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Compare The Way In Which ‘Double Indemnity’ And ‘Blade Runner’ Use Film Noir Conventions

Introduction

In 1944, shortly after the Second World War, a flood of American films could be found in France. The critics noticed many recurrent images throughout these B-movies, which were smaller films shown before the main feature. The films became known as a genre: film noir.

Film noir is French for ‘black films’. We tend to relate the colour black to death and pessimistic thoughts. This ties in with the negative theme of the films and the outlook of the characters.

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The physical symbols that make up the genre of these films include mirrors, staircases, Venetian blinds, fire escapes, telephones and bright neon lights. The camera shots are often dramatic and very angular, and among the scenes used are rain-lashed streets, fog-bound train stations and empty echoing buildings. The use of lighting is a very important feature of these films and contains very sharp contrasts of light and darkness. This is known as chiaroscuro lighting. The empty echoing building shows how alone the people in this world feel

Plot Summaries

Summary of Double Indemnity

The story converges around top insurance salesman Walter Neff. The narrative is told by the use of male voice-over (MVO) and flashback. Neff meets the seductive Phyliss Dietrichson and after a few meetings, they confess their love for one another. Phyliss convinces him that they should kill her husband so they can share the double indemnity claim. Double indemnity is a clause in an insurance policy that doubles the payment in cases of accidental death. Neff kills Mr. Dietrichson and throws his body onto the train tracks, whilst posing as him. This made it look as if Mr. Dietrichson died by falling off the train. Neff’s boss, Barton Keyes, suspects that something is wrong.

Neff visits the Dietrichson household, and both himself and Phyliss are planning to shoot one another. Phyliss manages to shoot him first, but only in the leg. He shoots her twice and she is dead.

We then go back to Neff recording this story into his Dictaphone and see Keyes in the doorway. Neff tries to escape but collapses in a doorway (because of his wound) as Keyes telephones the police.

Summary of ‘Blade Runner’

The film is a Neo-Noir, which is a modern version of the traditional film noir. This narrative is not told by use of flashback, but as the story progresses with MVO. ‘Blade Runner’ centres on the mysterious Deckert. He is an ex-bladerunner; people who track down and retire (kill) the replicants. He is rehired by his old boss to track down and kill four replicants: Zhora, Roy, Leon and Pris.

These replicants were made by Tyrrel and have been made with a four-year life span. He also made another replicant, Rachel, who does not actually know that she is a replicant because she had memories implanted into her brain. The replicants want to find a way to prevent their demise and go in search of a way to do this. Deckert kills Zhora, Roy and Rachel shoots Leon, then Roy dies at the end. Deckert and Rachel leave the city on a train.

Characters

Women

The femme fatale seduces men to get them to do what she wants. She may say that she is in love, but it is all a ruse for her benefit. Though the women in film noir are predominately these manipulative individuals, some also fall into the category of the nurturing mother figure. Nurturing mother figures truly love the man they say they are in love with and care for him deeply.

What’s In A Name?

In ‘Double Indemnity, the femme fatale is Phyliss Dietrichson, although throughout the film she is referred to as Phyliss. A couple of times at the beginning, Neff calls her Mrs Dietrichson, but from then on she is called ‘baby’ or other clich�s. The fact that she is known by different names reflects upon the idea that she is two-faced, and as Neff only begins calling her by different names after he has got to know her, this says that she is not what she may seem at first: she is not a caring wife.

Her first name, Phyliss is English and German and is the name of a minor character in Greek mythology who killed herself for love and was transformed into an almond tree; the Greek word ‘phyllis’ means foliage, so clearly her name doomed her from the start. Though Phyliss Dietrichson may not have killed herself for love, Neff kills her partially because he thought she loved him and she did not. Her name suggests her destiny at the end (being killed) right from the start. The fact that the Greek word ‘phyllis’ means foliage also insinuates that she is actually rather weak, however strong she portrays herself to be.

Her surname I also believe is quite important. ‘Dietrich’ is German for ‘picklock’. A picklock is someone who picks locks, and this ties in with her manipulating Neff into getting what she wants: her husband dead. Her name is German and at the time of production the Germans were still not (to put it politely) England’s favourite people in the world. Therefore upon hearing her surname, the English would associate her with the Germans and have an evil perception of her before she even spoke.

The femme fatale in ‘Blade Runner’ is Rachel, a replicant. But she is not as obviously the femme fatale as Phyliss; she has many qualities of the nurturing mother figure as well. She has no surname that we know of, same as all the other characters in this film. Her forename is a biblical name meaning ‘ewe’ in Hebrew. This was borne by the beloved wife of Jacob and mother of Joseph and of Benjamin, at whose birth she died. The fact that the name comes from the bible in a positive fashion already says that she is not entirely evil. It also means ewe and ewes are not thought of as evil, they are gentle animals. This is reflected in Rachel’s personality throughout the film, as she is calm and gentle.

Appearance

Rachel wears a figure-hugging dress that accentuates her shape. Her hair is done in the style of the fifties, when film noir was most popular. This reminds us that she is still a femme fatale, however much she may not act like it.

Phyliss also wears tight fitting clothes and is forever leaning into Walter. Her use of her sexuality is more obvious than Rachel’s, and therefore she is more clearly the femme fatale.

Pris, one of the female replicants, where’s a see-through plastic dress with just underwear underneath. Though she may be almost naked underneath, she is still not as vulnerable as you would expect an almost naked person to be. She, like all the other characters in film noirs, has an invisible barrier between her and the outside world and this is specifically obvious in ‘Blade Runner’.

Personality

The main difference between the two femme fatales is the manipulative side. Rachel does not seem to care as much about getting what she wants, and seem to rely on Deckert not so much to gain anything, but for emotional support. She is struggling against the idea that she is a replicant and refuses to believe it. She disowns the emotionless side (as all replicants are supposed to be devoid of all emotion) as if this is not something she wants to be. It is ironic that the replicants show more emotion than anyone in ‘Blade Runner’ or ‘Double Indemnity’. Especially in comparison to Phyliss Dietrichson, who seems to not care about anything or anyone and is very materialistic. She wants money and is not bothered how she gets it.

Phyliss even tries to convince the audience that the whole business is of Neff’s doing, when actually it was her that manipulated him into doing it.

The irony is shown yet again when in ‘Blade Runner’ the way they test to see if someone is a replicant is with an emotion test. The tester asks the person questions which would trigger emotion in a human.

Men

The male leads are usually detective hero figures. He has a pessimistic outlook on life and faces the idea that he has no control over it, that fate has put him on a journey he cannot get off, with acquiescence. Though this could be said for nearly all the characters in film noir, it is particularly evident with this character as it is his story we are following.

What’s In A Name?

Unlike the female characters, the males’ names’ are of no real importance. The fact that there is no meaning to neither Deckert nor Walter symbolises how they are uncertain of who they are and the world they live in. It is also something to hide behind and we can see the two men shielding their face with the hat often.

It is also saying that the women are two faced, complicated and hiding something, as their names’ have alternate meanings.

Appearance

Though the times may be futuristic in ‘Blade Runner’, Deckert’s outfit certainly is not. He wears the typical detective hero’s costume, which consists of a long trench coat and a fedora hat. The coat can be seen loosely flowing around him and he has no control over it, like his life and fate. The hat casts a shadow over his face, which represents his need to hide away from the evil in the world.

Personality

Both Deckert and Walter are pessimistic to the bone and are portrayed as quite unsociable characters. Walter’s love, however, never seems believable, whereas at the end of ‘Blade Runner’ when Rachel and Deckert are leaving on a train, he does seem to show genuine compassion for her.

Deckert (voice-over): Gaff had been there, and let her live. Four years, he figured. He was wrong. Tyrell had told me Rachael was special: no termination date. I didn’t know how long we had together, who does?

Though they may seem different, Phyliss and Neff actually have something in common: their lack of love and trust for one another.

Deckert: Do you love me?

Rachel: I love you.

Deckert: Then trust me.

Rachel: I trust you

Deckard (voice-over): The report would be routine retirement of a replicant, which didn’t make me feel any better about shooting a woman in the back. There it was again. Feeling, in myself. For her, for Rachael

Deckert does not kill because he likes it or for his own personal gain, he kills because it is his own job and he is represented as not having a choice in the matter. Film noirs are very misogynistic and this is reflected in who Deckert kills – only the female replicants. Rachel’s femme fatale side is revealed when she shoots Leon, even if it was to defend Deckert from death.

Two other characters that are not as developed in ‘Blade Runner’ as Deckert are J.F. Sebastian and Dr. Eldon Tyrrel. Tyrrel is the creator of the replicants and J.F. Sebastian is an engineer and toy-maker. They both make things that imitate human life, but the reasons for which they do so are very different. Sebastian leads a very lonely life and his solution for loneliness is to literally make friends. This contrasts sharply with Tyrrel’s manufacture of replicants to suit more selfish needs. This is saying that even though there is evil in the world, there are always good people too. The goodness of Sebastian, for whom we sympathise, highlights the bad things in the other characters of the film.

In ‘Double Indemnity’ Walter Neff repeatedly uses the phrase ‘straight down the line’. This is used to reinforce the idea that he has no control over fate that his life is like a train journey he just cannot get off. It also hints at the death of Mr. Dietrichson too.

The character of Neff is quite a funny one too, as even when all is lost and the game is up, he still manages to crack a couple of jokes:

NEFF: …And now I suppose I get the big speech, the one with all the two-dollar words in it. Let’s have it Keyes.

KEYES: You’re all washed up, Walter.

NEFF: Thanks, Keyes. That was short anyway.

When he has collapsed in a doorway as he is trying to escape to the elevator:

KEYES: How you doing, Walter?

NEFF: I’m fine only somebody moved the elevator a couple miles away.

Storyline

‘Double Indemnity’ is very representative of how important money was in 1944 and the greed of humanity. After the war, a lot of money had been lost and those that were wealthy stayed wealthy. Phyliss Dietrichson comes across as well off in her mansion of a residence and expensive clothes, and yet she wants more money. This depicts her as very materialistic as she already has more than most but still wants more. Neff seems to actually need the money, as his small apartment is not well furnished and he seems to have to work quite hard to earn the small amount of money he receives. Phyliss has had to endure no such labour and is just living off her husband’s earnings.

‘Blade Runner’ symbolises how lack of emotion can leave us isolated from one another. In this futuristic and impersonal world it is the replicants that are built without emotion that show emotion the most. Deckert leads a lonely and somewhat unhappy life, and only at the end when he and Rachel leave together does he seem remotely happy. He leaves the lonely existence of the chaotic city and finally has his freedom.

Physical Symbols

The physical symbols in film noir are, in my opinion, the most important aspects of the films. They show how the character is feeling or how good/evil they are.

In ‘Double Indemnity’ when Phyliss and Neff meet for the first time, she looks in a mirror and brushes her hair. Brushing her hair lets the audience see how vain and selfish she is. We can tell this because she is not even looking at Walter, she is just focusing on her appearance. The mirror allows the audience to know early on that she is two-faced. If Walter looked at her, he would only see one face and the back of her head. This represents him only seeing one side of her and realising in the end that there are two sides of her, and neither of them ever really loved him.

Throughout both films, Venetian blinds are a recurring image. ‘Blade Runner’ makes especially good use of them by using them when Roy is pursuing Deckert. They trap him in the room and allow him no immediate escape. The use of blinds is traditionally used because they allow both light and dark to enter a room, allegorically representing human nature. Like the blinds with light and dark, humans can be completely evil or part evil and part good. A philosopher (who is unknown) once said ‘pure goodness is not a humanely attainable attribute’ and film noir exploits this.

‘Blade Runner’ uses some non-traditional noir symbols to get the point across. In the lobby of the Tyrrel Corporation, we see a replicant owl. This film is very much about freedom and mankind’s fight to obtain it and this bird represents that. It flies across the lobby, something that the characters of this film cannot do, and Rachel walks out to meet Deckert; giving the audience the message that the owl is fake and so is Rachel. Owls are often related to erudition, which suggests that the replicants are in some ways more knowledgeable than humans even if they are devoid of the same emotion.

Rachel: Do you like our owl?

Deckert: It’s artificial?

Rachel: Of course it is.

Deckert: Must be expensive.

Rachel: Very. I’m Rachael.

The fact that she goes from talking about the artificial owl to about herself suggests that she has some idea, even if she is reluctant to accept it, that she is not any average human.

When Roy dies he releases a pure white dove, a symbol of peace and hope. His quest was to ask his creator questions about his existence, which is something we humans desire also. He may have died, but the dream of mankind lives on.

Gaff, a police lieutenant who works for Bryant, makes origami animals for Deckert. The first one he makes is when Deckert is in Bryant’s office and he declines the offer of his old job back. Gaff makes a chicken, telling Deckert he is being one. The next origami figure is of a man with an erection, which is mocking Deckert for being attracted to Rachel. The final one is of a unicorn. This denotes two things; that it is a reminder of Rachel’s mortality and impending demise and also that the unicorn is a more advanced horse that stands out from the other horses.

The use of eyes is another predominant symbol in ‘Blade Runner’. Right at the very beginning of the film, we see the opening sequence of explosions reflected in an eye that covers the whole scene. The owl’s eyes are huge, as are Tyrrel’s because they are magnified behind his glasses. Then when the replicants are looking for Tyrrel, they go to the Japanese eye-maker that made their eyes. Eyes portray human emotion but all the eyes in this film seem cold and emotionless. Eye contact is one of the most important forms of interaction and in the impersonal world of 2019 Los Angeles communication between people seems to have been lost. The constant use of eyes also creates a feeling of surveillance.

‘Double Indemnity’ uses cigars to symbolise power. About four times throughout the film Neff lights Keyes’ cigars for him, but at the end when Neff is dying, Keyes lights his cigar for him. This shows how, indeed, the tables have turned.

The characters of film noirs are often caught in doorways. This signifies two things. One is that the character is being framed, as if this particular moment is important. The other reason for this being done is that it shows a decision that the character has to make, going one way or another like you would a door. Only, in film noir, it is never that simple.

Lighting

Lighting is one of the most important of film noir. Chiaroscuro lighting is used to show the good/evil alignment of the character.

Right at the beginning of ‘Double Indemnity’ we see the silhouette of Neff walking towards the camera. The effect this has on the audience is that Neff seems mysterious and because he is only a shadow, he is portrayed as dark and evil. This echoes how we feel about him at the beginning, because we know he has committed a crime and immediately condemn him for it.

Another lighting used in this film is the darkness of the room in the scene when the audience know that both Neff and Phyliss are planning to kill one another. As the room is dark it seems like death is hanging over them. It also prevents the audience from seeing the scene clearly. This adds more tension and makes the audience focus more on what they can hear; making the conversation between the two characters seem more important.

In ‘Blade Runner’ when Pris and J.F. Sebastian are in his building we can see strobe lights wandering over the scene. These denote the artificial goodness in the world, the goodness that the government or ruling body put there so the public think they are making an effort to override the evil. They are totally fake and sporadic in their number and appearance.

The only scene that is shot in daytime and natural light is the end one. Deckert and Rachel are leaving on a train and the sun is shining on a green countryside outside. Though this does not conform to the idea that the world is a desolate industrialised place, it is an important scene. Even though our two protagonists can see the light outside, there is still a barrier (the window) between them and their dream. Nevertheless, they are closer to their dream at the end of the film than Walter Neff was in ‘Double Indemnity’.

Camera

In ‘Double Indemnity’, when Phyliss and Neff are in the car there is a Close Up (C.U.) of Phyliss’ face. The audience sees what she is feeling, and the cold calculating look on her face shows that she does not care about her husband is being killed in the backseat.

When Neff firsts meets Phyliss she is at the top of some stairs, which symbolises her power over him right from the start. This is reiterated in the camera angle, as it is a Low Angle Shot (L.A.S.) and both the audience and Walter Neff are forced to look up to her.

‘Blade Runner’ also uses more or less the same idea when Deckert is going up a fire escape on the outside of a tall building. We have a L.A.S. of him running up the stairs, which shows his power even when being pursued. It is also a Long Shot (L.S.), which depicts him as most of the characters are in this film: distant.

We view our hero Deckert when he is hanging from the edge of a building from a L.A.S., looking up to Roy. This shows Roy’s power over Deckert. It is also rather ironic that a replicant now has power of life or death over a human, instead of the other way around.

Full Summary

If it were not for our study of film noir, I would never have experienced the joy of either of these films. ‘Double Indemnity’ would have been difficult to find in shops and I do not really watch many black and white films. ‘Blade Runner’ I would not have watched because it’s a film noir science fiction hybrid, and I am not a fan of science fiction.

I have watched two films that are not of my usual choice and I have to say I loved them. The complexity of ‘Blade Runner’ and its constant use of symbols (which I enjoyed figuring out) and how the plot of ‘Double Indemnity’ unravelled have made me more open-minded to films not of my preferred genre.

Likes

I loved how ‘Double Indemnity’ used women in a dominating and manipulating fashion. Women in the fifties were considered the lesser sex, and it was wonderful to see Phyliss Dietrichson break away from this image and con the man into getting what she wanted. The actor who plays her, Barbara Stynwyck, did brilliantly well to act out a role within a role. The characters in this film were the traditional film noir ones and brilliant examples of them.

I also really liked Walter Neff’s (played by Fred MacMurray) sense of humour in any situation, no matter how grim it was looking.

I really enjoyed ‘Blade Runner’ because of the amount of symbolism in the film. All the hidden aspects of it that you do not see or think about the first time around are a delight to find the next time. Some people may have found all the symbolism very confusing, but I thought it made the film more interesting and gave it a lot more depth.

Dislikes

There were very few things I did not like about the two films, but one thing I do not like is the ending to either of the films. I cannot actually think of a better way for them to end (if I could then I would be a director), but I thought that even if it were the director’s intention to leave the ending to the audiences’ imagination, it would be better if he gave us something.

I thought that the ending of ‘Blade Runner’ (Rachel and Deckert leave the city) was very inconsequential to the rest of the film. Film’s end with a climax and then something to do with the rest of the film (the “and they all lived happily ever after” part), and while their leaving may have tied in with the idea of everyone deserving freedom, I did not feel that it was strongly related to the rest of the film.

The ending of ‘Double Indemnity’ was Walter giving into his fate and doing so because of the femme fatale. I did not like this because we like to see our hero succeed in movies, not be manipulated and then meet their downfall because of someone else. This lack of binary opposition at the end almost ruined the film for me, but the amazing storyline up to that point far outweighed the bad.

That Niggling Thought At The Back Of Your Mind…

Very early on in the film I suggested to the person sitting next to me that Deckert was a replicant, and now I am sure. I have compiled evidence from the script to prove it:

Bryant: There was an escape from the Off-world colonies two weeks ago. Six replicants, three male, three female

Six replicants he said. Whilst this may have been an unintentional mistake, I very much doubt it. The three females are Zhora, Pris and another mystery one that has already been terminated. The three males are Roy, Leon and yet another mystery one. My bet is that it is Deckert.

The unicorn origami made by Gaff could be another hint. The unicorn is a mythical creature, and is placed near Deckert’s photographs on his piano. This could be telling the audience that like the unicorn, Deckert’s memories are a myth.

Deckert: I don’t work here anymore. Give it to Holden, he’s good.

Bryant: I did. He can breathe okay as long as nobody unplugs him. He’s not good enough, not as good as you. I need you, Deck. This is a bad one, the worst yet. I need the old blade runner, I need your magic.

This paragraph talks about an ‘old blade runner’. My theory is that Holden’s memories have been implanted into Deckert a couple of weeks before our story starts. Maybe Holden is not as good as Deckert because he is not a replicant with super-human strengths. Deckert also talks about how he used to be a blade runner right at the start, but he is very vague. Maybe this is because he knows deep down that he is a replicant, or maybe he just cannot remember.

Rachel: You know that test of yours? Did you ever take that test yourself?

This quote suggests that Rachel has her suspicions about Deckert being a replicant. I believe that an ending that confirmed this would have made the film a lot better. Not that it could be much better than it already is.

And The Winner Is …

It has taken me a great length of time to decide which film I prefer. There are aspects of both films that I like, and aspects that I do not. But, overall, I slightly prefer ‘Blade Runner’. It has made more of a lasting impression on me and is altogether more memorable. For me to enjoy a science fiction film (as I hate them) it has to be a really good film, and ‘Blade Runner’ was.

Even though I slightly prefer ‘Blade Runner’, I would still give ‘Double Indemnity’ ten out of ten for being one of the best films I have ever seen.

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