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


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For me, it's the handling of lighting in Hopper's painting that gives it the creepy feel. It seems as if the people in the diner are huddled together in the light, perhaps seeking shelter from whatever terrors lurk in the night outside. This scene from The Killers uses light similarly to depict anxiety. But the scene in the diner is followed by the shot of the Swede, who is markedly not anxious. He's resigned, lying in a pool of shadows and already for the most part swallowed up by the darkness that's winging its way toward him outside in the night.

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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).


 


The first thing that comes to my mind is the shadow. In M the shadow was dreadful, here – it tries to be helpful. We also do not see the faces of Swede nor Hans in the sequences we were talking about. Our protagonists are anonymous for the moment. Both Lang and Siodmak are creating tension in a realistic world, a world of a mother waiting for her kid to come home, a world of people in the diner, gas station etc. Sometimes the scene needs no words, we feel the tension, increased by suggestive music and pictures.


The diner itself reminds me of Edward Hopper's Nighthawks, of course. But it's not a lonely place – Swede made some friends there, who did not want to believe there was a reason for someone to kill im and hurried to warn him. He chose loneliness himself and rejected everything the world had to offer.


And William Conrad will always be remembered as J.L. McCabe :D


 


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


 


The diner is a real, nice place, a normal, quiet environment having regular visitors. Most people have known each other for years and eating there is a part of their daily routine. The place changes when the killers appear. In such places every stranger can be disturbing, but these two made a quite entrance. Their behaviour was extreme, they were disrespectful and did everything to scare the owner, the cook and one of the customers. The way the killers were speaking to the owner was really rude and overdone – this is not a normal situation for a small-town diner owner and I see a touch of formalism here. 


When Nick ran to Swede's place just to warn him, we fully emerge ourselves into formalism. The room is gloomy, dark, there's a huge shadow on the wall and we see a man lying on the bed. We cannot see his face, but we know it's Swede. Nick, who is very upset, tries to tell Swede about the killers running after him, but Swede's reaction is not the one Nick's been expecting. Swede seems calm, like he has been waiting for this to come. He does not even move. Nick is really surprised with Swede's behaviour. Swede said that he did something bad once and it seemed like he was waiting for the inevitable to come. At this point the viewer does not know about his past, about the heist and Kitty. But having seen the whole movie we might wonder what did he mean few minutes before he died? What was that bad thing – the heist itself or trusting Kitty?


Swede was a tortured man, a truly doomed protagonist who made a bad life investment and had to pay for it. He simply surrendered, maybe it was a sort of relief, he was tired of running and when he saw Big Jim in his car, he knew what it meant. He had time to disappear, but he didn't. It was a sort of „an assisted suicide”.


The music is dramatic, sets the mood, specific angles and the play of light does it also.


 


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


Swede is a good example of a one of the classic noir protagonists – a man who follows his passion, even if it's leading him to a certain doom. He ends the way he lives – tragically, in a „choking atmosfere of despair”. He does not think clearly and always pushes his luck.


Siodmak's film is also a great example of mixing realism with formalism.


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This clip from The Killers does feature two distinct sections.  In the diner scene, the lighting is far more realistic and the danger is the scene is only revealed by what is said by the two men in the diner.  The first shot is reminiscent of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, in the way it looks through the windows of the diner, but everything feels much more natural.  After the two men leave, the dramatic music starts, that heightens our sense of anxiety.  It isn’t until Nick leaves the diner, however, that we see the shadowy world of noir take hold.

 

The scene in Swede’s room reminded me a great deal of the work of Fritz Lang.  Particularly, I noticed the dramatic use of shadows.  The entire exchange between Nick and Swede is dominated by dramatic shadows.  Nick’s shadow is seen looming over Swede; it is this shadow that draws our attention more than Nick himself.  It was very reminiscent of the shadow of the child killer looming over the little girl in M, except in this case Nick is not the danger, but he brings news of danger.  A second similarity was in the introduction of Swede.  His entire face is hidden by the shadows, so he remains an enigmatic figure.  I can see similarities to the introduction of Ray Milland’s character in Ministry of Fear. However, this shadowy introduction lasts for the entire scene, creating great sense of tension as the viewer struggles to try and make out some trace of his features.

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When shooting a film scene there is something known as “the line” that is always observed unless for a specific effect …or if the film makers do not know their craft. “The line” is an imaginary “line’ perpendicular to the line between the lens and the subject. The camera may move …i.e.: various shots can be made… within the one hundred and eighty degrees from one side of the subject to the other along that line and from all the places between. But if the director wants to cross the “line” it can only be “crossed” during a camera move or in a series of camera moves, and then a new line is established at the end of the scene and that one must then be respected.


            In this sequence from The Killers the camera is always placed so that the counterman faces screen (our) right. When the killers exit, the counterman is out of the frame but he has been firmly established as looking to our right. In the next cut we see the counterman looking to screen left. The camera in other words has leapt over the line and turned completely around. As an audience we are shocked, we are jolted.


It is possible that this manipulation of the viewer was intended. That is yet to be decided. We then follow him into the back room for that sequence. Notice that he always favors looking to screen (our) left. As the three men exit, the scene concludes in one last cut, back behind the counter. Again we see the counterman looking screen (our) left. Please note that he is photographed from the same camera position as when he went into the back room.


Now: was the jump over the line an intentional effect or, since films are shot out of sequence, was it a production mistake to have put the camera there for his exit to the back room? In making films time is money and it would certainly speed up the shooting schedule to have the actor do the two shots one after the other from that one camera position.


A weakness, or another weakness, of this scene was in having the counterman give the two unbound men each a glass of water. In such a tense moment he seems terribly adept at nurturing. I suspect that the actor playing the part was unable to convey the urgency within the scene without “doing something”. If so it was a bad choice of “business”.


On the positive side a noteworthy element of this scene is the deep rich tonal values of the black and white cinematography. Favoring the darker values, and especially black, all the air within these scenes has been squeezed out of the world …even in the narrow slum backyards.


This film is based on a short story by Hemingway. While it suggests a literary influence on film noir the screenplay has been so greatly elaborated that the original source is hardly more than a reference. 


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Of course, I'm certain all this has been said already but my laptop died so I'm late to the party! 

 

Noticeable to me is the difference between the stark light and cold threat from the killers in the diner (realism) and the gloomy fatalism of the Swede laying motionless in his shadow-laden room (formalism). 

 

Watching the kid talk to the Swede, unmoving, unresponsive, made me wonder at first if somehow the killers had got to him already: then - when he finally responded - did he know they were there? Why did he not go into work anyhow? The shadow of the kid as he talked to the Swede intrigued me too - it made me think of two things:

  • A gallows-corpse hanging over a body...notice too that the Swede's head is covered, which was common in people lead to the gallows.
  • The shadow reminded me of Death itself, poised to swoop for the Swede at any moment.
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Where are he clips for these movies located, I cant seem to locate them can anyone help?

 

The clips are part of the Daily Doses of Darkness sent to students in the TCM Presents Into the Darkness course. They are all archived under the Announcements link in the Canvas course.

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The visual realism of the diner scene includes the well-lighted interior of the diner with the counter and booths and the slamming entry door! While the diner had a sense of being pretty spacious, something about the camera angles made me feel a little tight/squeezed, uncomfortable aside from the fact that there were two gangster-looking guys looking for someone. We watch Nick jump over (4) fences as he runs from the diner, up the stairs, and into the Swede's room.

The visual formalism of this scene includes the night-time darkness of a room with no lights turned on; hearing the Swede's voice but only seeing that he is laying on his back because he's in the dark from shoulders up. There is the contrast between how Nick and the Swede are speaking - Nick is excited and asking questions in quick succession but the Swede is soft-spoken and calm. In addition, as Nick stands at the side of the bed, he and his shadow appear to be straddling the Swede - maybe some expressionism there...

Finally, the Swede drops the bomb - "I did something wrong - once" - what? why? when/how long ago? was it really wrong enough for the Swede to be killed for it? And most perplexing, why is the Swede resigned that he is being looked for?

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The camera work in this one is quite good.  the use of shadows cutting into the diner, its overly bright in some spots and dark in others.  I love how the Swede is so cool and calm, not having any of the insanity of what's going on around him.  But what did he do?  It draws you in to a story immediately - but what could he have done?  what was so awful, once?

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I found this clip to be quite good, I certainly felt the shadows of the man talking to the swede, as he laid in bed to be outstanding. The gentle lighting on the swede and the stark bright light from behind on the kid as he stood above the swede was a great use of lighting. The music as the kid ran from the diner to the swede was building and building great stuff.

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“The Killers” has many classic noir elements. It features a passel of shady blue collar characters, lonely even when not alone, intense but not excited. It has high and low camera angles, lots of shadows, dramatic music, and people framed I doorways. But more than anything, light and shadow predominates. The white costumes of the counter man and the cook make it obvious that they’re innocent, and the padded-shouldered coats of the killers make it clear that they’re the “heavies.” Because films noir are often allegorical morality tales, devices that would otherwise be cornball become impactful. This scene is loaded with those impactful devices. 

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This clip from The Killers does feature two distinct sections.  In the diner scene, the lighting is far more realistic and the danger is the scene is only revealed by what is said by the two men in the diner.  The first shot is reminiscent of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, in the way it looks through the windows of the diner, but everything feels much more natural.  After the two men leave, the dramatic music starts, that heightens our sense of anxiety.  It isn’t until Nick leaves the diner, however, that we see the shadowy world of noir take hold.

 

The scene in Swede’s room reminded me a great deal of the work of Fritz Lang.  Particularly, I noticed the dramatic use of shadows.  The entire exchange between Nick and Swede is dominated by dramatic shadows.  Nick’s shadow is seen looming over Swede; it is this shadow that draws our attention more than Nick himself.  It was very reminiscent of the shadow of the child killer looming over the little girl in M, except in this case Nick is not the danger, but he brings news of danger.  A second similarity was in the introduction of Swede.  His entire face is hidden by the shadows, so he remains an enigmatic figure.  I can see similarities to the introduction of Ray Milland’s character in Ministry of Fear. However, this shadowy introduction lasts for the entire scene, creating great sense of tension as the viewer struggles to try and make out some trace of his features.

 

Nicely put. Enjoyed reading your post. I selected the scene so that we saw both halves - the realistic front half and the formalistic/expressionistic back half. Part of the fun of the scene is to see how Siodmak so quickly glides between two contrasting styles without ever rupturing the story world. Most people could watch this scene a dozen times and not feel jarred by that strong contrast between typically lit diner and expressionistic doom-laden room of the Swede on the bed. And also consider how well Siodmak just uses Lancaster's voice while his face is totally obscured by a consuming darkness. There is something more than night in this room, and if you watch the rest of this essential film noir, you will find out just what that is.

 

Also, there are many connections between Siodmak and Lang. They come out of the same production background in Germany, but most scholars see Siodmak as having a different kind of pictorial richness than Lang. Siodmak tends to open up his movies (much more fond of outdoor shooting than Lang, who seems to prefer the claustrophobia of small rooms).

 

Thanks for posting. 

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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).

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

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

 

I think it is interesting how the camera follows Nick as he leaves the diner, moves through darkness, sees him go between the buildings and over the fence and then the camera "goes through the wall" to the Swede's room.  The angles change throughout this sequence.  All is in shadows, and much is not seen.  Also, the first scene in this clip is at an angle from below (as the customer is turned away from the diner), which is similar to the unusual camera angles in Lang's M.

 

The Swede does not move when Nick comes in the room.  He is immobile, and when he is told that the killers are coming, he refuses to move.  He is trapped.  Not physically, because he could escape, but his immobility is symbolic of his acceptance of his fate, which is based on his belief that he is now being punished for his bad act of the past.  One who doesn't know the story might think he is already dead, he is so unresponsive at first.  I was struck by how noir takes a certain position about human agency. 

 

 

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Of course, I'm certain all this has been said already but my laptop died so I'm late to the party! 

 

Noticeable to me is the difference between the stark light and cold threat from the killers in the diner (realism) and the gloomy fatalism of the Swede laying motionless in his shadow-laden room (formalism). 

 

Watching the kid talk to the Swede, unmoving, unresponsive, made me wonder if somehow the killers had got there first: did he know they were there? Why did he not go into work anyhow? The shadow of the kid as he talked to the Swede intrigued me too - it made me think of two things:

  • A gallows-corpse hanging over a body...notice too that the Swede's head is covered, which was common in people lead to the gallows.
  • The shadow reminded me of Death itself, poised to swoop for the Swede at any moment.

 

I like your observations, and found the dramatic lighting, and the interplay between light and shadow (with a distinctly heavy dose of shadows), exciting, and fearful.  The feeling of impending doom, the way the camera follows the movement of man who needs to inform Swede of the two killers, plus the changing angles, contribute to the tension not just in this scene, but throughout the movie. It has been many years since I saw The Killers, but the aforemenitioned qualities and that strangely quiet, yet frightening scene - even though it was primarily dialog - are the elements that come to mind.  Like The Letter, you know what has happened/is going to happen, but the suspense of Swede's backstory and the killers' pursuit of him, are the elements that keep the viewer on the edge of his/her seat.  The relative claustrophobic atmosphere of Swede's small room, the diner and even the exterior shot through the window of the diner gives the film a strange sense of intimacy - and danger.  The connection between this film, and Hopper's Nighthawks oil painting wasn't lost on me; Hopper is one of my favorite artists and Nighthawks also is a favorite (my daughter presented me with a print of it a couple of Christmases ago) and the "intimacy" issue is ever present.  You see people, typically not many (some Hopper artwork featured no people at all), captured on canvas in a moment in time which, for me, draws me in, sparks my imagination about who these people are, where they live (if that isn't revealed in the artwork), what they do for a living, etc.  The same can be said for this movie, and other films noir -- you are drawn into the action and in this case, you're almost yanked by the collar and thrust into what is, or maybe about to happen.

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WIlliam Conrad's vocal presence in the scene added a creepy quality. A 1946 audience wouldn't have been used to seeing him but his distinctive voice would have been recognizable in 1946 due to his frequent and excellent radio work. (Love listening to him on OTR.)

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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.

 

attachicon.gifkillers.jpg

 

perspective8.jpg

 

Yes, the surrealists know that world. Consider Camus' "The Stranger" also. 

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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).

 

The first thing that comes to my mind is the shadow. In M the shadow was dreadful, here – it tries to be helpful. We also do not see the faces of Swede nor Hans in the sequences we were talking about. Our protagonists are anonymous for the moment. Both Lang and Siodmak are creating tension in a realistic world, a world of a mother waiting for her kid to come home, a world of people in the diner, gas station etc. Sometimes the scene needs no words, we feel the tension, increased by suggestive music and pictures.

The diner itself reminds me of Edward Hopper's Nighthawks, of course. But it's not a lonely place – Swede made some friends there, who did not want to believe there was a reason for someone to kill im and hurried to warn him. He chose loneliness himself and rejected everything the world had to offer.

And William Conrad will always be remembered as J.L. McCabe :D

 

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

 

The diner is a real, nice place, a normal, quiet environment having regular visitors. Most people have known each other for years and eating there is a part of their daily routine. The place changes when the killers appear. In such places every stranger can be disturbing, but these two made a quite entrance. Their behaviour was extreme, they were disrespectful and did everything to scare the owner, the cook and one of the customers. The way the killers were speaking to the owner was really rude and overdone – this is not a normal situation for a small-town diner owner and I see a touch of formalism here. 

When Nick ran to Swede's place just to warn him, we fully emerge ourselves into formalism. The room is gloomy, dark, there's a huge shadow on the wall and we see a man lying on the bed. We cannot see his face, but we know it's Swede. Nick, who is very upset, tries to tell Swede about the killers running after him, but Swede's reaction is not the one Nick's been expecting. Swede seems calm, like he has been waiting for this to come. He does not even move. Nick is really surprised with Swede's behaviour. Swede said that he did something bad once and it seemed like he was waiting for the inevitable to come. At this point the viewer does not know about his past, about the heist and Kitty. But having seen the whole movie we might wonder what did he mean few minutes before he died? What was that bad thing – the heist itself or trusting Kitty?

Swede was a tortured man, a truly doomed protagonist who made a bad life investment and had to pay for it. He simply surrendered, maybe it was a sort of relief, he was tired of running and when he saw Big Jim in his car, he knew what it meant. He had time to disappear, but he didn't. It was a sort of „an assisted suicide”.

The music is dramatic, sets the mood, specific angles and the play of light does it also.

 

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

Swede is a good example of a one of the classic noir protagonists – a man who follows his passion, even if it's leading him to a certain doom. He ends the way he lives – tragically, in a „choking atmosfere of despair”. He does not think clearly and always pushes his luck.

Siodmak's film is also a great example of mixing realism with formalism.

 

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.

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WIlliam Conrad's vocal presence in the scene added a creepy quality. A 1946 audience wouldn't have been used to seeing him but his distinctive voice would have been recognizable in 1946 due to his frequent and excellent radio work. (Love listening to him on OTR.)

You're right.  William Conrad's voice is wonderful, so distinctive, but although the audience might not have recognized him, the voice would have been hard to miss.  I believe he was the voice of Marshall Dillon the radio version of Gunsmoke, too!  

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Fritz lang's influence is felt when the music stops while dialogue is happening. Also the shot from above where we see the messenger walking the dark desolate streets seems to be a shot Lang used (the one comes to mind from M). It seems as though the diner scene is shot in a realism style without symbolism whereas the apartment scene is concerned with showing style. The shadow looming over lancasters character is shmbolic of the "bad news" looming over him. We also do not see burt but in shadow as though he is deffinitely hiding something. This scene contributes the idea of free floating style of cinemetography and ambience because it seems to switch from a gangster style realism to a mystery style noir all in the same scene. Noir is about not being tied down to conventional methods but to be free and wild much like its characters.

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The sense of urgency that is felt as Nick runs to warn "the Swede" of his life being in danger is in stark contrast to the total lack of urgency on "the Swede's" part. The lighting of this scene is brilliant. "The Swede's" head is engulfed in shadows as the rest of his body lays motionlessly in bed. The lack of movement or expression almost makes the viewer think that he is already dead. He's a dead man walking... or in this case, laying.

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This scene from the Killers starts with a realistically shot scene at a dinner, but then transitions into a formalist scene in The Swede's apartment. When we first see Ole "Swede" Anderson, his face is hidden by shadow. In contrast, Nick (the young man who runs to warn the Swede) is brightly lit. The darkness around Anderson symbolizes whatever crime he once committed. Since he is tired of running from his past, the shadow also represents his fate at the hands of the Killers.

 

However, the shadow could represent knowledge. Nick's shadow is cast over the Swede signifying the one piece of information the Swede lacks, the Killers' appearances. However, the Swede is bathed in darkness because he already knows enough about the Killers, and whatever crime that brought them to town. The Swede has enough knowledge and turns down the offer of more. To put it in a more symbolic way, Nick brings the Swede more shadow, but the Swede refuses it. He has plenty.

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In The Killers (1946), one sees the influences of Edward Hopper's painting, Nighthawks, in the scene's opening outside the isolated diner; German Expressionism in the moodiness and danger in the diner and the two killers' threatening to kill all present since their intended target is not coming; more German Expressionism establishing an urgent and fearful atmosphere via the instrumental music (playing in the background) as the Swede's friend and co-worker, Nick is running across and scaling fences in the empty, dark and foggy town to locate and warn him of the killers looking for him; and, surrealism in the towering wall, window and door of the house that the Swede is sleeping or hiding in that seem to keep him safe for now from the killers.  The atmosphere of danger and urgency versus the complacency of the Swede in action and word strongly suggests a Fritz Lang exercise in tension and anxiety.

 

The diner and the journey across town to the Swede's room is grounded in realism; everything seems to be as-is and not exaggerated.  When we get to the Swede's room, it becomes formalistic.  Firstly, the building's exterior is surrealistic (as I mentioned earlier) because the door/window/wall seem to tower vertically via the narrow perspective cinematic shot.  Next, the interior shot is mostly in shadows except for a 'Tiffany' like (or expensive) lamp in the foreground next to the bed in which the Swede is sleeping on.  This expensive lamp adds to the surrealistic or formalistic feel of the (one assumes) cheaply rented room in that it should not be there.  Also, the Swede's quiet and resigned responses to his friend and co-worker, Nick's urgent and dramatic statements or inquiries, add to the surrealism or formalism.

 

The many influences seen in this film sequence establish this movie as part of the Film Noir genre.  Another way in which this film sequence is an important contribution to the film noir style is how the music is used to heighten the action and drama from realism to formalism.

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The music in this scene really adds to the suspense.  It reminds me of the old theme from Dragnet.  Very heavy and deliberate.  That helps tell us that this is a serious situation for Old Swede and "those guys" are not messing around.

 

The diner scene compared to the apartment scene is very different.  The apartment scene is dark and still and Swede's face is completely hidden and he is motionless.  He makes no attempt to leave or even ask questions.  He is resigned to his fate.

 

The diner scene is bright and full of action and interaction, almost giving the viewer a sense of hope that Swede can be saved by Nick's well-intentioned warning. 

 

Realism is about showing the truth without any manipulation.  That describes the diner scene and Nick running to warn Swede.  Formalism is the opposite and that is the apartment scene with the dark room and unbelievably still figure on the bed and it is a much more artistic and symbolic style.

 

 

 

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