It would take a gumshoe with street smarts of Sam Spade, the insight of Philip Marlowe, and the cinematic magic of today’s top filmmakers to track down all the myriad ingredients that blended to produce Sin City. That 2005 film was the dark, ultra-violent collection of tales created by writer/illustrator/director Frank Miller and filmmaker Robert Rodriguez, whose latest entry in the franchise, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, hits theaters August 22.
The first Sin City, based on Miller’s collection of graphic novels, opened to critical and popular acclaim for its compelling stories as well as for its groundbreaking visual style. Sin City is black-and-white storytelling taken to a level never seen before in cinema history. While previous black-and-white films (including many of the film noir standards which Sin City recalls) conveyed their stories in varying shades of grey, Sin City was presented in the blackest of blacks and the starkest of whites—with searing splashes of color digitally added to accentuate key objects: a woman’s red dress and blonde hair, a foreboding man’s golden eye, a character’s red Converse shoes, and, of course, blood—plenty of blood. In presenting itself this way, Sin City simultaneously reached back generations into the past and forward into the cutting edge of filmmaking to dazzle audiences.
Scholars and critics assigned the term “film noir” to a style of moviemaking primarily developed in the late 1940s and early 1950s, but the genre has its literary roots in the hardboiled American crime and detective novels published as early as the 1920s. In these books, writers such as Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, and Raymond Chandler wove the tales that would become the bases of such classic films as The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Big Sleep, and Strangers on a Train.
The films in this genre typically included dark interpretations of gritty, violent worlds in which protagonists were morally ambiguous characters trapped in the seamy, cynical mazes of urban—usually criminal—underworlds. Film noir was also noted for its use of stark, expressionistic lighting and visual composition that reflected the turmoil lurking within its characters. The genre went on to influence great films of subsequent eras, including Chinatown (1974), L.A. Confidential (1997), and The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001).
It was this style that would go on to influence Miller as a comic book writer and artist. He made his first big splash in the pages of Daredevil, in which, under his guidance, the adventures of the blind lawyer by day/superhero by night became what Miller would call “crime comics with a superhero in them.” Daredevil’s exploits more and more took place on the moonlight rooftops and squalid back alleys of New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, and both Daredevil and Miller became two of comicdom’s fastest-rising stars.
Later, Miller would make comic history with his four-issue mini-series The Dark Night Returns, in which a middle-aged Bruce Wayne emerges from retirement to fight crime in a world far darker and more violent than Batman fans were accustomed to seeing. The series was printed in a “prestige format,” with heavy-stock paper and cardstock covers, and it was a milestone in lifting the stature of comic books far beyond what they had been before.
When Miller began turning out Sin City tales in 1995, he devoted the heart and soul of the series to the film noir style that had so heavily influenced his previous works. Drawn in black-and-white, the stories began to reach an audience outside of traditional comic book readership. One of these devoted readers was Rodriguez, who was so intent on bringing Miller’s work to the screen that he shot a “proof of concept” adaptation of the Sin City story “The Customer is Always Right” in order to convince Miller that the project could work. Miller was impressed by Rodriguez’s efforts, and the two would go on to share directorial credit on the first Sin City film.
Just as several of Miller’s projects were landmarks in the comic book field, so did Sin City represent a technological breakthrough in film production. The movie was one of the first to be shot on a “digital back lot,” a process in which actors worked in front of a green screen while artificial backgrounds (and some major elements in the foreground, as well) were inserted digitally in post-production. In fact, only three sets in the entire film were constructed by hand. While the use of green-screen production has since become the standard for special-effects filmmaking, Sin City represented one of the first times that the technology was used to unlock the potential of what can be seen in a movie theater, which is now limited only by a filmmaker’s imagination.
As Miller and Rodriguez release Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, what will the movie offer audiences? Certainly, it will be a heady mix of twentieth-century pulp novels, classic film styling, and cutting-edge moviemaking. Perhaps, though, it’s best summed up by Humphrey Bogart, who, as Sam Spade, closed The Maltese Falcon by telling us, “It’s the stuff that dreams are made of.”