Cinematographic Techniques

Black & White

The most obvious technique used by Jarmusch in Dead Man is to photograph the film in black and white. According to interviews, his main aim was to neutralize the familiarity of objects and landscapes, an "important reason was the story. It is about a character who gets further and further away from anything familiar to him. Colour would give extra information". Another reason for Jarmusch was that he also wanted to distance the audience historically and get away from all the other Westerns who employ the same "standard palette of dusty colours". He uses black-and-white as a kind of new palette with a lot of different shades of grey to provide a different landscape. Additionally, the decision for making Dead Man a black and white movie simply was choosing what was appropriate for the emotional tone of the story. He also reminds of the connotations of the Film Noir of the 1940s and 50s.


A technique Jarmusch uses to create the special "speed" of the film is by fading to black at the end of a scene. Also films in the forties used this device between each scene. The rhythm of Dead Man gets a little slower because of the use of these transitions. The character's as well as the viewer's sense of time is obscured. The structure of the film is also closely linked to the main character, William Blake: scenes fading to black are often because Blake fades from consciousness. The use of fade-outs also implies scenes which exist in isolation from one another as complete units, rather than as complementary elements glued together to suggest an unbroken continuity. One critic also pointed out that in this respect the blackouts between sequences function like the empty spaces between stanzas in an epic poem.


Although the camera employs strategies typical for Western movies like high camera angle, focusing on a scull with the rest of the landscape in the background, the epic panorama so typical of the classic Western films is conspicuously absent. Right at the beginning, we usually see a wide landscape, opening up in front of the viewer (cf. Dances with Wolves). In Dead Man, the camera remains focused on the hero's point of view, thereby reducing the universal to the particular, breaking the mythical panorama into small spots of time as they are experienced by the protagonist. The long establishing opening only provides restricted view, not an opening in land. Jarmusch's Western landscape is not a continuum, but composed of fragments like dense forests, naked rocks: landmarks, sinister and claustrophobic spaces. Although Jarmusch uses deep focus photography as well as stationary camera shots, the characters are not centered in the frame, but stand to the left or right of the scenes. They are obviou sly the focal point of the scene, but the background is taking up most of the frame. The visual perception is an unsettling experience for both viewer and protagonist. Many long takes and the avoidance of excessive cutting also contribute to the "slowness" of the film, which, as a critic put it "may be the most protracted death scene in movies; by comparison, Garbo's death in Camille is a quickie."

Iconization & Symbols

Jarmusch plays with the excessive use of icons in Western movies. During Blake's journey to Machine, he sees an abandoned wagon and forsaken teepees, symbols for an uninviting archaic world, for loss of home. This change in landscape is illustrated by the corresponding change in the fellow passengers who undergo several alterations in their out-fit until they perfectly represent the typical population of the Western. Also the mysterious prophet-like fireman is surrounded with symbols: his black face as well as the flames out of the metal horse and the smoke of the engine are images of hell, something the fireman warns Blake of. Blake's glimpses of various activities during his initial walk through Machine represents a heap of symbol s of death: freshly built coffins, animal sculls and skins, etc. The three gunmen hired to kill Blake are also faithful to the Western formula, they are traditional up to the dirt under their fingernails.

Later in the film, there are more transcendental images to be found: Blake curls up alongside an accidentally slain fawn and wipes its blood onto his own wound, a very archaic imagery. Additionally, the head of one of the Sheriffs murdered lies in the middle of the burnt out fireplace, creating the image of a gloriole around his head. Ironically, it is a headhunter who comments on the picture: "Looks like a goddam religious icon" before crushing it under his boots. Blake's transformation is also illustrated with many images: he loses his attributes of civilization, namely his watch and his glasses - his clear sight and the feeling for time.


Dead Man's mystical, meditational soundtrack is written and performed by Neil Young. To a large percentage it consists of electric guitar only. The music is Young's immediate emotional reaction to the film as he sat with his guitar, watching the film three times in three days, playing along with it. The rhythm of the soundtrack highlights the rhythm of the film, its visual poetry. Jarmusch's images reappear in Young's music: the metallic voice of the railway, the entering of the landscape, the fight between nature and civilization. Unlike the popular road movie soundtrack, which typically consists of often arbitrary selections of well-known songs, Neil Young's music literally translates the film into sound. It is therefore not simpy added to the images, but rather grows out of them directly.

Jim and Neil trippin'