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


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At the begining of this opening, I thought the music heightening as the title of the film came on added to the drama which is something I liked. However, I didn't feel the rest of this clip was as emotionally moving (fear inducing?) as the opening of "M". In M, it was clear from the children's song what the terror of the movie would be, whereas it's not so clear in Ministry of Fear.

 

I thought it would have been better to have a camera angle from behind Ray Milland so that we could see it was a man staring at the ticking clock. Alternatively if from the angle  and pull back that's in the movie I would have left a veiw of Milland looking at the clock longer in silence before the doctor busts in.

 

I've seen the movie before and enjoyed it and look forward to seeing it completely on Friday.

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My DVR is doing double duty with recording all the Films Noir on Fridays.  Enjoyed the opening clip of Ministry of Fear and I look forward to watching the whole movie.  Ray Milland has been a favorite of mine in these classic films.  Love the opening music sounding like planes droning overhead in to bomb a town.  It sets the the mood of doom.  Of course, as in most of these Films Noir, the low key lighting is a staple for the sets and characters - shaded walls, windows, faces.  Spooky.

The tick tock of the clock adds stress to the tone, and yet the chimes at 6:00 p.m. are subdued and soft.

When Milland says the line:  "I'm a free man," i felt that was a foreshadowing of the doom to come.  The gate creaks as it opens, more foreboding.  And then he says, he was going to live a "quiet life from here on."  Uh-Oh!

So much for leaving the asylum.

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Ministry Of Fear has the use of the clock in the opening scene, just like M. Instead of the cuckoo clock, however, it's a swinging pendulum that provides a tick tock. Just like M, Ministry Of Fear also has silence early, so that the tick tock can really have it's effect. The tick tock comes across as hypnotizing, and uneasy, as if leading to a gloomy future. The later mention of London's bombardment further emphasizes that these are scary times in Europe with World War 2 in full effect. I'm actually really disappointed that the reading revealed that the hospital was actually an asylum, because it would've had a bigger impact without knowing. Nevertheless, as Neale heads off to an unknown future, I am certain that he will run into trouble, because obviously this is film noir. 

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One of the things that I expect this course will help me get over is my long-held feeling that 'noir' is an essentially American art-form. To me, Lang's "M" and "Ministry of Fear" have a distinctly European sensibility that - although influential on American 'noir' - just doesn't have the same flavor. The elements in both the opening of "M" and "Ministry of Fear" remind me of early Hitchcock - prior to his full immersion in American form. Hardly surprising given that, at the start of his career, Hitchcock was hugely influenced by German Expressionism. To compound this European-ism, in "Fear" we have a script based on a novel by that most English of authors, Graham Greene. I have to accept that the majority of the noir audience doesn't agree with this distinction - but I find it difficult to watch films like "The Third Man" or "Brighton Rock", "M" and "Ministry of Fear" and consider them 'noir' (although they share certain classic 'noir' elements) when, to my mind, they are euro-centric Thriller/Dramas. I look forward to being corrected on this small matter!

   An interesting point about "American Noir", and isn't that part of our quest in this class, to work on a definition on exactly what noir is or rather what are the boundaries are used in classifying a film noir.  Considering World War II caused a mass migration of talented film-makers in Europe to find a less threatening environment in Hollywood and thus becoming American citizens, it's certainly understandable we start seeing more films made in the US with a European influence.  Likewise a British filmmaker like Carol Reed using an American actor, Orson Welles playing a most noir-ish shady character like Harry Lime (The Third Man 1949), I don't see how we can not fit these European films under "the usual suspects" of  a mostly American genre. 

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The first word that came to me was "hypnotic" znd as we all know, hypnosis is often used in therapy to trigger memories. The score id ominous and filled with dramatic swells. Just like M, we see the stark difference between black and white. There is an element of anger in both films - the conclusion of M and the beginning here. The first shot involving Milland is from behind, similar to Lorre's absence in M. Both also contain a shot where the camera remains static after the protagonist leaves the frame.

 

The other thing noticable is what I will call "the old switcheroo". Everything the viewer sees makes you think Milland is leaving prison: the cell, the guard, the top of the gate, and Milland referring to himself as "a free man". But at the last second we see it is not prison, but an asylum. Always expect the unexpected in noir, except of course the ending.

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I don’t find that opening of Ministry of Fear grabs my attention is quite the same way as the opening of M, but it is still effective.  Once again, Lang shows a mastery of sound to create suspense.  In M, he manages to link people and situations though sound: i.e. the chimes of the clock blend into the tolling of the bells to make us connect the mother and daughter, and the rhythm of the children’s’ song is echoed in the bouncing of the girl’s ball.  In Ministry of Fear, it is the repetition of the ticking of the clock that provides the viewer with a sense of anxiety.  The focus on the ticking clock throughout the first minute of the film lets the viewer know that we are waiting for something.  Soon, we see the camera pull back to reveal a man, sitting in the shadows, watching the clock as intently as we are.  In both cases, Lang uses everyday sounds as a way to introduce a feeling of unease into what might otherwise appear to be uneventful scenes.

 

Also, much like in M, we pick up information in pieces.  Throughout the opening scene of M, we accumulate knowledge that parents are frightened because there is a child murderer on the loose.  This information is released to us gradually, as we begin by simply feeling that things aren’t quite right.  This is also true of Ministry of Fear.  We begin waiting with the man in the dark room. There is a straight line formed between his head and the clock, so that we feel he intently staring at the clock; even when the other man enters the room, the line remains unbroken, so that we feel his gaze is still on the clock.  When it chimes, we realize that the man in the shadows has been waiting for his time to leave.  We gather that the other man seems concerned about him, but we don’t quite know why.  The man himself seems a bit odd in his behavior, which reflects a combination of anxiety, relief, and excitement.  Then we see the rather ominous looking gates, the guard, and finally, at the end of the scene, the name on the wall that tells us this man is leaving an asylum. 

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Just like M, we see the stark difference between black and white. There is an element of anger in both films - the conclusion of M and the beginning here. The first shot involving Milland is from behind, similar to Lorre's absence in M. Both also contain a shot where the camera remains static after the protagonist leaves the frame.

Great point about the absence of the two men.  Lorre is literally a shadow in M, but Milland is part of the shadows in his introduction as well.  Their features can't be determined, and they enter the story as mysterious, unknowable figures.

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One again, Lang showed off his skill at used mundane sounds to set up an uneasy mood.  The clocks in M and Ministry of Fear both show the passing of time, which can be used in an unsettling way (passing of time/passing of life).  The swinging pendulum of that clock is what really creates an unnerving feeling.  It reminds me a lot of “The Pit and the Pendulum”, and it seems to foreshadow some sort of dreadful punishment.  I really like the way Lang set up the shot with Milland sitting with his back to us, partially hidden in shadow.  It helps set up the anticipation as we know he is waiting for something.  We don’t know exactly why he was incarcerated, but he seems like a nice enough person.  There is something about him, though, the way he talks and moves, that makes us a little wary.  I’m particularly thinking of, “You know it’s interesting to watch the last minute craw by, after so many of them.”  The way he stares at the clock as it chimes, and the way he slowly lifts his hands made me wonder if he was going to attack something, maybe the clock, maybe the doctor.  When we see him walk past the asylum’s signs, we know there is more to this story and that our protagonist may not be as trustworthy as we thought.

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Lang again relies upon sound to bring tension to what should be a happy moment--a man's release from the prison of a mental hospital.  As he did years before in M with the children's chanting and the bounce of Elsie's ball, in Ministry of Fear the ticking of the clock builds a tension in the viewer before we know what the scene is about.  Lang pulls to reveal a man in the shadows watching the clock as we do, tensely, building even more suspense.  The contrast between the protagonist's (and our) attitude and the expected joy of the occasion is underlined when his doctor enters the room, full of chipper advice.  Clearly the system of the world and its expectations are at odds with the reality to be experienced by both Neale and the viewer.

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In M there was a sense of pending doom, perhaps the fact that the children were singing may have heighten that sense. Ministry of fear, was far less with the sense of pending doom and a greater sense of chaos pending.  Both scenes were very effective with the use of shadows, but M was far greater use of daily sounds to heighten the fear, Ministry did not have threatened feeling. When they shot the seen of Lembridge Asylum it removed much of the mystery surrounding ray Milland, it would have been better not knowing about the institutionalization of him. But still it was a good scene.

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Ninnybit brings up a great point about the shrubbery, I did not think of that, a great point, it could also refer to the complexity of the mind in that they provide coverage to shield us from the outside world.  Or is could be just props. I do like Lauren's response to it though.

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Ok this effect was used in High Noon,with the clock representing an hour glass,as the seconds tick away.

From Milland's POV,he is waiting in anticipation for the clock to strike 6 for his freedom,but it's really focused for us as an audience,because we know those seconds ticking by are for our protagnoists impending doom.

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Ministry Of Fear has the use of the clock in the opening scene, just like M. Instead of the cuckoo clock, however, it's a swinging pendulum that provides a tick tock. Just like M, Ministry Of Fear also has silence early, so that the tick tock can really have it's effect. The tick tock comes across as hypnotizing, and uneasy, as if leading to a gloomy future. The later mention of London's bombardment further emphasizes that these are scary times in Europe with World War 2 in full effect. I'm actually really disappointed that the reading revealed that the hospital was actually an asylum, because it would've had a bigger impact without knowing. Nevertheless, as Neale heads off to an unknown future, I am certain that he will run into trouble, because obviously this is film noir. 

I want to bring up two things in reference to what you've said.

 

One, like others have said, this scene definitely has a very distinct European taste. I cannot distinguish the style from M, even though this film was made later and in a different filmmaking environment. Nonetheless, Lang has a very distinct symbolic signature. With him, it's all about specific contrasts: light and dark, silence and noise, insance and sane. What he does is that he emphasizes and then blurs those contrasts throughout his films.

 

Second, though I've yet to see the film, I actually liked that the asylum was revealed. It adds a layer of complexity because the character is told to avoid the police prior to this information. Though I didn't think he was in a prison, I got the early notion that he had been freed from some detention facility. That he's released from an asylum and yet warned about the police intrigues me. So was he really crazy or did he fake crazy to avoid harder punishment for a crime?

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Anyone else get the distinct feeling this is not the first night Ray Milland has watched that clock as he sat alone in the dark? The pendulum makes us wonder: how many nights have gone by and just what has he been thinking about?

Although there are similarities between the opening of "M" and "Ministry of Fear" ( very well pointed out by fellow students!) I think Lang has matured in the years between the films. Although classic and memorable, I think "M" seems a little obvious and overdone in comparison. "Ministry of Fear" is more subtle. It makes us feel anxious and on-edge but we don't know why.

And overhead camera angle behind Milland's head is sophisticated and effective.

 

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

 

There are definitely a lot of coinciding factors in both openings. I think it would've been easy enough to recognize the film as Lang's without being told. It's not only the clock motif that ecchoes of his earlier work, M, but much of the control of the scene and the tempo of the scene. Lang, unlike other filmmakers we've experienced, is slow to the punch and very deliberate. The dialogue is slow and doesn't contain much concrete information. The timing within the film is almost slower than our reality (despite the humorous commentary on the clock being sped up, etc). The scenes are bare bones. Only the necessary. This is in stark contrast to other films we've talked about, such as Laura, for example, in which there is a lot going on in dialogue, characters and set or even in Murder, My Sweet, the attention to fill in the detail and the smaller gaps that would normally not matter (having a purse full of cosmetics, etc). This is a work done by Lang, no doubt. It'll be interesting to see how it develops within the context of the rising noir.

 

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

 

It's all about time. Time spent. Time to come. Time that may be frozen. It sets out the protagonist as someone that's perhaps lost time and is looking to make it up, but also maybe someone ready to abandon or avoid some time (past or future) that could be unpleasant. It also highlights the slowness and stillness of the scene, perhaps to help understand the character as he excitedly waits for his time to pass and be served so he can start anew. Unlike with M, it doesn't set a tone of fear and paranoia. Though there are dark undertones to the scene, the clock doesn't chill the audience, but merely sets it up for something to come. Perhaps, I could see, the movie's tone will quicken and become more urgent as the character encounters danger or falls from grace.

 

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

 

Definitely brings back or reestablishes the German Expressionism. It reiterates certain key elements of the style such as the lighting, the pace and the use of sound to establish or reiterate messages.

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I have never seen M, so I can't really say.  This opener put me on edge.  There he sits waiting for the bell, so to speak, that will tell him he is free.  I half think this character felt like a caged animal.  He states that he can't wait to be around people.  He must have been in solitary confinement.  How terrible that is!  Some people have to be locked up for a while, but I get the feeling that this character either didn't do what he was locked up for, or maybe he had a very good reason why he did it.  Like his wife was going to kill him instead, kind of like in the movie Niagra, or how about Gaslight?  Maybe he was pushed to do what he did.  It is possible.  The news is full of people who feel they were pushed to extremes and that is why they could not control themselves.  I find it interesting that, once outside the gate, Ray Milland's character did not run from the asylum.  I guess he didn't want his doctor to think anything negative.  Freaky.

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M and Ministry Of Fear have dead silent intros. The silence is lengthy enough to be slightly uncomfortable for the viewer. It demands an immediate tone for suspense. The clock towers over the room and casts it's own shadow, which feels like time is a character facing off with the protagonist. The lighting, the character set up, and the asylum reveal shows a confident overload of film noir aesthetics.

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In this opening scene as well as the opening scene from "M", Fritz Lang had clocks in both. In "M", the clock was shown when it was time for the children to get out of school and the mother was watching the clock waiting for her daughter to get home safely. In "Ministry of Fear", Ray Milland is watching the clock, waiting to be free from the asylum. Also, the tick-tock of the clock reminded me of the girl bouncing the ball against the wanted poster in "M".

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The suspense of the sounds and music definitely are similar in M and Ministry of Fear. I think the clicking of clocks are iconic in film noir to draw suspense to a scene. I also loved the shadows, it made the scene very intimidating.

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Both M and Ministry of Fear have menacing intros with portents of danger implied whether it be with the singing children of M or the ticking of the clock in Ministry. Both movies develop slowly, introducing hints, and only hints, of the fearful underbelly moving the rest of the movie.

 

Lang uses the ticking clock masterfully like a continuation of the church bell from the opening credits music. It puts the viewer in mind of time wasting and time running short, and when it starts chiming, it is almost like a funeral procession. It's a very creative use of sounds to produce a sense of ill-ease and hazard. Even the creaking of the gate sounds ominous.

 

The significance this scene had on the genre are the exact things I mentioned before. Lang used sound and music as indicators of future events and put the audience in a specific mood necessary for the rest of the film. It was a technique that would be used time and again in noir films. Also, the idea of a faulted character trying to reform or reconcile himself was a significant aspect of the genre. 

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The similarity to M is the quiet set and the ambient sound.

 

A watched clock never boils and minutes can seems endless if one is watching a clock or waiting for the hour to be struck. Thus when we discover who has been watching the clock we are immediately sympathetic only to alter our opinion a few frames later when we see what he is leaving behind and where he is going. We are disconcerted.

 

The strong lighting and distinct shadows ...giving us a palette of rich tonal values... might possibly be a reference to German Expressionism but I would not, on the basis of three minutes of film, call it "noir" ...such a hasty decision would be unfair to the director. (What if it turns out to be a Mel Brooks comedy!)

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There's no mistaking the visual image of the clock...time...too much of it, not enough of it, it trapping you in a moment or situation, having to wait more time for things to change, not wanting anything to change. Time.

 

Ray Milland is sitting in the chair holding onto the armrests like a prisoner. He's watching the clock and "living" that last minute...waiting for his freedom. When it finally does come, he releases his grip as if someone has opened his cell door, and there's a correlation between the clock chiming and his letting go.

 

He realizes that his time is up in the asylum and that he is leaving.

 

It is now time for him to begin the next chapter...time to move on.

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In both films, Lang does a masterful job at using sound to set the tone for what you are about to see. Both films have this sense of paranoia to them, this sense of hysteria and I feel like Lang lets us feel that from the opening scenes. Lang does this in M with the sound of innocent kids playing an innocent game. He lets the camera linger on them, building this sense of dread within us because bad things happening to innocent children is a blind spot for everybody. It creeps us out and makes us angry. In Ministry of Fear, he uses the idea of time to make us uneasy. The swinging of the clock sounds like it is deliberately trying to get under our skin. It puts us on edge. Maybe it's the kind of clock Lang uses that is effective, I don't know. I just know that Lang taps into our fears of time getting away from us as a way to mount a sense of dread from the opening frame. It is called Ministry of Fear after all. We know from the title alone that paranoia is likely going to be a focus.

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The thing I noticed most about the similarities between "M" and "Ministry of Fear" was the use (or lack of) sound.  "Ministry of Fear" has a lot of "doom and gloom" music from the opening title, and then gets relatively quiet.  "M" opens with the children's song/game, where only the lyrics of the song are scary -- the music belies what the song is about -- and then also has moments of relative silence.  I attributed that to "M" being an early sound film, but now it seems like it's more of a signature Fritz Lang thing.

 

I haven't seen "Ministry of Fear," but it struck me as VERY "noirish" that Ray Milland would be released from the mental asylum in the MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT.  Ya wouldn't find that in many other genres/styles/movements!

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What I noticed most was the use of doors to present a sense of freedom or captivity. Milland is sitting in the dark when the door is opened and the doctor comes in to release him. The light streaking in can be seen as the Milland's character seeing the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel - he's no longer a prisoner of whatever mental ailment had bothered him.

 

Or is he? Next we see another form of door, the huge iron fence which can be perceived as prison bars. But for Milland, they could either mean being set free or that he was perhaps better off behind bars where the evils of the world could not affect him.

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