The new crime thriller Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is part film noir homage, part noir send-up. But it's all about the cars. "By the end, you know them as well as you know the people," says codirector Frank Miller, whose dark nineties graphic novels inspired this movie and the 2005 original. "I think of the cars as full-fledged characters."
Directors in the genre's heyday, from the early forties to the late fifties, thought similarly. Noir vehicles carried tons of symbolism, holding up a mirror to their drivers. "Rainy streets, black blacks, one source of light—the movies are stylized, and the cars are too," says Mark Osteen, author of Nightmare Alley: Film Noir and the American Dream. "They say, 'I'm dangerous. I can go really fast. And frankly, I don't give a shit.'"
In A Dame to Kill For, Joseph Gordon-Levitt's character, Johnny, a swaggering gambler seeking revenge, drives a 1960 Corvette convertible (perhaps the ultimate I-don't-give-a-shit ride). Below, other famous film noir cars and the roles they played.
Sin City: a Dame to Kill For, 2014
1960 Corvette Convertible (pictured, above)
GM's renowned design chief, Harley Earl, envisioned something as beautiful as the Jaguars and MGs that vets returning from WWII saw in Europe, but more muscular, brash—more American (GM introduced the Corvette in 1953). This 1960 model—retro and modern at the same time, it's perfect for a pastiche—is all of that. "Johnny's a man of style," Miller says. "He needs a sexy sports car."
1937 La Salle Touring Sedan
The La Salle plays the accomplice: Fred MacMurray hides in its monstrous back seat as he plots to kill Barbara Stanwyck's husband. "Cars were an escape from the confines of city life, but they often ended up being a form of entrapment," says Eddie Muller, author of Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir. "The number of threatening scenes set in the back seat of sedans is countless."
Sunset Boulevard, 1950
1929 Isotta Fraschini Tipo 8A Landaulet
Noir buffs consider the Landaulet "the saddest car in cinema," Muller says, because of its role in a delusion that washed-up silent-film star Norma Desmond suffers at the end of the movie: She thinks Paramount wants to cast her in a new production, only to learn that it just wants to rent the Landaulet for a period film. (Today's asking price: $300,000 to $400,000, says Rob Sass, a car-valuation expert at Hagerty Insurance.)
Kiss Me Deadly, 1955
1954 Jaguar XK120 (pictured, the nearly identical 1951)
"If you wanted to project glamour in 1950s Hollywood, this was the car," Sass says. (Corrupt detective Mike Hammer drives one, Osteen says, because "it stands in for a hyper-modern lifestyle where everything's disposable—in his case, women.") The movie is based on a book by Mickey Spillane, who owned a Jaguar XK140 "given to him by John Wayne for being a staunch anti-Communist," Sass says.
A Touch of Evil, 1958
1956 Chrysler New Yorker Convertible Coupe
"Hollywood has a penchant for blowing up cool cars," Sass says. Few explosions are as suspenseful as when a car bomb detonates this Chrysler in the opening sequence. The convertible's destruction would've been a subconscious reminder that a nuke could end postwar-era prosperity, says Osteen. On a lighter note: The market for fifties convertibles is flat, Sass says, so it's a good time to buy.