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


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Both M and Ministry of fear begin with anticipation. In M one wonders what will happen when the children finish their song. In Ministry of Fear, one isn't sure what or if the time means anything. You just listen, wait and watch. Also the children in M represent a community that will be affected by some incident. In Ministry of Fear, that single clock, the single object in the opening seems to symbolize Ray Milland as a man alone in the world

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The similarity that I saw was the two worlds in one, the safe and the unsafe. The clock to me symbolized inevitability, even while the credits rolled, the clock keeps going in the background. I also felt a little similarity in the safe playground and the safe asylum....the child going out into the real world, and the man leaving the asylum into the unsafe world. I have not seen this film and I am looking forward to it.

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In 'M' the children's game is in a circle, with a little girl pointing to each child, akin to a clock's minute hand. I think there is a parallel to the clock in 'Ministry of Fear' - in that life happens regardless of when the minutes or hours pass on the clock. We try to prepare but we can't control it.

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I found Fritz Lang's use of the clock in this opening scene is very effective. To me, the clock acts as a character in the opening shot -- it is communicating something to the viewer. The lack of sound emphasizes the tick-tock sound that indicates that something either has or is about to happen -- it's only a matter of time. It's also an indifferent in that regardless of other events, the clock tick-tocks on. 

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

I was wondering about the film's opening score myself. Do you know if it's an original composition or if it was created specifically to work with the swinging of the pendulum? Also, I, too, was struck by the sudden stillness after the music stops. I like your interpretation of its meaning.

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In 'M' the children's game is in a circle, with a little girl pointing to each child, akin to a clock's minute hand. I think there is a parallel to the clock in 'Ministry of Fear' - in that life happens regardless of when the minutes or hours pass on the clock. We try to prepare but we can't control it.

Agreed 100%

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Maybe it's nothing more than a coincidence, but I found it interesting that both clips (M and Ministry of Fear) end with a sign of sorts--the notice on the telephone pole of the child killer and the name of the asylum on the brick wall--that is overshadowed with the silhouette of each movie's leading male character....

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In 'M' the children's game is in a circle, with a little girl pointing to each child, akin to a clock's minute hand. I think there is a parallel to the clock in 'Ministry of Fear' - in that life happens regardless of when the minutes or hours pass on the clock. We try to prepare but we can't control it.

 

This is probably one of my favorite observations I've read so far. I never thought about the girl pointing as acting like a clock, but that's a really great point.

 

The thing Lang does well in both films (even though Hollywood's influence shows in the opening credits for Ministry of Fear with actual credits and a musical score) is taking seemingly ordinary things -- e.g., children playing a game or a swinging pendulum on a clock -- and infusing them with a sense that something is going to happen, even if we don't quite know what that is yet. 

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Ah this was an awesome opening! I've often imagined stories where there is some monotonous automatic action or noise that would help bring in tension and to see it in a movie was great!

The movies M and Ministry of Fear both use sound to build tension and allows the viewer to be pulled in immediately. With M there was also the children's song but it had a similar effect with the child repeating the same words as she spun around the circle of kids. They both seem foreboding in a sense although stylistically they are dissimilar in the fact that the set-up is more obvious in M with the mothers talking about their worries for children. MoF has the music and the clock to set-up the possibility of bad things happening.

 

Fritz uses the clock in a way that builds tension similar to how a person who chews loudly can irritate and bother someone. The constant, predictable noise can cause a viewer to become on edge waiting for something to change and it can be to the point of annoyance. "When will something happen??!!! Anything exciting, explosive, I don't care just something has to happen!!!!!" It helps you feel the protagonists anxiousness.

 

I think that this is important in its contributions to film noir in a few ways. First it's focused on the small. The doc talks about staying away from London because of the bombing and it reminds us that there's a gigantic war going on consuming the world but we remain with our attention on the main character with his desire to be around people and to hear them. It's not a grand scale will a large cast of players but right away small and with a specific attention. Also, coming full circle the clock is a great use to throw tension into the mix immediately without introducing characters or using any words. we literally know nothing from the movie itself for the entire credits although we do feel on edge with how there's nothing but the clock moving back and forth with its tick-tock

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Between M and The Ministry of Fear, the circle of children and the clock seem alike as they both signify the passing of time: in M, the child in the middle is pointing at each of the children one after the other as the clock in The Ministry of Fear is ticking away at the the numbers, the time, one after the other and in both cases of the movie, the pointing was done quite slowly. And the sudden stop of the child's finger and the clock hand signify that there is no control over the pointing- it just keeps on going. In M as well, when the cuckoo clock chimes, the mother looks up at the clock awaiting her child's arrival and in The Ministry of Fear, the man is waiting for something (to leave the asylum) as the clock ticks and when it chimes, he gets up and gets ready to leave. The clock again represents that there is no control over time, you either abide by it or you don't. An important contribution to film noir, as it shows the protagonist awaiting some sort of doom, and audience wants to know what will happen next after he is released from the mental institution. 

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I found it interesting that Ray Milland's character seemed at once terrified and mesmerized by the passing of time.  He clearly wanted time to pass, but he also seemed fearful of the moment when he was finally free, and the moment when he steped out of the asylum gates.  He seems afraid of being alone, too, opting for London during the Blitz rather than somewhere quieter.

 

We're not given any context for this in the clip itself, only that he was somehow mixed up with the police and ended up in the asylum instead of in jail, and that he feels no remorse or guilt over whatever it was that happened.

 

It's also interesting that the doctor seems a little reluctant to allow Milland to leave.  I'm highly interested to see the rest of this movie just from the opening scenes.  There's a lot going on at various levels here, and I want to know how all the threads tie together.

 

I do feel that in comparison to M, Ministry of Fear seems more complex from the outset.  M was very interesting to watch, and dealt with a lot of issues of morality and justice, but something about it was also very simplistic.  Ministry of Fear seems to be working with layers of issues--murder, sanity/insanity, the justice system, the medical system and/or mental health care.  There's a lot going on here, and as an audience member I'm immediately inclined to want to know more.

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Like the opening of M, this is compelling, with the clock signifying the passage of time - calmly, peacefully and at a steady pace - but also signifying impending doom.  We can't control the passage of time and, seemingly, we can't control or stop the terrible occurrences just around the corner.  I hadn't seen Ministry of Fear previously, so I am looking forward to it this week!

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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

 

I completely agree. The emphasis on the ticking of the clock made me think of "The Tell-Tale Heart."

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The close framing of the clock, and just the pendulum of the clock, echoes what others have expressed about the sound of such a small object filling the large room and likewise the mind of an asylum patient. The volume of the sound presents a slanted interpretation if it, as the shadows to the objects and people and the camera angles to the setting. This slanting is a hold over from Expressionism. One can see the same root developed here that was later developed into universal monster movies from films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or even The Golem.

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With respect to "M" there were similarities such as the use of tracking shots to scan the dark and empty space. It sets the mood early. We are introduced to a mysterious sitting figure which we may not have noticed before the light pours through an open door. The mystery man has been gazing into a swinging metronome of what appears to be his existence. The use of light overcoming darkness is revealed in his mood change once the ticking is up and the six o'clock chime is rewarding his exit to different faces and multitudes of people. I believe we saw examples of light revealing truth in "M" as well.

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Both the opening of M and Ministry of Fear produce tension, fear and anxiety.  M does it through a child singing about a murdering pedophile in an elimination game while Ministry of Fear uses a clock with a pendulum that seems to swing tediously and endlessly as each second or minute passes by in 'silent agony'.  The hero Neale (Ray Milland) emphasizes this 'silent agony' is done with the raising and collapsing of both of his hands onto the chair arms that he is sitting in as the clock strikes 6:00pm - finally! its time for him to leave.  Also, the clock figures significantly in Neale's conversation with his doctor (Lester Matthews).  The conversation is mainly about time and its very slow passing each day (as per the clock) for Neale's sojourn in this place.  His doctor interjects that he always wanted to speed up the clock (implying the time spent at the asylum) which causes an exasperated Neale to exclaim, "Fine time to think of it!".

 

Ministry of Fear's opening can be consider an important contribution to Film Noir since it is an example of using a normal and regular object such as a clock to set the mood and atmosphere.  Perversely, in Preminger's, Laura, extra-ordinary objects such as exotic and expensive Asian statues, antiques, masks, marble bath tub and furnishings to set the mood and atmosphere of tension, suspense and murder.

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Ministry of Fear was the first Lang film, and I remember being immediately sucked into this opening sequence before the title credits even finish up. That swinging clock could be taken as a subtle nod to Lang's cuckoo clock tension in the opener of M, but I think for me it represents the director's heightened sense of suspense in the thirteen years between the two films. By 1944, Lang was crafting noir pictures in a very Hitchcockian manner, particularly Man Hunt (1941) and Ministry of Fear which both indulge in a seedy post-war Europe.

 

The clock motif is brilliant, not only in the frame of mind that it sets the audience in, but the manner in which it captures the fragile state of Milland's character. He's clearly a man on the edge, and the constant rhythm of the clock establishes a feeling of running out of time - a count down without even stating what its for. It reminds of a Christopher Nolan interview I listened to, in which the neo-noir filmmaker states that Lang is the possible inventor of the cinematic countdown. Now he couldn't verify that for sure, but even if it isn't true there's little doubt that Lang perfected the idea. It's a great opener to a great film, and this added element of suspense introduced yet another flavor into the film noir gumbo.

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Ministry of Fear and M both utilize time. Lang presents time by use of a swinging pendulum (Ministry of Fear) and the "tick, tock" sound of a clock (M). These are revealed to be negative connotations, as any opening of a film with heavy attention to time is a clear indication of "a race/waiting game" of some sort. Time connects both films, and doom lurks, awaiting patiently ready to pounce in the most inopportune moment.

 

The opening of the swinging pendulum sets a heavy, dark tone. We wait, wondering what we'll see next. Then, Lang displays his first character, Neale, who is waiting patiently, but intently. His eyes fixated on the swinging pendulum, his hands grasp the chair. His waits, we wait. Only we don't know just yet why Neale is so eager for the clock to strike twelve. Twelve arrives, and he appears frightened with relief. He stands and is escorted out by a man. The two discuss Neale's plans of where he'll go and what he'll do, but we still don't know much of anything about Neale or his situation.

 

Ministry of Fear giving such heavy attention to time effectively creates a sense of dread. Lang's use of the waiting game keeps a viewer intrigued. He reveals very little in the opening with dialogue, but gives a great amount of information by merely directing his camera to a brick wall. The building's name that inhabited the recently released Neale cements the necessary doom needed in a film noir. And the dark, clinging shadows will dance about behind him waiting for their opportunity to help guide him along in this film noir.

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The ticking of the clock gives one a sense of foreboding that is contrasted by the force of the score that plays over the opening credits. I think the use of the clock is interesting as it reaches 6:00 in that as someome earlier noted, is it am or pm?  Does this represent a new day and a fresh start for this character or does it represent that time is running out for him? The lighting and the shadows in the darkened room enhances the mood of foreboding as the shot pans back to show the shadowy figure sitting in a chair and staring at the clock.

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The swinging pendulum in the beginning, as others have noted, seems to signify that time is running out or maybe that something sinister is coming ever closer.  The opening does indeed seem to be more suggestive of horror than noir and I think that's why this was one of my favorite openings.  The mental asylum setting just makes it all the more horroresque.  I loved this opening and the film as a whole.

 

The scenes at the fete and later on the train were both suspenseful and funny.

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Incredible opening. What was interesting to me is that current films would use a second hand ticking away to create the sense of countdown to something disastrous. The pendulum here makes time slower, more omnious because the inevitability is unstoppable. I'm still thinking about Ray Milland's hands; they grip, lift and release the arms of the chair. Not sure if that is relief, mild rapture, but it did make me think of both horror (monster unleashed, came to life) or criminal glee (revenge is mine). The score was, like others said, fantastic, but I do think it could work either way in horror or noir. So aslyum inmates are released at night? 

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I noticed how the opening emphasis on the clock drew me into the line of vision of Milland's character initially, with space opening up to shift my perspective to that of observer. There is something about these noir films, at least in my early study, that seems to draw the viewer into a scene at the same time a perspective with boundaries is set.

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