SIN CITY: Neo-noir or Not?

Some people say film noir is a genre unto itself, others argue it’s a sub-genre of the crime film, others say it’s really only a mood, but the one thing most people agree on is it’s pretty dang cool.

Noir (pronounced nah-war) is the French word for black.  Most of you probably know this, but I don’t like to leave anybody in the dark—no pun intended. (Feel free to skip the next four or five paragraphs if you already know a lot about film noir.)  You see back in France in 1946 film critics were watching a lot of American films and began to notice many of them were dark, not only in terms of content and theme, but also style.  The French critics started referring to these films as "film noir," or black cinema.  The term really didn’t catch on in America until the 70s.

How do you know if you’re watching a film noir movie?  Well, first of all, it must be in black and white.  No exceptions.  Visually, noir films use stark contrasts between light and dark: silhouettes and patterns of light.  You could say it’s the cinematic equivalent of chiaroscuro. An ominous shadow on an alley wall or a neon light blinking through blinds are examples of film noir visuals you might see. 

In terms of story most film noir plots involve crimes with a lot of double-crossing and back-stabbing.  If we’re lucky someone convinces someone else to kill somebody.  Typically, nearly all the characters are despicable, immoral people; even the heroes are at least semi-corrupt.  The male lead is usually "hard-boiled," sometimes a detective, or cop, or a criminal, but he’s always cynical, world-weary, obsessive and/or alienated from the rest of humanity.  (You could argue that much of film-noir is an expression of the disappointment in humanity that resulted after World War II).  The female lead is often called a "femme fatale," more French for fatal woman.  She typically proves to be the man’s undoing, or at least tries to undo him.  There’s not a lot of trust between men and women in the world of film noir, however, things are always very sexually charged. 

If you’re interested in film noir I’d recommend the following films to get started: DOUBLE INDEMNITY, THE BIG SLEEP, THE MALTESE FALCON, THE BIG HEAT, and LAURA.  I’m sure Kulturblog readers could recommend other great titles as well.  Some of the more obscure movies are a lot more fascinating, but these films, particularly the first three are well-known because they were popular novels before they became films.  Great writers like Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, and Cornell Woolrich pioneered noir themes before they were translated to the big screen.  Many of these writers wrote in first person and that perhaps explains why another common characteristic of noir films is voice-over, the cinematic equivalent of first person.  For example, SUNSET BOULEVARD, which I’d also recommend, starts with William Holden face down, dead, floating in a pool.  He commences to tell the story of how he ended up that way.

I apologize if none of this is new information for anybody, but never fear, I am about to get to The Point.  (It’s only a movie review; I hope no one’s disappointed).  Although the classic film noir period ended with the advent of color in the 60s, there have been a lot of re-inventions of film noir over the years.  These films are often called neo-noir.  Some of the best are CHINATOWN, BODY HEAT, L.A. CONFIDENTIAL, and a personal favorite of mine, THE LAST SEDUCTION.  In addition, film noir has often been combined with other genres with interesting results.  For example, sci-fi plus film noir equals BLADE RUNNER or DARK CITY, both remarkable films in my opinion.

The latest neo-noir film to be released by Hollywood is the appropriately titled SIN CITY.  It’s an adaptation of acclaimed graphic novels (for the uninitiated that means comic books written for grown ups) written and illustrated by Frank Miller, possibly the biggest talent working in comic books today. 

Miller took the visual black and white style of film noir and employed it in the comic book form.  His use of inky black shapes and lines, along with the negative white space of the page not only recaptured the film noir look, but was visually stunning in its own right.  Plus, Miller really pushed the envelope in creating a darkly disturbing, even grotesque city, populated by vile characters—some of whom seek redemption, some of whom could care less.

Director Robert Rodriguez teamed-up with Miller to bring his work to the silver screen.  What makes SIN CITY fascinating from a technical stand-point is that it’s the first film to make extensive use of digital technology to create a film noir look, rather than that old-fashioned thing, lighting.  The results are astounding.  Rodriguez and Miller are slavishly devoted to their source material and they successfully recreate the graphic novel for the screen. 

SIN CITY is almost entirely in black and white with an occasional splash of color here and there—a girl’s eyes, or dress, or hair, a blood stain, a fast car, etc.  It is a great look, particularly, the white shapes: band aids on a character’s face, a tie, glasses, a puddle of blood and so on.  In my opinion, SIN CITY gets an A+ for updating the film noir look and style to the digital age of filmmaking.

However, SIN CITY is too devoted to the original material for its own good. Essentially SIN CITY is an anthology piece with three only very loosely connected stories; with a little care they could have been interwoven in a more compelling fashion. Not all the stories are equal and it is uneven.  The first is the best.  The one in the middle is weak.  The third, better than average.  Another issue is dialogue.  Comic book dialogue is obviously not written to be spoken out loud and since much of the dialogue was lifted straight out of the comics some of it is cheesy on a George Lucasian level.  Plus, they over do it on the voice-over, which works in comics, and as I said earlier is a trademark in film noir, but is also inherently undramatic.  As any amateur writer could tell you, “show don’t tell.”  They should have cut back. 

All these flaws are forgivable, but what keeps me from embracing this picture most is that in all but the first story it lacks what makes film noir work on an emotional level.  In film noir you take it as a given that everyone is a bad person in a bad place, but what makes the stories work is the hope, however slim, of escape, or redemption, or of faith in humanity restored that the characters, and vicariously the audience, hold on to. 

In all of SIN CITY, it’s only Marv (Mickey Rourke in a comeback performance) that’s trying to grasp and hold onto that one brief moment of purity that he can take into the after life.  So when Marv hunts down the murderers of a woman who took pity on him and slept with him (Marv’s homely), it creates emotional involvement in spite of the fact he’s a brutal, murdering, monster.  When he learns the woman’s true motives weren’t as kind-hearted as he thought it makes it all the more poignant that he keeps fighting to hold onto that one good memory. 

It pains me because if the last two stories could have worked as well as the first, we’d all have another great neo-noir film to see.  However, a great look and 1 out of 3 good stories doesn’t cut it.

Finally, if you do choose to go see SIN CITY, don’t hold me responsible.  Be warned.  There’s nudity, dismemberment, decapitation, and cannibalism—and that’s just in the first story. 

If you’ve made it this far, thank you, for reading.  Let’s hear what everyone thinks about film noir and SIN CITY if any of you’ve seen it.


25 thoughts on “SIN CITY: Neo-noir or Not?

  1. I gotta see “Sin City” — preferably a matinee, I think, so I can walk out into the sunshine afterward. Comments on that film to come…

    I love your film noir primer, Brian. I haven’t delved that deeply into the genre, but I definitely agree that “Double Indemnity” is terrific. I especially love Edward G. Robinson’s character — without being sanctimonious or falsely wholesome, he is the moral compass of that film.

    I also like “Detour”, a B-movie that’s regarded by many as a top-notch film noir. That “hope of escape or redemption” you mention is definitely there, and fate dashes it brutally at every turn. The protagonist’s luck is just so awful… and it takes amazingly little effort to imagine how your own fortunes could take a similarly hellish turn for the worse.

    Roger Ebert did a “Great Movies” write-up of “Detour”: “The movie was shot on the cheap with B-minus actors, but it was directed by a man of qualities: Edgar G. Ulmer (1900-1972), a refugee from Hitler, who was an assistant to the great Murnau on “The Last Laugh” and “Sunrise,” and provided one of the links between German Expressionism, with its exaggerated lighting, camera angles and dramaturgy, and the American film noir, which added jazz and guilt.

    The difference between a crime film and a noir film is that the bad guys in crime movies know they’re bad and want to be, while a noir hero thinks he’s a good guy who has been ambushed by life…”

  2. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a classic noir film (but I love it when Calvin of Calvin & Hobbes pretends to be a private eye or when Colin and Ryan do a noir scene on Whose Line Is It Anyway).
    And from the trailers for Sin City I didn’t think it’d be a movie I’d want to see. But I went to see it with some friends a couple weekends ago and I actually really did like it. Maybe I was just dazzled by the gorgeousness of the film. I’d like to see it once more to sort the story out. But I don’t think I’d want to own it or watch it over and over again. I’d say it was fascinating, and it was pretty good but not incredible.
    This guy really didn’t like it. (And he’s not even a film reviewer – this was the Des News review, and this was an AP release.)
    Thanks, Brian, for the run-down on film noir.

  3. Although “noir” is a nebulous concept, one thing most people agree on is that it was a post-war nomenclature, describing a paranoic state. Double Indemnity, James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, all fit the mold.

    But two of your original set of noirish movies don’t. The Maltese Falcon isn’t noir, though it does have noirish elements. And Laura is more of a glamorous soap, with a murder mystery.

    I do love The Last Seduction, but L.A. Confidential might be the best neo-noir, an even better movie than Chinatown. In some ways, the neo-noirs are actually better than the originals.

  4. One film I really liked was “The Third Man” with Orson Welles. I think that a key ingredient to a good film noir is production design. A good production design will capture light and shadow at all the right angles – which is key in noir films. Third Man’s design was top notch in this regard.

  5. I hate to say it, but I really didn’t like Sin City at all. I think Brian is spot-on in his analysis. The first part is the best, the second pretty bad, and the third was just in the middle.
    Visually, the movie was stunning. The use of color (like when the cop shined the flashlight in Clive Owen’s face) was extremely cool. But the visual features alone can’t compensate for the weakness in the story.
    I like as much mindless violence as the next man, but I am exremely tired of the recent (or not-so-recent) trend towards making every movie about a Law & Order: Special Victims Unit-style sicko. I found all the violence against women to be disturbing.

  6. Melissa, thanks for drawing the connection between German Expressionism and Film Noir. I’ll check out DETOUR immediately.

    D., I agree Film Noir is a nebulous concept, but I think in the minds of most people MALTESE FALCON qualifies. Bogart defined the hard-boiled detective with his performance and the film is replete with cynicism and the terse, snappy dialogue people associate with the classic film noir period. In fact, most of the stereotypes and cliches associated with film noir can be traced back to this picture, so I’m interested in why you think it doesn’t qualify.

    LAURA rests more on a boundary, but the reason I think it qualifies is primarily the obsession of the main character who falls in love with a dead woman.

  7. I love Touch of Evil. I’m also a huge fan of Key Largo. The story isn’t quite as good as some of the other classic crime/noir films, but the combination of the cinematography and the acting is fantastic — the acting just a bit understated and low key, the lighting a little overdramatic.

  8. It’s just that film noir as a concept wasn’t conceived of or named until after the war (by French film scholars) — it was named noir because many of the wartime movies were so sunny, so optimistic and nationalistic. The Maltese Falcon is from 1941, and there are two prior versions of it — what separates it from crime movies of the 30s (except that it’s better)? I agree, it’s all semantics, but for me, the film noir genre began with Double Indemnity, 1944, and pretty much ended with The Asphalt Jungle, 1950. Movies after 1950 were too self-referential “noir,” and movies before 1944 were just good crime features. I do not consider Sunset Blvd. to be film noir at all — it’s a satire masquerading as a horror film. Billy Wilder was always annoyed when people called it noirish — it really has no noirish elements except a dark tone and a murder.

  9. I’d have to say that Touch of Evil is one of the more overrated noir films. I’m sure it was great when it came out, but of all the films I think it is the most dated and just doesn’t work anymore.

    I agree with the analysis of Sin City though. The first one is the best. The rest, especially the middle one, just don’t come off as well. Although I did like Bruce Willis’ performance – he was miscast as the character is supposed to be old, while Bruce Willis looks young for his 50 years old. That makes his supposed age of 65 – 73 way off.

  10. I think what happened, D. is that the war delayed the release of a lot of American films produced in the early forties so that by the time French critcs saw the films it was the mid-forties. Regardless of when the critics coined the term, film noir had been growing and maturing long before the war.

    If Billy Wilder says that SUNSET BOULEVARD isn’t noir, I would agree with him, because I worship at his feet, but I think it has a lot more noir elements than just a dark tone and a murder. In 1950s America you have a cynical male lead that whores himself to an older woman for the sake of a career opportunity. I think William Holden plays hard-boiled second only to Humphrey Bogart and Norma Desmond definitely proves to be his undoing and in my opinion his femme fatale.

    Regardless of how it’s classified it’s a great movie and people should see it.

  11. I don’t know if I consider Touch of Evil a true noir or just a movie with noirish elements, but I do have to say that it’s one of my favorite films (and the only Heston movie I like).

    I think I remember reading that Scorsese was trying to make a colored noir with Taxi Driver.

  12. I guess I don’t know why there’s a specific “noir” genre at all. If a film is dark, has crime, takes place in L.A., is it noir or soap? I really think the best films transcend their genre, so the best noir films aren’t all that “noirish.”

    I agree that Sunset Boulevard (or Blvd. as it’s spelled in the film) is a great film, regardless of its genre. I haven’t seen Sin City, but I don’t go to the movies anymore at all. I wait until the movie is available for home viewing.

  13. I think Brian’s said it pretty well.

    I’m not sure though; I don’t really remember. Unfortunately, I stayed up all night the night before I saw it and I could not keep my eyes open during the film. Throughout the whole thing I was half awake, nodding in and out of sleep.

    All I can say is, that makes a weird fricking movie when you’re semi-conscious. My memories of it are all vague impressions, like some crazy messed up nightmare.

  14. Great link, D. I think you make an interesting point about great films transcending their genres. I believe that’s true. Categorizing a film often seems like a silly debate, but I feel because filmmaking has always been such a commercial enterprise genres have always been a part of cinema and the dicussion of what genre any given film belongs to becomes important because it illuminates how the best films subvert and/or transcend the genres they belong to.

  15. Eric, that was actually the effect they were going for. They said they wanted an effect like waking from a fever dream.

    Personally that’s what kind of bothered me. I prefer more realism in my films whereas that’s not something Rodriguez really goes for in the least.

  16. Eric’s comment in #17 could very well describe my experience when I saw “Requiem for a Dream.” I still haven’t seen it when I was fully awake and I just remember it as very weird, very trance-y. It probably is kinda like that, anyway, but I bet it’s even stranger on sleep deprivation, and when you’re in and out of it.

  17. I saw it last week while out on one of those notorious man-dates mentioned on T&S recently. My wife had zero interest in seeing the movie.

    I won’t suggest that anyone see it since it is incredibly graphic. Many of the scenes are disturbing. That said, it gripped my mind and I thought about it for several days afterwards.

    While I agree that the “first” story (two others began before it) was the one that I was most invested in, but the others were interesting to me as well. Perhaps they focused on the wrong characters in the Clive Owen piece, I would have been more interested exploring in the motivations of the Benedict Arnold charater. That said I thought that the scenes in the car were hilarious.

    While the second segment might have been the weakest of the three, it had to be there. Why? Because the Bruce Willis story mirrors the first story too closely. Having the middle story puts some distance between the other two and features female characters that are capable of defending themselves.

    The visual style of the film is retro and groundbreaking at the same time. I think that the fact that it mimicks the style of the comics so closely is a strength. I don’t see the harm in finally having a comic book movie that plays like a comic book. There have certainly been plenty that didn’t. The fact that it doesn’t play in the way you expect a movie to play might have more to do with pre-conceived notions of what a movie should be than with any weakness of the film. I appreciated the newness of the experience, and I think some aspects you criticize were there on purpose for comic effect.

    I mentioned that I thought about it afterwards. What I was thinking about wasn’t the plot, but the fact that it was such a different movie than what I had seen before. It expanded my concept of what a movie could be.

  18. this helps my coursework a lot seeing as i havent seen this film totally, so damn boring i took the piss out of it for the entirety of the film

  19. I agree with the seventh comment, written by “NFlanders”. The film is flat, and just because it has a distinctive visual style doesn’t mean you immediately want to endure two-hours of samey dialogue and general monotony. I didn’t like this film at all, it wasn’t even that violent or controversial. It just tries to shock without really knowing how. You don’t care about any of the characters anyway and trying to use “injustice” and “suffering” to get people’s attention with one-dimensional storylines just doesn’t work. Everything’s to drawn out and lifeless. Giving someone a black coat and a gun doesn’t really make them cool, it’s their attitude and dialogue that achieve that. Not saying, constantly, “I don’t givva f**k”, come on, neither do the audience. The film was too boring, essentially. It lacked motive, and drive. People just seemed to being killing eachother for sake of it, that even looked bored while they were doing it. The cannibal character wasn’t particularly menacing as he was just a cardboard cut-out, he just looked like he was going through the montions.

    All in all, I just feel that Tarantino’s constant usage of emotionally absent characters is too recycled and dull. I really didn’t care whether of not Nancy was shot, or how long Hartigan was, unjustly, placed in jail for, because these characters never bothered to engage the audience. It was just one rehearsed line after another.

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