Sin City and the eternal, seductive allure of film noir

The release of Sin City: A Dame To Kill For inspires James to look back at its film noir roots, and some classic examples of the genre...

“Things go dark. I don’t mind much. It’s okay.” John Hartigan, Sin City.

We’re at the shadowy back-end of the summer blockbuster season and darkness is entering the frame. Here comes ultraviolence, sleaze, crime and death, all beautifully shot in macabre high-contrast monochrome. Just when you thought you’d got yourself clean and were all peppy after some upbeat family-friendly popcorn thrills, here’s Sin City: A Dame To Kill For to darken up the doorways. (And it will light up a cigarette in those doorways and spit out some tough dialogue from between its bloodstained teeth while it’s lingering there.)

We’re back in the Basin City of Frank Miller’s graphic novels again, once more brought to vivid screen life by the comics creator himself and Robert “Troublemaker” Rodriguez as they share directorial duties. We’re back in the stylised world of “booze, broads and bullets” and making our way through intertwined, twisted urban tales of vengeance.

We’re also back with old faces like Marv, Nancy Callahan, Senator Roark and Dwight McCarthy, except Dwight’s face now looks more like Josh Brolin’s than Clive Owen’s. Regardless, we’re returning to familiar territory and we know exactly what we’re getting with a Sin City sequel. As unwholesome as that is, damn it’s good to be back. As a matter of fact, it’s possibly even better now that we’ve got Eva Green – contemporary cinema’s ultimate femme fatale – in the mix as the eponymous Dame to Kill For.

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The air (smoke? Smog? Stench?) of familiarity around Sin City: A Dame To Kill For also comes from its genre stylings. As far as movies go, there are none more noir than this series and that probably also applies to the world of comics if you put Miller’s original graphic novellas up against other similarly themed works.

I’m pretty sure that if you got a pen and paper then listed down all the codes, conventions, tropes and trademark features of film noir, Sin City would tick most of – if not all – the boxes and would do it with a wicked grin. Perpetual night-time; flawed antiheroes; femme fatales; corrupt authorities; twisted perverts; alcohol; rampant crime; hard-boiled dialogue; brutal violence and bloodshed; pitch black humour – it’s all there in (Sam) spades. Furthermore, it’s presented in incredibly compelling fashion, directly adapting the quintessence of the comic panels to craft a chiaroscuro realm of dreams and nightmares through which the vignettes flow in sublime fashion. 

Sin City, then, is the living film noir boss and the embodiment of the pure noir spirit harking back to the tough pulp fictions of past times. In spite of that, I don’t believe that its aesthetics and attitude are affectations or nothing more substantial than mere nostalgia. Miller, Rodriguez and all their cronies may be drawing heavily on rich traditions defined in the 1940s but the themes and features that characterise noir aren’t old-fashioned or irrelevant. For all its retro particularities, I’d say that Sin City is a thoroughly modern joint and that, likewise, noir is always going to be very ‘now’.

To try and get a good grip on this matter and its lasting mystique, it’s probably helpful to put on our time-travel trenchcoats (they’re a real thing) and beat a path back into the past (a place we’re visiting via a flashback sequence, of course). Way back when, film noir was a natural cinematic progression adapting the popular American crime fiction produced by such sharp scribes as Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, James M Cain and Mickey Spillane.

Those novels and the subsequent movies were born of an especially downbeat era – an age characterised and shaped by first the Great Depression and then World War II. The spirit of those stories perfectly fit the zeitgeist and summed up – on the pages of pulp fiction and in the rolling reels of crime cinema – a real, resonant sensibility felt in both America and around the wider world.

With economic hardships and the global conflict either looming or actually happening, times felt unstable, disturbing and violent. Throw in confusion about social changes and shifts to modernity – especially as we progress into the 50s with its ascendant consumerism and intensifying Cold War – and factor in underworld upheaval with the end of Prohibition and a postwar black market explosion. In light of such circumstances and the sociocultural impact, noir just makes sense. With so much moral ambiguity in the milieu and so many men suffering heightened masculinity crises and psychological strains in a challenging period on a rapidly changing planet, how could you not end up with something like film noir? 

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Of course, it was French film critics who really made sense of it all and coined the term ‘film noir’ when they finally got to see all the Hollywood flicks that had been banned by the Vichy government during World War II. Identifying common patterns in the influx of pictures now available to European audiences after conflict ceased, noir became a recognisable, tangible concept and this period – the 40s and early 50s – is where we find the absolute classics. (I’d call it the Golden Age, but that doesn’t feel appropriate in light of the monochrome cinematography and the tarnished subject matter. Maybe the High Noir Age is a tag that should be bestowed on this spectacular silver screen era.)

All-time greats like The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity, Gilda, The Big Sleep, Out Of The Past (also known as Build My Gallows High) and The Big Heat – really, I could go on forever – set the standards. Film noir was a formula or, rather, a form in which directors like Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang, John Huston, Orson Welles and a young Stanley Kubrick thrived. The legacy and infamy of screen icons like Humphrey Bogart, Robert Mitchum, Lee Marvin and Elisha Cook, Jr. are inextricably tied into their noir work.

All those private eyes, MacGuffins, illicit encounters and oneiric experiences around urban America’s underbelly have a captivating quality and crept into the collective cultural consciousness. It’s also worth noting that other countries were also knocking out exceptional noir-flavoured dramas, and Carol Reed’s The Third Man (a British production set in the ruins of Vienna) and Akira Kurosawa’s Drunken Angel and Stray Dog deserve special mention. 

Time moved on, technicolor took over and the High Noir Age passed on by. Even so, the angles, aesthetics and beats that characterised those essential crime movies informed the genre films that followed in the post-studio system, post-Hays Code period. For example, John Boorman’s Point Black is Lee Marvin and the American pulp tradition jiving to new wave rhythms in the sunshine of the 60s. The 70s produced a whole spate of fresh Chandler adaptations and Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. The spread of television meant that home audiences got chance to revisit the goldie (well, silvery) oldies and suck up the waves of detective shows that shared some of noir’s DNA.

Get into the 80s and there’s Steve Martin’s affectionate archive footage collage comedy Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid – a movie that simultaneously spoofs the genre while reminding viewers just how much they love its antiheroes, classic canon works and signature moves. In the same year Blade Runner is brooding in acid rain-soaked future Los Angeles, a sci-fi vision that represents the first tech-noir feature film.

Noir never really goes out of fashion and the crime dramas and serial killer thrillers of the 1990s and new millennium emphatically prove that. It’s there on display in the moral mazing, unreliable flashbacks and disorientating flashback structure of The Usual Suspects. Likewise, sin-streaked Se7en is absolutely soaked beneath the heavy rain, the dissolution and the downbeat attitude we recognise from the bad old days. L.A. Confidential is a glitzy throwback to noir’s optimum era crammed with corrupt cops, sleaze, vice and fragile Hollywood dreaming.

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The list goes on and is filled out by a multitude of invigorating, idiosyncratic neo-noir flicks that have creatively used and subverted the conventions and archetypes for amazing ends. The Wachwoskis’ Bound (erotic lesbian feminist noir), Shane Black’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (postmodern Tinseltown comedy noir) and Rian Johnson’s Brick (indie high school noir) are just three particularly remarkable pics from the past 20 years.

It’s also true that some of the greatest living auteurs repeatedly riff on noir or use at is the basis on which to craft their magnum opus mysteries. David Lynch (Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive, Inland Empire) and the Coen Brothers (so many, with The Man Who Wasn’t There being the ultimate homage) are two such icons, and it’s definitely mixed up in the blood of Christopher Nolan and Park Chan-wook.

Beyond the screen, the pulp sensibility runs strong on the pages of bookshops both in prose and in graphic novels – Frank Miller’s Sin City and the comic collaborations of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips (Criminal, Fatale and upcoming 50s Hollywood-set series The Fade Out) being the most illustrative replications of the classic cinematic style in print. 

In total, there’s a lot of noir or, if you like, neo-noir out there, and that’s may strike you as a surprising reality if you’re figuring the form as something fixed in a highly specific 1940s framework. It also might impress itself as a very strange phenomenon if you feel that this pulp matter is irrelevant or has no place in a modern world of advanced technology and altered societies. With words from Sidney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon coming to mind – “Here’s to plain speaking and clear understanding” – I respectfully say to you that, kid, I think you’re wrong to make that assumption. Noir resonates and continues to reach out to us and ensnare us in the pop cultural products of the present because, psychologically, it speaks to us and speaks for us.

Aside from the aforementioned aesthetic allure, film noir is all about dwelling in – or at least dipping your delicately painted toes in – darkness. This is the place where the audience’s internal anguish, paranoia, alienation and unseemly yearnings find expression on screen – often in stories that are downbeat and pessimistic but fashioned so that they remain thrilling, enticing, exotic and attractive in spite of the grit, murk and mundane mortal peril.

How do we account for that, Hump? I’d say that it’s because, in spite of all the filmic flourishes and clichés, film noir is something authentic that relates to the real human experience regardless of the period trappings and genre tropes. These pulp fictions allow viewers a sensory space in which they can put themselves in the (gum)shoes of cracking protagonists who are not actually too dissimilar from themselves. If anything, film noir is the cinematic form that most focuses on modern humanity’s foibles and, in a way, celebrates their existence by framing riveting, visceral yarns around them.

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These stories are driven by flaws and human weakness. Noir taps into our neuroses, confusion and insecurity while also representing the ‘darker’ aspects of our being – greed, lust, destructiveness and taste for things that may be considered ‘unwholesome’. As voyeurs we eagerly engage with our on-screen analogues and empathise with them as they struggle with their own demons and the (a)morality of Universe around them.

Beneath the hard-boiled surface you’ll find the squishy mess that is – if you’re feeling particularly pessimistic – the modern human condition. In film noir we get to face our ugly selves, and have a moody moment sympathising with antiheroes (and villains) that are seemingly thwarted at every turn by shadowy superiors or brought low by the tough world or their own failings. 

To once again paraphrase The Maltese Falcon, “Feels heavy. What is it?” asks a detective. “The, uh, stuff that dreams are made of” replies Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade, and film noir is a dream (nightmare?) that’s got a powerful hold on the popular imagination and isn’t forgotten. It’s engrained into our culture and I think it’s reasonable to suggest that all our modern notions of ‘cool’ and sexiness have their roots in the charismatic machismo of those noir antiheros and the alluring sensuality of sirens like Hayworth and the late, great Lauren Bacall. That edgy feel and attitude never ages, even if the trademark touchpoints feel resolutely rooted in a world of the past. (A world that keeps on coming Out Of The Past because we nostalgically yearn for its mystique.)

This pop cultural tradition has possessed our minds and (de)coloured our mood, and that’s probably how film noir should be considered – not as a genre but as a mood. The mood is going to linger and prevail as long as we live in a world with flawed people, failed dreams, crime, corruption, dark doings and dark desires. Of course, it’ll manifest itself in art and people will keep on producing film noir pictures – movies that we need as we attempt to handle our own inner darknesses.

“Things go dark. I don’t mind much. It’s okay.” It’s more than okay if it’s as entertaining, alluring and outrageously stylish as Sin City.

James Clayton is aiming for hard-boiled but often ends up with runny yolk. You can visit his website or follow him on Twitter

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