Blade Runner as Film Noir / Neo-Noir

Blade Runner as Film Noir

The term film noir literally means ‘black film’. It is debatable whether film noir is a proper genre. It may be more appropriately identified as a certain ‘style’, one with a consistent set of visual and thematic codes, which can be used in films with differing genre, settings and characters. But that is mostly academic, and for our purposes here it does not really matter. It is important to note that strictly speaking Blade Runner is not a film noir, but was influenced by the film noir styles of the 1940s and 1950s. It would more appropriately fall into the category of ‘neo-noir’, which are basically noir influenced films made from 1960 onwards. But seeing as neo-noir is of course dependant on film noir, let us consider some of the characteristics of film noir and then tie them in with Blade Runner.

Attempting to define film noir

There are some useful extracts from the book The Philosophy of Film Noir (2006), edited by Mark T. Conard. As its title suggests, this book deals very much with the deeper philosophical aspects of film noir, and some of these will be looked at in relation to Blade Runner in the themes/philosophy section. But there are also some definitions as to what film noir is all about:

“The claustrophobic settings are awash in deep shadows, the streets are rain swept, it always seems to be night, and the atmosphere is charged and angst ridden. We know the stories; we love the noir style, at once romantic and pessimistic; we sympathize, maybe even identify, with the doomed antihero; the anxiety and sense of alienation are uncomfortably familiar…” (p.1)

This is already starting to feel a lot like Blade Runner…let’s go on:

“Critics tend to identify the classic noir period as falling between 1941 and 1958, beginning with John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon and ending with Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil, two masterpieces of noir. This period, not coincidentally, lasts from America’s involvement in World War II through the postwar era. We can easily identify classic film noir by the constant opposition of light and shadow, its oblique camera angles, and its disruptive compositional balance of frames and scenes, the way characters are placed in awkward and unconventional positions within a particular shot, for example. But, besides these technical cinematic characteristics, there are a number of themes that characterize film noir, such as the inversion of traditional values and the corresponding moral ambivalence (e.g., the protagonist of the story, who traditionally is the good guy, in noir films often makes very questionable moral decisions); the feeling of alienation, paranoia, and cynicism; the presence of crime and violence; and the disorientation of the viewer, which is in large part accomplished by the filming techniques mentioned above…These classic noir films have their roots both in the hard-boiled literature of the thirties and forties (think here, e.g., of James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, David Goodis, and Horace McCoy) and in the German/Austrian immigration during and after the war, given that a number of very important writers, directors, and other film technicians were German or Austrian émigrés.” (p.1-2)

That is a fairly comprehensive definition. How about the entry from the ever-popular Wikipedia? Here are some extracts:

“Film noir is a cinematic term used primarily to describe stylish Hollywood crime dramas, particularly those that emphasize cynical attitudes and sexual motivations. Hollywood’s classic film noir period is generally regarded as stretching from the early 1940s to the late 1950s. Film noir of this era is associated with a low-key black-and-white visual style that has roots in German Expressionist cinematography, while many of the prototypical stories and much of the attitude of classic noir derive from the hardboiled school of crime fiction that emerged in the United States during the Depression”


Further on in the article there is a section on ‘approaches to defining noir’:

Visual Style

“Film noirs tended to use low-key lighting schemes producing stark light/dark contrasts and dramatic shadow patterning. The shadows of Venetian blinds or banister rods, cast upon an actor, a wall, or an entire set, are an iconic visual in film noir and had already become a cliché well before the neo-noir era. Characters’ faces may be partially or wholly obscured by darkness—a relative rarity in conventional Hollywood moviemaking…

Film noir is also known for its use of Dutch angles, low-angle shots, and wide-angle lenses. Other devices of disorientation relatively common in film noir include shots of people reflected in one or more mirrors, shots through curved or frosted glass or other distorting objects (such as during the strangulation scene in Strangers on a Train), and special effects sequences of a sometimes bizarre nature. Night-for-night shooting, as opposed to the Hollywood norm of day-for-night, was often employed. From the mid-1940s forward, location shooting became increasingly frequent in noir.”


Typical example of noir shadows and the bar blind effect

Structure and Narrational Devices

“Film noirs tend to have unusually convoluted story lines, frequently involving flashbacks and other editing techniques that disrupt and sometimes obscure the narrative sequence. Framing the entire primary narrative as a flashback is also a standard device. Voiceover narration, sometimes used as a structuring device, came to be seen as a noir hallmark; while classic noir is generally associated with first-person narration (i.e., by the protagonist)…”


Plot, Characters, and Settings

“Crime, usually murder, is an element of almost all film noirs; in addition to standard-issue greed, jealousy is frequently the criminal motivation. A crime investigation—by a private eye, a police detective (sometimes acting alone), or a concerned amateur—is the most prevalent, but far from dominant, basic plot. In other common plots the protagonists are implicated in heists or con games, or in murderous conspiracies often involving adulterous affairs. False suspicions and accusations of crime are frequent plot elements, as are betrayals and double-crosses…

Film noirs tend to revolve around heroes who are more flawed and morally questionable than the norm, often fall guys of one sort or another. The characteristic protagonists of noir are described by many critics as “alienated”; in the words of Silver and Ward, “filled with existential bitterness”. Certain archetypal characters appear in many film noirs—hardboiled detectives, femme fatales, corrupt policemen, jealous husbands, intrepid claims adjusters, and down-and-out writers…

Film noir is often associated with an urban setting, and a few cities—Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, and Chicago, in particular—are the location of many of the classic films. In the eyes of many critics, the city is presented in noir as a “labyrinth” or “maze”. Bars, lounges, nightclubs, and gambling dens are frequently the scene of action. The climaxes of a substantial number of film noirs take place in visually complex, often industrial settings, such as refineries, factories, trainyards, power plants…in the popular (and, frequently enough, critical) imagination, in noir it is always night and it always rains…”


Humphrey Bogart as the flawed private investigator Sam Spade roughing up shady businessman Joel Cairo in the 1941 classic 'The Maltese Falcon'

Worldview, morality, and tone

“Film noir is often described as essentially pessimistic. The noir stories that are regarded as most characteristic tell of people trapped in unwanted situations (which, in general, they did not cause but are responsible for exacerbating), striving against random, uncaring fate, and frequently doomed. The movies are seen as depicting a world that is inherently corrupt…

The tone of film noir is generally regarded as downbeat; some critics experience it as darker still—”overwhelmingly black”, according to Robert Ottoson. Influential critic (and filmmaker) Paul Schrader wrote in a seminal 1972 essay that “film noir is defined by tone”, a tone he seems to perceive as “hopeless”…definitive film noirs such as The Big Sleep, The Lady from Shanghai, and Double Indemnity itself are famed for their hardboiled repartee, often imbued with sexual innuendo and self-reflexive humor…”


And finally, here are some notes from

“The primary moods of classic film noir were melancholy, alienation, bleakness, disillusionment, disenchantment, pessimism, ambiguity, moral corruption, evil, guilt, desperation and paranoia.

Heroes (or anti-heroes), corrupt characters and villains included down-and-out, conflicted hard-boiled detectives or private eyes, cops, gangsters, government agents, a lone wolf, socio-paths or killers, crooks, war veterans, politicians, petty criminals, murderers, or just plain Joes. These protagonists were often morally-ambiguous low-lifes from the dark and gloomy underworld of violent crime and corruption. Distinctively, they were cynical, tarnished, obsessive (sexual or otherwise), brooding, menacing, sinister, sardonic, disillusioned, frightened and insecure loners (usually men), struggling to survive – and in the end, ultimately losing.

Storylines were often elliptical, non-linear and twisting. Narratives were frequently complex, maze-like and convoluted, and typically told with foreboding background music, flashbacks (or a series of flashbacks), witty, razor-sharp and acerbic dialogue, and/or reflective and confessional, first-person voice-over narration. Amnesia suffered by the protagonist was a common plot device, as was the downfall of an innocent Everyman who fell victim to temptation or was framed. Revelations regarding the hero were made to explain/justify the hero’s own cynical perspective on life.

Film noir films (mostly shot in gloomy grays, blacks and whites) thematically showed the dark and inhumane side of human nature with cynicism and doomed love, and they emphasized the brutal, unhealthy, seamy, shadowy, dark and sadistic sides of the human experience. An oppressive atmosphere of menace, pessimism, anxiety, suspicion that anything can go wrong, dingy realism, futility, fatalism, defeat and entrapment were stylized characteristics of film noir. The protagonists in film noir were normally driven by their past or by human weakness to repeat former mistakes.

Film noir films were marked visually by expressionistic lighting, deep-focus or depth of field camera work, disorienting visual schemes, jarring editing or juxtaposition of elements, ominous shadows, skewed camera angles (usually vertical or diagonal rather than horizontal), circling cigarette smoke, existential sensibilities, and unbalanced or moody compositions. Settings were often interiors with low-key (or single-source) lighting, venetian-blinded windows and rooms, and dark, claustrophobic, gloomy appearances. Exteriors were often urban night scenes with deep shadows, wet asphalt, dark alleyways, rain-slicked or mean streets, flashing neon lights, and low key lighting. Story locations were often in murky and dark streets, dimly-lit and low-rent apartments and hotel rooms of big cities, or abandoned warehouses.”


Even after all the above ideas about what film noir is, the term is still tricky. There are critics who have identified film noirs that were released long before 1941, and many disagree that film noir ‘ended’ in 1958. But despite this, all the above definitions give us a pretty good idea of what film noir is about, even if it is still undecided whether it is a ‘real’ genre or not. From the above reading, it becomes pretty clear that Blade Runner fits into the film noir style.

Now let’s have a closer look at the film and some of the noir elements within it.

How is Blade Runner influenced by film noir?

By now it would have become fairly obvious how Blade Runner was influenced by film noir.

The film is set in an urban city, and it always seems to be night – it is always dark and raining. In a large number of scenes we see a strong contrast between deep shadows and brighter light. Often the faces of characters in close ups are half-obscured by shadow, with a strong white rim light around the edge of their head. Deckard is basically a hitman that is used as a tool by the police force, and he is clearly alienated and may have a questionable moral character. The whole society seems to be corrupted – status, power and wealth are still prevalent, prime examples being Taffey and Eldon. Crime and murder play prominent roles. Lastly, the overall tone of the film is cynical (apart from perhaps the ‘happy’ ending in the original cut).

Blade Runner as Neo-Noir

Neo-Noir is a term used to describe films that were made after the classic noir period (1941-58) and contain some of the themes and style of film noir. A large number of films fall into this category, with a consistent output of neo-noir films being released every decade from the 1960s to the 2000s.

Obviously Blade Runner deals with some issues that were probably not included in the film noir of the 1940s and 1950s. In this sense the film is ‘updated’, or more contemporary. These issues include globalisation, rapid technological and scientific advancement, mass media, and environmental degradation.

For this reason Blade Runner could perhaps more appropriately be defined as a ‘neo-noir’. Here are a few examples of other neo-noir films:

Chinatown: a 1974 classic starring Jack Nicholson

'Reservoir Dogs' is the 1992 debut film from director Quentin Tarantino

'Dark City' is a 1998 cult film

'The Usual Suspects', a 1995 crime/mystery film

The three matrix films are a popular example of neo-noir

There are countless other neo-noir films that have been released over the past few decades.


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