“Create your own visual style… let it be unique for yourself, yet instantly identifiable to others.” — Orson Welles
Film noir has enjoyed a fairly decent resurgence arguably since the Coen Brothers’ 1996 masterpiece Fargo brought us what is ostensibly a very noir story, with the window dressings of film noir flipped on their head into a landscape that is just as morally bleak as any black-drenched alley in classic noir, but instead physically white-washed with the snow of a Minnesota winter.
Robert Rodriguez’s second installment of Frank Miller’s “Sin City” graphic novels brought to film, 2014’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill, most certainly continues in the neo-noir vein of Fargo but with a clinging to a more old-school hardboiled plot, very reminiscent of a Raymond Chandler, Dashiel Hammett, or Mickey Spillaine pulp novel. The story is very pulp, very noir, but that all being said, this is not a film you watch for the story. Indeed, Sin City: A Dame to Kill for is, instead, a stunning visual trip.
Undoubtedly, the reason to watch either Sin City installment is Robert Rodriguez’s unique and very sleek style — hyper-stylized, brutal, and oh so elegant. He uses two specialized photographic techniques to get the signature look of the film: selective High Dynamic Range and selective coloring, both of which I use extensively in my work as a still photographer (which is how and where I started learning the canon of great cinema to improve my aesthetic eye). Selective HDR involves taking many shots of the same image at different exposures and then layering them all on top of each other. The result is a HUGE amount of detail.
The HUGE detail in Rodriguez’s HDR serves a larger purpose than just style however. The visual effects make the story itself hyper-real, accentuating the characters’ focus, and often giving us insights into their motivations by what they perceive as selectively colored in the comparatively dreary monochrome noir backdrop. This allows a relatively unprecedented level of control for the director, and has old Hollywood techniques like the Dutch Angle and experimentation with shadow ala the great director of photography John Alton — aiding his deft hand in controlling what he wishes we as the audience would keep our attention on: the ruby red lips of the femme fatale played by Eva Green, or the blue motif that lingers with her, arguably emphasizing her immorality, in a color that is a symbolic nod to that state, depression and death — see the use of blue in David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. as another example (read my analysis of that film here).
These visuals are what makes Sin City: A Dame to Kill For just as much a guilty pleasure to watch as the first Sin City. Rodriguez’s technique also renders the film’s visuals in a way that is eerily reminiscent of Miller’s graphic novel. In fact, this film is probably the closest of any live action graphic novel movie to actually looking like the stills from the source. This is a cool thing to see.
Eva Green does a great job as the ice queen femme fatale Ava Lord in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. She is scary good and truly something to behold as the rich socialite who manipulates her somewhat hapless private investigator boyfriend Dwight McCarthy (Josh Brolin) — played in the first Sin City installment by Clive Owen (Dwight McCarthy after his underworld plastic surgery). There is also a plethora of famous guest stars in the film, including Lady Gaga and Bruce Willis (returning as disgraced hero cop John Hartigan), who do great in their respective parts.
The story may seem a tad outrageous at times, but if you examine it with an eye to the repressive Hays Production Code that governed how the films noir upon which it is based were to be made (along with any other project financed by a major studio until roughly 1958, when enforcement of the Code became lax after Orson Welles bravely challenged it and stood up for free expression with his film Touch of Evil; he did the same 17 years before with his not so veiled character study of Charles Foster Kane (basically William Randolph Hearst), Citizen Kane — it really makes you wonder how close noirs like Out of the Past (read my look at Out of the Past here) or The Big Sleep would have truly been to it had they been able to show the grit that Sin City shows.
That is not to say that the effects of the Hays Code were all entirely deleterious to film. Oddly, the greatly repressive nature of it (for instance, it was against the Code to allow the bad guy in a film to escape justice) quite often forced filmmakers into great creativity. Basically the goal there was to craft elements that would communicate something salacious or violent without the censors picking up on it, while of course keeping it understandable to the audience. See the “horseracing” dialogue scene in Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep as a great example of sexualized dialogue crammed full of double entendre that was not lost on the audience but sailed past the tightly-wound censor. See that scene with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall below.
Neo-noir itself owes a great deal to Rodriguez for bringing his sleek and oh so sexy cool visual style to the conversation: it is an incredible way to add old-school hardboiled and noir touches — and also the entire history of these well-worn and time-tested cinematic techniques to us in the modern day.
Indeed, in that way, the Sin City films actually connect us to noir’s past in the Golden Age of Hollywood. It is a great meeting of old and new that every fan of a visually-striking film should watch, despite the critics often trashing it — its redeeming features undoubtedly lie in the visuals and their innovation on what is “traditional” — something applicable to all great art.
Wess A. Haubrich is the contributing editor of the film section of The Nu Romantics and London’s award-winning culture website The 405. He is also a “top writer in movies” on Medium.com. He can be reached on Twitter or via email: firstname.lastname@example.org as he is always looking for cutting edge undiscovered cinema especially and innovative forms of all kinds of art to bring to his readers by probing the minds of their creators in interviews and features.