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Dr. Rich Edwards

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

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When we first view the Diner it looks like any diner in a urban setting. You get the feeling of isolation and loneliness, as depicted in the artwork of the time. We get the feeling that something is wrong when a customer is told the cook is sick there's no food served. Why is a diner open at night that's not serving grub. Why is a man sitting at the counter.

The camera takes us in the diner and we find out the man is a killer looking for Big Swede. Swede is not coming in so he and his partner leave.Before they leane he tells the owner that tonight is his lucky night and he should go play the races, insinuating that everybody was going to be killed if Swede would have came in. This is shot realistically .

The young man is sent to warn him. We have a formalize shot of him running and jumping fences to reach Swede.

Next we are in Swede's dark room ,full of shadows and lights. This has that expressionist Look and feel, we hear Swede's voice but don't see his face. He is resigned to his fate. There will be no happy ending to this story, no troops coming in to save him ,no winning. Very Film Noir not upbeat like American films used to be.

This film shows many art forms coming together to make Film noir The story itself ,the music of the time, the artwork of the time and other genres of films all come together in great Film Noir.

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This is one of my favorite films. In the scene prior to this clip. the hit men come into the diner through the two separate entrances - visually "squeezing" both ends towards the middle (burning the candle at both ends; no escape). Conrad, in particular, is terrifying. The tilted angle from outside implies something is wrong, and the methodical approach of both hit men show us that even when they leave the diner, they are still in charge. We briefly have hope as Nick dashes through the shadows to get to Swede first, and of course we're assuming he'll heed the warning and run...it's the beginning of the movie! So when he lies there, defeated, we're as confused as Nick is. Talk about hooking you into a story!

 

The Lang/expressionism is evident in the overt use of shadows, particularly the one obscuring Lancaster's face. Also love the shot that follows Nick across the yards, panning seamlessly into Swede's room, only to have Nick enter the frame again. The juxtaposition of Nick's urgency and Swede's resignation is also supported by the use of music and dead silence, respectively.

 

I also liked the later version of The Killers; Lee Marvin's final words are one of my favorite closing lines in film.

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What are some influences you see in this sequence from other cinemas or other art forms? 

 

When the clip opens we are on the outside looking in as viewers wondering "whats going on" then we are inside and the light is low and shadow like. We see a man walk out from the back. What did he just do? Then we go back to the back and see that he tied some the rest of the crew up.

 

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

 

The camera moves fast, the music is very bold and loud, lots of questions to be asked in this clip.

 

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

 

The use of shadows, light, music, camera. if you look at the opening of the scene its almost like the Nighthawk painting. 

 

This TCM clip has Film Noir all over it! They use it every day! 

 

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The other posters have answered the questions thoroughly, I would just add I found the soundtrack especially effective..the notes punctuated the action with perfect timing-stopping for dialogue so you can hear clearly asides and quick comments..so different from current techiques where you struggle to hear the actors over an ever-present top-forty soundtrack. In this clip at least-Rozsa also avoided trite musical elements we've seen over and over in film noir soundtracks that can lend an overly dramatic , even cheesy mood at times.

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People have shared great comments so I will focus on the man in the bed, whose resignation is there from the first when we find him lying down (wondering if he is, in fact, already dead, the man talking to him talking to a corpse).  That seems studied, more formal, in contrast with the scenes in the diner.  The monotone of the voice adds to the sense of resignation.  I don't get the sense that he is lying there waiting to be killed, though, just that he is somehow deflated, the figurative wind knocked out of him.  He is almost motionless.  And his comment that he did something wrong once also reinforces the idea that what is going to happen is inevitable, almost a moral choice.

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The other posters have answered the questions thoroughly, I would just add I found the soundtrack especially effective..the notes punctuated the action with perfect timing-stopping for dialogue so you can hear clearly asides and quick comments..so different from current techiques where you struggle to hear the actors over an ever-present top-forty soundtrack. In this clip at least-Rozsa also avoided trite musical elements we've seen over and over in film noir soundtracks that can lend an overly dramatic , even cheesy mood at times.

The music also seems to me to signal a change from realism to formalism, since the music is obviously not part of the actual sounds in the story (non-diegetic sound).  The music does a great job of raising the tension of the boy running, and then the tension stops when we arrive at the prone body of the Swede cloaked in shadow.

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German Expressionism is evident here in the use of shadows and shapes.  In the first scene in the diner the action is framed by the square shape of the ceiling, implying a static, immovable situation with, of course, no escape.  Separating the right and left half of the frame is the lunch counter, presenting the viewer with an slightly elliptical shape, donating motion.  Like Lang in "M", Siodmak uses basic elements of life (food!) as a background for his story.  As in a moment the Swede will portray a kind of bondage, the men in the kitchen are freed from their bonds.  The action begins.

 

The transition from naturalism to formalism is easy to trace.  The Swede's friend from the diner jumps fences like a racehorse to tell the Swede his bad news about the killers one the way.  The music also changes radically, with Miklos Rosa even knocking on the Swede's door musically (or prefiguring gunshots) before the door, seen from the inside, opens.  

The transition to formalism is nearly complete.  The shadow of the messenger intersects vertically with the horizontal figure of the Swede, Burt Lancaster.  His voice is quiet, resigned.  His words are contemplative.  Is it any coincidence that the two figures, with the Swede in resigned repose, one arm at his side and the other over his head, and the messenger intersecting with him, slightly recall Michelangelo's Pieta?  I understand that this is a stretch, but it was the first thing that occurred to me, and both the Swede's posture and dialogue reflect the well-known protagonist of Christian Holy Week.  

 

The messenger leaves the Swede, having failed to rouse him.  The Swede is resigned to his fate; his impending death.  The open door and yet another image framed by a static square, contains another ellipsis, the top of the banister, reversing on itself.  Formalistic images tell the story.

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The music was a definite transition element.  In the diner, there is no music, just voices and normal background sounds - the door slamming, feet moving.  In real life, there's no music (Sorry, lovers of musicals.  LOL) to build drama, romance, fear, comedy.  Three guys in a diner, talking - what we might see in a diner every day.  As we move behind the diner towards the Swede's room, the music builds, accented, short bursts that echo a heart beating from excitement, our thoughts racing along with our feet.  We burst in the door, and the music stops, leaving us gasping for breath as we try to tell the Swede of the danger.

 

I also found the lighting to be a transition.  In the diner, the lighting is not as shadowy as we see in the more tense scenes of films noir.  Normal evening lighting, diner light glare.  As soon as we step out of the back of the diner, we step into shadows.  Running across the lots, we head into deeper and deeper darkness and even a little haze as we cross into the last yard.  And when we arrive at the Swede's room, we see his head entirely engulfed in black shadows.  It's very hard to see the Swede or his surroundings.  

 

His mumbled answers also show how he is lost in a reality that exists only in his head - He has no reason to try to save his own life.  If he is killed, it's what he deserves.  

I've never seen this film, and for those few seconds when we first see the Swede, I thought he may already have been killed.  I was waiting for the other character to figure it out.  Now that's great suspense.   :)

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In this scene from The Killers, one of the tied-up men rushes to tell the Swede that two men are out to kill him. As he runs through the city, a feeling of dread builds up, leaving the audience wondering whether he'll reach the Swede in time. The hope that he'll make it is dashed when the Swede refuses to act, but it leaves the audience wondering why he won't flee.

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I think the biggest aspect is the backwards storytelling.  It was utilized time and time again in order to make the viewer think and piece things together.  No more could you sit back and take it all in, you as the viewer became a part of the story as you had to solve it as the protagonist had to as well.

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The second question was very suggestive... How does this move from realism to formalism.

 

The diner is lighted in a more realistic manner, whereas the scene in the boarding house has all the hallmarks of film noir style ... the contrast between light and shadow, leaving Burt Lancaster's face in darkness as he speaks (which gives the impression that he's trapped in a moral darkness). 

 

Still, the diner is somewhat stylized as well, and I'd never heard the connection between the Hemingway story and Hopper's painting (on display at the Art Institute of Chicago).  I liked the way the two killers didn't look at each other while speaking, for instance... very true to the Hemingway story. 

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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 would say the scene in the room with the Swede in total shadow talking is very similar to the work of Fritz Lang's opening scene in M.


 


 


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


 


The seen in the restaurant is more formalism.  Then shifts to realism as we follow the character racing to warn the swede.


 


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


 


I found it very interesting in the scene when after racing and opening the door and entering the swede's room.  The "swede character" doesn't react and speaks in a relaxed manor like he was expecting this and at terms with what is to come.   This was very intriguing, why is he so relaxed?, what was that something bad he did once? 


 


 


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I'm glad you pointed out that this sequence moves from the more realistic visuals in the diner to the more expressionistic compositions when the character is running to the Swede's room. The angular shadows are quite expressionistic. I especially liked the choice to keep Burt Lancaster's face in darkness as he learns that the hit men are coming for him. His resigned vocal tone coupled with the fact that we can't see his facial expression shows that he has mentally removed himself from the action in a sense. He admits he's done something wrong in the past and now his time has come to pay for his wrongs. This seems to me to be very moralistic--you have to pay for your sins. Some noir films seem more amoral. Bad things happen and corrupt people go free.

 

I'm wondering if when we speak of the influence of German expressionism on film noir, are we referring to only German film? Does this influence also include German expressionist painters? I suppose so.

 

 

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How fitting that Hemingway's short story which reshaped the American story form and changed the course of fiction entirely should inspire a gripping film which led the definition of what makes a film noir.  

 

The stark transition from realistic setting and lighting in the diner to perfectly placed shadow and light in the Swede's shoebox of a room was quite stunning.  The Swede, as described artistically, is hiding, down-and-out, and perhaps even guilty of the crime for which the killers are after him.  This is simple and stunning storytelling.

 

The music in this scene certainly drives the bus.  On the young man's journey from diner to shoebox, it is the score that tells the viewer what may be in store for either of these characters.  Full of dread and cliffhanging suspense, the music is a masterful extension, beyond words of dialogue and shots of a camera, in storytelling.

 

I must see this movie.

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Love the camera work as Nick runs from the diner to warn "the Swede." When Nick turns into the alleyway, the high perspective, long shadows, and arched doorways remind me of De Chirico's paintings.

 

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I really enjoyed this scene, although it's certainly missing the female character to make it what I distinguish as "full" noire. Nonetheless, the tension is heightened greatly by the music and the shots of the running character. That tension is fully contrasted by the calm and apathy of the Swede. He knows they're coming for him and he accepts responsiblity for what he did wrong... once. This definitely creates a bigger air of mystery in the film. If he's done something wrong, if people are trying to kill him for it, but he doesn't seem fazed or worried, what exactly did he do? Is he going to fight them? It doesn't look like it. I also like the contrast in sets. The dinner is well lit and there's hardly mystery about what's going on: two guys want info on the swede. On the other hand, in the swede's bedroom, everything is darkened, including his face, motivation and feelings.

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Did you hear the Dragnet theme? Miklos Rozsa did scores and concertos but will be most remembered for Dragnet. This dialogue is mostly Hemingway's, but the great line, "I did something wrong, once" is not in the short story. It is a great line that is more noir than Hemingway. I don't know if it was written by Huston of Veiller, but it seems to echo in many films noir.

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This scene depicts the switch back and forth between realism and formalism as we are drawn into the diner and into the action within.  First we are outside the diner, looking in just as the customer is outside looking in.  However, we find ourselves seated at the end of the counter observing the killers conversing with the server.  Then we become the server watching the killers leave but become observers when the server releases the hostages in the back room. 

As observer our sense of terror is enhanced by the music as the music becomes louder and increases tempo in unison with the friend running to warn "the Swede."  The music comes to a crashing halt when the friend reaches the room.  The door is opened to silence.  The mood shifts.  The Swede's voice is soft and low.  We've been built up to be let down in resignation.

Just as in "M" when the murderer is seen in silohette and silence fills the background; murder and death is a foregone conclusion at this point.  Now we just watch as the story unfolds.  

I believe this is an important contribution to the film noir style because it shows us that no matter how much we want to see the friend reach the Swede in time to warn him and see the Swede take action to save himself, it would not be noir without the unusual twist that the Swede is not alarmed and will not act.  Are we let down?

 

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To me realism is shown in the diner, pretty straight forward. The guy running to the Swede's house is more like a dream sequence of formalism. I'm scared as he passes all of those shadows. Then, the Swede speaks is a calm, disembodied voice & says thanks for coming over, & stay out of it, by saying, I did something wrong, once!

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I definitely feel that this scene was a perfect example of the shift from realism to formalism and then back to realism as the killers calmly and toughly wait in the diner for the swede then as Nick runs through the neighborhood to warn the swede a feeling of high suspense is built and the shift to formalism has happened as this high octane, fearful part of the scene carries out and then everything shifts back to realism as the swede calmly acknowledges the warning, faces the harsh reality of it all and hardly cares one bit. The score and the camera work were also crucial in shifting the scene from realism to formalism then back again.

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The realism is shown in the diner scene as the man literally walks in front of the camera. As they leave the diner the music gives a foreboding sense of doom. There are words reflected in the window, similar to Lang's Ministry of Fear. As we enter The Swede's room, all goes extremely dark, the room only lit by shadows. It is stated that the police are ineffectual (as always in a noir). The Swede seems to have made peace with his doom, knowing there is no way out. His face is also shrouded in darkness.

 

This is a film I am anxiously anticipating, as I haven't seen it before.

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Thinking of Fritz Lang in this scene, what stood out was the shadow on the wall of the man who tried to warn the Swede. It reminded me of the swinging pendulum at the beginning of Ministry of Fear. As the pendulum set the mood/tone, the shadow on the wall over the Swede did the same. It added to the lack of seeing any expression in the Swede's face as he was in shadow as well. It was if doom was looming over the Swede and we know it's coming. We just don't know how or why yet. Expressionism is evident.

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I found it very interesting how the audience could not see the face of the man the characters referred to as "Swede" or "the Swede". It added suspense to the scene because you could not see his facial expression and makes you wonder who is this mysterious man and why are people hunting him down. Its very intriguing and makes me want to see this film.

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When you view this scene from The Killers, you can't help but be drawn by how the sequence is lit and framed. The first shot we see is canted, putting you, the viewer, even more off balance. We are already off balance after being placed directly in a scenario we know nothing about. There's a lot of hard light used throughout, a characteristic of film noir and also German expressionism. Shadows are evident. Faces are obscured. Everything is dramatic. It enhances the tension of the scene and the overall suspense. We can see something important is happening, something affecting the characters. It is overall very gritty, more gritty than any other clip we have seen yet. Even the title, The Killers, is dark and pulpy. You can tell this is a pitch black film just by the opening scene and how it is staged.

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Few paintings exemplify "noir"to me as much as  Nighthawks, so it was a delight to read that Hopper said his painting was influenced by Hemingway's The Killers, and to see the influence of the painting in the diner scene although the diner scene being brightly lit evokes a bit of ambiguity: does trouble lurk or is the cook just sick? It isn't long,though, before we are clued in via the gangsters and the threat to "the Swede." But it still could be just another gangster movie.

 

Everything changes though, when Nick leaves the diner. Now we are in the noir universe of darkness and shadows. Now we know there's danger. But our equilibrium is still shaken because this might be just a normal neighborhood. After all, those are picket fences Nick is jumping over.

 

By the time we are in the Swede's room, we have no doubt. Shadows predominate. Nick's shadow is what touches or almost touches the Swede, whose face is in shadow, He's resigned. We don't know why only his comment about doing something bad "once." Will we find out what that was? Will we care or will it be a Macguffin?

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