It’s not every day you can saw you got to speak to a czar. For one thing, there hasn’t been one in Russia since 1917. But since 1998 there’s been a Czar of Noir. Eddie Muller earned that moniker as the world’s foremost expert and preserver of film noir, the classic not-quite-a-genre of Hollywood movie that gave us shadowy alleys, flatfoots in tattered suits, and femmes fatale. In ’98, Mr. Muller wrote the book on film noir. Literally; his study of the movement,
In the time since he wrote it, noir has returned to the public consciousness in a big way, largely thanks to him. Muller has hosted Noir City repertory festivals across the country; he founded the Film Noir Foundation in 2005 which has restored and preserved dozens of films; and he’s the host of Turner Classic Movies’ weekly
Muller revised and updated
NERDIST: In the years since you first wrote
Fortunately, we’ve seen the audience grow. I mean, testimony to that is I doubt that TCM would have given me a franchise with
At the Noir City screenings that I’ve gotten to go to, there’s a visceral response to some of these things, the same way you’d see if you’re watching a classic horror movie or something. It seems interesting to me that these movies have that kind of effect on people where they’re laughing at the laugh lines, but they’re also shrieking at the moments of terror and suspense. Have you seen that also change as you’ve been doing the screenings?
Yes. Yeah, absolutely. That’s an interesting observation, Kyle, because when I first started doing this, I remember going with a journalist to a screening in Berkeley, California, and he asked me if I was upset because the younger audience appeared to be laughing at the film like it was corny or something. I said, “Well, a lot of the time, they’re laughing at the film because it’s funny.” I mean, it’s intentionally funny. It’s not like the filmmakers didn’t know that they were being humorous back then. I mean, that’s one of the things that makes noir special is that the movies can be very, very serious, but they have a tremendous wit about them. I think audiences get that. I mean, I’ve been doing this a long time now. I think I’m going on my 23rd year of doing live presentations.
Yes, I mean, the reality is I’m lucky enough to draw big audiences and a certain percentage of that audience is not going to get it, right? They are going to laugh inappropriately or find it cornball or something. But to me, that doesn’t ruin it for everybody else. I mean, I just find that’s true of everything in life, right? I mean a certain percentage of people don’t get it, but I just think it’s been fantastic that so many people do and that younger people do appreciate these films. I have found that to be true. We can talk about why I think that is.
When I was in college in the mid-2000s, there was a very specific span of time considered “Film Noir,” from
It’s an open-ended discussion, which is part of what keeps it so fresh. I mean, I’ve always said that when a lot of people get wound up, they tie themselves in knots trying to define what is film noir. I always say, “It’s that debate that keeps it alive,” right? The fact that you cannot tie it down or the fact that you and I might disagree on constitutes a classic film noir or even, I do this all the time, it’s like, “Noir or not?” Kyle, I can’t tell you, every single day I get emails from people saying, “This movie, is it noir or not?” The standard answer I want to give them, which I don’t want to seem flippant, is, “Well, if you think it is, then it is, I guess,” because it is that perception. That’s what I really enjoy about it.
I think that standard formula that you’re talking about that was in that class, like it begins here and it ends there, I don’t know what the value of that is. What I always say is film noir was an organic artistic movement in Hollywood. It’s beneficial to understand the factors that created it. It’s beneficial to put a beginning, and if not an end, of when the movement ended, right? But the reality is these films were so good and so influential that they continue to inspire people to this day, right?
I mean, you can ask Quentin Tarantino what influence
My book is all about why, why at that time in that place did that happen? I’m not interested in putting parameters around it. That’s not what I do. Honestly, Kyle, my job, as I see it, is to keep people enthused and excited about watching older movies. I mean, that’s what I do. I believe that’s why TCM hired me is because they saw that I was doing these shows live and I was filling theaters on weeknights with younger people. That’s the whole shooting match. I mean, if somebody wants to argue with me about my definition of film noir, they can go right ahead because my interest is in getting people to watch the movies.
But certainly the arguing is a huge part of people’s engagement on social media these days. Do you record an intro or program a movie and think “Oh yeah, this one’s going to get people mad”?
I’m scheduling next season’s
Just watch this movie. I don’t really care if people argue with the definition or something because I question the value of that. What, you only want to watch a film that’s a noir? You don’t want to watch something that’s what I might call “noir-stained” or “noir-adjacent” or something like that? Plus, the ones that you don’t think are noir only help you understand what noir is. It solidifies your definition of a noir when you see something you don’t think is noir, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t show it.
Completely! In the time since I took that class, it’s learning where it can deviate from the formula that’s the more interesting thing. People could look at some of the movies the Film Noir Foundation has restored, like
In what I do, I have to move between various jobs, or when somebody really wants to get down to brass tacks, and it’s like, “What is your definition of noir? What do you really, really, truly in your heart of hearts think it is?” I can do that. But then that’s not my sole job, that’s not my responsibility, right? I’m also a film restorer, I’m a television host, I have all these other things that I do in which the definition becomes more elastic. It has value, that elasticity has great value for these other things that I do.
Also, the other thing you have to realize is I’m a writer and I have written crime fiction, so my attitude about noir is not entirely movie-centric. I also look at it in terms of the literary aspect of it. That’s why I would argue that Raymond Chandler is less of a noir writer than James M. Cain is a noir writer because with James M. Cain, the protagonist of his stories, are the “villains.” They’re the people doing the bad things, which is not the case with Chandler. I find it very handy to say that from a writer’s standpoint, if your protagonist is a good cop or a good detective, it’s not really noir. I mean, there has to be that morally compromised character because the stories are about what people will do to get what they want and when they cross that line and they know what they’re doing is wrong and they do it, anyway. That’s what noir is.
But obviously, not every movie from the classic era fits that description, right?
You mentioned noir-stained things. In recent years, there’s definitely been a push to be like, well, look at all of these westerns that are sort of noir, or these horror movies that have noir elements. What do you make of those? I don’t mean whether you think they’re noir or not, that’s reductive. But just what do you think of those as an interesting offshoot, I suppose?
Well, I think they’re evidence of the noir movement and in Hollywood, when they’re westerns made at that period, films like
Because I want to show it on Memorial Day, right? People say, “Is that a noir?” I say, “No, it’s not a noir. It’s really like a contemporary western is what it is. The stranger comes into town. There’s a score to be settled. There’s a gang in the town.” To me, that movie feels much more like a western than it does a film noir, but people want to call it a film noir, and that’s fine with me. It doesn’t bother me in the least.
It’s sort of like you were saying earlier: As long as people are watching them, they can call them whatever they want, I suppose.
It amuses me somewhat. I have to confess, I get a little tired of the arguments over whether things are noir or not. There was a hysterical moment that I had introducing a film in Portland one time at an art museum or something there and I showed this movie that we had preserved called
Yeah, well, you talk about her in your book. You have a whole section for her.
Yes, yes. I showed this movie, and at the end of the film, I got up to talk about it and this guy stood up in the audience ranting, I mean, screaming at the top of his lungs that this was all a fraud because that isn’t film noir. He stalks up the aisle and he screams, [
See, that’s another one! The 1949 movie
Yeah, I hope that people when they read my book they will understand that that pressure that was put on artists to conform to a certain kind of storytelling is exactly what created noir. They had to create a contrary, an anti-myth, if you will, to the happily-ever-after thing, and so they would spend 89 minutes doing that, and then in the last minute of the film, the authorities would come in and save the day. But you know they’re just going to live happily ever after, right? I mean, one of the great poetic things in writing is realizing you’ve done everything wrong and there’s no way out and you kill yourself. I mean, that’s like a really dramatic thing, which you couldn’t do in a Hollywood movie. You couldn’t have that suicide. I don’t know if you’ve seen the film that I’d showed recently on TCM from Argentina called
Yes! I wanted to ask you about those.
On the Argentinian noirs that you’ve restored, for people who maybe have only seen American or British noirs, what did the Argentinian ones offer? I mean, other than the ability to do something like that ending, but is there a through-line between noirs from that country?
Well, what I have found really interesting, because this is my main area of interest now is exploring noir in different cultures, in the Southern hemisphere, film noir plays super hot, as most drama does. In fact, I’m going to be introducing another Argentine film on TCM in October,
One of my favorite examples of this is a film from Norway called
It just never happened, right? Then she gets the divorce and then she takes this young lover and it’s public, there’s nothing clandestine about it at all, but you’re sitting there thinking, “How is this going to turn into a film noir?” It does because it’s psychologically very astute in that this young man can’t tolerate being the boy toy of this older woman and he gets very resentful and it becomes a tragedy because his fragile masculinity is crushed by this independent woman who knows what she wants and it ends very tragically, so it is very much a film noir. But astounding, whereas they would never allow anybody to divorce in an American film, it’s just a very simply done thing in this Norwegian film. Really amazing.
I’ve seen Iranian film noir as well which is a total trip because obviously it was all made before the cultural revolution and the rise of the Ayatollah, so the Shah was still in power, and it’s amazing to see those films and how Western they are with people driving Cadillac convertibles and listening to rock-and-roll. The films are very much like Hitchcock. They’re taking this from Hitchcock and this from Clouzot and they’re very much drawing from different cinemas from around the world to make what will be a popular film in the hopes that the films would be exported and establish Iran as a filmmaking center.
Absolutely amazing stuff, and remarkable that these films were allowed out of the country by the archive in Tehran. A friend of mine labored long and hard to get the authorities in Iran to let these films out for public exhibition. We haven’t been able to get them into the States yet, but I’m really hoping to.
I do want to ask you, all the years you’ve gotten to talk about noir, on TV and in person, is there a movie that you’re just tired of talking about? Not a bad movie, but just, you don’t need to talk about it ever again.
Hey, that’s great!
No. No, and the reason for that, I learned this early on, the audience changes. The audience keeps changing. When I first started programming these festivals, I think this is a very important point, Kyle, an extremely important point, when I started programming these festivals, I programmed for an elite strata of film-goer, right?
Somehow, you had to establish your credibility with other programmers, so it’s like, “Watch this, I’m going to find a movie that nobody else has shown, right, and everybody’s going to have to respect me for that.” Then I learned from a very smart woman, Anita Monga, who was the programmer at the Castro Theater in San Francisco, and she said, “Eddie, show
That really was an important lesson for me to learn is that people grow up in these things. Just because you know it and you’ve seen it, it’s still fresh to somebody else. I always think that every single time I do an intro on TCM. I say to myself, I psych myself up because I say, “There are a lot of people who are seeing this for the first time.”
Exactly, yeah. That’s great.
Right? They don’t know what
Last question. Gilda’s at the front door, Laura is at the back door. Which door do you open?
Oh, boy. I got to go with Gilda. I’d have to go with Gilda.
Hopefully, when you open the door, she would stand up and her hair would flip back like in the movie.
You would hope. I’d be afraid that Waldo Lydecker would be nearby with a shotgun at the back door or something [if I chose Laura], so yeah, that would scare me. Of course, George Macready might be lurking nearby with Gilda, but I mean, honestly, I don’t think there was a sexier human than Rita Hayworth.
Agreed, Mr. Muller. Agreed.