Despite a bloody modus operandi, Marv does have his limits. When his parole officer, who also happens to provide him with anti-psychotic medication, is killed, he begins to question whether the man he is hunting is really responsible for masterminding the murder of the prostitute; without his medication, his perceptions of reality may be skewed. As he says in a voice over monologue, “Can’t kill a man without knowing you ought to,” referring to the possible innocence of Cardinal Roark. This reticence, born out of his awareness that he suffers from mental illness, helps to show that Marv has no intention of harming innocents. In his mind, those he hurts he hurts justifiably.
Clive Owen’s Dwight also struggles with determining who he can or cannot justifiably kill. When he and his ephemeral lover Gail watch “Jackie Boy” as he vainly attempts to threaten a prostitute into sleeping with him, Dwight knows that the other prostitutes will likely kill him. He is not entirely comfortable with this, however, stating that it is not right to kill someone who had not yet committed any murder.
This ethical boundary about murder does not feel organic to film noir, offering a foreign logic when compared the way Humphrey Bogart or Elliott Gould’s character handled the subject. While the character of Philip Marlowe is a private eye and therefore inherently operates outside of the law, the mostly unbridled vigilanteism of Marv, Dwight, and the other protagonists of Sin City is entirely removed from that framework. Likewise, although Elliott Gould’s Marlowe does decide to shoot a defenseless Terry Lennox when he learns about his crimes, he refrains from out-and-out violence as he goes about solving the mystery of Terry’s disappearance.
The noir aspects of Sin City can also be looked in terms of how the film portrays women. The role of women in film noir has been fairly well-establish over the past century. At the dawn of the genre with films like The Big Sleep and Double Indemnity, Hollywood considered women to be tricky, untrustworthy people with untowardly goals who were willing to use their looks and sexuality to achieve them – this is the “femme fatale” archetype that has become synonymous with noir.
In Chester Himes’ A Rage in Harlem, and to some extent the film adaptation in the early 90s, gender and gender roles were twisted in such a way that brought attention to the accepted conventions of film noir. Women in that world were blamed for “inciting young Black men into crime” and suffered misogyny and violent attack. In the 1970s, The Long Goodbye de-sexualized female characters like Philip Marlowe’s neighbors, and indeed Philip Marlowe himself, choosing instead to treat them indifferently from the other characters in the movie. But even in The Long Goodbye, the character of Eileen Wade is still the primary villain of the story, having deceived Marlowe in order to help her lover Terry Lennox escape to Mexico with all of Marty Augustine’s money. Sin City manipulates this century-long confusion of gender roles to alternately portray its own characters in the contexts of both early and modern film noir.
In Sin City, Miller’s male characters oscillate between seeing women as their equal counterparts and seeing them as objects that need protection or banners under which they can seek honor-restoring vengeance. Several times, male character strike women without any real repercussions. In “The Big Fat Kill,” Dwight hits his lover Shellie, and she responds by kissing him. Similarly, in “The Hard Goodbye,” Marv punches Wendy in the jaw to keep her from killing her sister’s murderer too quickly, and yet she turns up at the last moment when Marv is headed for the electric chair to spend his last few hours alive with him.
Conversely, threats to the manhood of certain characters in Sin City are common. In the first sequence of “The Yellow Bastard,” the detective John Hartigan (Bruce Willis) confronts Roark Junior, a child rapist and murderer. He first shoots his hand and his shoulder, but then makes a special point of shooting him in the genitals, an act that reflected Junior’s crimes. In “The Hard Goodbye,” Marv interrogates a hired killer by threatening to shoot him below the belt and then following through on his promise. And in “The Big Fat Kill,” Dwight puts a knife to Jackie Boy’s throat and threatens him with castration if he ever approaches the prostitute Shellie again.