Filmgoer Theory: An Interview with Eddie Muller on the Nowness of Noir
By Zach MannMarch 18, 2015
THE CZAR OF NOIR, a hard sell as far as monikers go, is well deserved in the case of Eddie Muller. His first novel, The Distance, won the Best First Novel Award from the Private Eye Writers of America and was nominated for an Anthony Award. His second novel, Shadow Boxer, was equally acclaimed. But the nickname is especially fitting when you consider Muller’s many publications on film noir — including Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir and Dark City Dames: The Wicked Women of Film Noir — as well as his DVD commentaries on films such as Angel Face, They Live by Night, and Where the Sidewalk Ends. He is the founder and president of the Film Noir Foundation, which restores and preserves films in participation with the UCLA Film & Television Archive, and the publisher behind Black Pool Productions. His work as a writer, critic, and film historian has seen him named a San Francisco Literary Laureate, twice, and now Muller can also be seen presenting classic cinema on Turner Classic Movies.
I first encountered Eddie Muller at a San Francisco NOIR CITY film screening in the early 2000s. He was introducing a double feature, and he was perfectly cast for the part — wise-cracking but full of wisdom, like a seen-it-all cabbie driving a Robert Mitchum character to the site of his self-inflicted demise. Since then, NOIR CITY, the largest retrospective of noir films in the world, has expanded to Austin, Chicago, Kansas City, Portland, Seattle, and Washington DC. The 17th Hollywood NOIR CITY will be running at the Egyptian Theatre from April 3–19, 2015, presented by the American Cinematheque in collaboration with the Film Noir Foundation. You can find the full schedule here.
The following interview took place over email.
ZACH MANN: You are perhaps best known these days as a curator of noir: coordinating film screenings, restoring prints, writing book forewords, and now, running Black Pool Productions and doing on-camera introductions for Turner Classic Movies. But you also produce original noir, making films and writing crime fiction. Which comes first, curator or creator? And how has one informed the other?
EDDIE MULLER: It was always my intention to be a writer. I didn’t know this type of cultural curation was even a thing, let alone a profession. But ever since I programmed my first festival here in Hollywood 17 years ago it’s steadily snowballed, and one thing has led to another, largely because of the people I collaborate with here and abroad. I get frustrated not being able to reserve more time for my own work — but I would be lying if I didn’t say I get the same gratification out of restoring films, and preserving great stuff from the past for a new generation. To me, it’s all part of the same process, whether I’m making a film, writing a novel or a play, or preserving films and screening them for enthusiastic audiences — there is an underlying passion to it all and I’m very grateful that this is how I get to spend my time.
In curating, do you promote an Eddie Muller brand of noir? In other words, how do you prioritize which films to preserve, restore, and screen at NOIR CITY and similar festivals?
The whole “impresario curator” thing developed out of a need to promote my books, both fiction and non-. Since the publishers wouldn’t spend a nickel on marketing I had to find creative ways to get my work in front of the public. As a result I’ve become the “Czar of Noir.” As you probably know, my father was a renowned boxing writer, so early on I learned the value of a catchy nickname.
Prioritizing the preservation work is pretty easy: the film should be good but largely unknown. It’s a bonus if it has historical significance. Thanks to my colleague Fernando Peña — he’s the fellow who tracked down the only complete version of Metropolis — we are finding many hidden treasures in Argentina: brilliant noir films made in Buenos Aires in the early 1950s, several adaptations of Cornell Woolrich and a startling remake of Lang’s M that’s virtually unknown outside of South America. We’ll be screening these here at NOIR CITY in April.
On the same note, what led to Black Pool Productions publishing a translation of Goodis: A Life in Black and White, and why did you choose to write on Gun Crazy?
There’s a French connection. Philippe Garnier, the author of the Goodis bio, is a good friend of mine. He was essential to establishing my credibility in France. He was distrustful of American publishers translating his book, which he’d written back in 1983, long before the Goodis “renaissance” in this country. He’d grown tired of seeing the book plagiarized without attribution, so we decided to finally produce an English-language edition. He entrusted me with doing it right.
As for Gun Crazy, an adventurous French publisher commissioned me to write it. It was sold in France in a deluxe hardcover edition with a Blu-ray of the film packaged inside. I retained English language rights to my manuscript, redesigned it, and published it myself. I wrote the book as a case study of one film’s creation; my ulterior motive was to expose how cinema scholars have developed too narrow a focus, being slavish devotees of directors while dismissing the essential contributions of writers, producers, actors. The entire auteur concept is in dire need of reevaluation, and this book is my contribution to its demise. We’ll see if they let me back into France now.
I created Black Pool Productions to have complete control; the finished products are precisely what I want. Of course, the business model is entirely different than any major publishing house I’ve worked with — which, frankly, never did fully right by me. I issue small runs for a select audience, but I’m already in the black. Not getting rich, but haven’t lost a nickel, and won’t. The value for me is spending my time working on projects I’m passionate about. Future book projects will be chosen in the same way I choose film preservations — they’ll be unique, entertaining, and hopefully have some historical significance.
Is the motivation to publish the Garnier book similar to that of the Film Noir Foundation’s efforts at film preservation?
You’re right. On the publishing side, I’m certainly not alone in this. There are lots of small houses finding and preserving fiction — especially vintage crime fiction — that might otherwise slip through the cracks. We’re a tribe, sort of like How the Irish Saved Civilization.
The Film Noir Foundation website lists James Ellroy as a member of its Advisory Council, and the first line of his bio reads, “James Ellroy is the greatest living writer of noir fiction.” But when the LA Review of Books used a similar accolade in a recent interview, Ellroy replied, “I’m actually not a noir writer. […] [Noir] is primarily a cinematic term that describes a style period that ran from 1945, the end of World War II, up until 1960.” As the Czar of Noir, do you agree? Is the style limited to either film or time period? And how has the term’s use changed for you in the last decade?
James and I are good buddies but we have differing opinions on this subject, largely because of where we’re at professionally. He doesn’t want his epic novels, in which he reinterprets American history as a crime story, pigeonholed as genre fiction. He and Dennis Lehane are two examples of “crime” writers who have worked hard to break through to the “literary” realm. But I agree on the hard-and-fast definition of film noir: it’s a distinctive and organic artistic movement that happened largely between the early 1940s and the mid-1950s. It’s obvious, however, that the term “noir” has evolved into something else — it’s now applied to literature, films, visual art, music. I don’t think that’s misguided at all. It’s become more of a sensibility, an ethos. Noir presupposes that the world is not a good place, and it speaks to the existential struggles of people in godless, lawless societies. For lots of storytellers that’s a timeless theme; weave it into a crime plot and you’ve got noir. For me, true noir is about people who know they are doing the wrong thing, and they do it anyway. The good writers make you empathize with them. Now, that’s the writer in me talking — the film preservationist might give you a different answer.
During one of the early San Francisco NOIR CITY festivals, you introduced a film with a prize giveaway. The game: guess the song and why it might be considered noir — the song: “Drive, She Said,” by Stan Ridgway. Do you consider NOIR CITY an opportunity to promote these other forms of noir, too: literature, visual art, and music?
Yes, I try to incorporate as much crossover as possible without compromising the integrity of the film-going experience. I had an opera singer perform before a screening of Visconti’s Ossessione. We poured gin and tonics on a night of all-British noir. Remember, I’m screening films from an era when movies were a social event. By the 1970s, when I started watching these films, they’d become the province of repertory cinemas and museums. That changed the way a generation of cinephiles approached the films. They viewed them strictly as art — not only forgetting that they were created as entertainment, but actually being dismissive of them as such. An organic outgrowth of reviving these movies has been a revival of the communal film-going experience, especially in San Francisco. We put on a fun show — I think it’s possible to appreciate art, learn new things, and have a good time in the process. We sell out a 1,400-seat theater for 10 straight days, so obviously lots of people feel the same way.
This idea, that noir films are more than mere museum artifacts, seems to go along with your reevaluation of the auteur theory in Gun Crazy: The Origin of American Outlaw Cinema. NOIR CITY celebrates everyone involved, from the screenwriters to the actors, from the critics to the audience itself. The enthusiastic NOIR CITY crowds in the early 2000s cheered and jeered the overly sadistic barbs of femme fatales and the cheeky homoeroticism between wise-cracking gangsters. Aside from the new (wow) Argentinian films, what else will have audiences cheering (or jeering) at this April’s NOIR CITY Hollywood?
There are noir nuggets scattered throughout. We like to show things that aren’t available in any other medium but film, like Edward Dmytryk’s The Hidden Room (1949) and Robert Siodmak’s The Suspect (1944). And we’re stretching the boundaries a bit for a quadruple bill of what I call “proto-noir,” films from the 1930s in which the roots of noir are clearly visible. I’ll also interview Stephen Bogart, son of Bogart and Bacall, following a screening of Goodis’s Dark Passage, which of course starred his parents. Stephen is also introducing a new Los Angeles noir film, This Last Lonely Place, which was produced by the Bogart estate, picking up the torch for the actor’s original company, Santana Productions. As usual, it’ll be a fun, eclectic mix of all things noir.
NOIR CITY will be screening films from April 3–19 at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. You can find the full schedule here.
Zach Mann is the noir editor at LARB and the managing editor at The Offing.
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