Author, raconteur, commentator and former newspaperman Eddie Muller launched Noir City, an annual San Francisco-based festival of noir, seven years ago, and it’s attracted an avid following, both in the Bay Area and beyond. (It now tours many U.S. cities). A self-described "second generation San Franciscan, product of a lousy public school education, a couple of crazy years in art school and too much time spent in newspaper offices and sporting arenas," Muller has built a small empire around his passion for this dark, cynical, highly stylized brand of storytelling. He says his career as an "ink-stained, fourth estate wretch" sidetracked his early ambition to become a filmmaker, but this year, he brings the two worlds together with "Newspaper Noir," a tribute to and lament for the heyday of print journalism. The films, presented in nightly double bills, feature the usual suspects: an assortment of criminals, hard-bitten editors, lethal femme fatales with betrayal and skullduggery on their minds and ordinary Joes, losers driven by despair and sucked into a vortex from which there’s no escape. For Noir City 7, which runs January 23-February 1 at the Castro Theatre, Muller and co-curator Anita Monga acquired several one-of-a-kind 35mm prints struck by the studios especially for the festival. SF360.org got a chance to speak with Muller this past month, after he’d returned from a film-scouting mission to South America.
SF360: What do you think accounts for the enduring appeal of noir?
Eddie Muller: For contemporary audiences, it’s the style. In the last ten years, we’ve seen that style make a comeback in youth cocktail culture. They’re more inclined to dress up to go out which is very much in keeping with noir style. But also the films are not sappy. Noir is the birth of cynicism.
SF360: This is the seventh year of Noir City. Has it become increasingly difficult to find good films?
Muller: At the same time that it becomes a concern that the forgotten films are forgotten for a reason, the success of the festival has definitely helped our excavations. The studios are much more helpful now than when we started. At Universal, the entire office of the vice president of distribution is decorated in Noir City posters—that’s a good thing.
SF360: Noir is a term that’s been appropriated to cover color films such as Body Heat and a range of other movies. How do you define noir and where do you draw the line?
Muller: Yes, Body Heat is noir. There’s no point in doing noir the way it was done back in the 1940s and, when Hollywood tries to do that, it fails dismally. The Black Dahlia and The Good German didn’t work because they had nothing to say to contemporary audiences. What separates noir from a detective or a cops and robbers story, is that it asks you to empathize with compromised characters. If a film is shot like a noir but the central character is an incorruptible, do-gooder cop, then it’s a cop movie. However, if the protagonist is somebody cheating on his wife and planning to rob a bank and the filmmaker persuades the audience to empathize with him, then that’s a true noir. You have crossed the line into the dark side and you’re not afraid to go there.
SF360: Do you think noir is more compelling in troubled times?
Muller: Noir is appropriate for troubled times. I’m not sure they’re going to come from Hollywood because Hollywood is totally confused about its existence right now. I thought that 2007 was going to be the start of a renaissance of contemporary noir. I could make the argument that all the best films that year were either noir or related to noir: No Country for Old Men, In the Valley of Elah, Michael Clayton, Gone Baby Gone, Zodiac. Michael Clayton was a terrific film with a brilliantly constructed screenplay and characterizations. Its tone reminded me very much of classic Film noir with the displaced man who’s fed up and whose moral compass is askew; he’s trying to find sure footing. Even though it ends with Clayton doing the right thing, which has a cathartic effect for the audience, it has a beautiful, end-credit sequence where he gets in the taxi cab and you realize he has nowhere to go.
SF360: How has noir influenced filmmaking?
Muller: As much as I love noir, I don’t know that it’s influenced filmmaking in entirely positive ways. I don’t think people who imitate the style of noir are doing themselves or viewers any great favors. However, there are filmmakers like David Lynch, Chris Nolan and the Coen Brothers who are doing an extension of noir. Making you empathize with disturbed characters who know they’re doing something wrong and do it anyway describes every Lynch film except Straight Story. Lost Highway, Wild at Heart and Muholland Drive are stories about murderers and he puts you in their heads. That’s pretty noir when you think about it.
SF360: How much did the German émigrés shape the feel, look and tone of noir?
Muller: The look and feel of noir was inspired by that whole wave of European émigrés who had very stylized theater training. They and the German expressionist movement mixed with a particular style of American storytelling. Scholars are seduced by the visual style but they don’t give enough credit to the writers. The storytelling style, the vernacular speech, the clipped, terse way of telling a story—all of that is particularly American. In Europe, they downplay the impact of Europeans and play up the American qualities of the films which they love.
SF360: It’s been said that their exposure to the rise of Nazism had a profound effect on the films they made.
Muller: They brought with them a much more pessimistic, realist world view. This style of filmmaking is romanticized but it’s also very dark and pessimistic. The mixing of those elements with the tough, take-no-prisoners, don’t-give-me-any-guff style of American storytelling popular during the Depression is how film noir was created.
SF360: Who are the directors you gravitate toward and why?
Muller: Robert Siodmak is my favorite director because he, more than anyone else, understands the noir style. He’s a very seductive, suspenseful, atmospheric filmmaker. It really bugs me when people talk about noir as tough, violent pot boilers and they think it’s all like Mickey Spillane. The best noir films are spellbinding. That’s the word that comes to mind. It’s a style of filmmaking that completely complements stories about a person drawn into a situation almost against their will; they really shouldn’t go there but they can’t help themselves. The next thing you know they’re caught up in a whirlpool of sin and there’s no way out. I love when a filmmaker directs a film in exactly this way and that’s what Siodmak always did. His films have an inexorable pull—they’re not fast paced, there’s no slam-bang editing. Lynch’s films also have that quality. They draw you in and you can’t help yourself, you have the feeling that something dreadful is going to happen but you can’t stop going down that path.
SF360: So, here’s pop quiz. Name the steamiest noir moment or scene.
Muller: The after-shower, tic-tac-toe scene from Thieves Highway is the one stands that out for me. It was an early film I saw and I always cite it as an example of why old Hollywood movies, even with the Production Code, were more erotic than movies made today. Take Gilda: It’s the most perverted movie ever made.
SF360: Who’s the most menacing heavy?
Muller: Raymond Burr in Raw Deal is the quintessential noir heavy. There’s Charles McGraw in T-Men, and Laird Cregar in I Wake up Screaming.
SF360: Your favorite/most lethal femme fatale?
Muller: The women I’d travel back in time to are: Gloria Graham, Ella Raines and Linda Darnell. Ella Raines was never really a femme fatale but I just really like her.
SF360: How did you find your way into this niche?
Muller: I like the films and particularly like that period of American history because I think it’s the time—mid-20th century, the span from victory in WW2 to the Kennedy assassination—when America lost its innocence. We were kings of the world because we saved the world and then when Kennedy was assassinated, it was if we lost our way and there was something horrible and corrupt at the center of our society. How that happened and how it’s reflected in the popular art of the time has always been interesting to me.
SF360: Has noir affected your personal style?
Muller: I don’t think so. What I get out of these old films I try to adapt to my daily life. I do wear suits quite a bit but I don’t wear vintage suits from the ’40s. If you’re going out, I like the idea of dressing for public interaction. I don’t know if that has anything to do with noir but I believe that in a previous incarnation in America, people respected each other more because they dressed for each other. I think the way men dress today is disgraceful.
SF360: You’re a second generation newspaperman. Is this why you chose Newspaper Noir as the theme for this year’s series?
Muller: My dad was a former newspaperman. I loved the whole concept of the newspaper business, I love newspapers and they’re dying. So, it seemed to me the perfect time. It’s a wake. I’m aware that the festival attracts a wide range of ages, some of whom are seeing black and white movies for the first time. I don’t know how many younger people have a clue as to what the newspaper business was like in the mid-20th century, so here’s a chance to be immersed in it. In so many of these films, you see the plant, the composing and city rooms. There’s nothing like that anymore, and newspapers haven’t been like that for decades. The newspaper used to be the single most important place in the city. They elected politicians. It was how people got their news and it’s all gone. It doesn’t exist. There is no central nervous system in the city anymore. The main story in the program was written by the city editor of the New York Times who’s a big noir fan.
SF360: If could chose only one double bill from this year’s program, what would it be?
Muller: Opening night which is Deadline USA and Scandal Sheet. Deadline USA is a very righteous film about the newspaper business. It’s extremely cynical and very idealistic and romantic at the same time. Scandal Sheet is just a fantastic story. Sam Fuller wrote the novel and Phil Karlson directed. You can’t beat it.
_For more information on Eddie Muller, go to eddiemuller.com. For more on Noir City 7, www.noircity.com.
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