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

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In this film we see the influence of German Expressionism in the opening act. We get a feel of the typical film noir style with the use of low key lights to create a dark scene. Shadowy figures and low mood of the characters, as well as, the inclusion of seamy characters that are meticulously placed about the scene to invoke feelings of an eerie, uneasiness that something is about to happen. A shot of a cafe/diner late in the evening... could be anywhere in Small Town, America. The props,the low activity and somber ambiance of the people in and outside of the cafe is classic of what one might expect in a town of this type. It is realism at its best. A first glimpse of one the killers is revealed in a frame through the diner's curtained window from an angular diagonal shot with the camera.The sound of the screen door slamming as a man is going in and out of the diner let's us know that he is angry and upset; audio of the man talking to the cafe owner let's the viewers know that he is angry because he could not purchase a meal because the cook did not show up for work. This is the setup to let us know that something is very odd and wrong here---a cafe that is opened in the middle of the night for business and you can't order a meal? And if you look closely at the panel near the entrance of the door you will see a dark shadowy figure of a man as the potential customer enters in/out the doorway.We can assume with great suspicion that he is there for no good.

Other art forms that we see in the clip are:(1)The cafe is designed as a replication of Edward Hopper's 1942 painting,the Nighthawk; (2) the film itself is an expanded version and adaptation from Ernest Hemingway's 1927 short story "The Killers"; and (3) the music,sets the tempo for what Siodmak wants the audience to feel as well as to add drama.

The scene takes a shift from realism to formalism,with a long shot of Nick dashing across the backyards jumping over fences to urgently get to the Swede to warn him about the men. When he reaches the Swede; we see an odd triangular shaped lamp and it's shadow cast upon the wall of a dimly lit room, that looks much like the viewing room of a mortuary, where one would expect to find a dead body laying inside a casket. Strangely enough, the first image we see of the Swede is of him lying on his bed(still alive)as if he was displayed in a casket. His body is stagnant as he lays there listening to Nick's urgency to flea pending danger. However, his replies are low,monotoned,and resigned...awaiting his tragic fate. This is surreal, most people who have done something "...wrong" or the worst criminal you can imagine would make some attempt to flee or find a way to make amends for their wrongdoings. Even a child will try to find a way to avoid trouble if he can.


In Lang's film,we see the influence of German Expressionism, similarly, as well with the use of low key lighting and a high angle camera shot of the children playing below a dark tenement. We are made to feel their vulnerability. A long shot of the balcony above of a woman reprimanding the children below let's the viewers know that she is an authority figure--a mother perhaps. Again, low mood and despair of the adult women;the chant that the children are singing paint a picture of doom and gloom lurking in the air. Dark streets, ticking clocks, the sound of street traffic,a child walking home alone....bouncing a ball. And a close-up of a dark shadow slowly appearing, overlapping a sign post that, interestingly, tells the tale of what has been happening to the children in the community. The dread that is felt leading up to this moment is confirmed when the shadowy figure of a man begins to ask the child her name.

The contribution that today's clip, "The Killers", provides is important because of its portrayal of both realism and formalism within the film noir style.

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The first 2/3 of the clips when the characters are talking to each other are realistic shots.


Formalist shots are comprised of the diner owner watching the two hoodlums leave through a window (as if he was watching an animated painting), the tracking shot of Nick running out of the diner and leaving the Swede’s room.


The dark lighting and shadows of German expressionism is evident in the last third of the clip from when Nick hops the fence to when he gets to the Swede.


The opening to The Killers is an example of all influential elements of noir so beautifully and seamlessly blended together just when film noir is being recognized as a genre in and of itself. 

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  • 4 months later...

After The Summer of Darkness course I re-watched Out of the Past, Criss Cross, and The Killers, three of my favorite noir films, with two of my favorite noir protagonists, Robert Mitchum and Burt Lancaster as well as the stunning and talented femmes fatales played by Ava Gardner, Jane Greer and Yvonne De Carlo.


Prior to The Summer of Darkness course I had seen a fair number of films noir, some many times, and I consciously associated film noir with a twisty plot driven narrative that in part defined the film noir style.  While I still believe that is true, one of my takeaways from the course is I’m now much more drawn to the relationships in the films.  In prior viewings, while enjoying the relationships, for whatever reason the plot jumped to the fore.  Perhaps after many viewings of the films, the plot becomes less important because, quite simply, you know what’s coming and aren’t surprised.


With the above in mind, I now see many films noir as intensely dark and utterly adult “romance” movies devoid of dreamy happy endings.  In thinking about the three films I found myself hesitant to criticize the The Killers because I truly believe The Killers is an A-list example of film noir.  However, in the context of the relationships between the male protagonist and the femme fatale, Out of the Past and Criss Cross works better than The Killers.


The three films have a fair amount in common but there are notable differences.  In all three films the male protagonists are not criminals but are pulled into criminal activity due to their attraction to the female leads.  In all three films there is a love triangle between the femme fatale, the male protagonist and the male antagonist.  In Out of the Past and Criss Cross the femme fatale, loathes the male antagonist and is in love with the male protagonist.  However, in The Killers, the love triangle is a ruse.  Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner), unbeknownst to The Swede (Burt Lancaster) as well as the audience, is in league with Big Jim Colfax (Albert Dekker) for the entire film.


Films usually benefit from having more than one source of conflict.  The choice to portray Kitty as indifferent to The Swede diminishes the dramatic potential of the film.  Had The Killers intensified the love triangle, the forces of conflict would correspondingly intensify beyond just the heist or insurance investigation by adding the volatile world of sexual possession where the male protagonist is swept up in the dynamic of, “where desire meets danger.”  Of the three films, I find Out of the Past and Criss Cross more satisfying than The Killers in terms of the intensity of love and lust that threatens to undo the tenuous, uneasy trust between the male protagonist and antagonist.


Unlike novels, films have a relatively strict 90 to 120 minute run time limit.  According to IMDb, Criss Cross has a run time of 88 minutes.  Both Out of the Past and The Killers have a run time of 97 minutes but I find there is a much deeper relationship developed between Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) and Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer) in Out of the Past as well as Steve Thompson (Burt Lancaster) and Anna Dundee (Yvonne DeCarlo) in Criss Cross than The Swede and Kitty Collins in The KillersThe Killers, by nature of its Citizen Kane investigative style spends quite a bit of time on Jim Reardon’s (Edmund O’Brien) insurance sleuthing and in fairness, the Jim Reardon character does solve the mystery and does drive the climax of the film by bringing justice to the hired assassins that killed The Swede.  However the emotional core of the film has to be what occurs between The Swede and Kitty.  His attraction to her creates and fuels the forces of conflict and antagonism that prompts Reardon’s investigation.


It’s fascinating when characters knowingly and willingly walk down a path that will lead to their destruction, but a certain degree of accepting that choice must occur for the audience to bond with a character making self-destructive choices.  Frequently, this begins with the overwhelming sexual appeal of the female protagonist and then nicely devolves from there, as the male protagonist will do anything to be with the woman of his dreams.  It’s hard to imagine anyone wanting the audience to balk at accepting the ill-conceived decisions of the male protagonist and the way to avoid this potential problem is to develop the male/female relationship to the point where the audience not only accepts the male/female self-destructive choices but also acknowledges that, to a lesser or greater extent, somewhere within themselves exists a fine line between healthy and self-destructive behavior.


Consequently, The Killers would be an even better film with about ten more minutes of The Swede and Kitty being together.  This might deepen a bond between them after which they’re willing to throw caution to the wind.  I want to see them doped up on love to the level where they can’t make wise choices.  One point in the screenplay where this could have occurred is the moment after the heist where The Swede and Kitty hole up in a hotel in Atlantic City.  Since the film is structured on flashbacks that allow Reardon to recreate what happened, rather than starting with investigating The Swede’s suicide attempt and resulting mysterious insurance policy with Queenie (Queenie Smith), the script had every opportunity to show the Swede and Kitty alone together after she dupes The Swede to steal the heist money.


Watching the film, we know Kitty is beautiful and we know that beauty instantly sends The Swede over the moon.  What I want to see is Kitty enticing and possibly falling for The Swede as a means to achieve her and Big Jim’s grand plan to steal the heist money from the others participating in the robbery.  Unfortunately, Kitty couldn’t care less about The Swede and I can’t help but feel that this was not only a missed opportunity, but also weakens the degree we care for the characters.  If Kitty doesn’t care about The Swede and the film doesn’t really show why she cares for Big Jim, then why should the audience care about Kitty?


The table was more than set for a big dose of love and betrayal and this might have propelled Kitty’s character from good to great.  While I’m sympathetic to any screenwriter’s challenge of balancing character and plot development in under 120 minutes, I wish screenwriter Anthony Veiller had cut back some of the Edmund O’Brien scenes (especially repeatedly asking permission from his boss to continue working on the case) and given the time to further The Swede’s and Kitty’s relationship.



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With the above in mind, I now see many films noir as intensely dark and utterly adult “romance” movies devoid of dreamy happy endings. 


Very nice post.  Those 3 noir films are some of my favorite noirs as well.   As for the ending in noir films;   I wonder if someone has the percentage of films that have unhappy endings verses happy endings (or substitute hopeful verses hopeless).  Of course there are films that fall in the middle of these two.  


My casual review of noir films from 1941 - 1959 indicates around a 50\50 split.    Take noir icon Mitchum.   


Angel Face,  Out of the Past and When Strangers Marry have unhappy endings for the Mitchum character (dead or arrested).


Cross Fire, His Kind of Women, Macao,  The Racket,  Where Danger Lives;  these all have hopeful endings for the Mitchum character as well as others in these film.   


Of course Lancaster ends up on the short end in most of his movies except I Walk Alone while a few are ambiguous.  (e.g. Sweet Smell of Success isn't a happy ending for the Lancaster character but his sister and her boyfriend are off to a hopeful new life).

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  • 4 weeks later...



Thanks for reading my post and your thoughtful reply.  Your tabulation of the percentage of noir films with positive or negative endings got me thinking.  Off the top of my head I would have guessed that the percentage would skew heavily towards negative endings, as that would seemingly fit into the noir sensibility.  However, the more I consider your point, you’re right, a film can be very dark and still have a “happy ending” a la Kiss Me Deadly.


I also like your example of The Sweet Smell of Success to make the case for ambiguous endings.  However, your bringing up His Kind of Woman really jumped out at me.  I’ve seen the film a half dozen times or so and in all honesty I’ve come to enjoy it because I no longer expect to see film noir.  I find it entertaining despite the fact that the film is so disjointed about it’s own identity genre-wise.  Dan Milner’s (Robert Mitchum) dilemma is solidly noir, a guy set up to take a fall, and the scene with the card playing thugs at the six minute mark is very noirishly done.  However, large sections of the film are either centered around Mitchum’s relationship with Lenore/Liz Brent (Jane Russell), or Mark Cardigan (Vincent Price), or various subplots involving the other hotel guests that, while revealing different shades of Mitchum’s character, really have very little to do with Milner taking action to solve the story problem.


The writing and direction of Mark Cardigan (Vincent Price) is where the film loses its identity.  While Clute and Edwards on their podcast enjoy how well Price plays his character, and their point certainly has merit, the entire performance undercuts the film’s ability to be noir.  Price’s farce/comedic performance of a narcissistic, aging matinee idol seeking something, anything, to change the course of his life is an interesting study but I can’t help but ask myself why is this character and this performance in this film?


The climactic last quarter of the film crosscuts the Shakespeare quoting Cardigan in zany, over the top scenarios (the sinking rescue boat in three feet of water) with the very real and violent torture of Milner (whipped with a belt buckle).  These scenes are so impossibly different that it’s hard to reconcile what genre the film thinks it is.  The viewer is put in the position of having to switch genre gears each time the film cuts back to Milner or Cardigan.  In essence the film has two leading men to the detriment of Mitchum and the noir sensibility.


Clute and Edwards like the script.  I agree that the dialogue is snappy and very quotable.  Many of the scenes, when taken alone, are well constructed.  However, I think the writing lost its way when viewed as an entire film.  Perhaps the writing choice to make Milner (and the audience) wait at Morro’s Lodge to learn the details of why he was hired inadvertently created a second act vacuum that had to be filled with random subplots and more importantly, the larger than life Mark Cardigan.  Mitchum waiting at Morro Lodge structurally reminds me of Casablanca, The Wages of Fear and Kansas City Confidential where the main character(s) wait for the decisive action to heat up and the audience learns about the other characters’ stories and subplots.


On the Warner Brothers DVD there’s commentary by UCLA professor Vivian Sobchack.   She cites script rewrites showing that Raymond Burr’s character, Nick Ferraro, was added after principal photography was finished and they had to go back and shoot virtually all his scenes.  Also, producer Howard Hughes loved Vincent Price’s Mark Cardigan character and wanted it increased, thus the rather lengthy (for film noir) 120 minute run time.  I was curious about which parts of the film the two directors, Richard Fleischer and John Farrow each directed. In Sobchack’s commentary she states that Fleischer directed all the scenes on Farrow’s yacht as well as the reshoots with Burr.  With His Kind of Woman it’s hard to know to what was originally intended versus how it ended up due to rewrites, a new director and actor, and the additional shooting.


I’m open to looking at the films that fall outside the textbook examples of film noir.  Times change and it makes sense that artists want to explore, experiment, and push boundaries rather than just repeat what came earlier.  If in fact the finished film follows the writer(s) original intent, experimenting with writing a noir and farce/comedy in the same script is a little unexpected, but okay, let’s see what happens.  In the end, however, if it’s categorized as noir then it’s fair to look at it in terms of whether or not it successfully fits, or expands, or redefines, etc., that genre.  Personally, I find the film an oddity, with its unusual mix of writing, character design, acting styles, and conflicting genres.  While His Kind of Woman certainly has its charm and is entertaining, the use of ceiling shots and venetian blind lighting doesn’t necessarily turn it into a noir film.  Consequently, if you’re watching a lot of noir films and are conscious of the various noir elements, His Kind of Woman is a great film to watch because it does raise the question about whether or not it should be considered an example of film noir.

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