Dr. Rich Edwards

Daily Dose of Darkness #10: Nighthawking (A Scene from The Killers)

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The dramatic use of light and shadow is especially evident when Nick leaves the diner and races to warn Swede that he is in danger.  As he is jumping the fences fog is indicated by diffused lighting.  Swede and Nick's conversation is shown mostly in shadows.  The cinematographer was Elwood Bredell, who also worked on "Phantom Lady". 

 

Rozsa's music was later used in the TV series "Dragnet".

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I haven't seen The Killers yet, so I can't apply this scene to the whole context of the film.

 

As almost every post I've seen on here, the characteristics of German Expressionism can be seen in the chiaroscuro lighting (there I go with that word again), which is most evident between the Swede and the guy informing him of the two killers coming after him. I love how the Swede is literally covered in shadow, making him mysterious to the viewer. Also, his calm demeanor (pulled off brilliantly by Burt Lancaster) in reaction to the news that people are trying to kill him is also mysterious.

 

I can't wait to watch the rest of the movie.

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This is an important scene in that the victim is just going to accept what he feels he has coming.  The life is out of him, his position on the bed, his head in darkness, reminds one of a corpse.  He’s already dead, just forgotten to die, and that is about to be fixed. 

 

Whoa! Great observation there. I didn't think of it that way.

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I haven't seen The Killers yet, only film clips but so far what I'm taking away from this class is I'm over thinking every aspect. There's got to be a more relaxed way of watching film. I'm feeling more pressure than enjoyment on these Daily Doses fearful of not seeing what everybody else is seeing. So I've been watching/listening to the lectures over and over hoping to memorize every word I may be tested on in the quiz. This is the problem with old dogs learning new tricks. I'm still kicking myself for missing two questions on the quiz (insert cuss words) Lol.

 

As one old dog to another, I empathize. I always find myself becoming too engrossed in a movie and forget about trying to apply some critical thinking towards what it is exactly that I am watching. As students I guess we're supposed to reach a point where we can enjoy and analyze concurrently but so far I have not learned that trick. Maybe someone can share some techniques. Other than constantly pausing and rewinding, I can not think of any - and I am not prepared to pause/rewind/replay at this point.

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What a great scene!  It all blends together - the lighting, the fog in the town, the brightness in the diner, the shadows in Swede's room keeping him in the dark.  We see his face when the killers burst in the bedroom door and shoot him, emptying their guns.  And, then, we see it's Burt Lancaster - great casting.  

 

​The scene in the diner with the owner of the diner and the cook and the young guy, who warns Swede of the killers coming to get him. Nick Adams seems to be a favorite of Hemingway's.  Nick is a fictional character Hemingway used in some two dozen short stories.  As I watched him jump the fences to get to Swede before the Killers, the scene brings somehow that he will save the Swede from a violent death, but Swede is resigned to it.

 

Unfortunately, by today's standards, the dialogue in the diner between the killers and the diner owner is stilted.  They call him 'bright boy", push him and the others around.  How one man tied up both the cook and Nick Adams in the kitchen seems a little farfetched.  Today, that wouldn't happen and the diner owner would have a shotgun beneath the counter.  Back in the 40s it worked, it was cruel.  Bullies came to town and took over the diner.  We don't see or hear from them too much after the opening sequence. They work for the bad guy, that's for sure.  Hired guns.  Film noir at its best.

 

The Music gives you the feeling that something  dangerous will happen.  As we find out later through flashbacks (another noir tool), it's all about a dame!  Of course it is.  And what a dame!  Ava Gardner, the beautiful and deadly Kitty Collins.  Like I said, great casting!

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I'm with the first comment by jistoops about overdoing it with an analysis of these films. While I applaud the efforts by so many others to pick out all these details and multi-influences, I wonder why we have to find significance in almost every frame of film! I agree that it begins to take away some of the enjoyment when you scan every little detail in a scene. I get that it's possible to observe overall influences, but I think it can go too far and seem 'forced' after a while. I can't imagine that the original audiences bothered or cared about such things. They were in the theatre to enjoy a gripping film... so I hope to be a bit of an intellectual analyst--but I want my primary goal to be entertainment.

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YouTube also has a short film based on The Killers that was made in 1956 by Andrei Tarkovsky, Marika Beiku and Aleksandr Gordon while they were students at the State Institute of Cinematography in the Soviet Union. Includes the Nighthawiking scene and the scene in the Swede's room. Worth watching.

 

 

 

The Criterion DVD has both versions of the film and the Tarkovsky short. It's being released on bluray in a couple weeks, just in time for Criterion's bi-annual half off sale at Barnes and Noble. It's definitely on my list.

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I see the influences of German Expressionism, with the high shots of Nick running from the diner to the Swede, the long shadows and angles of the buildings.  Once we're in the room, Burt Lancaster's face in the shadows the great shadows being cast, especially when the door is opened.

 

I think the visual design shifts from the reality of the diner all lit up with people to this somber darkened bedroom.  Lancaster's reaction seems unimaginable to Nick and to us, learning of what's about to happen.  Face in the dark, lying still on the bed, voice monotone resigned to his fate.

 

This clip embodies film noir to me. The diner, the killers the darkness and angle shots, the protagonist resigned to his fate.  Can't wait to see it all.  Have never see it all the way through for one reason or another.

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I'm with the first comment by jistoops about overdoing it with an analysis of these films. While I applaud the efforts by so many others to pick out all these details and multi-influences, I wonder why we have to find significance in almost every frame of film! I agree that it begins to take away some of the enjoyment when you scan every little detail in a scene. I get that it's possible to observe overall influences, but I think it can go too far and seem 'forced' after a while. I can't imagine that the original audiences bothered or cared about such things. They were in the theatre to enjoy a gripping film... so I hope to be a bit of an intellectual analyst--but I want my primary goal to be entertainment.

 

I think your final quote, about being an intellectual analyst while also being entertained, is actually what a lot of people are experiencing. As a lifelong film fan, I get accused by my wife and other friends and family of being too critical, of reading too deeply into a movie and not accepting it as simple entertainment. But here's the thing; I like more movies than they do. My tastes are more varied, because I love seeing what even the strangest/cheapest/most ridiculous movies can tell us. For example; Universal Soldier; Day of Reckoning is an arthouse action movie hybrid of David Lynch's audio-visual weirdness, Phillip K. Dick's obsession with the elusiveness of identity, and camera techniques straight out of a Stanley Kubrick film. All in service of the 6th movie in a series about beefy cyborg clones pummeling each other. Did I like it? Not sure, but it interested me a lot. 

 

Basically, that urge to analyze has opened me up to an entire world of films that I feel most people just write off as either too arty or too trashy(depending one which pole you gravitate towards). It's entirely possible to be critical and be entertained.

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I realize this is of little import, but I've just realized that I've seen (part of) this film before.  It was in Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (along with several others from the syllabus, of course).

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-- How does this sequence shift its visual design from realism to formalism, as it moves from the diner to the Swede's room?

 

It's realism in the diner (lunch counter) as the two killers depart, the owner goes in to the kitchen to free the cook & dishwasher up to when the Swede's partner Nick Adams heads out to warn him.

 

Then it slowly shifts to formalism as he leaps over picket fences and approaches the boardinghouse with pools of street light offering islands in the darkness, by the time he enters the room and warns, the resigned to his fate Swede, we have Lancaster's head in shadow, a ominous shadow looming over Lancaster framed in the door light, a foreshadowing of the events we know are approaching in just a matter of time.  

 

-- In what ways can this sequence from The Killers be considered an important contribution to the film noir style? 

 

Which part of the sequence?

 

It's as important as any other great chiaroscuro sequence that builds tension through the use of lighting, scoring, sound and set design in classic Film Noir, unless I have some chronological background that says this was the first I see it as an equally important contribution as any other.

 

As far as story sequence it builds a lot of tension through the killers nonsensical dialog patter with the diner owner.

 

 

It's interesting also that the first 10 minutes of the film was based on a Hemmingway short story and that the rest of the film was based on about twelve lines of dialog at the end of that short story and the rest of the film was constructed out of that and told during the course of the film in a number of flash backs.

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I realize this is of little import, but I've just realized that I've seen (part of) this film before.  It was in Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (along with several others from the syllabus, of course).

 

Hah! I love that film. It's on my list of 'extra credit' movies to watch this summer.

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The Killers is one of the great examples of that true film noir feeling. In this scene we can immediately sense the European influence. The killers have come to town....(so cool to see Bill Conrad in old time movies!) and are attempting to intimidate the guy at the diner. We are soon to find out their tactics don't work. Their tactics are quite gestapo in nature, mixed with mob...one has to wonder if the film maker may have experienced some of this treatment himself before coming to the US.

 

The music is also quite dramatic, another European trait. I have seen a lot of that tendency to over dramatize in a number of European films, perhaps for European film makers that is just the right amount of drama...in any case, the mixture of the alarming music scoring and the pushing around by the two killer bullies is quite intimidating. When they leave the diner however, we see heroism spring to life. Very American indeed.

 

I think the heroism aspect is worth mentioning in this film because the year the film was made, 1946, was just one year after the great victories of WWII. I think the nation was very likely in an upbeat mood and American Pride was quite noticeable and appropriate. I think we had, as a nation, the attitude that we could do anything we set our mind to and that no one was going to scare or intimidate us. Such attitudes fit in nicely with the actions of the men in the diner following the exit of the killers. I believe the actions of those men was likely quite appealing to the audience.

 

One more quick note....we see the very respectful treatment of an African American in this scene, he was treated as an equal and cast as one of the heroes who took action to warn the Swede of impending danger. The owner of the diner unbinds him first and brings him a drink of water before attending to Nick. There is no issue with this man being black, he, as the other two are just good people of this little town who care about the Swede and he is in no way cast in a demeaning manner. The scene is played off without a hitch and the audience is moved right past any racism issues and swept right into the drama in a seamless manner....very notable....

 

Our three heroes act quickly as the camera pulls away from the killers slipping into a dark doorway across the street. The diner owner runs to the back and frees his men. They immediately put together a plan and execute it. The young man (Nick) runs out the back door and off to warn the Swede while the other two keep watch on the bad guys. The accompanying music keeps the audience right up to speed with the seriousness of the situation and we are thrown right where the director wants us to be....into a state of fear and chaos....

 

The run to the Swede's house is so frightening...what if there are more men hiding in the shadows waiting to be led to the Swede? What if they are able to stop Nick? We cannot tell because it is so dark outside! No moon to speak of or streetlights. Nick knows his way around town and like a kid takes off cutting through back yards, jumping fences and finally making his way to the Swede's apartment.

 

We see another European feeling scene here as the camera pulls back to a very high shot. Our hero bravely enters the stairwell with the foreboding shadows all around. A streetlamp somewhere in the distance gives us a shadow of an archway or something geometric, all very ominous. This tiny little man defying these very scary villians....it's almost as if he were a part of the French Resistance defying the invading Nazis...have these horrible men come to take over this quiet and peaceful town? Not while our three heroes are on the job!!

 

I immediately thought of "The Third Man" when the stairwell shot came up. I have seen The Killers before and I have to admit I get that same thought everytime. The third man in my opinion was another movie that used shadow with geometric castings in contrast to light very well. I wasn't fond of the movie however becuase of that STUPID music that played all the way through it...quite distracting.... the geometric figures in my opinion give one a feeling of being pursued, trapped, desperate like there is no escape. Very prison-like....and to me it is no different in this scene of The Killers. The viewer's feeling of tension is increased as Nick breaks through that psychological barrier and runs up the steps to warn the Swede. Our director has done an excellent job here of setting a very alarming mood for the viewer and no doubt by this time the viewer has bought into the feeling of desperate alarm. But don't forget my friends, we are viewing a film noir here and in many cases our minds are being manipulated....

 

When Nick enters the Swede's room, all goes silent except the alarmed voice of our hero. The room is dark, the music has suddenly stopped. The Swede's voice is flat and lifeless when he replies. This sudden major change in mood is an absolute shocker for the audience's benefit. Nick warns the Swede that there are bad guys in town with bad intentions toward him. Does the Swede jump up and begin planning with Nick how they can most quickly get him out of town? No....he simply lays there calmly in the dark.

 

The fact that we don't see his face is significant in my opinion. We can only see a body, the head is hidden in the darkness. The light/dark play here is beyond fabulous. It's as if he is already dead.....the body, as we will soon find out belongs to the great (and very HOT) Burt Lancaster. His reply that there is nothing he can do is quite telling. His calmness conveys a sense of acceptance, his confession that he did something bad, long ago, tells the audience that the Swede is a dead man walking, and he knows it.

 

As he refuses any help from Nick, we see Nick's demeanor change. The Swede in this fatalistic scene has quickly changed Nick's mind and mood from heroic to puzzled. The alarm leaves his voice now changed to concern as he senses that the Swede has accepted his fate and his day of reckoning has come. He quietly backs out of the room and shuts the door leaving the Swede in the dark along with the audience to wonder how long he has left....

 

What a great and thought provoking scene. How often do we see characters quietly accepting impending death? Not often. Most of the time they fight their way scratching and clawing to a way out....i.e. "D.O.A.", but those of us who have seen that wonderful film, know that death also becomes accepted in the end.

 

The Swede's calm demeanor in the face of impending death builds him up as an impressive and strong character and we the audience, now understand that we MUST continue watching because inside......we want him to live, we want him to scratch and claw and fight his way back to life....we are not just viewing a story anymore, we are part of the Swede's story...

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The Suede is empty; there is nothing left; he expects something bad is going to happen to him; but he does not try to avoid it; does not try to rectify it; nor does he try to fight it. He simply accepts; even invites the inevitable. After all he is already dead emotionally, it just so happens, he’s still breathing? The question what happened to make him accept his demise so willingly? It is interesting that this entire (97 minute movie) spawned from a 10 page short story by Hemmingway. Actually, the first scene is the short story, the rest was all Hollywood.

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Another great movie. A great companion piece to Out of the Past, which is another favorite(but then, I love everything Jacques Tourneur has done).

 

The opening of this scene is great, and much more terrifying than most films noir. The beginning is bad enough, with the two hoods threatening this kindly diner operator, but then once they leave and we see what's in the back room, it gets worse. Sure, no one dies, but there's such a sense of transgression here. This isn't the big city, this is small town America. Noir Country has invaded the heartland. Like Shadow of a Doubt. This stuff shouldn't happen here.

 

And then the music swells, and the kid goes running for The Swede, and we realize the shadows have fully descended on the town. The chiaroscuro lighting that is completely unrealistic and yet looks so striking. That shot of him running towards the Swede's room could be removed from the film and hung in a gallery, it's so beautiful.

 

Also, side note, I love how the proprietor, when untying people in his back room, moves like he's going to untie the kid and then turns and gets the other guy a glass of water first. Always makes me chuckle.

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I think your final quote, about being an intellectual analyst while also being entertained, is actually what a lot of people are experiencing. As a lifelong film fan, I get accused by my wife and other friends and family of being too critical, of reading too deeply into a movie and not accepting it as simple entertainment. But here's the thing; I like more movies than they do. My tastes are more varied, because I love seeing what even the strangest/cheapest/most ridiculous movies can tell us. For example; Universal Soldier; Day of Reckoning is an arthouse action movie hybrid of David Lynch's audio-visual weirdness, Phillip K. Dick's obsession with the elusiveness of identity, and camera techniques straight out of a Stanley Kubrick film. All in service of the 6th movie in a series about beefy cyborg clones pummeling each other. Did I like it? Not sure, but it interested me a lot. 

 

Basically, that urge to analyze has opened me up to an entire world of films that I feel most people just write off as either too arty or too trashy(depending one which pole you gravitate towards). It's entirely possible to be critical and be entertained.

 

I have to admit I have these same feelings and have been accused by family as well of being overly critical. It just amazes me so how these certain films can truly draw me in and affect me! It is film noir that has done that. Most films I have figured out about 10 minutes after the opening and then I can settle in and enjoy how the director and cast get to the end I already have figure out....

 

Film noir is different, it's the twists, the turns, the play of shadow and light, everything in these movies that keeps one guessing and unsure of things that are usually quite predictable in film. I love a good puzzle and film noir provides me with it. Also, I learn new things everytime I watch a noir for the second, third, fifteenth time. There is always something I miss, a feeling, a concept....a pattern. There is so much to keep the mind busy and happily occupied in the world of noir. I am totally fascinated by these movies and I think I'll always be a fan. These movies are special and unique in the world of film in my mind.

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-- What are some of the influences you see in this sequence from other cinemas (such as German expressionism) or other art forms? For example, consider this scene in relation to the work of Fritz Lang (who also worked at UFA).

 

The main influence that is noticed are the angles. Go back and look at the placement of the camera from the opening scene at the diner when the customer comes in. It is angular in nature. Also notice the shadows on the ceiling of the diner.

 

-- How does this sequence shift its visual design from realism to formalism, as it moves from the diner to the Swede's room?

 

Once the man moves from the diner to going to warn "The Swede about impending danger. The exaggerated use of lighting plays a major part in this scene. The lighting or lack there of presents the viewer with a mood of do and danger that the "Swede" is facing. The fact that you never see Burt Lancaster's face provides more suspense but at the same time he seems to concede his death.

 

-- In what ways can this sequence from The Killers be considered an important contribution to the film noir style?

 

I not sure about the movie's overall importance to film noir other than the director's extreme use of lighting and shadows to set the mood for the movie. Someone mentioned about how the protagonist's introduction to the viewer is obscured by the darkness of his room. Also, the objects in the room are exaggerated by the shadows shown.

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I'm with the first comment by jistoops about overdoing it with an analysis of these films. While I applaud the efforts by so many others to pick out all these details and multi-influences, I wonder why we have to find significance in almost every frame of film! I agree that it begins to take away some of the enjoyment when you scan every little detail in a scene. I get that it's possible to observe overall influences, but I think it can go too far and seem 'forced' after a while. I can't imagine that the original audiences bothered or cared about such things. They were in the theatre to enjoy a gripping film... so I hope to be a bit of an intellectual analyst--but I want my primary goal to be entertainment.

 

J - it's so funny.....to me the analysis, the trying to figure out the twists and turns, solving the puzzles, running through the dark alleys with the characters, the scary shadows, the scary music, that is the entertainment to me. I think some people are born to analyze, I believe I am one of them. I do love to look for the "mistakes" in film, but I will say this, most of the stuff my family watches, bores me to tears. I need something to tear apart and figure out....why I am that way I don't know, but noir certainly fills that need for me.

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Q1: Hopper's Nighthawks paint a picture of the aftermath of a night on the town with the likes of Gilda. They drink coffee as opposed to liquor in a diner. The influences that have had impact on Siodmark as a director are evident in the long shot pans that magnitize us into the unseemly world behind the counter of the lunchtime diner. We realize subliminally that we will deal with consequences.

 

Q2: We are introduced to thugs on a hunt and the orchestral music signals is a switch to formalism and the inner workings of all of the dreadful thoughts that the released innocent messenger will bring to Swede.

 

Suspense is highlighted by the climbing crescendos and crashing cymbals (cleverly disguised as 'symbols".) We reach a resting Swede and the mood is switched to realism. His resignation and passive position start the sad tale.

 

Q3: This movie projects a heightened sense of story telling and is developed to a more complicated nature and owes those chops to Hemmingway. Every Thiller these days includes a double-cross, and we see those beginnings in Killers. The suspense element is eloquently versed for later geniuses like Hitchcock to hook on to.

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As one old dog to another, I empathize. I always find myself becoming too engrossed in a movie and forget about trying to apply some critical thinking towards what it is exactly that I am watching. As students I guess we're supposed to reach a point where we can enjoy and analyze concurrently but so far I have not learned that trick. Maybe someone can share some techniques. Other than constantly pausing and rewinding, I can not think of any - and I am not prepared to pause/rewind/replay at this point.

 

 

LOL, I have that figured out.....I watch the movies over and over....I always get new stuff to analyze and ponder out of them....

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J - it's so funny.....to me the analysis, the trying to figure out the twists and turns, solving the puzzles, running through the dark alleys with the characters, the scary shadows, the scary music, that is the entertainment to me. I think some people are born to analyze, I believe I am one of them. I do love to look for the "mistakes" in film, but I will say this, most of the stuff my family watches, bores me to tears. I need something to tear apart and figure out....why I am that way I don't know, but noir certainly fills that need for me.

 

That's a point I like to bring up a lot. I love to spot boom mics dropping into frame, or continuity errors in film. But those mistakes have never made me dislike a film. Bad acting has never made me dislike a film, either. If the film has a good story, is saying something interesting, then all of the mistakes don't matter. Look at Detour, which is part of this viewing schedule. It's got a ton of continuity errors(not the least of which is they flipped the negative for the driving scenes making everyone drive on the wrong side of the road), but it's also a classic, and a haunting film.

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That's a point I like to bring up a lot. I love to spot boom mics dropping into frame, or continuity errors in film. But those mistakes have never made me dislike a film. Bad acting has never made me dislike a film, either. If the film has a good story, is saying something interesting, then all of the mistakes don't matter. Look at Detour, which is part of this viewing schedule. It's got a ton of continuity errors(not the least of which is they flipped the negative for the driving scenes making everyone drive on the wrong side of the road), but it's also a classic, and a haunting film.

 

WD - agreed, those mistakes and finding them are part of the entertainment for me. It's like a game and you get a bonus story with it.....were we born to be detectives in some dark film noir? Perhaps......

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This is a course on the aspects of film noir, not a film festival. I would suggest just watching the film being discussed for enjoyment first, if not viewed before. Then go back to scenes with a more critical eye.

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Edward Hopper's Nitghtawks was painted in 1942, Robert Siodmak's The Killers is from 1946. By the forties, diners were already a symbol of the American life, known for their architectural style - a prefabricated restaurant building, with large windows along the facade and neon signs at the outside - and their late operating hours, inviting all kind of suspect costumers and loners to spend there their evenings. Along with trains, diners, sharing their aspect of railway wagons, are one of the most common décors of film noir, and we can remark that both are the perfect spaces to explore depth of field and frame within a frame compositions.

When I look at Hooper's painting, and then consider the diner were this scene was filmed, thes elements that I stress out are all the windows and doors that allow characters' visibility to the outside street, as well as the mobility of the camera shots and the predominance of frame within a frame compositions. So, although this first part of the sequence is mostly realistic - from the choice of the décor to the conventional lighting style - those windows introduce a sensation of claustrophobia in the framing and exacerbate tension in the interaction between the hitmen's intimidatory actions and the diner's employees' need to see in order to act.

When the character of Nick Adams is set free, we can move from our spectator's attitude to a more active one: his rush is ours too. It's curious that the camera is set on the window of the room to which Nick is running, showing us the action from a high angle and long shot following him as he runs in the back yards to prevent Swede. The darkness and the shadows invade the image as we enter his room: we can barely see that there's a body laying in the bed, waiting, resigned, his death announcement. We don't even see his face, which is strange even for a film noir if we consider that it's Burt Lancaster's face we're talking about, one of the most important male icons of the Hollywood Classic Cinema.
Inside the darkened room we feel almost as if we where inside the Swede's mind: obscure, undiscernible, doomed. Nick's shadow hovering over the Swede is the ultimate element of the sequence's transition from realism to formalism, strongly influenced by Expressionism and low-key lighting.

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This is a course on the aspects of film noir, not a film festival. I would suggest just watching the film being discussed for enjoyment first, if not viewed before. Then go back to scenes with a more critical eye.

 

 

LOL, I don't know if that's possible for me!!

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