After-Image: ‘Blade Runner’ (1981)

❉ After-Image looks at single images and the emotional and narrative weight they carry. This week: “You’ve done a man’s job, sir.”

Sometimes we get so caught up in world-building, or narrative that we forget that cinema is a visual medium. In this occasional series we look at single images and the emotional and narrative weight they carry.

Ridley Scott is a supreme visual stylist; unlike Tim Burton, though, he doesn’t impose his own aesthetic on the film. Instead he creates a world, layer by layer and then lets the characters run around in it. There’s certainly an argument to be made that later in his career he’s become much more interested in the visual world than any kind of narrative sense: but here, at the beginning, he does something rather wonderful.

Blade Runner is one of my favourite films. I get something out of it on nearly every level every time I watch it and it is littered with glorious, mind-boggling imagery. Having grown up on Teesside, the place which inspired Scott to create the opening sequence, some of it wasn’t that mind-blowing to me I suppose. But today I don’t want to talk about the obvious shots – Pris under the gauze, the Tyrell pyramid, Deckard eating noodles – I want to talk about a very simple, almost workmanlike shot. A shot that, nonetheless, I think contains the very heart of the film even more so than Roy Batty crying in the rain. This one:

The main plot is over. Deckard has, if not won, then at least survived. He sits, shell-shocked on the roof, the rain washing away the blood from the phenomenal beating Batty has dished out to him. Then we hear the voice of Gaff. Dapper little Gaff who’s been there since the very beginning of the film, watching. Watching and obsessively making little models. Little models, moreover, which seem to show a remarkable insight into Deckard’s mind. When Deckard find himself attracted to the Replicant Rachel, Gaff crafts a matchstick man with an enormous erection; Gaff also casually leaves behind a unicorn – just like the Unicorn Deckard daydreams of. “You’ve done a man’s job, sir,” says Gaff. He checks if Deckard is through. “Finished,” replies the beaten Blade Runner. Gaff throws Deckard his gun and turns to leave with one more cryptic comment.

Let’s take a moment to glory in the shot before we unpick the narrative. The cold blue tones offset by the splash of yellow. The futuristic ‘spinner’ cars, still recognisably police vehicles. The industrial shapes cutting into the neat framing of the central image, showing how the city itself has been overrun by the impersonal, the mechanical. The smoke surrounding the central figure. The rain creating vertical lines behind the still, almost silhouetted figure of Gaff. The framing, the lighting, the smoke – it all harks back to film noir and the Chandleresque Los Angeles Private Eye fiction that is baked into the very DNA of the film. And Gaff himself, dressed in a 1950s-inflected ensemble played by the peerless Edward James Olmos as being from a non-specifically ‘ethnic’ background. Olmos is one of my favourite actors. In later years he will single-handedly hold together some awful plotlines on Battlestar Galactica but here he underplays for all he is worth. Here, he is part of this retrofitted future, a world that is obviously dealing with rapid, disruptive technological change by harkening back to a simpler past. Hmmmm.

“You’ve done a man’s job, sir,” says Gaff. Olmos lays the stress on man – just slightly. By this stage of the game in the curious afterlife of Blade Runner, almost everyone must know that the intention of Scott was that Deckard was a Replicant. Gaff is our biggest clue to this, with his sly origami and knowing looks. But the reason this moment stays with me, the reason it resonates and the reason I hear that line – “You’ve done a man’s job, sir” – echo down through the years is this: it doesn’t matter. Replicant or human, Deckard has done what he was supposed to do. He has proven that is he, in the words of Tyrell’s slogan, “More human than human”. How do we know this?

Think of it from Gaff’s point of view. He’s a Blade Runner; given his omnipresence in Bryant’s office presumably a good one. Maybe the best one, beside Deckard. Hell, the fact that he knows about the Unicorn might mean that it’s his memories that provided the template for Deckard. And here he is, giving a gun back to a Replicant. And the stress in that line doesn’t just fall on the “man’s”; the biggest stress falls on the ‘sir’. Gaff respects him.

And then, in the last line: “It’s too bad she won’t live: but then again – who does?” Gaff went to Deckard’s apartment and did not kill Rachel. Like a fisherman throwing a couple back, Gaff is gifting Deckard a happy ending. Gaff, at this moment, has proven that he too is human. For a film doused in rain and taking place almost entirely in the dark, this final message – than humanity is what you do, not what are – is incredibly uplifting. And it’s all there, in dapper little Gaff holding the gun behind his back and then choosing not to use it but instead to give it back to the very thing he is supposed to kill.

Now that’s a shot.

Herbert West – when he’s not reanimating the dead – teaches at a secondary school in the north of England. He is the host of the Trial of a Timelord podcast which can be found on Twitter at @WhoTrial

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