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


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

I  would compare the openings of the two films similarity with the use of time and the clock and the darkness of the character's bedroom

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

Fritz Lang uses the clock not only in the scene but also in the opening credits to  signify the importance and anticipation of time by the character. Lang, uses the camera angles to focus on the reaction of the character as he looks at the clock.  We also know that there is something wrong with the clock because of a comment made by the doctor.

 

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

​The scene can be considered an important contribution to the film noir style, because when I first viewed the scene I thought that Ray Milland's character was leaving prison and not a mental health facility. The scene jolts the viewer immediately within a dark suspenseful setting.

 

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The dim lighting and menacing music at the beginning are very similar in "M" and "Ministry of Fear".  Lang uses clocks in both movies as a reminder of time passing and what can happen at a certain time. The tick tock of the clock and its swinging pendulum in Ministry of Fear gives the viewer a sense of how desperate Neale was watching time pass. The repetitive sound is very unnerving and seems like a prelude to bad times. Lang's camera pans the room around the darkened corners and focuses on Neale's suspenseful staring at the clock.He is desperate for 6pm to arrive.Lang did the same in M when he gave us a glimpse of the neighborhood. At first, the doctor's shadowy figure appears to be menacing when he opens the door. Consequently, his voice and demeanor seem non-threatening but in reality he is the bearer of stark warnings, contradictory questions and negative reminders of the past. Like in "M", Lang uses sound sparingly to create suspense.The opening of the outside gate is emphasized by a slight creaking sound.The men's footsteps dramatize Neale's speedy departure from the asylum.This opening scene is an important contribution to film noir because it showcases many of the elements we've discovered so far; menacing setting, foreboding plot and suspense.We don't know why he was in an asylum or why he should avoid the police.This movie certainly resulted from some social and cultural factors such as the difficulties during World War II and the influence of German expressionalism.

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The clock is a reminder by the filmmaker that he is setting the pace on this story.  We are captive to his clock, just as Milland was captive to the clock in the asylum.

 

LOVED the spiked gates to the facility!

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I see similarly between M and Ministry of Fear in the aspect of using everyday situations to build tension, You see the clock and Ray Milland sitting there. In essence he is leaving s place and going to London, you don't know what his past is or even where he currently is at. Yet the lighting, and the ticking of the clock build an expectation of suspense.

 

I think the use of lighting, the discussion about it not being wise to go to London, and then seeing that he is leaving an asylum creates the suspense of film noir. You don't know what his past his but expect to learn it.

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Both films use the clock to show the passage of time and to build suspense, that so something bad is going to happen. I was particularly struck by the darkness and shadows in Milland's room. More like a cell than like a room in a hospital/asylum. But that was probably the point.

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The quiet opening with the sound of the clock not only sets the pace of the film, but as we meet the Ray Milland character is that he is hyper sensitive to the sense of time, that he has missed out on many things - what we don't know yet, but as the time ticks down his facial expressions change. This opening and M also remind us that time is both an enemy and friend - we just don't know which until we atch the film more. It is also goes to a greater question - do any of us know how much time we have left to live our lives - have we used time wisely or has it been wasted - he makse it quite clear he will not be wasting any time, and then we see where he has been. The final reminder of being careful is also about time and what can happen if he doesn't use his time wisely.

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

 

Aside from similar uses in lighting and camera angles, my biggest comparison between the opening of Fritz Lang’s M and his Ministry of Fear film is his ability to make ordinary objects and people suspenseful.

 

Both the clock and its swinging pendulum are almost as dreadful as the children singing about the child killer in the opening scene of M.

 

Each opening scene uses everyday innocent sounds to give an ominous and sinister presence to the mood of the film and its story.

 

This distortion in the meaning of these usually innocent things adds a disturbing quality to the tone of the film.

 

Leaving his audience on pins and needles from the opening of the film and story.

 

In addition to this, these sounds are even followed by an uneasiness that is felt by even the characters in the film and story.

 

For example, a mother asks the children in M to stop singing that “cursed” song and Stephen Neale in Ministry of Fear seems like he almost wants to strangle the ticking clock and its dreaded pendulum that have haunted him during his incarceration at the Lembridge Asylum.

 

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

 

I believe that Fritz Lang uses the clock in this scene and its constantly swinging pendulum to add an element of suspense and to draw-out the tension of the film’s mood and atmosphere.

 

I believe that Fritz Lang also uses the clock to dramatically represent the feelings of isolation and confinement that Stephen Neale has endured hour by hour at the asylum.

 

As if to say, sitting alone in the dark with this clock is enough to even drive a sane man berserk. Now as the audience, imagine years of this… day in and day out (like the clock’s Tick tock).

 

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

 

I believe that the opening scene from Ministry of Fear can be considered as an important contribution to the film noir style in regard to establishing a suspenseful mood and atmosphere to noir films.

 

I believe that Fritz Lang’s use of turning ordinary things into ultimately disturbing elements helps contribute to thrilling aspects of the film noir style.

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As with "M", "Ministry of Fear" starts out establishing an air of foreboding. I think "M" is the more remarkable as establishing that feeling over an entire community, whereas "Ministry" seems to be concentrating on one individual.

 

The clock ticking under the titles gives the sense that time is of the essence, and perhaps that time is running out. It hard to watch that pendulum swing without thinking of the menace of the swinging blade in "The Pit and the Pendulum."

 

Incidentally, note the visual trick played here - possibly just for expedience - that when seen under the titles, the clock is under some light casting stark shadows on the wall behind, but when the camera pulls back to show the whole room, it it so dark that there is no source for the shadows we saw.

 

That overall darkness and the ticking of the clock and the man watching it intently make us feel that he is waiting for something terrible to happen. Is someone coming for him? Is he awaiting his death?

 

But again, there's a sort of trick when we learn the man is actually waiting to leave and return to the world at large, to lose himself in London. This would appear to be a positive move for the man, but those shadows are still troubling, as is the other man's concern that London may not be the best destination, as much for being among all that humanity as for the Blitz.

 

A cut to an exterior shot reveals the man is leaving from a locked gate. He is told not to get involved with the police again. Is he leaving prison? No, we see he is leaving an asylum.

 

These first few minutes of "Ministry" establish a dark past for this man without really giving us any details. Dark pasts, and the attempt to escape them, will become a significant trope in Noir.

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I've seen Ministry of Fear just once, and I found it quite enjoyable. What I like about the opening, and the rest of the film, is the cinematography. As I mentioned in my post about The Letter, light and shadows are very effective at setting the tone of a film (and it's something that can't truly be used as effectively in color films), and the tone here, like in M, is calm, but there is a definite sense of urgency as the clock ticks and ticks, on and on, unending. Though, it does end when Milland's character is free from Lembridge Asylum. I also think this clock and its pendulum relates to the fact that life still goes on outside of the asylum; even though time has stopped for Milland's character, in a sense, the outside world hasn't stopped, and the clock can represent that. The way in which he stares so intently at the clock, too, reminds me of the Quentin section in Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury (I like to think that the themes in Faulkner's novels relate to gothic novels, and American gothic novels, which are then, in turn, related to noir, but that's just a side note).

 

I also wonder what the doctor means when he says he wants to speed up the clock. Is the clock slow ("crawling by" as Neale states) or is it for the benefit of the patient? Or would the speeding up of the clock be disadvantageous for the patient (trying to trick them)? Perhaps I'm reading too much into it, but I think it's an interesting point to bring up.

 

The openings of M and Ministry of Fear both include elements of German Expressionism, mostly in the play of light, shadows, and strong lines they create. Expressionism isn't really about realism, but the creation of a setting that affects mood (take the quintessential The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, for instance). While we do get realism in both M and Ministry of Fear--an important element in in film noir--Lang also infuses those "Expressionist lessons of his youth" to create a hyperreality, something that shows an illustrated and heightened realistic setting. Take the Criterion Collection's artwork for the film into consideration:

 

649_BD_box_348x490_original.jpg

 

We get those strong and defining lines that were important in Expressionism of the 1930s, but are also seen years later in the mid-40s. The moody black and white photography, those sharp lines, and witty dialogue are all elements of a good noir, in my opinion.

 

To just briefly mention some dialogue, I think my favorite part of this opening scene is when Neale believes that a sea of faces, instead of the singular face of the clock, and appearances, presumably, by his doctor, would be a good thing. At this point we don't know why Neale was in the asylum, but we have to wonder whether or not he has improved enough to be comfortable in the large, bustling, many-faced city of London.

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The swing pendulum of the clock leads you to think that what we are about to see will have an ill fate.  The music sounds like impending doom.  We know we are waiting for something to happen, but what?  What doom can further happen to Ray Milland's character as he tries to resume a normal life?  Whatever his fate, his time is running out like the sand in an hourglass.

 

When the shot is panned around the room, it looks dismal.  As if time has stood still in this room.  And perhaps it has.  The lighting is cold and stark as if no one has been living in the room at all.  As the main character sits in the dark all you see is his shadow....waiting as the clock ticks.   How horrible it must be to sit and wait and hope for a better life, when you are also afraid.

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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!

An excellent point, which I didn't pick up on in my response. Of course you leave the asylum in the dark of night!

 

But this set me back to look at the clip to see what time it was on that clock. It was five minutes to six. Whether a.m. or p.m. it's hardly the dead of night.

 

More evidence perhaps that the darkness represents a mood or psychological attitude more than a specific representation of physical conditions.

 

Regardless, your point is still absolutely valid.

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The clock is a major element in this scene because we, as we soon learn, it's really been the constant companion of Milland's character during his stay here, to the point that he hates it. The interesting thing about the clock that I initially noticed was not so much the clock itself but the shadows. As with the opening of M, the danger is in the shadows. I haven't seen this film so I might be going in the wrong direction, but my impression is that we're being made to fear the shadows and what could be hiding in them.

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In the opening sequence, the image of the clock and its ticking being the only sound establishes a feeling of uneasiness. People watching clocks are either eager for or dreading something that's going to happen, and each tick of the clock pushes them closer to that moment. We know something is being counted down, but for the first few seconds of the scene, we aren't sure what's about to occur. We only know that watching each tick of the clock's hands makes us feel anxious.

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It is interesting to see how in "M" and "Ministry of Fear" Fritz Lang creates tension and foreboding in the opening of both films using different methods.

 

"M" begins with the children singing in an almost non-musical way. It seems normal until an adult screams for them to stop the "cursed" song. Outside of that singing and some sharp noises - cars, horns, clocks - It is very quiet, devoid of even background music. It is unsettling. We can feel something is wrong but we don't know what it is.

 

There's nothing quiet about the opening of "Ministry of Fear." It starts with a bang of sorts - An ominous ticking clock and loud, dramatic music. It's all we need to know that something is wrong here as well.

 

Lang also uses the clocks to convey emotion. The ticking clock right from the opening credits in "Ministry" sets you a bit off balance. Each pendulum swing is slow, lumbering and unnerving. Time is marching on, but it feels like it is moving toward something bad. That loud, heavy music underscores the sensation.

 

In "M," a cuckoo clocks strikes noon and brings a smile to the face of a tired-looking woman doing laundry by hand. She starts to set the table. The clock appears to signify it is time for someone to be coming home for lunch ... Perhaps a child? The woman appears content, even happy for a moment but Lang masterfully set the tone so we know it won't last.

 

Neither movie opening gives off a good feeling, yet they both grab your attention and keep it - one of the marks of a good storyteller.

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Film Noir Course

From Chai Vaidya

My Comments of Film Ministry of Fear

 

Ministry of Fear is an early Thriller from Fritz Lang that involves Nazi Spies. The main characters of the film are Ray Milland as Stephen Neale and Marjorie Reynolds as Carla Hilfe. Ray Milland is a great actor. I liked his acting in Dial M for Murder.

 

During the German bombing of London, this film noir espionage thriller centers on mentally unstable Stephen Neale. Neale returns to London after two years in an Asylum, but he is seemingly not sane. On his way back to London to rejoin community, he stumbles across a dangerous spy ring and doesn't quite know who to turn to. Throughout the movie he is chased by the Nazi spies rings. Ray Millard is an oddly harassed person with a striking mix of smoothness and shock, and Marjorie Reynolds is crisp, honest and pleasing Viennese girl. There are many chilled thriller moments in the movie. But there is a Hollywood style happy ending when the Inspector Prentice arrives and kills the remaining Nazis. And finally, Carla and Neale drive in the country for planning their wedding.

 

Opening scenes of M and Ministry of Fear:

In the opening scene of movie M before the titles roles, the camera shows from above children singing a song about a man (murder) coming to chop the head. The whole scene combined with special lighting and camera movements on children furnishes entry into film noir.

In Ministry of Fear the opening scene with the clock in the asylum and titles rolling over the moving pendulum is very effective. Then the camera slowly moves over the clock, displays time and finally the camera moves in the room of the asylum, where Milland is sitting. The door opens and the doctor (Lester Matthews) enters inside. The whole scene with the pendulum movements and low lighting creates an atmosphere for the film noir.

 

Ministry of Fear has all the elements of film noir like, chilling thriller scenes, Milland's acting as fearful unstable person, espionage rings, killings, lighting and camera movements. With all these aspects combined this film has contributions to film noir style.

 

This film doesn’t stick with the audience. But there are a few memorable moments in the movie.

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Yes, I see it. And look at the figures on either side of the clock--twin figures. (And just by the way--pretty imposing clock for a hospital room.)

 

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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That menacing and foreboding ticking of the clock was honestly really disturbing - at first it struck me as more horror than noir like.  Until the dialog started you almost felt as though you were starting in on a Universal horror movie of that time.  But as it pans out to Ray Milland and the dialog with the doctor begins, you have that typical gritty grimy feeling of the noir showing through.  I found it oddly not as foreboding as some of the dialog from other clips yet it hinted at something more

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I see the use of the clocks pendulum as a multifaceted device in this opening. Along with the brilliant lighting and the metronome like tick-tock it establishes a foreboding mood. It also establishes, appropriately enough, time. Both the past, we learn that Ray Milland's character has been here awhile (and we begin to ask ourselves why?), the present, he is prepared and quite anxious to depart (again, why?) and the future (where is he going?)

 

I think the obvious comparison with "M" is the use of a time piece in both openings. In "M" and here in MoF I think he uses clocks to establish time.

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Stark. The movie, "M", was stark with few/no enhancements to the environmental imagery. Though in "Ministry if Fear" there is more details in the set, the solitude is still prevalent. Also, the camera angle from above makes the viewer more of an observer who's apart from the action like in "M".

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The pendulum works the same way as the incessant children's song in M. The pendulum sets the scene and tells the story, only this time without the benefit of the words the children were singing.

The swinging pendulum with the music automatically makes me think time is running out. A pendulum also has a slicing motion that makes each tic and tic torturous. The opening scene, Milland's Neale is sitting there, waiting. This seems to be a somewhat commonality among noir protagonists in that they wait because they know what is coming next. Back to the clock - it introduces us to the mental asylum because of its slicing torture. So effective was the clock's storytelling, we are not surprised by the heavy, barred, spiked front doors of the asylum. We already know Neale is not in a happy place.

 

I don't know whether or not to trust the doctor. I'll have to watch the film on Friday to find out.

 

(Coolness - costumes by Edith Head.)

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

In both films there seems to be an atmosphere of anticipation – with the clock ticking in Ministry, and with the everyday activities of the neighborhood in “M.”  The child’s words in” M” translate as: “Just you wait … the man in black will soon be here.”  Lighting and camera work are similar with their use of low angles and shadow.  Particularly the shadow of the man on the public-notice/advertising column, against which the child is bouncing her ball.

Even the world of the children is fraught with danger in everyday activities – the child who is almost hit by the car and who is subsequently helped across by the policeman; the man reading the newspaper who appears to be lurking, and finally a sinister shadow and voice speaking to the child.  

With M, we are waiting for something to happen to a child or children, in Ministry we are waiting to see what happens with Milland’s ordinary routine to urn his world upside down- and we don’ have to wait long.

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

In Ministry, the clock is effectively used in this scene to set the mood and atmosphere by lending a sinister air of anticipation with the ticking clock. We learn that Ray Milland (Neale) has been committed to an asylum, but we don’t know why – why he was sent there, why he is now being released, and what he had done in the past.  The clock also adds an air of impending doom, as the countdown moves forward in the miscreant spies’ efforts to implement their plans.

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

The opening scene, including the charity fair, contribute to film noir style that nothing is as it seems to be:  e.g. Neale has been committed to an asylum, but he’s not crazy; the Mothers of Free Nations is not a charity, but a front for a Nazi spy ring; the woman who reads Neale’s fortune is not the real Mrs.. Bellane, but a substitute; the blind man on the train is not actually blind, but a Nazi agent; the bookstore (and its manager, Mr. Newland), and the tailor shop (and its manager, Mr. Cost/Travers) are likewise fronts/fakes; and a murder which is staged (Cost’s).  Willy Hilfe (whose name in German translates as “Help”) is anything but “helpful” to Neale, attempting to have him killed on several occasions.    

Another aspect is that the central character is carried along in the story by events rather than the other way around:  e.g., by happenstance, Neale utters the words “don’t worry about the past, just tell me the future” (words that could have been uttered by anyone) are fatefully the key to his becoming involved in the Nazi spy web.  Evens move inexorably forward as he deals, in rapid succession, with the cake thief/assassin, the fake charity, the séance, running from the police for  murders he did not commit,  This theme of the central character being a victim of circumstances is played out repeatedly in noir films.    

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I find it interesting that Lang uses a pendulum clock as his focus at the beginning of “Ministry of Fear.” His shot includes the pendulum and the weights for a long period and then goes to the clock face. Pendulum clocks are powered by the weights. They balance the energy to run the clock. In the beginning, you think the slow passing of time—strengthen by the clock being three minutes slow—but that might not be all of it. As they pan the name of the asylum, you begin to wonder if man leaving is, indeed, sane. Slowly you begin to question why he is there and why he cannot get involved with the police. He said he was going to London to experience the noise and people. He wants the pendulum to swing away from his quiet existence in the asylum—where even the clocks are slow.

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This opening scene sets the tone and mood of the film, much like in "M". The clock seems to be a device used to control the pace of the film. When we see Ray Milland's character is leaving a mental asylum, the clock instantly possess some sort of mental thinking; resembling the inner workings of his character. ('Inner' as in, within the brain with regards to the ticking sound). I found the opening scene to be a lot darker and with less dialog than "M", but in some way it gave the viewer a lot more to think about in terms of plot line and character development. Some connections between Ministry of Fear and M that I first saw, were the type of camera angles and how the camera ascends/descends ever so gently in some shots.  

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The swinging pendulum in Ministry of Fear functions in the same way as the children's nursery rhyme and the cuckoo clock in M: it relays impending doom. The massive pendulum (which reminds me greatly of Edgar Allan Poe's own macabre tale entitled, "The Pit and the Pendulum,") sways heavily back and forth almost similar to a noose hanging above a thick tree branch (a bit morbid, I know). The deep, stark shadows add to this gloomy ambience. Although the clock's chimes of noon signal the protagonist's countdown to freedom, the feel is more sinister and ominous than liberating. It feels more like a countdown to annihilation and a descent into darkness than to something eliciting emancipation. The clock face and its embellishments are so overwhelming and cumbersome, it feels more like the sound of a knell than a regular clock. The ticking is maddening as well. Another similarity to is the sleek use of the tracking shot. Lang uses a fantastic full shot to show both the doctor, protagonist and the clock all in the line of vision. The clock's off center position in the frame implies that time is always present. It is always a factor in everything we do and time or rather Fate is something that is inescapable. One may choose to forget, ignore or even attempt to change Fate, but it is an impossible feat. Time and Fate are omniscient and omnipresent. While the clock in Laura lulls us back to the past, even a dark past, this clock tells us that doom and darkness is coming, that "the end is nigh."

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