Below is an excerpt from “‘Just How You’re Wired’: Talking Noir with TCM’s Eddie Muller” by Zoe Kurland, which is forthcoming in Issue 19.3 of Film International: Noir 2020 and Beyond, a special issue guest edited by Retreats from Oblivion: The Journal of NoirCon.
[Noir is] just as cogent, even more so today because politically we are right back there, right with the exact same dynamics that were happening in late forties and early fifties, the exact same break is happening in American culture.”–Eddie Muller
When I asked Eddie Muller what first made him fall in love with noir, he laughed. For Muller, there’s no way to trace it back to one particular film or moment; “the reality is it’s just how you’re wired,” he says. Muller was born in 1958 and came of age in the late 60s and early 70s. Though the ideas of counterculture appealed to him, the aesthetics did not; Muller found himself drawn to the elegant, mid-century styles of the previous generation, and he made a conscious choice to go with it, eventually becoming a preeminent voice in all things noir: the literary, the filmic, the archival – you name it. The founder and president of the Film Noir Foundation, host and programmer of TCM’s Noir Alley and author of Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir (a new edition was just released by Running Press), Muller has always had what he dubs a “Noir ethos…a philosophical world view that skews towards the cynical.” He’s had a wonderful life, he insists; his attitude isn’t negative, but rather pessimistic in that distinctly noir way. “I don’t really trust that people will do the right thing,” he says.
Muller doesn’t program with a political agenda, however, in what is perhaps a testament to the eternal relevance of noir and Muller’s proclivities, Noir Alley’s offerings always seem right on time, reminding us that in fact none of the problems we currently face are new. In many ways, today’s America isn’t all that different from the post-war period when film noir came to prominence…. One of Muller’s great strengths, among many, is the context he offers, pulling back the curtain on the films we love and think we know. I talk to Muller about noir’s history, its rebelliousness, its staying power, the act of curation, and the space opening up for new perspectives, which in turn gift us, the willing audience, new understandings and new lives to live.
Eddie Muller (EM): I wrote Dark City more than 20 years ago and I really thought of it as a capstone and I thought some of those movies that I wrote about would never be seen again. I did all this detective work to find them because they’re gone. I hadn’t created The Film Noir Foundation or anything. Fast forward 20 years later and I’m writing a new version of the manuscript and it’s just as cogent, even more so today because politically we are right back there, right with the exact same dynamics that were happening in late forties and early fifties, the exact same break is happening in American culture. These films actually still resonate. They’re not really history, they’re first steps on a map. Now here we are. Have we learned anything along the way?
Zoe Kurland (ZK): I was watching an interview with you from back in September and you said something about noir warning us about the current moment. That made me think about these very prescient films, like Citizen Kane or Ace in the Hole, but when you say that noir was warning us, what films are you thinking about?
EM: A lot of those filmmakers were clearly coming out of the pitched political battles of the 1930s. America had fallen into the great depression and everybody was arguing. Why did we get here? How do we get out? FDR came in and one of the ways we got out was through what a lot of people called Socialism – the government helping us solve the problems. A lot of people want everything to be privatized and for the government to stay out of it. These are the exact same things we’re arguing about today. Who knows how America would have shaped up were it not for the depression and World War II, which both united the country and hid its underlying fractures? America did a great job of hiding the fascism at home, but it’s always been there. The house un-American activities committee was originally formed to search for clan members and Nazis, not communists. Then it grew into something else after the war. When Joe Mankowitz made No Way Out, that was a noir film about racism. We’re showing Odds Against Tomorrow on Noir Alley, which was Harry Belafonte’s movie about racism, which is so sophisticated. It wasn’t just about white people hating black people. It was about the whole idea of race defining the way you act towards the world. He’s a racist in the film too, you know, he just happens to be incredibly handsome and incredibly cool, so this is a different racism than Robert Ryan’s racism, but that was the point that he was trying to make. There’s no winning in that situation. When Polanski made Force of Evil, he was definitely saying, be careful. There are many similarities between the way business operates and the way organized crime operates. You need to see those parallels and be cautious. Don’t let the two mix.
One of the things that I always find interesting is people want to say that film noir is misogynistic at worst and simplifies women at best. Mostly the characters are either villainous femme fatales or goody-two-shoes girlfriends that get rejected. I find that in a lot of noir films you find a lot of female characters in those films who are the only way out. The guy is going to make a colossal mistake and the only way out is if he takes the smart woman’s advice. What’s totally subversive about noir in that era is that most of those films did have a female character who was totally self-sufficient. They were always depicted as a right choice. Look at Angel Face with Robert Mitchum – Gene Simmons, obviously mentally ill woman, was very pretty granted. Very pretty, very wealthy. He chooses her over the sane, hard-working nurse played by Mona Freeman. Then when he goes back and says, I’m sorry, I screwed it all up, please take me back, she says, no, you blew it and then he’s dead within 24 hours. You really get the moral of that story.
ZK: Noir is so rooted in the male gaze, there wasn’t really space for a female perspective. I’m not as familiar with literary endeavors, but I’m thinking about just even on a surface level, how fragmented the female body is in most noir films. The fact that women could never be completely whole in any real sense and were never quite allowed that wholeness in their experience either. I remember watching Laird Krieger watch Merle Oberon dance in The Lodger, and the camera just slices her body into these pieces. That is a film that’s literally about chopping up the female body, but even still, I think a lot about Stanwyk’s ankles in Double Indemnity or a film like Gilda which is full of bodily bisections via light beams, via clothes – Hayworth’s leg slicing out of a dress, her arms raised above her head. The body parts acting like synecdoche for the whole. There’s a way in which noir gives the female body a different autonomy than the woman herself.
EM: I’m just going to speak very frankly – I doubt there’s anything more powerful in all of history than the female body. So here, they’ve just figured out how to photograph it so that it moves. Men are in charge of the business, so that is what you’re going to get. There’s a passage in my book, Dark City that I just revised and expanded, where I talk about this exact thing. This is the way it’s always been. Men used to create their icons of worship out of marble and stained glass, but it became a lot trickier when you could photograph the real thing. Whether it’s because they are worshiping it or fetishizing it or denigrating it, they’re still looking at it and trying to figure out “how do we represent this?” It was especially tricky for the actresses who played these roles. I wrote about all of this in terms of Rita Hayworth, she’s a real person, but she’s fused with [her] characters in such a way that she is turned into an icon of sex.
ZK: I mean, they put her on an A-bomb without her consent.
EM: It ruined her, you know, as it did a lot of these women. To go back to the previous question, which was about the extension of the noir vision, you see a movie, like The Last Seduction where they consciously said, we’re going to turn the femme fatale into a more fully realized character. We’ll change her motivations. That’s the great thing about noir, it’s the only genre of film where women were allowed to be as bad as the men. If you’ve ever seen the movie crisscross, Yvonne de Carlo gives the femme fatale manifesto at the end of that movie. She says, essentially, I’m just looking out for myself. I wish you men could do the same thing. But you’re always hanging your shit on me. I just want to get out of here and have a chance to live my own life. Thank you very much. Leave me alone.
In [Dark City], I talk about how people are always arguing whether Vertigo is a film noir or not. Just watch Vertigo unfold from Kim Novak’s point of view and it’s the most noir thing imaginable. These demented men who were completely control her, the way she talks, the way she looks, the way she acts. I’ve interviewed Kim Novak several times about this, and she always says, I’m so grateful that Hitchcock let me play that part because I’m basically playing me in that movie. Trust me, I know exactly how that woman feels.
Dark City: the Lost World of Film Noir is currently available from Running Press.
Zoe Kurland is a writer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles and Editorial Assistant of Film International. She holds a BA in English from Columbia University and works in public broadcasting. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, New York Magazine, Bright Lights Film Journal, COUNTERCLOCK Journal, The Nonconformist, and more.