A study in how …

A study in how Tim Burton’s Batman follows codes and conventions of Film Noir with close reference to Double Indemnity and other texts.

Film noir put simply is a term for dark film. Typically the style consists of hard-boiled detectives, gangsters, or ordinary men tempted into crime[1]  Film noirs may include a femme fatale; a female character who usually leads the male protagonist into danger or corruption. Visually the films are very unique. Traditionally dark, normally in black and white with the use of chiaroscuro and motivated lighting. The visual style is something that originated from German expressionist films such as Nosferatu (1922). Classic film noir is normally associated with films produced from the 1940s up the late 50s. Neo-Noir however is a term applied to more modern films that still follow the narrative structure such as Blade Runner (1982) and The Dark Knight (2008).

This essay will see how well Tim Burtons 1989 Batman falls into the codes and conventions of a film noir by comparing and contrasting it to the Double Indemnity (1944).

Tim Burton’s Batman was produced in 1989 and was the first darker take on the comic book hero. Once Burton was assigned as director by the studios he had the screenplay rewritten, claiming the original was too campy. The film has obvious nods to film noir throughout. Double Indemnity was produced in 1944, by this time there had been many classic film noirs. Billy Wilder was the director of the film, previously known for Some Like It Hot (1959) and follows many of the codes and conventions of a classic film noir.

Both Batman and Double Indemnity represent the city as a corrupt location, overrun by crime.  Both films open with the city at night. With steam rising from the drains, this always appears intimidating and chilling. In Double Indemnity there is a speeding car, passing through red lights and almost causing an accident.  The man driving the car is Walter Neff, the film’s protagonist.  Although he is only breaking speeding laws the audience assume he is on the run from something bigger.  Batman‘s opening is in the same vain but more dark. It opens with Gotham City at night when a couple and their kid are robbed by crooks lurking the streets. This crime is soon resolved when Batman appears and warns the thief about himself, telling him to spread the message to crooks across Gotham.  Another element of corruption in Batman is the cop who works the opposing side. Ltd. Eckhart gives tips to Jack Napier and his gang to help him always be one step forward of the police.

Silhouette lighting is used constantly throughout both films. Double Indemnity‘s title sequence is a silhouette of a man walking with crutches. In Batman, to build tension before seeing Jack Napier’s joker “make over”, a silhouette of him standing in front of an open elevator is used to hide his disfigured face.  Silhouettes of the Batman character are seen throughout the film to represent him as dark and hidden. Batman’s appearance is portrayed as monolithic and as a motionless shadow[2]  and his silhouette is an iconic part of the Batman image.  The black shape of a bat is used on his suit and on the “bat signal”.

A typical lighting technique used in film noir is the venetian blind effect. Light shone through the blind puts light and dark streaks onto a character and the setting. Light and dark areas may represent the character’s dark and light sides to their personality.  Double Indemnity has this and even draws attention to it when Walter Neff says “The windows were closed and the sunshine coming through the venetian blind showed the dust in the air”.  Although Batman has examples of chiaroscuro lighting there are no cases where venetian blinds are used.

Most classic film noirs that were made between the 30’s 40’s and 50’s were normally on a limited budget which one reason for their unique cinematic style but Batman feels cinematically rich and high budget throughout with some elaborate special effects and costumes.

There are notable similarities between Bruce Wayne and Walter Neff but also between the Batman character and Walter Neff. Bruce Wayne is a successful and somewhat confident man, he has a butler and is always well dressed. Wayne sometimes puts himself across as shy and clumsy but this is to hide the fact he is the caped crusader.  Neff shares some of these qualities but also has an obvious bad side as he helps assist to murder Phyllis’s husband relating him more to Batman. Batman is generally considered a good protagonist but he is not part of the police force and is technically breaking the law by killing criminals. He is a lot more stern and confident than his alter ego.  Although, Batman appears almost immortal at times whilst Walter Neff is seen struggling and worrying from the start of the film.

Although Batman shares technical and stylish similarities to Double Indemnity it is not labelled as a classic noir or neo-noir. Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy (2005-2012)is generally classed as  neo-noir due to its narrative structure but Burton’s Batman is more of a homage to the classic noir films like Double Indemnity and The Big Combo. It is not clear which decade the film is set in because even though a lot of the set design and costumes are something which might be seen in the 1940’s or 50’s the technology in the film (cassette players, telephones) and soundtrack are quite modern. Pop culture references such as one of the crooks joking “American Express card: don’t leave home without it”  hinting more to the fact that it is set in the time the film was made. Batman does not just homage to film noir though, the character originated from comics so it also follows a certain comic book style in terms of colour and some costumes. There was actually a series of Batman comics that were drawn in the visual style of film noir called Gotham Noir. Tim Burton has a director trade mark style which is clear in this film, he also uses film noir style in his other work such as Ed Wood.

The costumes in Batman is something that would be seen in 1940’s or 50’s classic noir films. Most characters wear dark suits, sometimes with a trilby hat and fitting ties. The Joker’s attire is very similar to the typical gangster costume seen in film noir, with a gun tucked in his belt (although this actually turns out to be  a parody of A Few Dollars More) and the trilby hat. Although his entire costume is purple and  has some more cartoonish and clown-like elements.  Most of the police officers and news reporters wear suits with braces, something which would not be seen in more recent decades.  Lt. Eckhart wears a traditional detective trench coat.  Despite costumes a lot of the hair styles in the film are more something seen in the 1980s.

The sets and locations of Batman are always visually interesting, the use of smoke is apparent and something that is seen in the streets of Double Indemnity a couple of times.  Anton Furt, the set designer of Batman said “We wanted to make Gotham City the ugliest and bleakest metropolis imaginable. We imagined what New York City might have become without a planning commission. A city run by crime, with a riot of architectural styles. An essay in ugliness. As if hell erupted through the pavement and kept on going.”[3]  

Offices are used in both films for important exposition to the film’s narrative. The gang leader of Jack Napier (Joker) reveals his plans to his gang in his office and at the beginning  of Double Indemnity Walter Neff stumbles to his office phone explaining the murder he is committed (set after a big portion of the rest of the film). Both offices are old fashioned equipped with classic banker’s lamps. Elaborate houses is also something seen in both films. In a couple of scenes in Batman Wayne Manor is shown and it is obvious that the house is big, old fashioned and very well decorated. In Phyllis’ first scene in Double Indemnity we see the house is pretty big and must belong to a well-off owner. Neff mentions the expensive house through voice over when he says “One of those California Spanish houses everyone was nuts about, this one must have cost about 30,000 bucks, that is if he ever finished paying for it”.

Batman does not seem to share any narrative structure to Double Indemnity or to the classic film noir structure. There are some similar characters from Batman to Double Indemnity (corrupt cop etc.) but there is no obvious femme fatale character in Batman. The leading lady is Vicky Vale, traditionally the femme fatale leads the male protagonist into danger or corruption. There are certain cases of this such as the scene where the dark knight saves her from some of Joker’s henchmen leading to him being knocked unconscious and his identity almost being revealed. Apart from this she poses no real threat to Batman and seems to end up getting herself in more trouble than him.

There are other notable minor differences with Batman compared to Double Indemnity. For example Double Indemnity is set in Los Angeles whilst Batman is set in Gotham, the fake city made up for the character. Batman also has comedy moments, such as the Joker dancing to circus music and vandalising an art gallery to a Prince song. Double Indemnity upholds a serious tone throughout.  

A common convention of film noir is the use of hard boiled dialogue. This is when the character uses a lot of metaphors to describe something, it’s not something heard in every day discussion but often comes across as quite witty with the use of a wide vocabulary . An example of hard boiled dialogue in Double Indemnity is when Walter Neff is driving back after meeting Phyllis for the first time. He says “It was a hot afternoon and I can still remember the smell of honeysuckle all over the street. How could I have known that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle?” An example of this in Batman is when Jack Napier appears the first time as the Joker and says to the gang boss “I’ve been dead once already, it’s very liberating, you should think of it as therapy” and also when he first sees a photograph of Vicky Vale he says “That girl has style. Jesus Marimba. A lovely beast like that running around could put steams in a man’s stride.”

As stated before there is a use of voice over in Double Indemnity which is something that occurs in many classic film noirs and is parodied in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982) but there is a complete lack of voice over used in Batman.

Batman actually makes reference to other film noirs. The Long Goodbye (1973) is a film noir starring Elliott Gould as private detective. IMDb states that the purpose deformation of the Joker’s  girlfriend is a reference as a woman’s face is hit with a bottle in The Long Goodbye.  Also IMDb states the opening scene of Batman is a reference to 400 Blows (1959) with the first scene of the family coming out of the theatre. [4]

To conclude, after studying both films closely it seems clear that Batman was not intended to be a film noir when it was produced. Although there are certain elements and character traits shared with Double Indemnity the film withholds a high-budget and colourful feel and the narrative structure barely follows the one throughout Double Indemnity. It is a homage to film noir more than a neo noir.

 


[1] Film Art (page 366)-Boardwell and Thompson

[2] Batman Blu-Ray Bonus Feature Interviews

[3] “The Caped Crusader Flies Again”-Elaine Dutker

[4] IMDb.com

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