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Lights Out: A Chat with “Czar of Noir” Eddie Muller, Part 1

23 February 2010 Stories and Appreciations 4,856 views 2 CommentsPrint This Post Print This Post Email This Post Email This Post

EDITOR’S NOTE: Film noir isn’t just a genre of filmmaking; it’s practically a world unto itself, a entire dark city that’s too big to cover in one pass. In this installment, film historian Eddie Muller talks about what film noir is, and in part 2, he tells you some of the reasons he loves it. Read part 2 here.

Before Eddie Muller told me true, I didn’t really know what film noir really was. I knew that the term described the crime melodramas of the 1940s and 1950s; I knew that it embodied both a visual style and a method of storytelling; and I knew that “noir,” as a standalone term, was an overused film-critic favorite, used to describe most any film with a chain-smoking antihero. I thought film noir was little more than dark rooms, dangerous women, and tough guys talking to themselves. I thought it was a gimmick.

Luckily, Muller set me straight. For the past several years, the author and film historian has hosted the “Noir City” film festival at SIFF Cinema (this year’s edition runs through Thursday, February 25), and in the course of giving his customary introductions to such classic noirs as Joseph H. Lewis’ “Gun Crazy” (pictured above), John Farrow’s “The Big Clock” and John M. Stahl’s “Leave Her to Heaven,” this “Czar of Noir” has illuminated a entire avenue of Hollywood lore of which I was previously unaware. Film noir, as Eddie Muller so succinctly and beautifully puts it, is about “good people driven to do bad things.” It’s about husbands conspiring to murder their wives for the insurance money; it’s about ex-cons desperately trying to go straight, and failing; it’s about law-abiding citizens trying to cover acts of desperation with even more desperate actions. Film noir is sex and larceny and paranoia and all the other things that make America grate its collective teeth.

It would be one thing if Eddie Muller were simply an authority on film, but there’s more to it: He is easily the most ardent fan of noir you’ll ever meet. His knowledge of the form stems from loving the movies almost without equivocation. In a way, he’s a bit of a noir character himself — he has twin shocks of gray spidering their way up his temples, dresses in well-cut suits that wouldn’t have looked out-of-place in 1950, and is one of the five men currently on this planet who can really wear a fedora.

That hat is now sitting on a table next to a wingback chair in the lobby of Seattle’s hundred-year-old Sorrento Hotel, and Eddie Muller is talking about the thing he loves the most.

Monkey Goggles: You once described film noir as “Good people doing bad things.”

Eddie Muller: Heh, heh. I’ve refined it; now, they’re not even good. They were never really good, were they?

MG: Nope. But it was always about people. How did I ever start to think that noir was about nothing but gangsters, women and cars? How did the true meaning of noir get lost?

EM: I think you’ve kind of hit on it. I think that, by and large, this generation tends to look at the window dressing rather than the actual content of the films. And it’s easy to understand that, because the style of mid-20th century America was so great that that’s what everybody fixates on. The cars were better, the clothes were better, the cocktails were better, the nightclubs were better – everything was better. That’s why cocktail culture has come back, because the only thing from that era that you can actually afford to recreate today is the cocktail. You can’t build the cars anymore, and you can’t make a suit for that amount of money that looks that good.

If the window dressing attracts a person, then I think they really watch the films. They start to see patterns emerge, they start to see the context in which these films were originally created, and to see what the underlying ethos, if you will, of all these movies is.

MG: The characters in film noir are very contemporary — they’re dealing with wartime stresses and a bad economy, just as we are. The films don’t feel like period pieces.

EM: Noir is the anti-myth, in a way, of “happily ever after.” I think that’s what these films represent. It’s a very artistic way of suggesting that it can all go bad as likely as it can turn out okay. You make the wrong decision, turn down the wrong street, deal with the wrong person, and it can all go to hell. And I would be stunned, and it would say something absolutely dreadful about our culture, if a whole slew of new noir films didn’t come out of what we’re experiencing right now.

We’re basically going through exactly the same experiences that created the noir movement in the first place — which was not World War II as a lot of people think. It was the first World War, followed by the Great depression that created all of the writing that became the basis of noir. Once the German directors came over here and got their hands on it, they knew how to visualize it, and Billy Wilder knew how to popularize it with “Double Indemnity.” But the work of the writers who are really responsible for creating this whole noir idea, that all came out of the Depression, and what those writers had experienced in World War I. Dashiell Hammett was in WW I.

I think we’re going to see the same thing soon. You know, if you don’t think there’s a noir story in veterans returning from the Iraq war, coming back to an economy that has absolutely no use for them whatsoever… The economic and political forces are now identical to what they once were.

MG: What do you tell young moviegoers to get them passionate about noir? “If you love ‘Blade Runner’ or ‘L.A. Confidential,’ you’ll love these movies?”

EM: This week, I went into a number of schools. The kids have watched “Double Indemnity,” so I’m really curious to see what their reaction is. Trust me, I can be as bitter and cynical as anyone about how rotten the culture is right now, but I’m not ready to give up. I’ve done this in the past; the California Film Institute has done this thing where they do like a summer camp, and they take a very interesting approach because every kid in America now aspires to be a film director. They said, let’s do a summer camp where we bring in people who are involved in film, but they aren’t all directors — to show kids that there’s a way to be involved in film in a very positive, creative way you shouldn’t feel like you’re a failure or disappointed if you’re not the director, which I think is very very valuable.

So I go in and talk to them as a writer and a film historian and a guy who preserves movies – and a filmmaker, too. I do all this stuff; you don’t have to be limited to one thing. And I was pretty impressed with the way these kids responded to my schpiel. I showed them clips from the movies and asked, “So what’s a movie that you saw recently that you would consider to be film noir?”

I have to tell you all the boys immediately said, “Yeah man, ‘Sin City’ is noir!” But this one 14-year old girl said, “I think Woody Allen’s ‘Match Point’ would be a film noir.” Wow – that is awesome! She looked so far past the surface, the visuals, to understand exactly what you described — an otherwise good person finding himself succumbing to all these temptations and crossing over to the dark side. She saw that. And “Match Point” is definitive film noir; it looks nothing like the original movies, but it’s about as noir as it gets. And the film that Woody Allen did after that, “Cassandra’s Dream,” is another one – these two dunderheads decide “We’re gonna get rich by killing this guy.” I mean, that’s noir.

Geoff Carter

“GUN CRAZY” PHOTO COURTESY SIFF

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2 Comments »

  1. […] NOTE: In part one of this interview with “The Czar of Noir” Eddie Muller, the film historian explained […]

  2. Terrific interview. It’s wonderful hearing someone who’s passionate and knowledgeable about this topic as is Eddie Muller. It’s my sense and must be the sense of a number of others that, as Muller says, the country has drifted (some might argue it was pushed) into a new but no less genuine noir period, with little hope of a way out. I don’t think the politics are identical to the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, but they seem damn close. Perhaps it’s a matter of little time before we see a new explosion of noir movies.

    On one minor point I have a different view. It was not World War I and its massive destruction that gave Dashiell Hammett his jaundiced view of American society. Hammett did not go overseas during his service and never really left the greater Baltimore area, his hometown. What had a greater influence on him than the war, as I see it, was his work as a Pinkerton operative–in particular, his strike-busting work for them at the Anaconda mine in Butte, Montana (during which he was offered a bucketful of money to assassinate the strike leader but, as the story goes, turned it down). Hammett the detective saw the dirty side up close. He also had hell to pay to get the veterans bureau to give him a decent disability pension once his TB, which developed after he caught the Spanish flu as a soldier in 1918, crippled his ability to work. Perhaps, too, the years he lived in the home of his philandering, boozing and ne’er-do-well father contributed to his evident convictions that power and those who had it were simply not to be trusted.

    But this difference is unimportant. Where Muller and I agree is that the view of society embedded in the concept of noir began to germinate with writers like Hammett and Chandler and Cain and others. And the Depression–particularly the fact that certain segments of the society still managed to take good care of their own, thank you very much–was paramount. … Thanks for this. I look forward to Part 2!
    — Peter Porco, Anchorage

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