Sin City as a Film noir

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At only a few times in American filmmaking have technology and storytelling combined to change the industry. The invention of the film studio, advances in sound, and camera innovation have coincided with great classics that announced Hollywood’s new direction for years to come: A Trip to the Moon, The Jazz Singer, and Citizen Kane marked leaps forward in technology and story.

Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City (2005) set a new standard for cinematography and visual effects, worthily advancing the film noir genre to its logical conclusion.

Nothing screams Neo-Noir as Sin City

Film noir’s hallmarks in hundreds of genre classics from the 1940s and 1950s include:

  • A black and white mood, even if filmed in color
  • An assumption from the very beginning that nothing good will come from this tale
  • Cigarette smoke and shadows imbue every scene with a sense of foreboding and despair, but not terror
  • Night lasts throughout the movie—dark alleys, shadowy dives, and cheap motels lit by neon
  • The hard-boiled hero has fallen so far from grace so often that redemption is too distant to hope for, and doom is certain, if not embraced
  • The sassy dame—gracious women seldom inhabit film noir—will kiss or kill with equal detachment
  • Style and look are everything—sleek cars, flashing lights, rain-swept roads, jagged shadows of venetian blinds and upturned trench coat collars are given the same foreground value as the star’s extreme close up
  • Uniquely American movies, with American fall-from-grace stories centered on betrayal, dashed hopes, and love lost to powers beyond the anti-hero’s comprehension
  • Unusual camera angles and edits: very high, very low, Dutch tilts, extreme close-ups of half the antihero’s face in tragic view while sustaining deep focus to keep the background crisp
  • Strong, overt voice-over narration, a tacit acknowledgment that the story is simply a story
  • Machine-gun staccato dialogue, often with alliterative or metrical cadence

A pleasurable viewing of Sin City will show each of these elements, demonstrating Rodriguez has honored the genre while reinventing it.

New Ground

Robert Rodriguez cut his technological teeth perfecting a method of filming inexpensively, outside Hollywood, on his own terms with Spy Kids and Spy Kids 2. Sin City’s credits include his name with, “Shot and Cut by…” “Directed by…” and “Visual Effects Supervisor.” Filmed entirely on video (rather than film stock), the movie is wholly dependent on green screen technology and post-production CGI.

Rodriguez strictly controlled filming with live actors, replicating exact images from the novel. The movie was shot in color, but post-production the color was systematically removed to leave stark black and white (almost no grayscale) except in key areas:

  • Eye color, whether heightened or natural, is vivid
  • Blood sometimes flows red, sometimes comic-page white
  • The skies often open up with rain, the lightning setting off crimson clouds for dramatic effect

The film interweaves several story lines into a well-planned triptych: The Hard Goodbye, Big Fat Kill, That Yellow Bastard.

Striaght from Frank Miller’s graphic novel, each section is a classic self-standing noir story eventually to be reuinted into a single storyline. (Something that Rodriguez eventually decided to do with the Director’s Cut edition, transforming the non-linear original into a more conventional, yet still effective, movie.)

Segmenting the movie in this way, Rodriguez sent each section to a different CGI house for stylistic alterations. To each he delivered Frank Miller’s books and little else. The result is that each computer graphics shop hewed strictly to Miller’s style.

Sin City: Neo Noir

Rodriguez honors all the tropes of film noir but takes each to its logical conclusion. If Robert Mitchum had been permitted to rip a man’s testicles off to show you the depths of his despair, depravity and anger, he would have. Bruce Willis (Hartigan) is able to do exactly that.

Rodriquez parades Carla Gugino, Jessica Alba and Rosario Dawson around onscreen either provocatively under-dressed or naked (there are no artistically nude women in this movie). Ava Gardner and Joan Bennett could never have revealed as much skin as these women, but all are femmes fatales in the same vein.

Mickey Rourke as Marv, latex chin and forehead intact through baseball bats and fingernail scratches, survives all the pain and suffering Sin City can dish out, and still he invites more.

Bruce Willis as Hartigan, the despairing cop with a bad heart (film noir delights in underplayed puns: it is his heart, again, that keeps failing Hartigan), knows he must deny himself Jessica Alba, the only good thing he’s ever had.

The words these anti-heroes rattle off are pages ripped from the depths of 1940s film noir:

  • Rourke: “Worth dying for. Worth killing for. Worth going to hell for. Amen.” (At which point he shoots a priest.)
  • Willis: “There’s wrong and there’s wrong, and then there’s this.”

New Horizons

Because of Rodriguez’s stylized CGI and green screen immersion, Sin City struck a chord both with literate, sophisticated audiences and genuinely naive moviegoers.

Sin City performed extraordinarily well at the box office, raking in almost $160 millions (four times its cost) in ticket sales alone during its first run. Persuaded by its breakthrough success, Hollywood moved forward to adapt these techniques to improve film-making efficiency.

Doing so, studios somehow realized there was a market segment they neglected, and that graphic novels could be adapted without severing the ties with graphic. This led to 2006′s blockbuster “300″ and then 2009′s Watchmen, movies far away from the noir setting but entirely within the hopelessness that permeates the genre.

With Sin City 2 nearing release, film noir will be again on the silver screen, reinvented and restructured but essentialy faithful to itself and its legacy.