EDDIE MULLER, author, bon vivant, cultural archeologist and founder of both the Noir City Festival and the Film Noir Foundation, is indeed the Czar of Noir. You couldn’t find a nicer guy for such a dirty job, either. His many books on the topic include such definitive tomes as Dark City: the Lost World of Film Noir, Dark City Dames, The Art of Noir and a pair of highly literary pugilistic pulp novels, The Distance and Shadow Boxer He is also a filmmaker in his right, having recently debuted his short film The Grand Inquisitor. Recently Da Mayor of Dark City sat still long enough for a little hard-boiled grilling:
EM: I started programming film noir festivals more than 10 years ago, after the release of my first book on the subject, Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir. The first was in Los Angeles, at the Egyptian Theatre, and things have built steadily from there. But the “Lost” part of the book’s title wasn’t just for the sake of drama: I really thought that some of these films might actually be lost. So trying to book them for festivals was a great way of determining their status. And I created the Film Noir Foundation as non-profit corporation dedicated to the preservation of these films. That way I could gain access to other non-profit archives around the world, to help determine what was actually out there. It’s a very grassroots approach to preservation … we screen films, people pay to see them, and we use the profits to find and preserve films that would otherwise be allowed to deteriorate. That is most likely to happen with independently produced films that were distributed by major studios but not produced by them. Like The Prowler, which we restored in association with the UCLA Film & Television Archive last year. This year we’re restoring the terrific 1951 film Cry Danger. No one will touch it because Warner Bros. had the film elements but not the rights. Paramount had the rights, but no film. So neither has an incentive to save it. We step in and provide the incentive, and the funding.
Thrill: How do you explain Noir’s relevance to, and acceptance by, today’s movie-going public?
EM: Well, it’s a very narrow, albeit smart and sophisticated sliver of the movie-going public that supports film noir from the classic era. The general public doesn’t care. We live in a culture that has little regard for art, tradition, or posterity. So it is incumbent on that narrow margin of the public who does care to be involved in the rescue of cultural artifacts that the mainstream will let slip right through the cracks. I don’t think that much of what we love about old noir films—the dialogue, the clothes, the style—needs to be recreated for a modern audience. I prefer to see the themes of the original books and films extended and adapted for contemporary audiences, which you see in things like No Country for Old Men, Mulholland Drive, Michael Clayton, and many more. But that doesn’t mean the old films should be allowed to vanish. It would be a mistake for people to assume that the digital revolution automatically means everything made 50-60 years ago will be put on DVD and made available. It’s simply not true. Many of the films that will disappear are “B” movies that were made outside the major studios. They have no advocate for their survival—except us. We’re their lobbying group. (Interviewer’s note: for more neo-noir, see also Jack Says from Monogram Releasing – that would be the new Monogram…)
Thrill: Can you identity and briefly describe a few of your favorite low budget, lesser known noir films?
EM: Oh, there’s lots of them. Recently I’ve taken a shine to The Hunted, which was made by Monogram in 1948 and starred Preston Foster and Belita, the “Ice Queen of Film Noir.” It was written by the redoubtable Steve Fisher and directed by Jack Bernhard, who made another weird little gem, Decoy. The Hunted is now owned by Warner Bros., but it doesn’t have a print of the film. It may have the original negative and sound tracks, so that a new print could be made, but unless there is an economic incentive, that probably won’t happen. But we keep at it nonetheless. In fact, I just posted an article about Belita on the Foundation’s website, hoping it might spur interest in her films, none of which are available on commercial DVD. Decoy would never have reemerged on DVD from the bowels of the Warner vaults unless we had ignited new interest in it by playing it on the festival circuit.
Thrill: Is the upcoming Chicago premiere of Noir City (July 31-August 6) tailored specifically for that market, and if so, how so?
EM: We initially offered to program a full series of noir films set in Chicago, but the Music Box felt it was more viable to start with a combination of well-known and rare titles . I can’t argue; that’s probably a sound strategy. I know many of the noir aficionados in the area were hoping to see a full slate of rarities, since they’ve probably got a extensive library of noir DVDs already. But what they need to understand is that these days theaters must program with an eye toward drawing the broadest possible crowd. The hardcore may come to see our restored print of The Prowler with Van Heflin and Evelyn Keyes, but the mainstream viewer would probably skip it—unless it was booked on a bill with Double Indemnity. We always keep reminding ourselves that we’re really doing this for the young people who haven’t seen film noir on a big screen. We’re not here to preach to the choir, we’re here to make converts. We do have one show that features movies set in Chicago (Call Northside 777 and Chicago Syndicate). I’ve learned that folks who live in great cities love to see the city as it was in the mid-20th century. The film doesn’t even have to be exceptional; you just don’t have many opportunities anymore to see America the way it used to be, in glorious black & white, and a huge movie screen. That’s just one more service we provide.
Thrill: How do you see the future of Noir in ever-evolving (i.e. amnesiac) Hollywood – is it here to stay?
EM: In some form or another, yes. It all depends or whether you consider noir to be thematically-based or style-based. If you think it’s all about the style, then I have to declare that it’s over. Unless you are telling a truly superlative story, dressing it in 1940s period garb is going to hurt more than help. People assume its a parody, right off the bat. But as I mentioned before, if you take the thematic thrust of noir—making the audience identify with a morally-compromised protagonist who may or may not survive the story—there are lots of ways to make noir relevant to a contemporary audience. If somebody today made a film about a group of disillusioned Iraq war vets who return to their impoverished town and hatch a plot to rob the town’s Bernie Madoff-style business magnate—I’d call that a contemporary film noir. Of course, in Hollywood today they’d bankroll that film only if it had a contrived “victorious” ending, so the audience can leave the theater feeling good about themselves, and good about paying $11 for the film. Back when you paid 25¢ for a double feature, people could handle a downer every once in a while. We’re not that mature now. If we pay a nickel for something, it’d better make us feel better about ourselves. Or at least over-stimulated.