The “Czar of Noir” on TCM’s Summer of Darkness
By Matthew Sorrento.
The “Czar of Noir” Eddie Muller needs no introduction. Over the past two decades, he has become what we could describe as a public intellectual for golden age cinema. If not the scholar of film noir that Foster Hirsch or James Naremore may be, Muller has offered his expertise through a series of readable and addictive noir books (his 1998 Dark City opens with a dialog that parodies 1950’s The Asphalt Jungle, in which Muller states that he killed the professor) and a seemingly nonstop campaign to program the films. Recently, he is the programmer of the Summer of Darkness noir series on Turner Classic Movies, which continues today, through July, as a Friday series. Muller took out some time to discuss the series, his work in film promotion, and his other projects.
You are so well known for promoting not only noir, but screening films in theaters. When did you begin to think about TV programming?
When TCM asked me, this was their idea, not mine. I’ve worked on various things with the folks at TCM for several years now and was pleased to learn that they are terrific, right down to the last man and woman. So I was thrilled when VP of programming, Charlie Tabesh, offered me a non-exclusive contract to sort of bring me into the fold.
Can you explain how the Summer of Darkness program came about from there?
You’d really have to ask Charlie, since I believe it was his idea — but my sense is that the network saw how popular the noir programs were at their live events, like the TCM Classic Film Festival and the Classic Cruise (where noir was the theme last year). They’d done a “Summer of Darkness” back in the early 2000s, so they obviously felt that it was time to revive it.
Several years ago I did a sit-down evening with Robert [Osborne] called “A Night in Noir City,” where we talked at length about noir and I presented four favorite films. It was also a nice promotion for my annual Noir City film festival in San Francisco. And I was one of the first guest hosts when TCM created its “Friday Night Spotlight.”
As for Robert — he’s fantastic. In fact, I first worked with him separate from TCM. He had his own film festival every year in Athens, Georgia, which he held to raise money for the Arts Department at the University of Georgia. He invited me to come introduce a few movies there and we ended up co-hosting a screening of All About Eve, which I think is his favorite movie. Just being on stage with him I learned a lot about how to do this stuff. He was so gracious and easy-going and sincere. In case there was any doubt, let me testify that Robert knows his stuff. I may know noir, but Robert knows everything.
It’s always a treat to see TCM run films not available on disc or streaming. Have you included any?
Two films that my Film Noir Foundation restored, Woman on the Run (Norman Foster, 1950) and Too Late for Tears (Byron Haskin, 1949), will be making their TCM broadcast debuts during the “Summer of Darkness. I could only host 36 films in the series so I had to make some tough choices. In many cases I opted to present lesser known films, like The People Against O’Hara (John Sturges, 1951) or Red Light (Roy Del Ruth, 1949), instead of more familiar titles that it would have been fun to talk about.
It’s been interesting to hear viewers’ reaction to the selections. Some people seem to think that TCM has the power to simply show whatever it wants, whenever it wants. If only it were that easy. Everything needs to be licensed, and you have to have source material of sufficient quality — and these things cost money. I think the mix of films is terrific. Perhaps it doesn’t satisfy the hardest of the hardcore noir fan — but then, that’s what my film festivals are for.
Did you feel obliged to give the classics their due? Did this impact your ability to include as many unseen gems as you could?
No, not really. I’ve been programming long enough now — almost 17 years — to know that you have to strike a balance between the familiar stuff and the rarities, especially when you’re dealing with an audience as large as TCMs. The well-known titles, like Double Indemnity and Out of the Past and Kiss Me Deadly are essential because people use them to bring other viewers into the fold. If you invite a neophyte to watch Double Indemnity and they don’t get it … well, then you know they’re never going to be a noir fan. And the converse is true. You may as well show them the best to convert them. You can’t bait the noir hook with some obscure George Raft film.
I know you did a book on Dark City Dames — any that you wanted to feature in this programming? Or any male stars? (By the way, great to see Robert Ryan appear twice in the SOD spot.)
Oh, sure. I think all the dames from my book are represented. I may not intro all their films, but they’re in there. I think we came up, for various reasons, a little short on Richard Widmark films. Next time.
Are you ever concerned that your TV programming will detract from the live viewing, which you support so strongly?
Not at all. It works the other way around. I’m sure that my appearances on TCM will only help draw more people to the live Noir City screenings.
It’s interesting to see that Rose McGowan is a member of the Foundation Board. What does her presence bring?
I did an event with Rose at the TCM film festival in Hollywood a few years ago, and I immediately asked her to join the cause. She really knows and loves classic films. She bought the old RKO studio sign and has it up in her living room. Yeah, she’s part of the noir tribe.
These last few questions move away from TV programming…recently, in an interview, John Boorman said that he’s all for digital in theaters, since it’s easier to use in filming, gets rid of the scratches, dirt, and hairs onscreen, etc. Do you share his view, or do you support only film in theaters?
If you advocate the hard-line “film only” philosophy you’ll go crazy. The genie is out of the bottle, and digital is the way forward in cinema. Now, having said that, my campaign is to ensure that people don’t reject older films just because they don’t look like an Avengers movie. We still restore films as films, photochemically — and will continue to do so as long as the labs exist. That doesn’t mean that I’m against the films being transferred to digital if that’s how they can be more widely seen.
Grover Crisp, who runs the archive of Sony Pictures, told me something very important when the digital revolution was just starting. He said,”Digital is not the enemy — bad digital is the enemy.” And in the rush to make the transition, studios were producing a lot of junk, just unwatchable digital crap. But if you’ve seen Grover’s digital restoration of Dr. Strangelove, or Paramount’s digital restoration of Sunset Blvd. — it can be like experiencing the film, in full, for the first time.
I think that a pristine, well-preserved 35mm print beats a digital copy every time. But I also owe it to an audience seeing a film for the first time to present the best show possible, and nowadays people expect a clean show — they don’t want the distractions of scratches and variable focus and temperature shifts on the changeovers. As more theaters are forced to invest in digital they have less money (if any) to invest in properly maintaining the 35mm equipment.
The purists (of which I have long been one) won’t want to hear this, but within a couple of years this will be a moot point. I’ve shown Technicolor prints and digital restorations of Technicolor back-to-back, and the fact is that most viewers can’t tell the difference. And I question the priorities of those who can. Like the guy who complained to me at a screening of Niagara that he could see a faint blue line around the edge of the frame. I had to ask him: “Why are you staring at the edges when Marilyn Monroe is in the middle of frame?”
When we last talked, back in 2009, you mentioned that critics need to seek out films that are overlooked. Do you think this has happened more in the years since, as cyberspace has grown?
Yes, without a doubt. There are obviously more seriously committed fans of classic cinema now than ever before. I could argue that it’s largely because of the dismal state of American feature films, but that’s a subject for another time. There’s no doubt that the accessibility of older films, on TCM, DVD, and now streaming has created a new legion of fans.
I remember you saying that you’d like to expand your wonderful short film The Grand Inquisitor, starring Marsha Hunt, into a feature. Has this developed at all?
Unfortunately, no. I didn’t realize back then that this Czar of Noir business would become a full-time gig. Right now, the extra energy is going into writing. We’ll see what else I come up with down the road. I’m fortunate in that I have lots of Plan Bs in place.
Matthew Sorrento is Interview Editor of Film International. He teaches film and media studies at Rutgers University in Camden, NJ and is the author of The New American Crime Film (McFarland, 2012). He directs the Reel East Film Festival.