Czar of noir

Pub date January 24, 2007
WriterMax Goldberg
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

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One doesn’t feel far from the dark, stylized universe of classic film noir in Tosca, a long, obliquely angled bar in North Beach. It is where I am to meet Eddie Muller, the man behind San Francisco’s Noir City festival and corresponding Film Noir Foundation, a self-described "writer and cultural archaeologist" with several spry volumes of film history to his credit — alluring, fanatic titles such as Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir, Dark City Dames, and Grindhouse: The Forbidden World of "Adults Only" Cinema.

"There seems to be an almost Freudian attachment to water. The empty noir streets are almost always glistening with fresh evening rain … even in Los Angeles," writer-director Paul Schrader writes in his seminal essay "Notes on Film Noir." Now, as the afternoon darkens, the Columbus Avenue strip is dry, but the Lusty Lady’s neon glows while I wait for the bar to open. Noir’s trademark deep focus would lend itself well to the space inside, filled with the stale smoke of yesterday’s cigarettes and deep red and mahogany: it’s a romantic kind of place, a remembrance of things past. One of the many dizzying plot twists in Jacques Tourneur’s 1947 Out of the Past — perhaps the most knotty and melancholy of the noirs, a preeminent example of the genus — has Robert Mitchum’s heavy chasing after a double-cross in a North Beach bar. I think about this as Muller strides in with an easy gait. We settle in to talk, and the jukebox turns to smoky jazz: "Mood music," he says and then laughs.

Setting the mood is something Muller is exceedingly good at. The first time I met him was at the press conference for last year’s Noir City, staged at the York Hotel’s appropriately named Empire Plush Room — deep red, again, with little flutes of champagne. The nightclub decor of last year’s festival may have been sucked up by the cavernous dimensions of the Palace of Fine Arts, but the attempt to establish a kind of interstitial lobby space was a nice gesture, especially since these films are, if nothing else, about atmosphere.

After two years away, this coming installment of Noir City, the fifth, will be held at the Castro Theatre. Muller’s decision to return to the Castro — made difficult by the theater’s firing of programmer and chief Noir City collaborator Anita Monga — speaks to the emphasis he places on the moviegoing experience, as well as his deep respect for Bay Area audiences. "We struggle to get 200 people to the theater in LA," Muller muses before adding excitedly, "I mean, we get five times that many people out here. The studios can’t believe it…. I always have to be careful when I talk about the numbers." He laughs. "You want it to be great, but you don’t want it to be so great that they’re thinking, ‘Wait a second, why are we giving these guys a break on these old films?’ "

It’s no wonder that studios take note of Muller’s successes. Hollywood’s big players trot out old movies on DVD not so much from altruistic preservation impulses as from an urge to fatten the bottom line, the sense that there’s an extra buck to be made from some old holdings. The studios have a long history of neglecting their archives, but when hundreds of people come out and pay their money for Raw Deal (a tough little 1948 Anthony Mann picture opening this year’s festival), heads turn.

Muller is modest when discussing some of the DVD sets he has helped spark, but this propriety does nothing to disguise his missionary zeal. When he describes a preservation victory, such as an upcoming John Garfield DVD set, he beams. But as he mulls over decaying prints, his countenance turns worried. (Though gussied-up imprints like the Criterion Collection give the sense that the classics are safe, the films they release represent only a small fraction of what’s in the vaults.) Muller details his maneuverings for Joan Crawford films ("She is the force behind these films…. She is the auteur as much as John Waters is an auteur") and how he ended up trading 1952’s This Woman Is Dangerous for 1950’s The Damned Don’t Cry for this year’s fest. The urgency in his voice is from more than just trying to score an outrageous Crawford vehicle. "In these last five or six years," he says, "I’ve learned the possibility is very real that American culture can just decay and slip away."

Muller’s experience runs deep enough that it’s easy to forget Noir City is such a babe. A spree through three venues in five years (the festival has also run at the Balboa Theater) has a way of making a festival grow up fast, though the major renovation to Noir City has taken place behind the scenes. Formed in the autumn of 2005, the Film Noir Foundation was originally conceived of as a means to land the best available prints of rare films, something very much on Muller’s mind after his experience booking Edgar G. Ulmer’s gonzo 1945 B-movie Detour for the second Noir City.

"What I came to realize was that there are prints that are circuutf8g prints and there are prints that are archival prints," Muller says. "When we had [Detour ‘s] Ann Savage as a guest that second year, the only print in circulation of Detour was junk. I knew that the Cinémathèque Française had a print that was good, but they would never ship it to the Castro [a for-profit theater]. So that’s where the San Francisco Film Society stepped in, and they said they’d book it for us…. Altruism wasn’t my initial motivation for doing this. It was about getting the good prints."

In the time since, the Film Noir Foundation has blossomed into a vital preservation group. "It achieved a life of its own," Muller explains, "because it became a viable way to create an entity that presents a united front to the studios to show that there was a reason and a value in saving these films. In the case of The Window [a 1949 film that anticipates Hitchcock’s Rear Window] and Nobody Lives Forever [from 1946, a taut con man picture with a typically strong John Garfield performance], we’ve done the restoration and put them back in circulation, and they show at other festivals, and the film carries the Film Noir Foundation logo. It’s a way of saying [to the studios], ‘Look, if we do this, you’re going to get more bookings out of the film.’ We’re almost like a lobbying group for film noir."

For every victory like those films’ restoration — or, for that matter, bringing celebrity writers such as Denis Lehane and James Ellroy on to the foundation’s board — there are many grueling and perhaps futile battles. The foundation, for example, has located the elements and "contacted the people we need to contact," Muller says, to restore 1951’s The Prowler, an edgy feature about a sociopathic cop. The film might be a key noir, but the Film Noir Foundation hasn’t been able to fund the process (which Muller quotes at $40,000). The ultimate trick would be to get the studios to realize the potential and take on these costs themselves, and that is happening but not necessarily fast enough to keep many prints from disappearing. "Even films by major filmmakers," Muller adds. "There are Billy Wilder ones that are questionable…. [1942’s] The Major and the Minor — is anyone preserving that film?"

Muller relishes talking shop about forgotten films (this year 12 of 20 films in the Noir City program guide are marked, in red type, "RARITY!!! Never on VHS or DVD!" with one, 1949’s Abandoned, emphasized as being "RARE AS THEY COME!!!"). But it’s important to note that his programming is also deeply inclusive. Noir, like any singular, involved body of work, has its cult, but Muller’s aims are broad enough to keep the festival from feeling too much like a Trekkie convention. More important to him than his specific love of noir is his audience’s moviegoing experience.

"This is something that Anita really taught me," Muller explains. "When I was first programming, I’d try to load the program with all these rare, obscure things, and she said, ‘No, what you have to understand is that you appeal to people who get it, but they want to bring their friends and say, ‘You gotta see this! " He continues, "She was absolutely right. Show the traditional thing but book it with something obscure. Right out of the gate … [Noir City] showed The Lady from Shanghai with [the 1950 Ann Sheridan vehicle] Woman on the Run, and Woman on the Run was the rarest of the rare. No one had seen that. We filled the Castro that night, and people went nuts for that film, and that’s still the greatest moment we’ve had doing the festival."

Given Noir City’s emphasis on the big-screen experience, it might be surprising to learn that Muller himself first experienced many of the classic film noirs on late-night television. "I saw Detour for the first time at 3 a.m. on Movies ‘ Til Dawn," he reminisces. "You’re hallucinating these films. It’s great…. To have that be your first experience of Ann Savage: 3 a.m. when you’re 14 years old. You’re, like, ‘Who is this woman? ‘ "

It didn’t take long for Muller to graduate to the burgeoning rep scene in ’70s San Francisco, an era he reflects on in an aching piece ("Noir City, Our City") for Julie Lindow and R.A. McBride’s upcoming essay and photo collection about San Francisco’s dwindling movie theaters, Left in the Dark. "Theaters, as much as movies themselves, were landmarks of my early life," his contribution begins. "Films offered wishes and warnings about the life I could lead, the person I could be, but it was the movie houses that guided me through the streets and neighborhoods of San Francisco, introducing me to every nook and cranny of my 49-square-mile hometown."

It was noir that gave shape to Muller’s passion, and he’s hardly alone in this. I’ve often thought that the way the classic femme fatale seduces her doomed prey is the onscreen equivalent of the way films draw in — and obsess — their audiences. A great many movies are stylish and smart to the point of irresistibility; how many times has the promise of hard shadows and unrepentant fatalism at the theater won out over a sunny afternoon in the real world?

Famous for being vaguely defined as a species — as with folk music or modernism, there are common landmarks, but everyone seems to have their own criteria — the dark crime dramas of the ’40s were first christened film noir by French critics when the films flooded Paris en masse following the close of World War II. This was 1946 and, as it turns out, only the beginning. The grittiest, most whacked-out instances of noir, startling films such as D.O.A. and Gun Crazy (both released in 1950), Pickup on South Street (1953), and Kiss Me Deadly (1955), arrived as Americans wrestled postwar demons and Hollywood entered an identity crisis that hinged on both Communism and television.

Most experts close noir’s door at the end of the ’50s, classifying related films following 1958’s Touch of Evil as neonoir (e.g., Chinatown, Mullholland Drive). A college professor of mine considered noir less a genre than a virus: a stylish, fatalistic streak infecting normal melodramas, gangster pictures, and even westerns and comedies. This jibes with the different ways noir announces itself: sometimes in the overall tone of a film, other times in a single character or lighting setup. Definitions aside, one emergent truth is a high benchmark of quality for films under the rubric. This film species has survived the decades better than most, especially those born of Hollywood. Schrader put it this way: "Picked at random, a film noir is likely to be a better-made film than a randomly selected silent comedy, musical, western, and so on."

Schrader follows this with the observation that "film noir seemed to bring out the best in everyone: directors, cameramen, screenwriters, actors." In other words, film noirs are creditable examples of what the esteemed critic André Bazin referred to as the "genius of the system," that strange mix of artistry, economics, and streamlined collaboration that helped to define the studio era. It’s a point not lost on Muller. "There are business factors as well as artistic factors that are brought to bear," he says. "You can’t look at one without the other." During our conversation an implicit criticism of auteurism (the mode of movie critique that is interested in films in terms of their directors) begins to emerge.

Muller has his favorite directors, of course, but he’s more interested in untangling a film’s production history — the messy business of sorting out who did what — than in pontificating about why one director’s style is better than another’s. (Indeed, auteurist debates often have the quality of those childhood arguments over whether Superman would beat Batman in a fight.) There are, of course, those directors who really did shape their own work, exerting an unusual degree of control, but far more typical is someone like Robert Wise, a by-assignment director who turned in salty noirs such as 1947’s Born to Kill and 1949’s The Set-Up (a superior boxing picture that runs circles around Raging Bull ) in addition to better-known schlock like The Sound of Music.

Considering the fact that so many of noir’s characters are fallen (the forgotten man and the spurned woman), it seems all too appropriate that the achievements of many of the form’s major contributors remain unsung. To take a sterling example, cinematographer John Alton is as responsible for the noir look as any director, doing for the city landscape what John Ford did for the open West. "We always have a John Alton night [at Noir City]," Muller says. "The guy is the uncredited director of some of those pictures…. Every director’s best film is with John Alton." Accordingly, this year’s Noir City will double-feature a pair of Alton-shot films, Joseph Lewis’s top-notch late noir The Big Combo (1955) and a new 35mm print of The Spiritualist (1948).

With Noir City showing additional programs spotlighting other little-known noir luminaries such as screenwriter William Bowers (1951’s Cry Danger and 1949’s Abandoned ) and actor Charles McGraw (1949’s The Threat and 1951’s Roadblock), as well as beefcake-era Burt Lancaster (1948’s I Walk Alone and, from the same year and costarring Joan Fontaine, Kiss the Blood off My Hands), it’s clear that Muller’s emphasis on a broadened sense of film production isn’t an abstract philosophy. It’s about recognizing real people and contributions, something crystallized by the fest’s guest appearances. Actress Marsha Hunt (Raw Deal) and actor Richard Erdman (Cry Danger) will appear this year, and past festivals have featured actors Farley Granger, Sean Penn, Coleen Grey (Nightmare Alley), and, of course, Detour‘s amazing Savage.

"The greatest thing to me about having done these festivals with the original people is that it gives audiences a view of noir that is very blue-collar, on the ground," Muller muses. "They never attached the name ‘film noir’ to it, but [it’s important] to talk with the actresses and to hear firsthand what they thought they were doing, and to get the writers’ point of view, which was by and large more politicized … much more so than the directors or the producers, who are a riot because they always say, ‘We shot it that way because we didn’t have a cent.’ "

When I ask Muller how the old-school talent responds to all this attention decades after the fact, he says plainly, "I can tell you in Ann’s case, it was the greatest night of her life. I mean, she has not stopped talking about it since. In some cases, it’s almost overwhelming." Such events are increasingly a challenge to put together; 60 years outside noir’s prime, it’s not getting any easier to find the genre’s original contributors. Robert Altman, who directed one of the first key neonoirs (1976’s The Long Goodbye), died the day before my meeting with Muller. If he’s gone, one wonders, how many of the original lot can be left?

The talent, of course, isn’t the only thing disappearing. DVDs are a wonderful auxiliary format for digesting cinema, but in the case of studio films from the classical era, it seems silly to contend that something isn’t lost without the full theatrical experience. A couple of weeks ago I went to the Castro to see Casablanca, a classical classic, not an extraordinary one like, say, Citizen Kane. I’d seen the film several times but never on a screen like the Castro’s. The moments when I felt its size most acutely were the most intimate ones: those interminable close-ups on Ingrid Bergman that so revel in the star’s introspective glamour. One cannot really grasp what these close-ups were designed to do without experiencing them on this scale. Everything comes into sharper relief in the theater: the close-ups are more wrenching, the dialogue funnier, the fantasy more complete.

Toward the end of his "Noir City, Our City" essay, Muller reflects on programming Noir City: "We tried to connect the audience, in a sort of cinematic séance, with 1940s era filmmakers and filmgoers," he writes. "San Francisco theaters appropriate to such a concept comprised a short list: the Castro and Balboa were the only ones still standing with even a trace of the old-style panache that once was commonplace." According to Muller, we ought to count ourselves lucky for those two. "It doesn’t really happen anyplace else," he says, referring to the electricity of a capacity crowd at the Castro. "New York has nothing like this. The best they can do is the Film Forum…. The Film Forum fills a need, but New York does not have a venue like the Castro. It does not have audiences like this, honestly."

And so, in the end, it’s about sitting alone together in the dark. Noir films possess the dream logic and stylization that make the theater necessary and, as an added bonus, a cynical sting that disintegrates any of the sloppy moralism or cheesy gentility that might otherwise taint our experience of classical Hollywood cinema (Schrader again: they are "an uneasy, exhilarating combination of realism and expressionism"). The work Muller does with Noir City strives toward many ends, but its most important function is also its most basic — strange and seductive, the films of Noir City often remind us why we fell for the movies in the first place. *


Jan. 26–Feb. 4, $10 per show, $35 for opening night program and reception, $100 for full series passport

Castro Theatre

429 Castro, SF

(415) 621-6120