One of the stylistic features common to many noir films is the use of extraordinary narrative devices like voice-overs and flashback sequences. These structural elements are included to underscore or otherwise complement thematic elements of the film…
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One of the stylistic features common to many noir films is the use of extraordinary narrative devices like voice-overs and flashback sequences. These structural elements are included to underscore or otherwise complement thematic elements of the film. Flashbacks too became an effective medium of remembering and recreating the past, another significant activity in psychoanalytic practice. Apart from the psychological dimension, voice-overs could also be used to emphasize the eerie or dark tone of noir films. With the right tone, the narratorial voice could easily intensify the feeling of doom and generally dark settings of the typical noir film. Flashbacks were also useful in creating suspense or experimenting with the narrative flow, allowing for creative use of plot. This paper will seek to further explore the role played by these two specific stylistic devices with reference to three films: Double Indemnity (1944), The Big Sleep (1946) and D.O.A (1950). Double Indemnity has a similar opening to D.O.A with the film starting in medias res to reveal a harassed-looking William Neff enter his office room and begin recording his ‘confession’ addressed to Keyes on his Dictaphone.. The confession triggers off the flashback which presumably will explain the events that lead up to the murder that Neff has just confessed to. Interestingly, just a few minutes into this flashback and the confession of Neff also appears as a voice-over superimposed over the past retelling of events. This film employs both devices then, to build-up its atmosphere. The first of the flashbacks serves to describe what can already be seen on the screen, but with added detail like how the room smelled and how the sunlight made the dust visible. More importantly, it allows access to Neff’s mind and his initial impressions of Phyllis Dietrichson. This voice-over and the next also let the audience know the level of engagement with the crime that Neff had at the beginning and how the plan to murder Dietrichson is initiated entirely by his wife. However, the voice-over that marks the return of the narrative from the past back into the present, with Neff still at the Dictaphone, reveals to the audience that Neff too had been thinking about committing murder since as an insurance agent he believes: ‘In this business you can’t sleep for trying to figure out all the tricks they could pull on you.’ Other than tell us about who did what in the murder plot, the voice-overs also give us significant insight into the criminal’s mind – in this case, Walter Neff’s. As said in the introduction, this was a period of great faith in Freudian psychoanalysis and the idea of exploring one’s sub-conscious was quite popular. The Dictaphone-taped ‘confession’ acts as catharsis for expunging guilt. This is especially evident when Walter says that although he knew everything had gone off perfectly he still felt that it could all go wrong. He claims to not be able to hear his own footsteps; that he was walking like a ‘dead man.’ This is a classic instance of the psychoanalytic notion of guilt becoming the driving force behind a person’s actions and being the ultimate reason for that person to give himself or herself up. The Big Sleep does not use either voiceovers or flashbacks but there are several silences in the plot where Marlowe is seen tailing or waiting for action to happen, which act as narrative ‘fillers’. Insights into Marlowe’s psyche are not spoken or recounted as clearly as in Double Indemnity but as Marlowe’s character is sketched out to be hard-boiled but honest, what he says in sincerity can be taken by the audience to be true. For instance,
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