Eddie Muller on the Changing Landscape of Film Noir - Nerdist
NEW
Eddie Muller on the Changing Landscape of Film Noir

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, Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir.

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 Noir Alley series, which showcases movies both well known and obscure. In many ways, we owe our knowledge and love of film noir to Eddie Muller.

The cover of Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir by Eddie Muller revised and updated edition which shows John Garfield and Lana Turner from The Postman Always Rings Twice behind the book's title.

TCM

Muller revised and updated Dark City this year which now includes films that hadn’t been restored or rediscovered at the time. It’s amazing that a film movement, which many contend lasted less than 20 years, could continue to grow and change and expand. We were lucky enough to talk to Mr. Muller about how the audience for noir has changed, what keeps it exciting to him, and why people can’t stop arguing about whether movies are or aren’t noir.

NERDIST: In the years since you first wrote Dark City, and as you’ve done screenings and hosted Noir Alley, how has the audience for film noir changed?

Eddie Muller: The main thing is that there is one. I like to think that my work has had something to do with expanding the audience. I know when I started writing [the book], most of the people were older, the people who related to it were older. Now, I think I’ve actually seen the audience start to skew younger. At the film festivals that I host, I could see this because I think if you want to call it a “film noir revival,” I think it coincided with the rise of cocktail culture and vintage culture. There’s a great segment of younger people out there who recognize that mid-20th century Americana was maybe the zenith for this culture and they have embraced it. That became a big part of the audience.

Fortunately, we’ve seen the audience grow. I mean, testimony to that is I doubt that TCM would have given me a franchise with Noir Alley if they didn’t feel that we were tapping into something there. I believe that I actually, maybe the magic words that I said to TCM back when, was that “Film noir is sort of the gateway drug to classic cinema for a lot of younger people. They’ll watch a film noir and be enticed by it, where maybe they wouldn’t sit down and watch a western or a screwball comedy or something like that.” There are a lot of reasons for that, obviously, but that has proven to be true. I mean, I’ve seen it firsthand.

TCM Noir Alley host Eddie Muller wearing a pinstripe suit stands in the Art Deco themed office set on Turner Classic Movies.

TCM

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.

Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade glowers in front of a brick wall with dark shadows in The Maltese Falcon

Warner Bros.

When I was in college in the mid-2000s, there was a very specific span of time considered “Film Noir,” from The Maltese Falconin 1941 to Touch of Evilin 1958. I’m wondering if, from your perspective, because so many movies have gotten restored in the last 20 years and are now available, have you noticed that there is a change in what the essential noirs are, or are they the same big pillars?

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?

A woman stands in the middle of a street, holding her hands up to flag down an oncoming car in the film noir classic Kiss Me Deadly.

United Artists

I mean, you can ask Quentin Tarantino what influence Kiss Me Deadly had on him. Is that not a continuum, that it continues to go on? But it’s no longer a movement, right? People aren’t making dozens and dozens of these films every year. Also, it had a lot to do with the studio system, obviously, that you could point to Universal made 10 of these in 1948 and Fox made another dozen of them. That doesn’t work today. Movies aren’t made that way, so there was truly a movement.

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.

promotional still for the film noir classic I Walk Alone starring Lizabeth Scott and Burt Lancaster.

Paramount

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 Noir Alley show now and I’m laughing at myself because as I’m picking the movies, I’m saying, “Okay, I can see what Twitter’s going to say about this one. ‘He’s crazy if he thinks this is a film noir.'” But if it’s a movie that I think is really interesting that doesn’t get seen enough, I’ll find a way to call it noir, just to get it seen.

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 Trapped or The Man Who Cheated Himself and get mad that they aren’t exactly like Double Indemnity, but that’s the fun. It’s a spectrum rather than just a set of tentpoles.

Flickr Alley's cover for The Man Who Cheated Himself, a newly restored Film Noir overseen by Eddie Muller.

Flicker Alley

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? The Postman Always Rings Twice does; The Killers does, but The Maltese Falcon doesn’t, really. It just presents a more morally ambiguous world in which these characters exist, right? Sam Spade in many ways is as morally ambiguous as all the other characters in that story. He’s not above sleeping with his partner’s wife. He doesn’t serve the law, he serves himself, right? He’s hired to do things for money and he has his own code of ethics that doesn’t necessarily coincide with society’s code of ethics, so I grant it honorary noir status.

John Garfield clutches Lana Turner in a scene in The Postman Always Rings Twice.

MGM

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 Pursuit and Blood on the Moon and Ramrod and Stations West. Those films look and feel the way they do because of the noir movement. I mean, it was a huge pervasive influence. Then you get into the later movies and not so much. I mean, for example, a film that I’m just programming now that I hope we’re going to show on Noir Alley is Bad Day at Black Rock.

Oh, sure.

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.

the poster for The Hunted, a film noir starring Preston Foster and Belita.

Allied Artists Pictures

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 The Hunted, a 1948 B-movie with Preston Foster and Belita, who is a particular fetish of mine, if you will.

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, [through gritted teeth] “That was romantic melodrama!” and kicks open the door and storms out into the night and the audience was just stunned. I couldn’t do anything but just laugh uproariously because people take this stuff so seriously. “It was romantic melodrama, not a noir,” and of course, that film feels more like a noir than almost any other film made in 1948, but it ends on an upbeat note, so he wasn’t buying that at all.

Charlton Heston and Lizabeth Scott smiling during the surprisingly upbeat ending of the 1950 noir, Dark City, from which Eddie Muller took the name of his book.

Paramount

See, that’s another one! The 1949 movie Dark City itself, the movie that you based the title of your book on, is really dark but it has a happy ending, so does that make it not a noir? Come on! There’s no question to me.

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 Los tallos amargos.

Yes! I wanted to ask you about those.

The Bitter Stems. I mean, that has an ending that is so incredibly powerful where the protagonist realizes how many mistakes he’s made and how he screwed everything up and he realizes the only possible solution is to go stand on the railroad tracks. That would never happen in a Hollywood film. It’s so liberating to see that in a movie of that period, but you had to get it in Argentina, where they were like, “Well, that’s life and death.” But you had to be protected from that in Hollywood, so that’s why I don’t subscribe to that thing of, “If it ends happily, it can’t be a noir,” because like I say, you’ve spent 89 minutes convincing the audience of one thing, and then the last minute, the cops straighten everything up.

A scene from The Bitter Stems.

The Film Noir Foundation

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, The Beast Must Die. I tell people in the introduction, I say, “Don’t be critical of this movie because it’s so melodramatic because that was the default mode for films made in that country.” They’re super hot, the acting is way up here. I’m sure in South America, they watch French films and they comment on how cool they are, or British films, right? Nobody seems to get very emotional about anything, you know? There’s just all kinds of ways noir plays out differently in other cultures.

One of my favorite examples of this is a film from Norway called Death is a Caress, which was actually, it was made in 1949 by a woman named Edith Carlmar, who was one of the preeminent directors in Norway. She was sort of like Ida Lupino of Norway. But where Ida Lupino in Hollywood had to direct in the margins, Edith Carlmar was accepted and made major films. Anyway, she made this film and it’s very much like The Postman Always Rings Twice about a middle-aged woman who takes a young lover who’s a mechanic, and it is so instructive on the differences in the cultures because the most shocking scene in that movie is where she asks her husband for a divorce. Then they’re sitting in the lawyer’s office and they get a divorce and you realize you’ve never seen this scene in an American film that era, right?

Oh wow!

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.

Peggy Cummins and John Dall ride in a car in the film noir Gun Crazy

King Brothers Productions

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.

No.

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?

Barbara Stanwyck hides behind a door as Fred MacMurray holds a drink in Double Indemnity.

Paramount

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 Double Indemnity. Show The Postman Always Rings Twice.” I was kind of like, “Oh, but come on. Everybody knows that one. I want to show this super rare film.” She said, “The last time you showed Double Indemnity, the audience that’s going to come to this show was 10 years old. Now, they’re 16 years old and they’re going to get it. It’s going to make an impression on them.”

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 Double Indemnity is, they don’t know what Out of the Past is. As many times as I’ve shown The Maltese Falcon, somebody, not one person, there are hundreds, thousands of people who are seeing it for the first time. My job is to make them feel that they’re making the right choice by watching this movie. That’s how I approach all of this. When I do my live shows and we get 800 people in a theater or something, my attitude is, “These people could have done something else tonight, but they came here to see this, and I have to reinforce that they made the right decision.”

A showdown of two gorgeous women: Rita Hayworth in Gilda and Gene Tierney in Laura.

Columbia/Fox

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.

Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir revised and expanded edition is in stores now.

Kyle Anderson is the Senior Editor for Nerdist. You can find his film and TV reviews here. Follow him on Twitter!

Trending Topics