Dr. Rich Edwards

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

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I love the scene with Nick and Swede, what a demonstration in contrast.  Nick is standing, Swede is lying in his bed, Nick is nearly frantic in his actions and speech, while Swede is calm and almost fatalistic. Nick's face is lit while Swede is in darkness...in fact we don't know who Swede is.

 

The lighting from the open door, the stillness of Swede's bedroom, the lack of movement, the angle of the shots all combine to give that Noir feel. As in many of the daily doses, I'm left with so many questions: Who is Swede? What has he done? Who has he done it to?  It's got me hooked.  Can't wait to watch.

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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.

The backstory to what forms the core of the film, The Killers, is prototypical and brilliant noir.  Told in flashback, a complete embellishment on Hemingway's short story, it has many of the key components of noir --- the femme fatale, the use of lighting and camera angles to develop character and reveal the narrative, the music, the seedy and dangerous characters from the underworld --- and another core element that runs through noir: the weight of the past on the characters and the unfolding story.

 

In The Killers, as in so many other films noir, and the hardboiled stories that helped spawn it, the past is what propels the narrative forward; it colors decisions, limits options, and it also dooms the characters to an almost pre-ordained fate worthy of Melville or Classical Greek myth.   At the very least it forces a showdown with a past that cannot be bargained with, cheated or fooled.   The outcome is anti-climactic and almost unimportant.   It's confronting and reconciling with the baggage we all carry around with and inside us and each other that matters.   Survival is more a matter of luck than anything else.      

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

 

The clip from today's "Daily dose #10" is part of "The Killers" opening ten minutes. It is my favorite section of the film.

 

The clip opens with an outside view of the diner and if we pause it at the 9 or 10 mark we notice

how perfectly stationed everyone is as if a photographer positioned them there for a perfectly balanced photo. Notice too how the customer's back to us casts a shadow to his left  also perfectly aligned, forming its own "frame".

 

Photography I think is an outside influence throughout this picture and film noir in general.

 

 

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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.

 

That is neither possible for everyone nor required by the course itself. It is of course recommended that people see the movies, but not everyone has time to watch all of these movies *and* lead their lives. 

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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).

 

I'd say the lighting and shadow play. The angles and this impending view (like judgment as in "We" the audience are the jury) closing on its subject. As someone already mentioned Lang's M is relative to The Killers visually, stylistically and even subject-wise on certain levels.

 

-- 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 shift has more formalism qualities than realism in my opinion, but the shift to and from realism is subtle.

 

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

 

It looks and feels as noir as film noir can. Most of the archetypal elements of film noir have played out in this clip, minus the allure of a femme fatale which I look forward to seeing btw. I'd say it feels more small town than big dirty city however.

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Often a key contribution to film noir are the actors who portray the villains.  Films like Kansas City Confidential, Detour, and DOA have memorable heavies.  The Killers includes Charles McGraw and William Conrad.  McGraw's face and Conrad's voice are pure noir.

 

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That is neither possible for everyone nor required by the course itself. It is of course recommended that people see the movies, but not everyone has time to watch all of these movies *and* lead their lives. 

Unfortunately I do.

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In the beginning of the scene I see the entrance to the diner with shadows casting a mood of dread already. A mystery starts. Who is Swede? Something happening in the kitchen as dialoge directs situation towards it. Then as the action moves to Swede's room a shift in reality begins going through the alley hedges and fences where I find a more unreal setting is transformed with crazy shadows, a man lying on the bed face darkened as the man enters the room with his own shadow imposing over Swede on the wall. Forms of formalist German Expressionism I think are found here and contributes to the noir style.

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I am really enjoying these daily five-minute doses of darkness! In truth, I like everything about this class, and I am learning a lot!

 

As for today's prompts:

 

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

This is an example of something I have learned. I was not aware of film realism versus film formalism, and I appreciate learning about it in this clip. The opening scenes are realism - POV documentary-like depictions of the interior of a 1940's diner. Then, we shift to formalism, as we see an overhead view of the employee running through darkened yards. When he enters the Swede's room, the boy's gaze and even his arm's shadow draws our eyes to the face of the Swede, but we cannot see the Swede's face, as it is obscured by darkness. Since his face is the element we most want to see in this shot, not allowing us to see it must surely be an example of manipulation - of formalism. I suppose the music during the run and when the bad guys exit the diner is an example of formalism also. I did not consciously notice the music the first time I watched the clip. I noticed other people commenting on it in this thread, and I thought "what music?," so I watched it again. It is definitely there, and no doubt it subconsciously (for me) added to the tension. Maybe it is a mark of good use of music in that it did not distract me from the story being told (or maybe I am making excuses for not being observant?), but when I watched the clip the second time and paid attention to the music, I thought it added to the impact of the visuals.   

 

-- 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).

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

In order to answer how this film sequence made an important contribution to film noir style, I would need to know more about film noir. The question suggests that something in this scene was done for the first time, but I have no idea what that might be. Also, I don't know enough about the other art forms that might have influenced the sequence. Obviously, Hemingway's short story was an influence, but what else might have been involved. I wish I knew! I think these are very valid questions, but I don't know enough about art history (yet) to know what else might have been an influence.

 

The daily dose text suggests some of the possible influences, such as Edward Hopper's painting Nighthawks, and I really appreciate information such as that. Edward Hopper was particularly influenced by light, and the newly invented fluorescent lighting depicted in his painting (and used in the front room of the diner) would have attracted Hopper like a flame affects a moth, ha ha. BTW, I have written a blog story about Nighthawks, and you can read it here:  

http://tomshawcross.blogspot.com/2006/02/nighthawks-and-nighthogs_20.html

 

- Tom Shawcross

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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.

I too need something to "tear apart and figure out." I find that learning about other influences on a work enriches the experience. It makes second, third viewings so important. Maybe it's just curiosity. I'm curious to know . . . just about anything, I guess. But that doesn't mean I don't get too much of a good thing: A break is also a good thing when my curiosity reaches its limit, and that can happen to anyone. I take a break, do something else (watch only for the sake of entertainment), and before I know it, I want to find out more. I really believe there's room for both intellectual curiosity and entertainment in these endeavors. Otherwise, it wouldn't be fun.

 

Okay, back to The Killers, which is really the purpose of this discussion thread!

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

 

I think this sequence from "The Killers" typifies a kind of frantic and claustrophobic feeling that film noir conveys so well. We're on the edge of our seats, asking ourselves questions: Why are the streets so deserted? Where is everyone? Why doesn't someone do something? Why are these victims such pushovers? Don't they know it would be easy to just. . . . ."

 

The rapid, urgent string music only intensifies the fraught emotion we are now in the grips of. We are completely caught up now, engrossed, involved, hooked! We may as well be tied up like those in the back of the diner, for we are now a captive audience: we simply can not tear ourselves away until we have followed the story through to the final denouement.

 

Ah for the days when storytelling in filmmaking (rather than today's emphasis on visuals and shock value) was a CRAFT. 

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The music when he is running through the alley to get to the Swede definitely adds more tension to the scene and has you on the edge of your seat hoping he makes it in time to warn the guy before he gets killed.  The visuals of when he is talking to the swede and you only see the shadows on the wall and never see the swede's face also make this scene more dramatic.  I am curious to know what he did once that makes this guy's want to kill him.  Have to wait till Friday to find out.

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I too need something to "tear apart and figure out." I find that learning about other influences on a work enriches the experience. It makes second, third viewings so important. Maybe it's just curiosity. I'm curious to know . . . just about anything, I guess. But that doesn't mean I don't get too much of a good thing: A break is also a good thing when my curiosity reaches its limit, and that can happen to anyone. I take a break, do something else (watch only for the sake of entertainment), and before I know it, I want to find out more. I really believe there's room for both intellectual curiosity and entertainment in these endeavors. Otherwise, it wouldn't be fun.

 

Okay, back to The Killers, which is really the purpose of this discussion thread!

Like many of you, I too like to immerse myself in a film, and also its backstory. I have shelves of books about the making of classic movies and biographies of the studios and the stars. I am a nut for the provenance behind props and locations. I know too well the effects of over-saturation, and I agree that a break is an absolute necessity at some point to keep you from going on automatic pilot, as it were. But when I discover a great film or book I watch or read it many times throughout my life. I think it enriches my appreciation.

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I am amazed by the courage of the people in the diner, warn the Swede, get the cops. These hit men are serious people, they wouldn't hesitate to take everyone out and in fact the thought did cross their mindsThe music highlights the urgency of the situation, the man from the diner is on a mission and won't rest until he completes this mission, much like the hired killers.

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Interesting question - shifting from realism to formalism. It makes me look at the scene in a new and different way.

 

At first, I thought the scene moved from the diner to a cheap back lot scene as Phil Brown jumps over the fences separating the small backyards of the neighborhood.

 

Now, however, I see the scene move from realism in the diner to slowly morph into formalism as Brown travels through a set filled with chiaroscuro lighting and finally ends up a shadow standing over Burt Lancaster's body (formalism). 

 

Geez, I love noir.

 

 

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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).

 

SPOILERS

I can see the obvious. The Nighthawks painting. Now in these scene it happened at dinner time around 6pm not late at night, but it was dark and lonley and then these hired killers come in and threaten the people in the diner

Comparing it to another Fritz Lang film, the Woman in the Window, there is a sense something bad is about to happen.

 

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

The beginning is telling a story, the dramatic music (dum dum dum dum), to swede's room more realistic. Swede acts depressed to me like whatever is coming, let it come. I'm not fighting, I'm not running, I  give up

 

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

It's like double indemnity, the letter, out of the past, mildred pierce, ect.. early on we know something bad- a murder or something has happened and now we are going to find out why and the motivations

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Having an eye open to realism vs. formalism in this opening, it was still a shock to notice how subtle a shift Siodmak made in his shooting. First we are looking down a narrow alley with a deep focus, watching Nick jump over the fences to the Swede's apartment, then a smooth pan to the right and we are suddenly inside the Swede's room. We don't pass through any walls or windows, the camera is both inside and outside at the same time. It's an impossible move if we think of the camera as the eyes of a human observer.

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I had the good fortune to see Nighthawks up close last fall at the Art Institute of Chicago, where it is located.  Seeing the diner in The Killers instantly made me think of the painting, except there is no lonely woman in the diner when the killers are present, probably a good thing.

 

Charles McGraw's gravelly voice is enough to make one's skin crawl. And his appearance definitely puts fear into the diner owner, who frantically tells him everything he knows. William Conrad's voice is instantly recognizable to me, as I am a fan of old time radio. Conrad did a lot of work in radio as well, and eventually he was the narrator for Rocky and Bullwinkle, sounding very serious in the early episodes, then getting overtly excited as the show progressed. Conrad's large bulk is equally intimidating in the diner, and he could pack one hell of a wallop (haven't seen The Killers yet, so I don't know what to expect yet).

 

After they leave, we see what they are capable of as the owner frees the staff, and one of them, Nick. is frantic to alert Swede to what will happen. He doesn't even accept a drink of water, he just bolts out of the diner at lightning speed, and the dramatic score puts you on the edge of your seat, making you wonder if he'll make it in time or not.

 

The realism in the diner quickly changes to formalism with the dark shadows in the neighborhood as Nick races to Swede's place.

 

You don't even see Swede's face, which adds to the aura of mystery. Who is he, and why do these thugs want him dead?

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The influence of German cinema in this scene can be noticed in the way the entire scene is played out. There is a feeling of something about to happen and camera angles and shadows and light and darkness add to telling the story. When the camera takes us from the diner to The Swedes room we pass through the almost documentary style of realism to the narrative of formalism. A number of arts forms combine in this scene. We see art in the canvas of the diner, hear music that sets a mood, and camera works that adds to tellinh the tale. All of these elements are found singly or in combinations in much of film noir.

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Daily Dose 10 – The Killers (1946)

Director: Robert Siodmak

Writers: Anthony Veiller (screenplay), Ernest Hemingway (story), John Huston and Richard Brooks                (uncredited)

Cast: Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Edmond O’Brien, Albert Dekker

 

--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).

               Curvature is a distinct trait of expressionism.  The set only hints of German expressionistic style in small scale.  But sharp angled overhead shots of Nick Adams hurtling fences with arched tops, transmits a sense of large scale due to the sense of height.  At the end of the fence jumping, two archways loom in the view; one appears to be a shut garage door, or the entry to a church, and both arches have the vertical geometric curvature of expressionism.  If a church, this may be a visual omen for the scene in Swede’s room.

               In this 3-4 minutes sequence, a not much architecture is revealed.  But in one swift moment, just before the diner owner enters the shot to tell Nick Adams to leave and warn Swede, the cornice design atop the diner windows reveal horizontal curves of expressionism.

 

--How does this sequence shift its visual design from realism to formalism, as it moves from the dine to the Swede’s room.

               Nick Adams’ run from the diner to Swede’s room is the transition from realism to formalism.  The diner is bright.  The only thing hidden is why Swede is to die.  Even the diner employees are spared their lives.  But, Swede’s room is almost black.  From diner to room, there is gradually less light.  Finally, dialogue reveals there is no light at the end of this particular tunnel; only death.

 

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

               I thought it surprising that the two killers did not kill the people in the diner.  I wondered why they allowed people who could testify, live.  Max’s partner comments that the diner owner is lucky which leads to another baffler of mine: William Conrad’s character, Max, comments that the diner owner, “outta’ play the races.”  What that means would probably explain why it was said.  This does not pay off later in the story – it’s just out there by itself, so I can’t place its story purpose.

               The reason I pick this is because I assume the “play the races” comment has something to do with a faddish notion of that era and played well when the film released.  I have not found out why this expression was used within the context of the 1940s.

               The verbal jester, or tip, has to be symbolic and follows the more “generous” jester of the killers letting the people in the diner remain alive.  This is all very un-noir like in action yet adds to the essence of what noir projects through mise en scène.  Action and scene seem to clash but yet those dissimilar aspects of the genre hold together and tell a noir story.  This combination of action and scene is not in variance as Nick Adams hurtles upward pointing arch top fences and then races past an entry aping the fence lines with upward pointing arches.  Is Swede going to heaven?

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Amazing the scene with the laconic swede. You don't even see the face, but you want to know everything about him. Why doesn't he mind to die? He did something wrong once. But what? So much strong, hard, to be prepared to die for?

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I cannot comment on realism vs. formalism as I am too unfamiliar with it. What I know is actors and acting. McGraw and Conrad alone are enough to capture my attention. It's so interesting to me that we are drawn into the film at the beginning, by 'the killers' themselves, and the victim, 'the Swede'. Two very different personality types in direct contrast to one another. One with purpose, one without purpose, and all hope gone. The music heightens the suspense. The darkness, shadows and lighting are intense. This gripping noir thriller has everything, and it all starts with the opening scene. There have been some good, insightful posts on here already. I think there are a handful of noir films that excel at capturing the viewer from the beginning. This is one. Another is Laura and Waldo's narration, as well as the set. Immediate impact is strong medicine!

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Living in Chicago, I have had the pleasure of seeing Hopper's painting many times.  This diner is much smaller and claustrophobic, and makes you feel uneasy.  The first camera angle of the diner, from below, is disorienting and suspenseful.  The scene in the alley when the camera shifts to Swede's room is remarkable.  I think the formalism begins with the view of the courtyard right before the camera enters Swede's window (around 2.24 in the clip).  Everything looks prosaic when Nick is running and jumping fences, but when he comes to Swede's courtyard, things look strange.  The shadows are darker, the left side of frame is covered with ivy, and the focus on Nick looks like he's in a fog.  Then the camera pans into Swede's spare apartment.Swede lies perfectly still on the bed; it looks like he's already dead.  His voice is slow, calm, fatalistic.  His face is always in shadow.  He did something bad, once, but yet the men in the diner and Nick especially are willing to risk their lives in warning him.  They can't believe that someone wants to kill him.  This man is a mystery indeed!  Rosza's music is perfect-- very suspenseful.  Sometimes he's over the top, but it's great here.  Can't wait to see the rest of the film.  I think I'll head over to the Art Institute, too, and look at some Hopper.  The article about Hopper was very interesting!

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For me it was the moment of the high angle shot down the back alley. It reminded me of the chase scene in M. I guess that's where I would draw the connection of German Expressionism. What I truly liked was when the figure ran out of frame, the camera started to move. I was anticipating a following shot on the figure, but the camera rested on the Swede's body in shadow. Just for a moment, then swung to his door. Knowing that this was the destination, the anticipation of waiting at that door was stimulating. Then he just came in, which I thought was a little bold. But the motivation was right. It was urgent. But not to the Swede. This contrast in urgency was great for dramatic conflict. But the Swede won. I can't wait to see this!

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