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


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I think this opening scene is very similar to the opening of M. Both have a strong focus on audio, though here it is the very ominous opening music rather than the cryptic everyday cacophony of the earlier film. Additionally, both leave you intrigued by the impending menace - both opening scenes end with a pan to a very ominous sign: the notice about the missing children in M and the name of the asylum here. Both have me immediately engaged with the film and eager to find out what will happen next.

 

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One of the things which struck me about this opening was the dramatic music. We didn't have that on M but it serves to set a very sinister tone. I will also note that the first time we see him sitting there in that chair he seems to be part of the shadows, much in the same way that our first introduction to Peter Lorre's character was AS A SHADOW in M. In this one he seems tense and jittery but at the same time the shadows in that part of the room really seem to own him..I don't know if that makes sense exactly but they seem to be part of him. It doesn't last but it just struck me very strongly...perhaps after being in the right frame of mind from the music. 

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The psychology behind the scene is amazing. It was a man leaving an asylum, and I am thinking its another detective trying to catch a perp. That's awesome. It makes sense with his explaination of how watching the last minute. Who knew that he was being released from whatever mental breakdown he's recovering from... But, here's another question that came up... Is he putting on a facade? Is he soon to be released to do damage to the world? I love the questions that comes with this style of film. 

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


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


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


 


The clock and music make you aware time is important about time.  M's opening scene set you up that something dark was coming.


 


The clock and music set an sort of hypnotic opening where we are almost waiting along to see what happens and there is the slow slow backing to ray milland just sitting and waiting. 


 


I feel anything Fritz Lang does is extremely stylish and very planned.  It's like he is leading us and carrying us along and allowing us to see and hear exactly what he wants us too.  He really sets a mood and tone and that is extremely important.   


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The clock is a great way to start, setting a rhythm of a heartbeat and ordinary time passing-- but also expectation and suspense. The dramatic expressionist angles and lighting are similar to M, but I felt as if the Ministry of Fear wasn't so menacing. But the opening does play on our expectations-- what do we expect when we sit down to a movie called "Ministry of Fear"? We only know that we're going to have to wait for it.

 

Two thoughts that I didn't see elsewhere. First, the doctor's line about the clock "I've always meant to have that clock speeded up." It seems like an odd line. I suppose it's meant to be light-hearted, but it's not that funny, especially given that the old-fashioned clock dominates a room otherwise stark, whose inhabitants have nothing to do but uselessly mark time. For me, the line suggested that the timing of this whole event was "off" and the doctor knows it. The Ray Milland character has spent too much time in the asylum, or maybe not enough. 

 

Secondly is the issue of having the clock play under the credits. Even though I know it's really important now-a-days to know who catered the movie set and served as interns to the main actors, I positively hate modern credits (I've been trained to sit through them, though, by a former film professor who scolded us if we tried to leave early!). I love the classic movie approach to credits, relatively short and sweet, although perhaps not as informative. So, at first, especially if the prof hadn't alerted us to the clock issue, I might not even have noticed the clock's existence-- we expect that credits are somewhat throw-away. But the clock gets gradually louder, becomes more of a subject in its own right. It reifies our own viewing position-- we're waiting for the credits to finish, the red-tape formalities to be completed, and for the action to start, just like the main character, as it turns out. It's a very smart way of pulling us gradually out of our self-awareness, into the framework of Movies in general, and finally into the world of the story itself. 

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Both openings created tension through sound and visuals.

The clock is relentless. There is a sense of foreboding as the pendulum swings and the minutes tick by. It casts a gloomy shadow. There is nothing positive anticipated even though we find our character is getting his freedom.

Perhaps the contribution is the economy of storytelling.The opening scene does a lot in a short amount of time. It sets mood and atmospre. We are introduced to our main character and given some background. On the surface, things are routine. Through the music and lighting we feel that is not the case. As Milland walks with the doctor to the gate to leave, shadows loom. There is a warning from the doctor to Milland not to get involved with the police again. Beyond these pedestrian actions, the future looks grim. All of these important pieces conveyed in such a short amount of film time.

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Daily Dose 2-7- Ministry of Fear (1944)

 

dir: Fritz Lang

writers: Seton I. Miller (screenplay); Graham Greene (novel)

cast: Ray Milland, Marjorie Reynolds, Carl Esmond

 

Log (abridged): A man released form an asylum discovers a Nazi plot and tries to stop it.

 

I am compelled to note, because of enjoyment of her personality, easy recognition of her consummate skills, and my wholehearted professional respect, Edith Head was is credited for this movie's Costumes.  She is missed.

 

Edith Head  1897-1981

 

 

How would you compare the openings of M and Ministry of Fear? and

…how Frtiz Lang uses the clock…as a major element…

     I looked for common traits and found the most prominent being a clock which indicated characters in both movies looked forward to, a daughter coming home for lunch (M), and a release from captivity (Ministry…).

     The least prominent of two similar traits is shadows.

     The shadow of death was cast upon a girl in M while in Ministry of Fear, Dr. Norton (played by uncredited Lester Matthews) cast a shadow on time, meaning the clock wall, and his second shadow is cast upon the door which is Stephen Neale’s way out of captivity.

     Eventually, everyone and several props cast shadows: the gate guard, gate door, trees, and as Stephen Neale passes, his shadow is cast upon the name of, “Lembridge Asylum”.

     Will Stephen return?  I mean to ask, why is the institution advertised in part by Neale’s passing shadow?  Why is it important to know the name of the place of his captivity?

 

In what ways can this opening scene…be considered an important contribution to the film noir style?

     The “shadows” know … The elements of time set up expectations while the shadows highlight reality and uncertainty.  These qualities, these film story traits, are embedded in this genre.  In comparing M, the shadow cast upon the wanted notice is sinister and outright deadly.  Shadows in Ministry…, are mysterious, ambiguous, but presents mystery and questions to which answers are desired.

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In M, Fritz Lang chooses for the camera to move up and in.  No credits, black screen, no score just a voice over of a children’s choosing game set in a bleak alley, bird’s eye shot of the children, then a slow pan up to the balcony, up the steps, door opening into Elsa’s home that is urban and poor.  Finally the mother’s upward glance settles on the cuckoo clock and its striking that coincides with the sound of the church bells.  Even though there is an unguarded window, she is going nowhere and Elsa isn’t coming in.  The shadow of the clock’s bird wings cast on the wall is particularly disturbing. 

 

In Ministry of Fear the camera movement is down and out.  Over the opening credits we hear Victor Young’s score – the low brass keeping time with the swinging pendulum of the clock.  Its hard-edged, bird-like shadow on the wall bodes ill.  There is no immediate ticking sound.  The camera pulls back from the clock to an overhead shot of Ray Milland waiting in the shadows of a well-appointed room, though the window is barred.  Then the door opens that allows for his ultimately leaving through a guarded gate with a final establishing set shot of the asylum’s name.  Finally, we have Ray Milland with the noir protagonist’s proclivity to send himself into harm’s way.

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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? 

Thank you for pointing out Ray Milland's hands, gabrielv.  Their gripping and releasing triggers images of birds' claws.

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I love the repeated use of the ticking clock as a symbol of time, or that time is short, or that shortly - something sinister is about to happen. The opening scenes of the and M are definitely connected. I prefer Lang's opening. Somehow the silence in M that builds into children singing, then proceeds to the ticking clock, and then to the kidnapping caused me more stress quicker than the scene of Ministry of Fear. Having said that, Ministry of Fear had a creepiness to it that hooked me in right away. That shot of the patient sitting in his chair and staring at the clock was both devastating and intriguing.

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Both M and Ministry of Fear use a constant rhythm to establish a real feeling of dread.  It's not if something bad occurs, but when.

 

The clock constantly moves on not caring what occurs.  The dread the clock inspires really gives off a feeling of hopelessness.

 

The strongest contribution to film noir is the fantastic use of shadows and also the introduction to a sick possibly evil person.

 

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The clock, swinging back and forth, indicates that time is passing for something to happening. The shadows and darkness of the shot succeed in grounding it in a certain seriousness. But, as opposed to "M", this opening evokes more curiosity than dread. With "M", one got the feeling that something was flat out wrong by the creepy song the children were singing and the intense response of the housekeeper, but this is not the case in "Ministry of Fear". When the scene begins, we learn that Ray Milland's character is being released from the mental institution with the doctor's approval. Nothing seriously frightening about this, but it does make me curious to see what happens next. What will Ray Milland's next move be? And how successful will he be? We know he is going to London, despite the constant air raids. The doctor suggests this is not the best place for him to go, but Milland seems certain. Is this really the best decision for him, though? More answers to follow on Friday...

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The pendulum seems unusually big, giving the clock an ominous, Edgar Allan Poe sense.  Reminds me of the set design in a creepy Sternberg film. One of the things that Lang and Sternberg brought to Hollywood with them is an expressionist idea that we can glimpse the occult forces at work behind the everyday surface of things by assuming the perspective of people on the fringes of modern society: madmen, criminals, believers in old-world folklore and superstitions. From such a perspective, the terrifying dimensions of time's passage might be glimpsed in the mechanism of an ordinary clock or the singing of nursery rhymes.

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Well . . . to be honest, I see some noir attributes in the opening of this film, but nothing that I imagine was seminal or unique. Yes, the clock as a little angst and the huge contrast between light and dark are there too. The high camera angle is used to good effect. The smoke from the doctor’s pipe is a bit of a noir touch too. The biggest moment of foreboding comes when the camera zooms into the “Asylum” sign. Much the Lang land on the “Wanted” poster in “M,” it is a way of suggesting something horrible is going to happen. When this movie was made, there was little help or hope for people with mental illness and the suggestion is that Ray Miland is a maniac; he’s not headed to the quiet countryside but to crazy streets of London.

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By introducing the clock, Lang inspires two emotions in us (the audience). The first mood is confusion. Why is this clock here? What's the importance of the clock? Why is this clock the first thing we're introduced to? Such questions and confusion makes us question ourselves as well; "what am I suppose to think/feel about this clock?"; "is there something I'm not getting?". From this confusion, Lang sets a mood of uncertainty and self doubt, which is quite common with insane asylums.

 

The second emotion is dread. The tick-tock of the clock reminds us of our own mortality, of the limited time we have left on earth. The clock almost seems like a countdown, ticking off every second we've lost, every moment we cannot retrieve. We cannot help but feel dread as our mortality is brought to the forefront, our fear of death and wasting time made apparent. 

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Finally catching up on the Daily Doses, 7-"Pendulum".

I'm new to learning about film and may not use the accepted terminology but my thought about the pendulum setting the mood of the movie is that it reminded me of hypnotism and being controlled by something (unconsciously) by something  not in our (conscious) control.

Actually looking forward to watching the entire movie.

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The pendulum is slow and constant until the hour (of death) strikes.  It is mesmerizing.  The face of the clock was like the moon in The Letter watching the protagonist.  This clock is large and impressive like a grandfather clock, yet open with no cabinet holding it in.  This allows the pendulum to be the focal point.  Time may move slowly but it is always moving forward into the future.  You must keep going and stay on time.  Time can also set you free.   

 

In comparison to the opening of M, the Ministry of Fear also focuses on the clock striking the hour.  They both feature only two adults talking in isolated surroundings.  In contrast however, Ministry of Fear does not have a lot of noise in the beginning such as the honking while the bell tolls as in M. 

 

The ominous, deep tones of the music over the opening credits has the same foreboding quality as the children singing the disturbing version of the child's game. 

 

I also noticed that Milland is sitting in an armchair like a man sitting in the electric chair, waiting for the hour to strike. 

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The clock, swinging back and forth, indicates that time is passing for something to happening. The shadows and darkness of the shot succeed in grounding it in a certain seriousness. But, as opposed to "M", this opening evokes more curiosity than dread. With "M", one got the feeling that something was flat out wrong by the creepy song the children were singing and the intense response of the housekeeper, but this is not the case in "Ministry of Fear". When the scene begins, we learn that Ray Milland's character is being released from the mental institution with the doctor's approval. Nothing seriously frightening about this, but it does make me curious to see what happens next. What will Ray Milland's next move be? And how successful will he be? We know he is going to London, despite the constant air raids. The doctor suggests this is not the best place for him to go, but Milland seems certain. Is this really the best decision for him, though? More answers to follow on Friday...

I agree. Having just watched M last night, I think the sound design was a lot more successful in creating a creepy atmosphere than the clock in the opening credits. This may be because I appreciated the sparse music with louder sound design (children playing, bells ringing, etc) instead of the very studio-centric orchestral score over the credits. I was drawn in by the "why" of the shot, but didn't have a feeling of foreboding until the camera panned to the asylum sign.

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In both M and in The Ministry of Fear, a clock strikes the hour and in both cases, there is a sense of impending doom, or dread.


the clock in nThe Ministry of Fear should be a countdown to Neale's freedom from Lembridge Asylum, but instead seems to be a countdown to doom instead. Very similar in M.


Shadow and Light are used very deliberately in both films and is n important element in Film Noir.


In M the shadow of the unknown character that appears on 'The Murder" poster, and in The Ministry of Fear lightfloods a portion of the room, when the door opens, to shed a little light on our main character.


Sound is also very important tool in Film Noir, The Cuckoo Clock, and the car horn in M, and the ticking clock pendulum, and creaking front gate of the asylum are a couple of examples.


 

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One thing that I always notice in film noir is that when the protagonist is trying to be optimistic, such as Milland is here in the opening scene of  "Ministry," the darkness of the setting acts as a kind of counterweight, bringing us down and not allowing our spirits to lift with the character's. We don't really feel that things will turn out well. The sense of foreboding is palpable, and we intuit that the character is very likely deluding himself. Delusional characters put us on edge, and by the way aren't there some great musical motifs in classic film that communicate so well that disturbed, warped, unbalanced feeling that you get when you see a character going off the deep end!? (Joan Crawford in "Possessed" comes to mind.) Milland is looking forward to the future even in very bleak circumstances, but I am already fearing/expecting the worst!

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From the start, both this film and M, present a feeling of dread and waiting. The pendulum on the clock is kind of unnerving as he sits and stares at it. It's almost as if watching the swinging pendulum is going to cause a psychotic outbreak of some kind. It definitely has the tone of film noir. The anticipation of something bad happening and wondering what it will be. I love it!

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In most film noir, there's always a sense of "time running out." In Ministry of Fear, they have to do their heroics before it's too late, ie, there's a deadline.

In other noirs, like Out of the Past or Double Indemnity, the sense is that there is no escape for the doomed protagonist. The clock started ticking the minute they did the wrong thing, and as they say in Indemnity, they're on a streetcar, and the last stop is the grave (not an exact quote).

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Quite simply: watching the opening moments of Ministry of Fear triggered the exact response I'm sure Lang intended: the beginning opening credits went on so long, so silently, so tediously...DRIP DRIP DRIP... I thought I was going to lose my mind. As it went on and on and on, part of me wanted to scream :GET ON WITH IT ALREADY!!!! By the time the opening lines of dialogue were spoken, I was hooked- totally hooked and this wasn't even a movie I cared about watching. --Can't wait to see it!

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Both M and Ministry of Fear open with a somber mood, no musical score to influence, but barren, tired, with an edge of fearful anticipation.

The clock represents both  the monotony of his time in the asylum, and the anticipation of his release as he counts down the chimes to the last one before releasing form the chair.  Milland is initially shown in silhouette with his back to the camera, and dark trapped figure about to be show the light of escape and emergence, to transition away from the events of his dark past - at least that is his hope.

In film noir tradition, this opening establishes we are dealing with a character with a dark and criminal past, which potentially will come back to haunt him.  While the details of his past indiscretion are vague, we know he has been kept in this place for a period of time.  And while he is of good mood for his release, the atmosphere outside the walls is cold and dim.  Implying he is transitioning from the protection of incarceration to the vulnerability of freedom.  The revealing of the asylum sign adds a twist to disorient the audience a bit further by implying our protagonist may not be as stable as he is presented.

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