The main influence that jumps out at me in the diner scene is that of Citizen Kane by Orson Welles. The low angles used in much of the diner scene reveal that both rooms of the diner have ceilings. There are even moving shadows cast upward against the ceiling in the eating area. Welles is credited with introducing sets with ceilings as a step toward greater realism. Citizen Kane cinematographer Gregg Toland wrote, “The sets have ceilings because we wanted reality, and we felt it would be easier to believe a room was a room if its ceiling could be seen in the picture. Furthermore, lighting effects in unceilinged rooms are generally not realistic because the illumination comes from unnatural angles.” Roger Ebert commented on this also: “In almost all movies before Citizen Kane, you couldn't see the ceilings in rooms because there weren't any. That's where you'd see the lights and microphones. Welles wanted to use a lot of low-angle shots that would look up toward ceilings, and so Toland devised a strategy of cloth ceilings that looked real but were not. The microphones were hidden immediately above the ceilings, which in many shots are noticeably low.” I think this concept of realistic lighting with ceilings was still relatively new in 1946 and had not been widely adopted. Director Robert Siodmak and cinematographer Elwood Bredell adapt this technique to good effect in creating a tight space for the interaction between the killers and the workers in the diner.
Another thing that contributes to the realistic feel of the diner scene is the use of diagetic sound. It is not until the killers slam the door on their way out that Miklós Rózsa’s score kicks in with the ominous rhythmic theme that several years later would be transformed slightly into the theme for the police procedural television series Dragnet, a musical motif etched in the minds of the baby boomer generation.
The scene in the Swede’s bedroom is a world of deep shadows. There is so much shadow on the Swede that his face cannot be seen and his words emerge like a disembodied voice from the darkness. And as for Nick, I find my eye drawn more to his shadow than to his body. While it may not involve hallucinations, dreams, or nightmares, this scene has a subjective quality in the unexpected calmness with which the Swede receives the ominous news of the killers’ arrival. How much different would this scene be if it had been fully lit in conventional Hollywood fashion with intercutting between the faces of the two characters. By contrast, this scene seems to show careful planning to create a formalistic, subjective first impression of the Swede.
I am a very new student of film history and especially film noir. I have already learned so much about film in general, and the point about ceilings being shown in films being such an innovative move will threw me! I can't believe that all of these years I've been watching films without "seeing" so much. A huge thank you to TCM and Dr. Edwards for this course and especially to all of you who are so willingly sharing your knowledge. You are definitely co-instructors in this course. I look forward to continuing to participate in the class in the coming weeks!! (PS I'm newly retired and am so grateful that I have the luxury of watching as many of the films noir on Fridays as I want to. I know that many people don't have this opportunity.)