Eddie Muller, a second-generation San Franciscan, writer and cultural anthropologist, is on a mission — to save endangered films noir from the ravages of time and neglect, and to take back noir from the film critics and put it back in the movie house where it belongs.
Something of a film detective, Muller, founder and president of the non-profit Film Noir Foundation, roots through archives and wheedles film studios and elderly shut-ins to find long-lost prints. And the self-described barroom scholar isn't content to leave classic film to fetishists and eggheads, screening his finds before the common man during his Noir City film festivals, held yearly at capacious movie houses like San Francisco's Castro Theatre and Hollywood's Egyptian Theatre.
This Friday, Muller will kick off the classic noir portion of the IMA's Winter Nights film series, speaking before and after Robert Siodmak's 1949 film Criss Cross. Three more Hollywood noirs will be screened at the IMA in the coming month — Key Largo (Jan. 21), Kiss Me Deadly (Feb. 11) and Detour (Feb. 18) — with stops along the way for Kurosawa's noir-inspired Stray Dog (Jan. 28) and what might be called a neo-noir, 2000's Memento (Feb. 25). All films except Memento will be screened in 35-millimeter, the way they should be, according to Muller, who spoke with NUVO earlier this week.
NUVO: Why do you call Criss Cross your second favorite noir?
Eddie Muller: It just grows on me. It gets better every time I see it...I think it's a complex story brilliantly told, and for me it's definitive noir, in that it's tough and bitter, but it's also incredibly romantic...And a lot of these films like Double Indemnity and Out of the Past and Born to Kill, there's these relationships between the man and the woman that appear to be love stories but really aren't, because they're just two people using each other.
NUVO: Obviously film noir was named after the fact, but were people in charge, studio execs for instance, aware of some of the stylistic elements we now associate with film noir, or did they just call them thrillers?
Muller: Certain people making the films were aware of what they were doing. They did not call it film noir. Every film that we now consider to be a film noir was called by Hollywood standards, or by Hollywood classification, either a murder drama or a crime thriller. And there was a specific distinction between the two. Murder dramas were stories like The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity in which, frankly, amateurs were committing the crimes. When the wife wants to knock off the husband to get the insurance money, that's a murder drama. A crime thriller is where the people committing the crimes are professionals. The Asphalt Jungle is a crime thriller.
Only the directors, sometimes the writers and the cameramen, really had a sense they were doing this a particular way, and they created what I call an organic artistic movement. Crime stories existed from the beginning of cinema, but the studios did not dictate that these films look and feel this way at this time. That happened in a completely organic way because of the influence of the European émigrés who came to Hollywood right about that time. Those directors like Robert Siodmak and Otto Preminger, Billy Wilder and Curtis Bernhardt, Edgar Ulmer — these guys had an appreciation for American genre fiction that was much greater than the respect those writers were accorded in their own country.
NUVO: Would you agree with screenwriter/director Paul Schrader's contention that the average film noir is better than the average western, the average musical, the average melodrama?
Muller: Yeah, I would agree with that, and I think the reason for that is because it was part of Hollywood's maturation process, and I think everybody kind of felt it, and a lot of people wanted to get in on that. Someone like Tyrone Power, he really wanted to make Nightmare Alley, and it was specifically because he could feel what was happening in Hollywood. He thought, Wow, I can break out of this circumscribed role that they've created for me as this swashbuckling, stoic hero. I'm going to do something different. And while it didn't work at that time and the public didn't really accept that film and Daryl Zanuck was very disappointed with how much time and energy they put into it, that film now stands as Tyrone Power's greatest moment in cinema. He was right, and it proved out in the long run.
I just think there are a lot of examples of that. There are a lot of directors who have a lot of forgotten work, but then there's a noir film on their resume. It's true of a lot of actors, actresses, cinematographers. It goes with this idea of it being an organic artistic movement. I think that when people saw what was possible, there was a real excitement and enthusiasm involved in the work, and everybody was, in a way, competing with each other.
And this all happened during the worst crisis of conscience in Hollywood history, the witch hunt era. And there is no question in my mind that that had a major impact on writers and directors. And when you look down the list and see how many of those writers, and you see how many of those writers were under suspicion of being communists, how many of those directors were on the verge of losing their careers, you really know that that had something to do with their being drawn to these stories of deceit, betrayal, paranoia, alienation, corruption, because that's what they were feeling, that's what they were living with at the time.
NUVO: Can you talk about your work with the Film Noir Foundation — your proudest discoveries, what you're trying to accomplish?
Muller: This all started out because of my fondness for noir, but now it's really become something else, and now, for me, it's about the process whereby you rescue these films. A lot of it has to do with independent cinema — because it's not something new...A lot of films from that era that were independently made like The Prowler, Cry Danger, Try and Get Me, Too Late for Tears, all these movies that I'm interested in rescuing, were not made in the studios. And the companies that make them eventually go out of business. And what happens to the films? A studio may have a print of the film, but if they don't own it, they can't make money off of it. So they just let it sit there. My job is to go in and find this stuff, and to say that, if you don't own it, you really should be depositing this stuff in a film archive because you can't make money off of it. If a print doesn't exist at the studio, you have to go out and find it, and you'd be amazed where some of this stuff ends up. We're restoring a film this year where the only complete print of the film, in nitrate no less, is in the possession of a very elderly projectionist in an Eastern city who wants to be totally anonymous, and it took over a year to locate this year. Finding these films is like a detective story.