The Function of Chiaroscuro Lighting and Analepsis in Double Indemnity

Double Indemnity (1944)

Double Indemnity is a classic film noir. The film noir is a hard genre to define, but it is commonly said to be a collection of Aesthetical Principles and a more cynical outlook during and after WWII.1. Double Indemnity starts with non-diagetic music which installs a sense of urgency and action that mirrors a speeding car. The editing is smooth, as each cut dissolves into another, ensuring a clear understanding that time and space has moved in a linear fashion. The establishing shot of Walter Neff’s workplace stunts this fluid action, the camera then pans right, slowly following Neff into an office; which, conversely to building drama and frenetic action, constructs a sense of suspense. The editing, although linear, manipulates clock time, as the frame speed and scene change slows down as he enters the insurance building, this technique is the editing of a frames’ rhythm between shots. What this editing technique does is change the rhythm and pace of our perception, ensuring we gain a sense of drama and suspense.

 

In film noir lighting is an important aesthetical principle as this give clues to the characters’ function. As Neff enters the office we only see thin bars of white light, projected across his chest, as if he was in a jail. As he switches the light on, the room is flooded with white and all shadows are removed. This technique is called Chiaroscuro2, the artful use of shades in black and white photography. This technique gives the viewer clues about the nature of Neff’s actions; that he is seeking redemption, bringing himself out of the shadows metaphorically, in the form of a confession, into the light. This functions as an instantly identifiable trope which helps the viewer to understand Neff’s character and narrative function as the Male Protagonist – a key component of the film noir. The understanding of characterisation is essential in Classic Hollywood cinema; the opening scene unmistakably uses generic conventions of the film noir to construct Walter Neff, from the lighting of the set, his bare and uninspiring office, the mise-en-scene, and the continuous motif of lighting a match between his finger and thumb.

 

In film noir the narrative is always centred on partial redemption and rationalisation of the male protagonist’s actions. In Double Indemnity this is done through the narrative technique of analepsis, or the flashback. The narrative device of analepsis is a classic film noir device which critic Schrader tells us creates a sense of ‘an irretrievable past, a predetermined fate, and an all-enveloping hopelessness’3 this outlook is culmination of the pre-war depression and WWII. As Walter Neff starts his confession the camera focuses on his face with a medium close-up. The camera position is mimicking the relationship between police and suspect, and although he’s talking into a voice-recorder, we can assume that we are meant to be placed in that moralising position. The combination of chiaroscuro and analepsis gives Double Indemnity a dark, unsentimental vision of America and in this way Billy Wilder’s Film is a classic film noir.

 

1. Michael Walker ‘Film Noir: Introduction’ in Ian Cameron (Ed) The Movie Book of Film Noir. (London: Studio Vista) 1994 PP 8-38

2. Billy Wilder was earlier in his career a German Expressionist, and the expert use of Chiaroscuro is most likely due in part to this fact.

3. P, Schrader. ‘Notes on Film Noir’ in B.K, Grant. (Ed) Film Genre Reader II ( Austin: University of Texas Press) 1999 PP 119-221 P220

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Focalization, Narration and Perspective in Cinema

 

Focalization is the perspective through which a narrative is presented. The style of focalization produces different styles of narrative and different conceptions of character. Hitchcock’s use of focalization ensured a sense of suspense and drama was produced. Hitchcock explained that a ‘Superior range of knowledge creates suspense [the essence of drama] because we can anticipate effects that the character cannot.’1 Essentially this is dramatic irony. Suspense and drama is produced when the audience knows the outcome or some alternative knowledge concerning the action on the screen. The perspective through which narrative is presented is important in the production of this superior range of knowledge. In the film Psycho (1960) when Lila is upstairs searching we are allowed the knowledge that Bates is downstairs. Lila doesn’t know this but we do. We hold our breath hoping that Lila gets out in time and every slow movement that Lila makes intensifies this panic. Hitchcock uses a objective, distant perspective to produce suspense and drama.

The range of knowledge and information we receive concerning that which affects the characters of a film is controlled by the type of narration and the style of focalization. In The Big Sleep (1946) we are given a fixed viewing position. An objective and closed-off focus on the protagonist Marlowe. We don’t get the same form of suspense as in Hitchcock’s Psycho because we never see more than Marlowe. We also rarely let into his thoughts or rationalizations. This can be explained by the attempt to make the film and Marlowe ‘more mysterious …[and interesting because] we do not know his inferences and deductions before he reveals them at the end.’2 However I personally believe this is the incorrect style for the film. I would assert that the The Big Sleep‘s style is incorrect because Chandler’s book and his Marlowe is interesting because of his continuously rationalizing and editorializing narrative.

Another similar film but one with a different style to The Big Sleep is Double Indemnity (1944). In this film we are given both the objective distance of The Big Sleep and a subjective style of focalization. We are also allowed the position of knowledge that Hitchcock utilized in Psycho. The beginning of the film we see a stumbling shot Walter Neff, we are given important information concerning his fate. The film proceeds by telling us how Neff comes to be shot through the technique of analepsis (flashback). What this does is create a marked reading of the events that follow. Our understanding of the chain of events that led to Neff’s destruction are coloured by our privileged position of knowledge. Although I dislike the production of The Big Sleep and its style of focalization it is not because the technique is flawed but rather because the style of the original text, Chandler’s novel, would lead itself to be more subjective and to contain the same style of rationalizing focalizer or voice of the novel.

 

1David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction, London: McGraw-Hill Publishing, (1990), p. 66.

2David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction, p. 67.