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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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The pendulum reminds us that time can go by so slowly and as the camera pulls back we see a man sitting in a semi dark room starring at this back and forth motion and we hear his first spoken words: "Come in. You know its interesting to watch the last minute crawl by after so many of them."

Six 'clock. "Free man", he says.

 

This opening scene from Ministry of Fear could be seen as contributing to the film noir style. We pay attention to the camera movement, lighting, shadow over one half of Ray Milland's face and wonder why is the director filming this way.

 

I think these techniques are used to set a mood or tone, if you will, to tell a story in a fresh new way. 

No more "Once upon a time.... "  or "There once was a...."  or  "Let me tell you a story..."

 

It seems like film noir broke the mold in film storytelling.

 

 

 

 

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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?

I don't think you're going too far at all... the ticking clock is a staple of suspense.  

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Of course, the tolling of bells plays prominently in both the opening scene of Ministry of Fear and M.  It is symbolism at its best; something wicked this way comes. 

 

What I appreciate most about both of Lang's openings is the tip-of-the-iceberg style used to drop the viewer directly into the middle of the action of the world of the film.  Expositional scenes seem to not fit so well into Lang's style - or the style of film noir.  The fear of the unknown is instantly unlocked when the viewer has no idea who the characters are or what world they are in.  The lack of exposition elicits dread.

 

Ministry of Fear seems to contribute to the noir style in the way that the viewer is asked to follow someone who may be amoral or downright dangerous as their protagonist through this film.  This opening scene does not suggest a tale of some hero thwarting evil against all odds.  Rather, it seems to depict evil surviving among other people against all odds; it is the tolling of that ominous clock which warns of what may be to come.  Quite masterful.

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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.

I like your assessment and would like to offer an additional thought. Lang loves to show a bleak world cast in shadows and a suggestion of continued uncertainty and dread. The image of the child's game from the overhead shot depicting a ticking clock as with the pendulum indicate the relentless and unavoidable advance of time. In the child's game, the hand ticks around and will eliminate an unlucky participant and allow the others to remain in for another circle of the hand of fate. All beyond the player's control. Anticipation of surviving/winning the game is hope and outcome will be known quickly. In leaving the asylum, Ray has hope of a better future in which he likely believes he has some sense of control. His hope is therefore greater and as the result will take longer to be known, the potential dismay of failure will be more profound. Anticipation of foreboding risk is introduced as he is issued a warning when he leaves. After all, this is Noir, impending doom may be just around the corner from the relative safety albeit confinement of that ivy covered wall.

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There has been a lot of discussion about the ticking clock, of course, but I found myself enjoying the painterly way that the scenes are composed... at the end, for instance, the perfect composition of the doctor, the departing patient, and the guard in the background, all framed by the gateway.

 

 

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I have not seen the movie "M" therefore I can't make a comparison. Secondly, the pendulum represents that something is looming. What that is, we don't know but the I can assume it is some some tragic event that will occur. The eeriness of the lighting and movement of the clock fits well into film noir because of the black and white lighting. The shadow that the pendulum casts and most importantly, how slowly it moves back and forth. Finally, since I have never seen the movie, Ray Milland's initial look throws me off because it says fear. I look forward to discovering the secrets of this movie.

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In both movies you understand right away that something is going on that you are not in on. You are standing at the edge of a shadowy world where something sinister lurks and it is unclear who to trust. I like the references to time and faces. It accentuates the fact that the character feels as is he has been alone, separate for a long time and he wants to be a part of the living world again.

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

 

A few caveats: I last watched "M" in the original German a few years ago, my German was rusty, and we haven't been given a specific range of action to use for comparison  for "M." A link to a clip of "M" would have been helpful for this exercise. That said I will try what I think is a difficult comparison.

 

The use of the clock is obvious. In both cases the clock is heralding a release. In "M" the release is for children from school for the day. This is usually a joyous occasion, but in "M" the release is clearly not going to lead to joy. First the children are in a circle (clock) playing an elimination game, and singing a song about death. We also have a public notice that a murderer is on the loose. The audience is not surprised when Elsie, innocently bouncing her ball, is lead by a shadowy figure to the balloon man, tells the figure "danke schoen," for the balloon, and then is seen no more. Her working class mother is watching the ominous clock which tells us that Elsie is late enough that something is wrong. She pathetically calls the girl's name, Elsie's ball silently rolls out from some bushes, and her balloon has been tangled up in some telephone wires. The crime is committed.

 

In "Ministry of Fear," which I have not watched in its entirety, Ray Milland is seated, nicely dressed, in an institutional setting, watching a clock tick down to his own release from a darkened room. His suitcase packed, an admonition is given not to involve himself further with the police, and to live somewhere quiet. Milland's setting is creepy, but not working class, and we are shown, by a sign, that he has been in a mental asylum.

 

Although both films use similar lighting, we can't tell whether "Ministry" is 6 at night or 6 in the morning. In either case, dimmer lighting can make sense. In "M," the afternoon should be flooded with daylight, however the children playing in the courtyard are in a darkened atmosphere. Most parents of the period would all be calling their kids if they weren't already home for the night. The dim lighting in both films helps create the atmosphere of fear, dread, and loathing.

 

The clocks presage problems, not release as they would under normal circumstances (release from school and release from incarceration). There appear to be many more clues in "M" than in "Ministry," from the children's game eliminating one child after the other, their song about death, the public notice that a killer is on the loose, and Elsie's mother who clearly lets the audience know that the daughter is abnormally late coming home from school. In "Ministry," We know that there is something wrong with Ray Milland, that he hasn't been allowed to mingle in society for some good reason, that he is likely to be a criminal, that he should avoid densely populated ares for some good reason and finally that he is likely (criminally) insane. In both the films the crime has already been committed. In "M" the crime is almost done before our eyes, in "Ministry," it happened some time ago.

 

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

 
I think this was discussed above. It is largely a countdown to problems which are coming. Nothing good is at the end of its countdown.
 
In what ways can this opening scene from Ministry of Fear be considered as an important contribution to the film noir style?
 
I am not sure that Ministry is an important contribution to noir style. Lang's important contribution to noir style and German Expressionism is "M." Until I watch it in its entirety, I will assume it is a continuation of the Lang oeuvre, and not a novel contribution to a specific genre of film.
 
Lang's use of written signs in both films are a great shorthand device to reveal information to the audience while keeping the dialogue spare and unsettling.

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I think that Fritz Lang has a checklist for his film openings. The evidence: the children's chant in M and the clock ticking in MOF,

Shooting from above the characters - in M it is the policeman and the child, in MOF it is the two men as the gate is opened, the

shadow work from Caligari,  the foreshadowing dialogue: "I wish the children would stop" and "Don't get entangled with police".

Great use of the noir tradition of movement toward an unknown destination - and what motivates the movement.

 

Film Noir is a well calculated, well spun spider web awaiting ......... you.

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Compared to M, the opening of Ministry of Fear seems to me 'stripped down'. There are only two characters (and a guard who opens the door), we follow them out of the room and to the gates of the asylum instead of skipping from a kitchen to a busy street like in M.

 

The style has changed but there's a parallel with M: Fritz Lang is keeps working on shadows and light in this opening. The sounds reminded me of M, too: the ominous sound of a clock echoes to the grating noise made by the gates, toward the end. They create a creepy atmosphere.

 

The last scene struck me, because the high-angle shot creates a very disturbing impression: the main character is about to leave the asylum, he'll soon be free again, but we can't see what's outside. In comparison, the asylum with its garden looks more welcoming... The character is supposed to be a free man again but it looks as if he was about to experience another kind of imprisonment (I never watched the movie, though)...

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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?

 

To me, the big point made in this opening sequence is the potential unreliability of the protagonist. He's in an asylum and at this stage we don't know why. He's been released, but his obsession with the clock makes me wonder if he's 100% "cured"? So (and I haven't seen the film) from this point just how reliably can we take his actions and words? 

 

This unreliability, a grayness in the moral core of so many characters, is one of the things I find most notable about noir. It's not that the good guys are bad, exactly, but nor are they good. Marlowe violently twists the arm of the girl in his office (Murder, My Sweet - I'm sure that would have been shocking to the ordinary film-goer in the '40s), the PI who takes cash for silence (Born to Kill), and here the man who is very possibly dangerous from the get-go. It's a new and darker world, and this darkness is reflected not just in the baddies, but also the heroes. 

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When you first see the clock you can tell that someone is watching the minutes tick by ever so slowly waiting for a particular moment.  A moment they obviously have been waiting for for a very long time.  Hearing nothing but the clock ticking away can be very creepy especially if you are all alone.

 

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I saw both openings of M & Ministry of Fear and I tried to see the comparisons but it must have flown over my head. I tried with taking the clock in Ministry & the circle where the children are standing like numbers on the face of a clock (in M) as maybe a linkage....TIME. Meaning the passage of time for the character in Ministry was so there in the asylum that he was eager to move on with life. And with M time is crucial for the people of Berlin to find this killer of children and stopping him. Maybe I'm wrong with this comparison (having issues with phone trying to watch movies)...am I on the right track?

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In the opening scene of "Ministry of Fear", I feel that Fritz Lang uses the clock to signify things to come and he used the children to do that same thing in the movie "M".  Children are the future as the saying goes.  I feel that the use of this symbolism makes this an important contribution to films noir.

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The swinging pendulum and "tick, tick" help set a tense atmosphere.  I don't know why pendulum clocks seem sinister, but they usually do.  We look around a darkened room, rather expressionistic-looking with shadows, and then notice that there is a man sitting there, facing the clock, sitting in darkness.   This seems sinister, too-- why is he sitting in the room in the dark?  The door opens,a man enters, and a shaft of light strikes our protagonist.  He is tense, looking at the clock.  Is something going to happen that he dreads?  Then he jumps up to get his suitcase, and we learn that he is being released from somewhere.  It doesn't seem to me that he is ready to go, however! The second man questions whether Ray should be going to London, which is being bombed now; we realize that he is not necessarily concerned with bombs, but with noise.  We get the idea that Ray might be in a hospital of some kind.  The second man takes him to the gate.  (It is a little unusual that someone is being released form somewhere at night.)  It looks like there is a maze right by the gate-- a little odd, too.  We also see a policeman.  When Ray walks away, we see the sign for the asyum, a little surprise at the end of the scene.

 

Like M, Lang uses shadow, sound (the ticking of the clock), the mesmeric movement of the pendulum, and darkness.    Ray is also first seen in darkness, just as we see Peter Lorre in shadow for the first time in M.  The asylum sign is like the wanted poster in M-- a little shock that sets the meaning for the scene.  However, we don't feel that Ray is a menace like the Man in Black.  We know there was one charge against him; but find out in scene 1 of M that the Man in Black was a serial child murderer.

 

Boy, that Criterion print of Ministry of Fear is beautiful!

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Although much has been said about the manipulation of time and the importance of time in the opening of Ministry of Fear, I responded to the swinging pendulum slightly differently. I felt it was a hypnotic device. 

 

In the 18th and 19th centuries "hypnotism" was practiced more as a "dark art." Franz Mesmer (1734–1815) believed that there is a magnetic force or "fluid" within the universe that influences the health of the human body. He found that he could put people in a trance-like state by passing the hands in front of the subject's body. Hence the word "mesmerize."

 

By the 20th century hypnotism had gained legitimacy in medical and psychological circles and a swinging pendulum was often used to introduce this trance-like state. Further studies in hypnotism led to the discovery of Ideomotor phenomenon is a psychological phenomenon wherein a subject makes motions unconsciously.

 

Although I haven't seen Ministry of Fear, I wonder if Lang is lulling the audience into a hypnotic state or suggesting that Ray Milland's character is under some sort of hypnotic control.

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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?

 

To me, the big point made in this opening sequence is the potential unreliability of the protagonist. He's in an asylum and at this stage we don't know why. He's been released, but his obsession with the clock makes me wonder if he's 100% "cured"? So (and I haven't seen the film) from this point just how reliably can we take his actions and words? 

 

This unreliability, a grayness in the moral core of so many characters, is one of the things I find most notable about noir. It's not that the good guys are bad, exactly, but nor are they good. Marlowe violently twists the arm of the girl in his office (Murder, My Sweet - I'm sure that would have been shocking to the ordinary film-goer in the '40s), the PI who takes cash for silence (Born to Kill), and here the man who is very possibly dangerous from the get-go. It's a new and darker world, and this darkness is reflected not just in the baddies, but also the heroes. 

To comment further on that unreliability of the protagonist -- the concerned attitude of the doctor indicates, to me, that he believes he will see the protagonist again.  The doctor suggests a different approach than Ray Milland is willing to take, he warns him to stay away from the police, reminds him of the perils of "a second charge", so we learn that Ray Milland is a criminal. But we also notice, that as Ray Milland, who supposedly would have spent a great deal of time with the doctor during his "cure", is willing to cut the ties almost immediately as he walks away as a free man, not giving the dr's recommendations any consideration, suggesting he's headstrong, stubborn, combined with the potential of a being a recividist, we have the fine makings a film noir protagonist.

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The opening scene in Fritz Lang's "Ministry of Fear" is an extremely significant contribution to the film noir style. With the heavy amount of shadowing, as well as beginning the scene with the main character's face away from the camera, adds to the mystique. The slow panning from the slow-moving clock seems to drag on, as the viewer is unaware of what they're about to see. At the very end of the clip, we wonder what exactly the man's first police charge was, as "a second charge wouldn't be easy." Along with the music, there are numerous connections between the opening to this film and the film noir style itself. 

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The beginning scene of "Ministry of Fear" gives a different tone than "M". Lang uses the children playing to give this playful, but chilling tone. The in depth focus slowly build the tension and had us wondering what was going to happen next. In "Ministry of Fear" Lang decided to focus on the clock as it slowly moved back, but also build up tension, but in a different way. It was more of anxious tone as we did not know what was going to happen next. Lang did a great job to have the Milland sitting in the dark, barely seeing his face as he watches the clock moving back and forth slowly. His anxiey became our anxiety. I know I felt tense watching that clock as well. The shadows and somber music set the film noir atmosphere. In "M" he slowly build the atmosphere as in "Ministry" he sort of thrusts us into the scene where you know that Milland is waiting to get out of the aslyum. I have never seen this film and I can't wait to watch it.

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"M" & "Ministry of Fear" - The clock functions almost outside of everyone's control. It's the elusive mark of something starting or ending.  It signals release from the asylum. It signals that it's time to cook or when school lets out. Everyone seems to obey the schedule almost as if in a trance. The pendulum swaying reminded me of the workers marching in unison into the factory in "Metropolis." The clock drones on and we are powerless to stop the forces of time. The opening of "Ministry of Fear" doesn't tell us much about the main character but release from an asylum and a remark about not having another "run in with the police" tells us that there were sinister and maybe demented reasons for this man's confinement that went beyond mere crime.

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As others have also pointed out, there are many formal similarities between the opening sequence of M and the beginning of Ministry of Fear, including the parallels between the children's game and the ticking clock (both establishing a rhythm and tension). However, most striking for me was the otherworldly quiet and unnatural sense of stillness as the action begins, almost like the calm before a storm. In each film, and like much German Expressionism, Lang frames the shots to emphasize the geometry of the architecture and the rigidity of the spaces these people inhabit. In both openings, he uses bird's-eye view to give the audience a feeling of omniscience. The storytelling devices are also remarkably similar. At the beginning of each film, important characters are waiting (the woman prepares for her child coming home from school, the protagonist waits and prepares to be released from the asylum), which builds a sense of anticipation. And then the dialogue uses foreshadowing ("as long as we can hear 'em singing, at least we know they're still there", "a second charge wouldn't be easy") to build apprehension in the viewer.       

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That swinging pendulum really does give you a sense of dread. And then when the music fades out and you can hear the monotonous ticks of the clock? It kind of sends chills down your spine.

 

Kat

I agree with you on the effectiveness of the swinging pendulum.

Once you start watching the clock, you can't take your eyes off of it.

However, I will say that I don't feel the same level of dread that I do when I watch the opening of M. Here, I feel the tension and suspense in this scene, but it's not as intense for me, because I am more curious about what is going on in the scene. You are dropped, as a viewer, right into the action and it's a bit discombobulating. I want to know what happened, and what will happen when he gets out, and is a "free man." And instead of the sound of the clock, I found myself focusing on the shadows and the light. I love how Milland is staged in the dark corner, and then when the door opens, the light hits him.

I also like the humor in the dialogue in the scene -- it's a wry sense of humor, I suppose, but it adds a certain lightness for me to this scene. The doctor is, in his way, encouraging.

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While most people have focused on the significance of the sound of the clock, I don't think anyone has remarked on the image of the clock in this opening. From the opening credits where the clock pendulum is in close up for a good 60 seconds, to the moment Ray Milland gets up to leave at 2 minutes in, the clock is either directly in the centre of the shot, or easily visible in the frame. The way it is lit brings up a noir theme that Richard and Shannon often mention in their podcast: doubling. I actually feel like I am seeing double when looking at the clock.  The bright foreground face and surface of the physical clock is perfectly copied by its crisp shadow, set at a clear angle so we see two clocks -- the light and the dark, the clear present and its shadowy past. It reminds us that our choices function in the light of present time, but we always carry the influence of an unspoken and possibly dark past. The double light/dark image is repeated in the entrance of the doctor who appears in full light, while Milland sits as a shadowy silhouette, and again in the first shot of Milland's face which appears half in light and half in darkness. 

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I thought this opening was much less effective than the opening in "M", if Lang's intent was to make us afraid. But it was probably considered more appropriate for the audiences of the time.

 

I too found the clock interesting, and wondered if it would come up again later in the movie.

 

The other thing that struck me was that this fellow seemed so calm for someone just released from an asylum, and so untraumatized. It's almost as if he were just doing his time, and had set up all his plans for just this day. His demeanor in the scene at the gate left me intrigued to see what he does next.

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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.

I love Hillary Brooke. It makes me happy when she pops up in these old films.

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