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Dr. Rich Edwards

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

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The music really helps to build the tension. The rhythm as Nick runs across the yards is powerful and the strings practically scream. The final touch is that the music abruptly stops completely when he is in the Swede's doorway. The music has alerted us that we can expect something in the dialog that follows just like the children's song in M warns us that a murderer may be lurking about.

 

I would also like to make a general observation about noir films that strikes me. In most cases the central character is an ordinary man or woman. Unlike the central characters of 30s crime and detective films, he or she is not a mob boss and is not blessed with the super intellect that so many of the detectives of that era possessed. Nor are they rich people who solve crimes as a sort of hobby. Noir detectives appear to be only a step or two ahead of the bill collectors most of the time and their offices are often nondescript or shabby and clearly not in the high rent district. These detectives don't frequent high-class nightclubs but hand out in cheap neighborhood bars, sleazy clubs and cheap restaurants and diners.

 

Those central characters who aren't detectives are usually ordinary working people, struggling to make ends meet and maybe get ahead a little. They are clearly to me people who have come through either the Depression, World War II or both.

 

While there may be rich people in film noirs they seem most often to be shown some sort of contempt, are portrayed as effete, and are always suspected of some evil.

 

In todays clip, we see people in a diner (hardly a high-class eatery) and we see the Swede in a small, sleazy room. These are average folks, middle-class at best.

 

 

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- Like the opening of Lang’s “M”, we are in a (mundane?) place of daily life. Then tension creeps in with things that aren’t quite right; the diner not serving food, a man who is not an employee emerging from the back.  The Swede’s downtrodden attitude seems to hint at French Poetic Realism.

- The diner is realism—a place people inhabit in their daily routine.  The alley is a “real” place, with normal lighting, but the high camera angle seems a transition to the formalism we will see in the Swede’s room, depicted with single source lighting and shadow on the wall.

- This scene shows that anyone (even those in the audience), the innocent Regular Joes, could get caught up in someone’s deadly game at any time.

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The Expressionistic canted angle is seen briefly in the very first shot when the rebuffed customer enters the diner, a low shot from outside that's a little disorienting at first. But the shadowy and angled visuals which Lang used in M and in MINISTRY OF FEAR become fully evident in the latter portion of the clip, after Nick leaves the diner.

 

The sequence shifts from realism to formalism. The first two minutes or so, inside the diner, are straight-on shots from the POV of a real observer. The lighting is bright, as it would be in a no-frills roadside eatery. There's no music under the dialog with the killers. The scene's acute sense of threat is built up entirely through the characters and dialog.

 

It starts to shift as the killers depart. The ominous music welling up at this point tells us, the viewers, that they've brought danger with them - the underscore is a formalistic means of conveying to us what the characters are feeling after the executioner duo has left the scene.

 

While the next scene as the owner unties Sam the cook and Nick still has a realistic look, shot straight-on and with dampened music, the latter part of the sequence once Nick runs out of the diner, moves fully into formalism. The lighting goes down several notches as we rush out into the night. The music swells again, the urgency increases, as the camera tracks Nick running and jumping fences to reach the Swede. Then the POV jumps inside the Swede's room. In an extradordinary shot we see, from above through the window, Nick running toward us, framed tunnel-like by trees and the house; then it pans across the Swede's room and we see his impassive, hooded body lying on the bed, then further to the right the door opens and Nick rushes in. This, I think, is a formal, "technique" shot, and it's brilliant.

 

So is the tableau that's set up when Nick screeches to a halt. All's drenched in darkness except for a spot of light casting Nick's shadow on the wall above the prone Swede. His complete stillness is eerie, we don't know at first if he hasn't already died. And his head is hooded like a condemned person's. Finally he speaks. barely squeezing out a few words of explanation, and they leave Nick - and the viewer - shocked and taken aback at witnessing a man so resigned to his own execution.

 

The sequence is not only visually striking but in pacing too - building tension inside the diner, then Nick's frantic rush, then a sudden stop in the Swede's room as the realization of inevitable doom sets in.

 

 

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This extract of the film begins with a little tilted camera angle from the exterior, when the customer is invited to leave, and then changes to "normal" once we are inside the diner in what we could call a mild realistic depiction. I mean, during the first dialogues and first signals of the plot.

 

After the intruders leave, the hostages are untied and the young man leaves to tell the Swede about what happened, the lights and the camera angles switch again to an atmosphere of pure formalism.

 

Pure mesmerizing formalism we can also find in the very first minutes of the movie, during the titles (and not seen in this clip). The image of the car from inside approaching town, the surreal vision of the gas station and restaurant and the omnipresent lights and shadows in the street. Glorious!

 

Shifting visual design in front of our eyes, seamlessly made. Art craft.

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I was unaware of the Edward Hopper influence on this opening sequence before reading Richard Edwards' post, and that bit of info blew my mind, as Hopper remains one of my all-time favorite painters (probably the noir fanboy in me). The influence seems very obvious re-watching this clip, particularly the bizarre dutch angle opening image of the building exterior.

The late night coffee, the seedy corner cafe, and the corrupted fedora sporting hit-men all sum up a typical 3AM in Noirville, and who better to bring this scene to life than Charles McGraw and William Conrad (in his film debut)? No one really, they're perfect.

The final scene in this opener is slathered in dark shadows and eerie imagery, courtesy of German born Robert Siodmak, who I always felt indulged in the American vision of noir a bit more than the strict European-ism of Fritz Lang. Coupled with Woody Bredell's cinematography, this note for note take on the short story is about as noir as a movie can get. Winding the top tighter and tighter until that final exhale of a finale, the director has struck black and white gold. It contributed immensely at the time of it's release as the finest realization of the cinematic style to date. Even now, some seventy years later, it still ranks pretty high.

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I am still unable to see the link to the movie that this thread is referencing, however, I did watch the clip on youtube of Burt Lancaster being killed, and it begs me to ask, why?  What did he know that they didn't want him saying?  Also, you never keep a loaded gun in your pocket, even if you take the few minutes to put some rounds in the chambers. The gun was too long to have been held in his pocket   Also, if Burt's character knew that someone might be after him, and could hear them in the hallway, why didn't he just hide or escape out the window?  

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I am still unable to see the link to the movie that this thread is referencing, however, I did watch the clip on youtube of Burt Lancaster being killed, and it begs me to ask, why?  What did he know that they didn't want him saying?  Also, you never keep a loaded gun in your pocket, even if you take the few minutes to put some rounds in the chambers. The gun was too long to have been held in his pocket   Also, if Burt's character knew that someone might be after him, and could hear them in the hallway, why didn't he just hide or escape out the window?  

 

Swede gave up being he was still in love with the femme fatale that double crossed him.   The humiliation was just too much to take.  He didn't hide because this was his way of committing suicide. 

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The influence of German Expressionism is seen in the chiaroscuro lighting and shadow, high camera angles, and the large shadow of Nick above The Swedes bed.


In the diner the mood is quite realistic, and almost normal, despite the fact that there are two mysterious strangers in the diner up to no good.


It all changes when Nick leavers the diner. From the loud dramatic music to the contrasting shadows and high camera angles, when Nick jumps the fence and runs down the alley..Contrasting styles, shadow light, the use of music top set a mood, or change a tone are all great contributions to Film Noir. The Swede says, "I did something wrong, once." It tells that in Film Noir, and possibly in life, one mistake, one wrong move, or decision could seal your fate.


 

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In this clip from Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (1946) Nick Adams (Phil Brown) asks Swede (Burt Lancaster), “Why do they want to kill you?”  Swede’s, “Because I did something wrong…once” answer is ridiculously effective and intriguing because it sets up the entire film to find out what Swede did that was so profoundly wrong.

 

Swede’s answer and behavior goes against every iota of self-preservation.  It’s deeply anti-heroic and troubling.  Everyone has done something, on some level, that was “wrong” but few of us ever face two killers walking up the stairs to extract revenge.  In the world of The Killers, life is fragile.  Forgiveness is a pipe dream.  Redemption is futile.  You can’t hide.  You’re not safe in bucolic small towns.  Swede is alone and the police can’t help him.  Friends can’t save him.  “I’m through with all that runnin’ around.”

 

The real art and beauty of this scene occurs in the shot through Swede’s open window as Nick frantically hops fences on the way to warn Swede.  There’s a dolly back and pan to reveal Swede, in shadow on a rumpled bed in a claustrophobic room, followed by another quick pan to Nick opening the door.  Here, the camera work, the lighting, the set design and the music all sync up to set the stage for the conversation between the breathless Nick and the impassive Swede.  Thematically and structurally, it’s dark.  When Nick enters the room he doesn’t turn on the light and the Swede’s face is kept in shadow for the remainder of the scene.  Who is this guy that does nothing when told people are out to kill him?

 

Additionally, the themes of betrayal, infidelity and retribution, are found in Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947) and Robert Siodmak’s Criss Cross (1949), which also stars Burt Lancaster.

 

-Mark

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This clip has all the makings of suspense that we've seen with the German expressionism - the lighting, the normal places or routines that are no longer normal, the hint of violence or violence yet to come - the sense that an ordinary day just become extraordinary - good or bad - but it did now change. It also echoes Lang in that we don't necessarily see full face, we get hints of a face or body, hints of the angles or the people that are "occupying" the scene - but it whets our appetite more for what is yet to come.

 

We go from a large, open to the public place of business and then we go to the small, intimate place of a person - who we don't fully see, but who we know is in trouble - but reacts not one bit (it seems) to someone who bursts into his room -but I want to know what did you do wrong?

 

I believe this is key to film noir because the title implies violence, violent people who have cause havoc for others but yet, "The Swede", who we know have people looking for him is calm, collected and is waiting for the other shoe to drop - but in one regard - he is waiting for his day of punishment - his day of judgment and we know that good and evil are always but to the test in film noir. Also, if one knows the Hayes Code, there has to be a form of justice somehow shown in the film.

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The looming shadows, ominous music, and canted angles one identifies with German expressionism are all present in the scene we watched from The Killers. And they are all used to great effect, conveying so potent a sense of doom that it is (almost) not surprising to hear the Swede reveal that he plans to do nothing to save himself. 

 

I mean, does it get more Noir than resigning yourself to being violently murdered for having done something wrong...once?!

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The camera work exemplifies German expressionism through the angles and shadows used during Nick's run through the alley and his sudden entrance into the Swede's room. We even see a shadow on the wall very similar to the sinister one in "M". The movie's title, music, opening dialogue and conversation in the room all have a fatalistic tone. I noticed that the "killers" are wearing long coats and fedoras similar to pulp fiction detectives.

     The realistic well-lit diner scene contrasts sharply with the dark shadowy alley and the darkened ,mysterious room where the Swede is waiting. The shift of scenes is swift and surreal. The music escalates at this point. The viewer is immersed into a nightmarish-like sequence (formalism) where the previous tense action is diametrically opposed to the Swede's calm willingness to be executed. "i'm through with all that running around" What was the wrong thing he did to warrant death?? Again, it is our hope as viewers that the story will be told in flashbacks that help to justify the utterly devastating ending. I like that this film originated from great American literature and contributes greatly to film noir. I also like that perhaps a great painter like Edward Hopper was influenced by the diner scene.

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The looming shadows, ominous music, and canted angles one identifies with German expressionism are all present in the scene we watched from The Killers. And they are all used to great effect, conveying so potent a sense of doom that it is (almost) not surprising to hear the Swede reveal that he plans to do nothing to save himself. 

 

I mean, does it get more Noir than resigning yourself to being violently murdered for having done something wrong...once?!

The looming shadows, ominous music, and canted angles one identifies with German expressionism are all present in the scene we watched from The Killers. And they are all used to great effect, conveying so potent a sense of doom that it is (almost) not surprising to hear the Swede reveal that he plans to do nothing to save himself. 

 

I mean, does it get more Noir than resigning yourself to being violently murdered for having done something wrong...once?!

The darkness in Swede's room is in extreme contrast to the well lit diner...a diner that offers sustenance, food to live! Then we run, with the character, hurdling, jumping, opening gates , almost a kind of figurative, fast-forward through the many obstacles we go through in life. Then up to the swede's room where his face is obscured completely in shadow. He's on his deathbed, he made it this far, but here he is, at the end of the line. Even the messenger is in shadow, now, a kind of implication that they are in the netherworld. Swede is not making it out alive. In mere minutes, we have been transported from life to near death.

 

I particularly like the shot in a kind of POV, at the diner, when we are looking through the screen door at bad guys at the gas station, with back of the characters head toward the right side of the shot. And I love when the messenger, who is going to get to the Swede, actually leaves the shot, comes around the counter and re-enters the shot in real time! How fascinating is that...I don't think we would ever see that happen in films today, would we?

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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 noticed a few influences from other cinemas and art forms in this sequence.

 

After viewing this sequence, I noticed that Robert Siodmak and Fritz Lang both use ordinary objects and situations to create moments of tension.

 

For example, the diner owner in the film The Killers tells a man to leave his diner in order to save him from a sinister situation that appears to be ordinary and Fritz Lang uses an ordinary clock in the film Ministry of Fear to create a sense of terror.

 

In addition to this, both of them also use extreme distortions in camera angles and character movements along with character dialogue to highlight an inner emotional reality of their films rather than what is simply on the visual surface.

 

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

 

To me, this sequence shifts its visual design from realism to formalism when the diner owner sends his worker to warn the Swede.

 

At first, the sequence uses normal camera and lighting techniques to preserve the illusion that the film’s world is ordinary like the actual world. Then the sequence shifts to a more stylistically different view of camera angles and lighting techniques that express the director’s view of the world as the diner worker runs to warn the Swede.

 

Robert Siodmak’s uses a variety of medium, wide, tracking, and high camera angles to express his vision of the world in a stylistic way.

 

In addition to this, he also uses various lighting techniques to express his view of the film’s world too.

 

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

 

I believe that this sequence from The Killers can be considered an important contribution to the film noir style in two ways.

 

First, I believe that this sequence from The Killers can be considered as an important contribution to the film noir style because it expresses the ability that directors have to move a film’s visual design from a realistic to a formalistic view.

 

Secondly, I believe that this sequence from The Killers can be considered as an important contribution to the film noir style because it uses a combination of sources to create the film’s story and various examples of film noir cinematography to advance the style.

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The found the shadows, lighting and high camera angles of the fences and yards tinged with German Expressionism. The fences set boundaries that needed to be hurdled. We are propelled forward. It was nighttime yet path to the Swede was clear. And from what was the dark of night we come into a room even darker where the Swede is not quite a man but a partially lit shadow of a man.  The excitement in the words of warning are juxtaposed with the calm words and sense of inevitability of Swedes situation.

 

I liked the camera at counter level in the diner shot. We're not above or below the action but the length of the counter pulls us into the middle of the scene between the good guy and the bad guys.

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Did anyone notice the radio up high on a shelf above The Swede's bed, and how the shadow of Nick's head falls onto the wall just beside the radio as he warns The Swede?  In this week's lecture, we are told that items positioned in a scene, like in a photograph, are there for a reason. Although this is not directly related to the prompts at the end of today's Daily Dose from The Killers, I wonder if this artifice of object and the actor's shadow is another aspect of formalism in the scene.

 

The position of the radio and Nick's shadow suggests that Nick was The Swede's "radio," telling him the news that the killers were out to murder him.  Back in the 1940's, and especially in 1946 as World War II was winding down/concluding, most people received their news from the papers or the radio.  With a written notification being a bit slow given the nature of the information being conveyed, Nick is giving The Swede information verbally, as though it were a radio news alert.  Also, most radios in films of this era are on nightstands or somewhere easy to reach, yet here it is out of reach for anyone lying on the bed and listening to music.  This led to me to consider why it was placed in such an unusual location, and then I noticed the shadow of Nick's head right next to it as Nick gave The Swede the awful news that two men were out to kill him.  

 

This set up suggests that Nick is The Swede's radio announcer, alerting him with a very personalized heads up on dangerous, momentous impending events, not unlike many radio broadcasts during and at the close of the war. It is perhaps no accident that the warning being given is that The Swede is about to be killed, as many radio broadcasts during the war were related to death and destruction.  Although released in 1946, the film was perhaps made while the war was still a significant concern to all and wartime updates were routinely issued through the radio.  Just a thought.

 

Now back to our regularly scheduled program . . . .

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2 things made an impression on me in this clip. First, the very effective use of music to set the mood and carry the action. Second, the scene in the Swede's room where the most omnipresent image is Nick's shadow. It hovers over Burt Lancaster like a buzzard over carrion. That was probably the point.

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There is a wonderful use of shadows in the opening of The Killers that is very reminiscent of German Expressionism, especially M.  The two killers immediately stand out in this small-town diner.  For one, they are both fully dressed in suits, while the only other two people in the diner are fairly casual.  The way the Swede’s room was lit was also very reminiscent of German Expressionist techniques.  As with Ministry of Fear, the protagonist’s face is hidden in shadow when we first meet him.  We cannot see the Swede’s face as he received the news that his assassins have arrived.  As a fan of Miklos Rosza’s music, I definitely thought it helped to add to the tension as Nick Adams ran to warn the Swede, even if it made me laugh a bit when I recognized it as the music that would later go on to be the Dragnet theme. 

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Watched the clip and now have something (slightly) more substantive to say than just "Eeeeee! The Killers! OMG, so good!"

 

To begin with, I really like the way that when we first see Lancaster, his head is entirely in shadow. There is a lamp right by his head, but he doesn't even bother to turn it on when Nick enters the room or as he's talking to him. Even his arm doesn't move. For all intents and purposes we're really looking at a man who is totally done running, or even caring.

 

His line "I did something wrong . . .once" totally sums up the fatal trajectory of so many noir characters. How often do we meet mostly normal men or women who, for love or greed or who knows what, commit just one wrong deed that sets them on a deadly path? What sets his character apart, to me, is that his character isn't full of blustering self-justifications. A lot of noir characters will defend their actions, even clearly immoral ones, literally to the grave. We see that not only has this man done something wrong, it has already cost him his will to live, and we can imagine that he's already paid some high price for it.

 

On a lighter note, I love that the diner owner leaves Nick tied up as he gets Sam a glass of water. And I couldn't help but smile and think of Hot Fuzz  ("What's the matter? Never taken a shortcut before?") as Nick was nimbly hopping fences.

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I think to fully appreciate this scenario you have to include the opening titles sequence of the hitmen shown from the back in silhouette driving into the town. With this opening sequence you have a framing that tends to formalism. Expressionism is the dominant aesthetic and I am hesitant to agree that there is a shift to "formalism". The sequence is set at night so the darkness and deep shadows are more naturalistic than formalistic. Any street or room at night has a "dark" aura. What Siodmak and his DP have done is to harness the reality not formalise it.

 

Tarkovsky’s adaptation - Ubiytsy (‘The Killers’ USSR – 1956) - his Russian film school effort is perhaps a more relevant example of formalism arising as it does from the economic constraints of a film school effort.

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The night setting, the high contrast between dark and light, the deep focus, fill the frame with detail and dread, underscored with music of both dramatic and helpless undertones.  The diner shots are conventionally framed and lit, but all details is sharp.  But in Swede's room, it is dark except for the light from the doorway, creating angled shadows over Swede's face, marking him as a doomed man.  His lack of surprise or action convey his conceding to a fate he has expected and is now willing to surrender to.  

The Killers uses this dramatic opening to draw the audience in, to ask questions of who and why.  Structured identically to Citizen Kane, the film begins with the main character's death, as this opening motivates the investigation that becomes the plot of the film, presented in episodic flashbacks from multiple contributors.

Swede's comment of "I did something wrong...once." is the credo of most film noir protagonist, good guys who made a wrong decision and forever must pay the penalty.

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In "The Killers," we can see the contrast between realism and formalism when we move from the diner to Swede's room. The diner is an example of realism. The lighting is adequate, everything can be seen as if we are there and even though there are men threatening the workers at the diner, it feels like a very real situation. The scene in Swede's room is crafted with a formalist style. The unsettling reality in the room uses the hallmarks of German expressionism including intense, heavy shadows and an overwhelming sense of foreboding. Swede clearly feels trapped and we see that manifest itself in the large shadow of Nick that engulfs Swede on the bed. In fact, instead of the shadows obscuring things, we get a clear picture of Swede's resignation to his fate.

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I've had trouble figuring out this movie before and now I think I know why. The switch between the realistic scenes and the formalized scenes were hard for me to make sense of. Sometimes The Killers looks like a slice-of-life detective story and I start relating to it like I would to The Naked City or another realistic Noir film. Then, as in this scene, it switches to a world of shadows and stylized images. I didn't notice what was happening before, but I know I've felt unsettled by this movie. It's as if no one is safe, not even if most of your life is spent in the sunlight, from a devouring darkness.

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In today's clip from "The Killers" we can see the ever-present darkness we have seen in earlier works but here pushed to an extreme.

 

We start in the realistic world of the brightly-lit diner. A shift to a more formalistic mise en scene begins with the insistent strains of Rosza's music as Nick runs through the town, down streets increasingly shadowed and hazy (like the street Neale walked down after leaving the asylum in "Ministry of Fear").

 

I love the camera move as we pan from a high angle shot of Nick running to the rooming house, around and through the window passing by the Swede in bed, to come to the door as Nick bursts through.

 

Returning for a moment to "Ministry of Fear," the room in which Neale started was dark and shadowy, but this one is beyond dark, as dark as anything we've seen in these clips so far, as dark as the Swede's resignation. In the beginning of "Ministry," Neale is ready to leave the darkness. The Swede has become part of it.

 

I think this is the strongest contribution of this scene to noir traditions: absolute fatalism in the face of something that happened in the past. "I did something wrong...once" indeed.

 

PS As a fan of radio, I love seeing William Conrad in anything.

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All I could think of when watching today's Daily Dose clip was Nick jumps more fences than Simon Pegg does in all the Cornette Triology movies!   :)

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