman that is actually interested in him as a person and the race is on to the finish line in the nearest bed.....too bad.  Could this movie be a lesson to wives?  The message that "Your sin will find you out?" Karma?C'mon now.....affairs run rampant throughout the movies throughout the decades....

 

What is interesting to me about this film as far as noir is how long it truly takes to get to a noir portrayal, i.e. the minute Dr. Idiot finds a way to leave his family without publicly embarrassing them and himself as an "upstanding" citizen of the community.  Once they get into the bed and begin their destructive relationship we can all quickly determine what the end will be.  

 

The ironic car crash (which makes him think he can now restart his life with Ms. Self Destruct) and subsequent mistake by the detectives into thinking he is the murderer of Dr. Idiot is certainly an unexpected twist and the secret kept between the lovers after is more like a grand tragedy to me than film noir....although in my mind and heart, a tragedy much deserved by both.  

 

 I would be very interested in the professor's comments on this film and why it is considered a noir at the level that it should be considered in our course.  To me, it seems to be missing so many elements of the great film noirs that came out over those two decades....the other movie, "woman on the run"  displays much more of a noir feel than the Nora movie.

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I think silence speaks louder than music almost always, too.

 

 

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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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.

And the kid's game is a monotonous sing-song like a ticking clock. And the kids are standing in a circle, a little girl twirling at the center pointing at her playmates using her arms like clock hands.

 

A simile too far?

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Compared with M, the opening of Ministry has a foreboding to it, very stylish with the use of darkness more than light. Lang was a major influence on Hitchcock, and Hitchcock took a lot of Lang's style, but I felt in the final moments of the film that Lang was emulating Hitchcock, with a quick Hollywood studio style wrap-up.

Very enjoyable film, Milland is good as always.

People like that M didn't have a soundtrack. It must be remembered that wall to wall soundtracks weren't really used in early sound films.

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 1.)    In the opening of M,  the repetitious singing of the children serves to build mood, suspense, and tension.  Lang uses the tick-tock of the clock in Ray Milland's room to accomplish the same effect.  As the clock ticks and we see Millans waiting anxiously in the chair,  we wonder what will happen....what possibly could happen next ?  Will he be free when the clock tolls 6 or will something occur, something terrible and unforeseen that will, at the last minute, prevent him from leaving.

 

          In the opening scene of M,  Lang uses the children's rhythmic singing and play to accomplish the same effect.  The singing goes on for some time and we, as the viewer, wonder what is going to happen...what can possibly happen ?  In the case of M,  the tension is not released as in the close of the opening scene in Ministry of Fear.  Instead when we seen the little girl playing with the ball and then we see the wanted poster followed by the silhouette of someone watching the girl,  Lang accomplishes the opposite effect   Now the tension has been ratcheded up.

 

 

2. )  The ticking of the clock serves to start the scene with instant tension.  What aids Lang in using the clock to create mood and atmosphere is that we do not know what the ticking clock is "ticking" or advancing towards.  Is Milland's character waiting for jury to deliberate his fate  ?  Is this scene taking place in a hospital and he's waiting to hear word on a sick loved one ? His wife perhaps ?  We simply don't know until the other character (his psychiatrist, we presume)  begins to speak. Then, Lang slowly and carefully provides the details. The audience is still left in the dark until we see the sign on the brick wall stating that he is exiting an asylum.

 

 

3.)  The scene is an important contribution to the film noir style because is adheres to the noir formula as laid out in analysis of the era.  Lang starts the ticking clock immediately at the film's start while the production credits are still displaying.  We are dragged into action immediately.  We are pulled into a dark world of a man awaiting some fate we know nothing about yet. The world gets darker as we see him leaving the prison and Lang starts the film will some ominous tone of what is to come.

 

Your last comment is so right on the money to me. It is that subtle, not knowing, the ominous that gets your attention

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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?

I've been wondering about Milland and his state of mind, too. Is he cured or is he having a dream or even hallucinating? Is he the one who is insane, or is a world at war insane? Is he leaving the asylum only to enter a world where everyone has gone insane because of war, and that's why we see the sign for the asylum when we do? I wondered about the window that we see too. Is that a way to tell us that Milland is only locked in because of his own mind? Is he no different than a world at war and there was nothing to distinguish him from everyone else fighting? I want to see the movie, and I wonder if I'll have any answers.

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The last shot of this scene, which is revealed to us by the quick swinging of the camera to tell us that Miland has just walked out of an insane asylum, reminds me of the last scene in the clip we saw from M, in which the murderer's shadow appears on the poster just as abruptly. Similarly, we see Miland's shadow on the wall of the asylum slinking away until it is off the wall and the man is back out in the world. Both scenes end with a reveal that most likely intends for the audience to feel uneasy.

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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.

I am intrigued that you use the word "Gothic" because, in both M and Ministry of Fear, Lang uses the Gothic typeface. In M, he uses it for the notice about the murderer; in Ministry of Fear, he uses it for the opening credits. It's a typeface that is so closely associated with gothic stories that it's almost an obvious choice, but it works so well, I think, in both movies. I thought that both opening scenes were equally strong, although Ministry of Fear is even darker and gloomier. Perhaps Ministry of Fear gives viewers more to interpret right away, which does give it an advantage. You may be right after all!

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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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They share the same low-key lighting.  It’s a world of shadows, and not bright sunshine.  They both feature clocks.  In one children are let out of school, and in the other a man is let out of an asylum.  They are both with relative quiet stretches, like the quiet before the action begins.  They both prominently feature warnings as a prelude to the story.  One is verbal and one is visual (the wanted poster). 

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