Dr. Rich Edwards

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

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Yes! The shadows are notable parts in this clip from "The Killers". Last week, I watched "Ministry of Fear", and I found some similarities between the two movies. One of them is the usage of moving shadows. The movements of the clock in the beginning of 'Ministry of Fear" and the shadow of Swede's friend running to warn him, all give me feelings of loneliness and doom. And I think that is exactly what these filmmakers want to give us.  

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One of my favorite films, if for no other reason than Eva Gardner, who's from my adopted state of NC.

 

The diner scene is one of my favorites for many of the reasons which have already been addressed in this thread.  However, I love the sardonic dialogue as Conrad and McGraw discuss the availability of the diner menu items.  The actors deliver their lines threateningly and you expect a violent eruption from them at any moment.   At the same time, there is a dark comedy (excellent timing and delivery by both) to it's one of the many little details that makes this scene for me. 

 

 

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Ernest Hemingway’s 1927 short story “The Killers” influenced Edward Hopper’s 1942 painting, Nighthawks.    Richard Brooks, Anthony Veiller, and John Huston adapted Hemingway’s short story for the 1946 film The Killers.   An American short story adapted for the big screen.  An American author influencing an American painter – both striving to make their works uniquely American.  

 

Robert Siodmak’s very American street-front diner and Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks frame and isolate their characters through the diner’s windows.  Light inside, dark outside.  There are certainly ominous shadows inside the diner.  William Conrad even crosses in front of the camera, his silhouette huge and menacing.  Iconic material.  

 

The visual design shifts from the realism of the diner’s mise en scène to formalism as soon as Nick Adams goes out the diner’s door.  Miklós Rózsa's dark, driving score emphasizes Nick’s race through deep shadows as he hurdles quintessentially American, white picket fences to warn Swede.   Siodmak further reveals his UFA and German Expressionism roots through the high angle perspective of Nick’s sprint which segues so smoothly into the door’s opening onto Swede’s room where every shadow is choreographed. 

 

Charles Caleb Colton said, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”  Mark Hellinger masterfully brought together a production crew and cast that that borrowed from and contributed to the growing elements of the film noir style.  A preview of coming attractions.        

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My favorite thing about this clip is the way the scenes are shot. I loved the entire sequence from when the boy from the diner runs through yards, hopping fences (the framing of that shot is excellent), to when he enters the Swede's room, enshrined in darkness. The Swede is so still that I wondered at first if he was actually dead, if the two men had somehow managed to find him before he could be warned. It's very chilling - what kind of man lies in the darkness like that, remaining completely still, even when someone bursts into his room unannounced? Probably not a man you want to mess with.

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I've never seen The Killers, though I am aware of the film due to the upcoming Criterion Collection release of it and Don Siegel's adaptation. I'm not a fan of Hemingway, though, but that shouldn't deter me from seeing the film.

 

As many people have posted, the shadows are pretty effective, especially the ones we see outside of the diner and in the Swede's room. I reallly, really liked the scene in the Swede's room because his face is in shadow, and then we have his white shirt, and then his dark pants. It's as if he's struggling between being good or evil; is he trying to live, or think, in the shadows, or is his heart to the light? Again, I haven't seen the film so I may be making all of this up, but it would be interesting to see if this is actually a thing.

 

I love the beginning of the clip as we're looking into the diner. We get a slight Dutch angle shot, so we know that something is severely wrong within the diner. And it turns out that that's true. The shadows on the outside door/wall are dappled too, which gives an even eerier, uneasy feeling. Moving into the diner, we don't get any sharp angles, though we do get contrast between the dinerman's white coat and the men wearing black. Once we get back outside, though, we delve right back in to the dreary noir world. We get two long takes as the former hostage runs to the Swede, something that's reminiscent of Lang's M. I especially love the alleyway shot in which we go through the window and into the Swede's room.

 

Once we're inside the room, I actually thought the Swede was dead because I couldn't see him breathing. It wasn't until I heard Burt's distinctive voice that I knew he wasn't, and that he's practically given up.

 

Aesthetically, the film toys along the lines of being traditional (the scene within the diner) and being noir (the rest of the scene). I'm guessing, though, the rest of the film leans more toward being a noir.

 

I enjoy the performances of Burt Lancaster that I've seen (especially Sweet Smell of Success), so I'm interested in seeing The Killers. I may have to get the Criterion set and compare this film to Don Siegel's and Andrei Tarkovsky.

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Three stong scenes in just over three minutes. The menace oozes from the two gangsters just by the implying dialogue. A "realistic scene".

The run shot changes from a side angle to a high perspective angle and that last part is beautiful. The urge is built up, both emotionally and by the showed physical haste. The contrast from the the two former scenes to the "formalistic" room scene is appaling. The urge and haste hits the wall. Everything in the mise en scene of the room shot tells a story but the strongest image is the extremely fatalistic view of "The Swede", shadow cloaked in a symbolic hood of death. The absence of will is so bottomless in that scene so it kind of inverts the feeling to the spectator (me), feeling energized by the sheer power of such a scene. That is "formalistic" at its best. The shadow play transfers the noir feeling all the way.

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The Swede is already dead. He is lying in his bed-coffin. Only the vague form of his body is visible: you cant see his face or eyes or any other indication of his soul flickering alive within it's mortal casing. The boy is standing over him, like a viewing. The boy's shadow on the wall represents the Swede's soul: it has already arisen out of his body. The door closing at the end is the door closing on the Swede's existence.

 

LOVE that scene. 

 

This whole movie is awash with German Expressionism (as I detailed above in the scene with the Swede). I like how that style was less stilted in these movies but was clearly evident. 

The switch from realism (in the diner) to formalism (in the bedroom scene) is self evident.

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The dark shadows certainly suggest German Expressionism. The scene where he's telling "The Swede" that there are two men looking for him to kill him, the room is dark, and the Swede's face is completely surrounded in shadow. The only sign of life from him is the sound of his voice. Another nice touch to the scene was the shadow of the lamp, and the other guy in the scene on the wall. It reminded me of the opening scene in "Ministry of Fear", where Ray Milland is sitting in the shadows watching the clock ticking away until he can be released from the asylum. This film was also made by a German emigre filmmaker and veteran of the German film industry, the one and only Fritz Lang. As for the transition from realism to formalism, both of the sets--the diner and the apartment--look very realistic. My thought was that the diner was a real diner and the apartment was a pre-made set. Or if it was a real apartment then it was least specifically stylized for the purpose of being The Swede's residence.

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There really is nothing more noirish than obscuring a main character's face with shadow during an entire conversation. That introduction raises so many questions as to who the Swede is - what unspeakable things must he have done to deserve not only the claustrophobic isolation of his dwelling but also the fatalistic resignment to gun-toting gangster reprisal? Perhaps his face is hideously disfigured - or perhaps his crimes are so despicable, light can never again shine on his visage. What a compelling way to introduce and foreshadow such a mysterious persona.

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The term that follows this opening is one of "hope" - the diner we have all come to know, familiar, comfortable serves as a realistic refuge, begins with the customer hoping to get a meal, which doesn't happen. The angle of the camera from outside the diner, as the angered gentleman leaves, the slamming of the door countered by the calm exuded by the owner and Conrad's character, creates a sense of unease. Back inside the lighting, the snappy dialogue by the men looking for the Swede creates more tension.

 

As the young man leaves to warn the Swede, noir in spades, the repetition of the short fences, easily scaled one after the other as the music builds, all pointing to hope. Then the beautiful shot from the Swede's bedroom, as the young man arrives, breathless to an expressionistic room, only the light from the door illuminates the scene. The key for me is the Swede has absolutely no reaction to someone flinging his door open, and as the friend warns him, the play of his shadow on the wall is rather imitating what the bad men want to do--strangle the Swede.

 

As has been mentioned, the familiar expressionistic elements are reminiscent of M by Lang using the shadows in place of characters. I think this allows imaginations to run wild with speculation and questions, which is key also in Nosforatu. Shadows are scary to us, for their ability to skew reality, escalate and intensify fear. They have the uniques ability to shift, lengthen, shorten, or twist, yet we have no facial clues, to guide us in the understanding of motive by the shadowed. Yet, in this scene the young friend has care and suggestions, while his shadow dictates menace as it floats above the Swede, against the wall, like death hovering.

 

The fact that this young man continues to offer his friend hope and the Swede implacably responds without passion is the ultimate loss, as the friend realizes as he gives a last look over his shoulder, before closing the door on the dream of a future.

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One of my favorite films, if for no other reason than Eva Gardner, who's from my adopted state of NC.

 

The diner scene is one of my favorites for many of the reasons which have already been addressed in this thread.  However, I love the sardonic dialogue as Conrad and McGraw discuss the availability of the diner menu items.  The actors deliver their lines threateningly and you expect a violent eruption from them at any moment.   At the same time, there is a dark comedy (excellent timing and delivery by both) to it's one of the many little details that makes this scene for me. 

methinks that's Ava... also: head down to Smithfield (jus' south o' Raleigh) for Much more on Ava.

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What an excellent synopsis of this film!  Your observations are right on the money, especially in terms of the breakdown of realistic and formal elements.  I agree that Swede is a classic noir protagonist, a man who followed his passion to the point of despair and resignation, but unlike some others, it appears that he is, or has been a "follower, " someone who was not necessarily in charge of his own destiny (like a Phillip Marlowe or Sam Spade, who were in business for themselves, had a keen sense of who they were, had the personal confidence to live with the decisions they made, right or wrong - but would be hard pressed to give up).  As you mentioned, he didn't think clearly and pushed his luck - similar to Sam Spade's partner, Miles Archer, who likely set himself up for murder by being so distracted by the attractiveness of Bridget O'Shaunessy/Miss Wonderly that he let his guard down.  The only thing he didn't do is pull the trigger, i.e., he didn't think clearly enough.

I feel that Conrad will always be remembered as Cannon (he could've just grabbed the Swede in a mighty bear hug and finished him off that way ;^)

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I thought at first Bert was dead, so was surprised when he spoke. I haven't seen the film to know if that is a foreshadowing of whether he survives!

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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.

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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.)

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The opening of the Killers moves so slowly and menacingly. The realism of the set and its surroundings make you feel as if this is occurring right now and could happen anywhere. You do feel as if the employees in the diner are lucky to be alive. When the worker runs to the Swede's apartment we enter a formal set.  Swede is half hidden by a slice of shadow that covers his face.  At first it seems as if the Swede is dead already and the kid leaning over him feels as if someone is looking into a coffin at a dead man. Not being able to see the Swede's face, and hearing the tone of his voice, spoken from the shadows, gives the viewer a feeling of futility. You want to know why this character has given up and what brought him to this point of just waiting for his death. The small room is confining and oppressive in it feel. The whole feel at the beginning is of dread and futility and how did the character reach this point. 

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As mentioned in the Curator’s Note, Robert Siodmak’s “The Killers” reeks with prototypical film noir elements.  The tension producing score, the low angle, deeply shadowed, creamy black and white photography and inventive compositions - descendants of the German Expressionists’s work, the Hemingway pulp lit pedigree, characters rooted in action more than talk, and a certain kind of Edward Hopper pessimistic urban loneliness can hardly say “Film Noir” more plainly. 

 

The influence of postwar photojournalism also seems to break through at times.  The diner scene and the victim’s room are both reminiscent of the New York at night work of WeeGee and the mid-century documentary photographers of his ilk.

 

The film navigates between the formalism of the diner section, during which the director uses crisp focus and traditional camera shots; static camera placement with few cuts and subtle camera movements, and the realism of the diner worker’s race to warn the Swede of the men who want to kill him.  This takes place as quickly as flipping a light switch.

 

As soon as the man leaves the back door of the diner the nighttime cloaks him in murky darkness.  The director now uses long tracking shots to follow him over back fences and through backyards.  Near the end of his run Siodmak places the camera in the Swede’s upper story window where it follows the man until he disappears around the corner of the house.  The camera then retreats into the blackened room to show the messenger’s arrival and the conversation with the nearly invisible, almost catatonic Swede.

 

This sequence synthesizes the disciplines of hard-edged literature, fine art, urban guerilla photography, and a certain kind of guttural acting style that Lancaster, if not a proponent of, at least seems to be familiar enough to use when called upon.  These old and new filmmaking ideas are swirled together in the scene under discussion, opening film noir to other influences, and opening other genres to noir-ic inspiration.

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The first minute is very realistically shot and executed with a dash of gangster film influence as the two heavies intimidate the diner owner, who is attempting to protect the “Swede.” Then the score conveying the darkness and doom that is ahead begins, and it is revealed that the other diner workers have been bound and gagged. Then it steps off the ledge that the second minute teetered on, between realism and formalism. The rest of the clip with the shadow streets, the constant jumping over fences (that all seem to be the same height), and the mounting music builds to the moment we meet our protagonist, who himself is shrouded in shadow. It is all darkness and silence, far more telling than the overtly ominous score.


 


The chiaroscuro lighting is very German Expressionist, enhanced by the offset angle the scene starts with, and the interaction with two assassins has shades of realism while the run from the diner to Swede’s house is almost dreamlike. The city looks abandoned and foggy as hurries over people’s fences and down an alley. The Swede is uninterested in the man’s news despite the threat to his own life, as though he had been sleeping, half-dreaming of the day he knew would come, when his actions would catch up to him. [Note: Another noir trait, an otherwise average man who makes one poor decision which sends his life into turmoil which can only resolved once the man has confronted the consequence for said decision.


 


In the larger context of noir, The Killers resides as the perfect example of the shades of gray noir literally represents. There is black and white but the noir world is a gray one, where bad people get worse, worse people seek redemption, and good people make bad choices. The barrier between good and bad is walked closely as the narrative and style balances the actions and consequences of reality and the musings and reality of the fantasy, the unconscious.


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From German Expressionism I see the use of shadow and light and also a sense of fatalism.  The music also plays a large part in the film. 

 

At the diner, everything is portrayed in realistic fashion with no music, realistic lighting and editing.

When it switched to the Swede's room, there is music, moody use of lighting and more editing.

 

An especially important contribution to the genre is the use of realism.  Also it is yet another film heavily influenced by German Expressionism.

 

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Watching The Killers clip, it must be a definitive work of shifting between cinematic realism and formalism.  I experienced a dissonance in what I was feeling versus what I was seeing or knowing.  

  

1.  The Diner -  shifting between styles 

 

The Diner scene – Realism:  Shot on-location, natural lighting, no music, stark, lonely feel.   The Killer’s acting style & dialogue – a mix of realism and formalism.   They move so matter of fact, so comfortable, relaxed and natural.  They deliver their lines in similar fashion.  Yet, the content of the dialogue froze me in a moment of formalistic danger:    

“You wouldn’t fool us, would you? No, he ain’t fooling.  He’d know better than to fool. Come on Al.  What about those two boys back there?  All right? Think so?  Sure. You got a lot of luck bright boy.  That’s the truth.  You ought to play the races.”   In short, realistic dialogue with formalistic style: A succinct, hard hitting statement:  The truth is, You are Lucky. We won't kill  you.  Perhaps, utilizing German expressionism, this is heightened realism utilizing the tool of the chosen “word.”
 

 

2. The Musical Stun!

The Diner scene commences in a void of silence.  The Killers exit the diner, the door slams, and the music “stuns!”    It immediately hits you with a visceral mood of impending doom and urgency.   

 

As Nick deliberates how to proceed, the music lulls back to a hush - bringing us into the secret words and world of Nick.  At the moment he hears:  “Nick you better go tell the Swede first”, the music once again stuns with its volume, mood, and effects.  We are about to enter Nick’s dream world.
 

As Nick races to Swede’s apartment, the music picks up pace.  It conveys impending doom and nightmarish action along the way.  One imagines all the things racing through Nick’s mind.   As Nick swings open the door, another musical stun via the abrupt musical halt.   As Swede acquiesces to doom, Neal leaves the apartment against the backdrop of another “low stun” of soft, barely detectible, fatalistic music.  

 

 

3.   Lighting & “Silhouette Man” 

 

At the onset of the clip, the potential customer leaves the diner and the door swings closed.
I see what appears to be a black silhouette of a man’s head and shoulders, wearing a fedora.  His image is slanted suggesting the silhouette man is looking to the right. The image spans the wall and the front door.    
Who or what is casting this shadow?    

 

At the end of the clip, we see Swede lying on his bed.  His head is completely cast in black silhouette. He is facing to the right.   Meaning or connection, I wonder.

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The Swede's face covered under shadow just adds to the mystique of the film but also hints at his despair he is facing. I love how this shot is set up to reveal/cover him. It makes you want to know more. Another aspect of shadows that I love, is the transistion from the diner to the Swede's house. As the man is running to warn the Swede, the framing of the shots becomes tighter and tighter and darker. It is almost as if the shots are warning us that the path will be more difficult and darker for our characters.
 

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At the start of the scene we see the dinner in an askew angle, as if to warn us that something is just not right. We see the proprietor and another man. The customer asks for something to eat and is told "We're not cooking tonight". What is wrong here?

 

We then go into the dinner which is brightly lit and the actors are square in the frame. We then go into the back where the cook and another patron are bound and gagged. All of this is shot in a realistic manner.

 

When the patron leave to tell "The Swede" that there are killers looking for him the scene becomes very dark, the streets are foggy and he has to leap over fences.

 

We then go into "The Swede's" room. Very dark, shadows do not allow us to see "The Swede's" face.

All of this is shot formalism style.

 

"The Swede" has accepted his fate, and does not act as one would expect him to. There is no sign of "The Swede" want to save himself, he just lays there, in another world, almost not even acknowledging he may be killed.

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Great, great noir--German expressionism, angles, shadows--and performances!

 

Speaking of angles, has anyone noticed that in the payroll heist sequence,

the camera operator can be seen sitting on his perch, reflected in the windshield

of the getaway truck? It lasts about 3 seconds only, but it can be seen.

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I thought the opening of the clip was interesting. It was shot from the outside of the diner while the hungry patron is told to seek food elsewhere. He, and we, are on the "outside" and don't know what is going on inside the diner, ignorant of the dangerous situation that is apparently taking place. Obviously when watched in context of the film, we are aware, but I thought this clip was well picked for starting here. When we do venture inside, with its bright lighting inside we find ourselves a place which many people would find familiar, the safe and comfortable confines of a diner. But we are quick to discover that there is danger in this not-so-safe haven. The employees have been taken into the back and tied up as two strangers wait to ambush a fellow member of the community. Like Lang has done in films like M and Ministry of Fear, Siodmak has taken something everyday and turned it into something sinister and menacing.

 

Once the titular killers have left the diner and make their way to the Swede's place of employment, the foreboding music begins quite loudly and lowers as the killers move further away from the diner. Once Nick is told to go warn the Swede of the impending danger, the music quickens and rises in volume until it all that can be heard whereas before it was playing more subtly in the background. The frantic pace of the music simulated Nick's mad dash to alert the Swede to the danger he is in. Will he make it in time? Will the Swede be able to escape? Almost completely contrary to that build-up, the Swede barely acknowledges the information he has just been told. Bathed in darkness, with Nick standing in the light, the Swede shows no indication of fear or anxiety as he hears that two killers are making their way to his home. He is resigned to his fate, and illustrated by the darkness which has swallowed up his prone figure, he states that he deserves this fate.

 

One last completely unrelated point. Having watched this recently and due to the repeated uses of the nickname "The Swede", all I could think of was "The late Thor Gundersen was Norwegian!"

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I really liked the opening of this film. Having seen it last month on TCM (and recording on DVR for future entertainment between Doses), I was a bit disappointed that the Dose clip started prior to the gunmen entering the diner. William Conrad, who played many roles earlier on radio (e.g., "Escape", Lux Radio Theater, etc) plays a great role as one of the gunmen. Conrad also played an episode of Marlowe on the radio.

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