Noir City shines a light on neglected artists
Noir has many sides, aside from the stunning stylistic things we look for in the films (the imposing verticality of a cityscape, rain soaked streets, darkly lit corridors) there are the more intrinsic elements, like lovers’ betrayal and protecting ill-fated choices, that give it its narrative thrust. These are the qualities that noir novelist and film connoisseur, Eddie Muller, has bottled and distilled wisely to keep his 10-day film festival, Noir City, alive and pumping.
Indeed, now in its 10th year at San Francisco’s historic Castro Theatre, the festival just keeps developing more sophistication and élan. It’s exemplified by some of the fancy dress of the devotees – dames in hourglass silhouettes deftly handling extended cigarette holders like music and mugs with felt fedora hats and a pink carnation in the lapels of their double-breasted suites – all worthy of a Robert Siodmak close-up. Sure the festival might be an unapologetic indulge of all things noir (film, books, fashion, etc.), but given the attendance numbers were close to 12,000 last year, certainly they must be onto something? So give Muller his due, since he’s created a festival that keeps noir in good discourse and has marketed it in a way that appeals to an amazing cross-section of fans through a broad range of age and race. The “Czar of Noir” took some time out for an interview with Film International.
Film International: When did your love of noir start?
Eddie Muller: Like a lot of young kids, you don’t really know it’s happening and you relate to certain things at a young age. I knew when I was young that I preferred to watch these movies. For me it was Thieves Highway with Valentina Cortesa. I couldn’t define it at the time, but the intensity and visual style, the very dramatic relationships between men and women and the sexiness of the films – it all captured me.
What were the key motivating factors in starting Noir City?
Self-promotion for one, I had written books and I knew there were fans, but I didn’t know how many. When I wrote my first book on noir [Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir(1998)], I tapped into a huge underground. Most fans just had VHS bootleg tapes off TV, so that’s when the detective work to find those 35mm prints started to happen, and I discovered if it was an independent film, no one was guarding it.
This is your 10th festival, name some of the ambitions you tried to foresee that you could have achieved at this point?
When we did the first one, I had no idea there would be a second year. Anita Monga, who was head of programming here at the Castro Theatre back in ’02, asked me to program a festival for film noir. I was just paid a nominal fee, but it proved very successful. The Castro made enough money to reupholster their seats! I simply made a decision to get into the business, to be a promoter. If I’m going to go after these rare films, we should be keeping the money and recycle it back to us, to restore and preserve film, that’s where the Film Noir Foundation came into play. Economically and ideologically, it just makes sense to keep enjoying and preserving these films. Also, the studios are very cooperative, Universal is fantastic and they are always opening up the vaults for us because they are smart enough to know it’s great promotion for them too. Screenings of Women on the Run and Decoy some years back were revelations to so many people and they want more discoveries and we want to serve them. It’s a passing of the cultural torch and in my lifetime I just hope many more will be preserved.
Part of the fun for a few of us who envision a run at programming is to indulge in our personal favorites. Aside from your Valentina Cortesa selections this year, what are some of the others we can see for next year?
Pure indulgence! Well, that and a balance to what makes a good show. I love the fact that people in San Francisco will trust us and come out to what we show. I will program for writers and producers that don’t get the recognition that I think they should have received. Writers like Marc Hellinger and Jerry Wald; and producers like Joan Harrison deserve the auterist tag as much, if not more, than the directors.
One of the key appeals for your festival are the showcasing of gems that are not available on DVD. Can you give a glimpse to the criteria for selecting these?
Well, it’s of course personal stuff that I love and things we are trying to rescue. If there is a film that we’ve never seen, we have to ask “where do we find it?” Bedelia came from the British Film Institute, but we were allowed to only show it once. If there is a living person to work around, that would be fun. The main criteria to shine a little light on neglected artists, not just film directors but a bunch of crime writers. The Big Heat is a prime example of writers being overlooked when the title becomes synonymous with the film and the director gets complete credit for the movie. Everything about The Big Heat is written in the context of Lang, but nothing about the author [William P. McGivern]. That boiling coffee scene is written in the novel and Lang didn’t stray from the story. You don’t think a director of Lang’s calibre would want to shoot a strong script from strong source material? The film is great because the book is great and people need to realize this.
Are there other festivals that promote noir that help broaden your audience?
The drawback is there are only a certain number of places where 35mm can be shown theatrically because they lack a changeover or platter system. That being said, here in San Francisco, the Roxy Cinema is always good and the Pacific Film Archive is now programming noir on a near consistent basis. We’ve expanded Noir City to other cities: Seattle, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., and we are happy to go elsewhere to anyone who is willing to resist the digital revolution and persist to play 35mm because we cater to the hard core.
Unfortunately, there are purists who might balk regarding the more modern films in the programming in Noir City, but isn’t it healthy to see the influence, particularly in young filmmakers, to appreciate the influence of noir? Your response to the noir purists?
It’s the debate of what film noir is that’s kept it alive. I have no problem with the argument or definition of what it is as long as people are watching the films. I am a writer, I look at noir from a writer’s perspective first, and I see those transitions from the 40s, 50s, 60s to the present and beyond that is interesting from a writer’s perspective, that digests and discuss noir elements, more so than just from a stylist point of view. I am not treating works of noir like collectors preserving butterflies encased in glass. Where’s the fun in that? I’m far more interested in the notion of film noir than pinning it down.
Which modern director do you see incorporating noir elements the best?
David Lynch does an intriguing extension of noir ethos. Mulholland Drive in all the ways touches on what I appreciate about noir: the eternal life of a fallen person; how something starts good and goes to hell; sexual obsession and betrayal; getting in so deep that there’s no way out. It’s a dream of noir, [it applies] dream logic to a traditional noir narrative and reconfigures it beautifully and he’s one of the few to have the guts to do that. I thought Chris Nolan was going that way, but The Dark Night is not noir, it belongs in the superhero genre. There is no latex costuming in noir, please quote me on this, there’s no latex in noir.
It seems for all genres, noir satisfies best both literary and film enthusiasts. The written word is so vivid, and the cinematic viewpoint so layered and suggestive that they actually complement each other. Do you agree?
Completely! Yes, more than most festivals, we show our respect to both the writers and filmmakers. We’ve had authors read passages of printed works and then show those same films in the past, just to show how it was adapted to the screen. It’s an interesting process to see develop say, Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon and see what [John] Huston did with the adaptation. And you’re right, we’re not choosing one over the other. They complement each other, both great facets of noir.
What can expect we down the road?
It’s safe to assume that we’ll take it from an international approach so people who sign up for the Film Noir Foundation have the opportunity to see not just American rarities but material from overseas and bring them here. Britain and France had directors like Marcel Carné and Carol Reed, also notables in the genre, and Noir City is a great showcase for such hard to find material.
Any guests you’d like to get quick before it’s too late?
Well, women live longer than men so it’s a safe bet it would be a starlet or a fatale. [Lauren] Bacall is it, she is the greatest living legend of that [noir] period, but I’m afraid her personality would overwhelm the event itself. I just don’t want to drain the resources of the Film Noir Foundation for that and a big guest is never the main point of the show. Also, the guests we’ve had over the years have been a nice fit. Angie Dickinson this year was great, and her films at this festival were key.
Is there attribution to the term “Czar of Noir” or is it self-proclaimed?
The name was coined by Laura Sheppard, director of the Mechanic’s Institute Library in San Francisco. I was giving a talk there one night and that’s how she introduced me. I know a keeper when I hear it!
Michael T. Toole is a film journalist and filmmaker. He spent ten years writing for the Turner Classic Movies website and is currently working on a book on Harry Rapf. He is also the author of a Las Vegas travel guide, Las Vegas on the Dime(Johnston Associates International, 2001).