Touring Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir with Eddie Muller

September 10, 2021

Gun Crazy (1950) was my introduction to film noir, by way of Eddie Muller. His discussion of the B-movie classic in his 1998 book Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir transfixed me, just like the film eventually would. From that point on, noir had me hooked, and I eagerly followed Muller’s career from Dark City to The Film Noir Foundation to Noir City film festivals and eventually to TCM, where he hosts the network’s popular Noir Alley series.

 

I recently had the opportunity to chat with Muller, the Czar of Noir, about the newly revised and expanded edition of Dark City. We discussed his passion for discovering international noir, the lengths he’ll go (and has gone!) to save a movie, and much more.

 

(This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)

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Eddie Muller on the Noir Alley set.

(Photo courtesy of WarnerMedia)

Kim Luperi: Your book is subtitled The Lost World of Film Noir. Do you believe that’s still the case now in 2021, especially since you’ve done so much work with The Film Noir Foundation to help save and champion so many of these titles and bring them back to life?

 

Eddie Muller: That’s a good question. In the book I mention why I called it that the first time around, and yes, it is very gratifying that maybe I played some role in ensuring that some of these films weren’t lost. I think the genre is less at risk than it was when the first edition came out.

 

But even as we speak, I’m trying to put together a program of films for a festival in Washington, DC in a couple of months, and I still see the same issues that I saw 20 years ago; there’s just so many reasons why the films can be—let’s just say, unavailable. I don’t know if they disappear, because I’ve located a lot of them, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they can be shown. Boy, I’ve gotten an education on that side of things during the past 20 years in terms of rights issues and availability, but I’m not going to retitle the book The Largely Unavailable World of Film Noir!

 

Challenges exist both theatrically and on TCM, but they are slightly different, because there are different rules for broadcast and theatrical exhibition. I’m lucky, because on the TCM side, I have TCM to help me, and on the film side, the venues that I work with can help, but I’ve gotten a lot better over the course of 20 years at navigating those sometimes treacherous waters.

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The new cover for the revised and expanded edition of Dark City.

(Photo courtesy of WarnerMedia)

KL: I know through your efforts for The Film Noir Foundation that you’ve been able to go into the vaults with the help of studios and archivists and locate some really fantastic titles. Have you found that gets more challenging as time goes on and you’ve dug deep already? How do you find new approaches for that journey?

 

EM: It’s challenging. My greatest enthusiasm these days is finding foreign films that are completely unknown to an American audience. In addition to just discovering new movies, there’s a cultural aspect to it that I really enjoy, which is opening up the eyes of American viewers to other cultures. There is a segment of the audience that only wants to watch Hollywood movies, and I’ve found that just like film noir is proven to be kind of a gateway to classic movies for younger people—they’ll watch a noir film where they might not watch a 1930s comedy or a Western—I also think the same is true of a foreign film for people who might not be into foreign movies. So, finding one and saying, “Hey, this is like a French version of The Asphalt Jungle (1950), or this is a Cornell Woolrich story made in South America,” is a hook that gets them intrigued. I like to think that once they open that door, their horizons will broaden and they’ll be more open to watching foreign films.  

 

The flip side of that is when it comes to American films, there is a tendency to make the definition of noir very elastic, so that you find something that’s a lost film and the temptation to say this is film noir sometimes can be irresistible, because you just want to rescue the film. So hey, if I have to call it noir in order to get that done, I’ll call it noir. Let people argue over the definition, because that doesn’t really matter that much to me, which sounds weird coming from a guy who writes about film noir. But I take sort of a different approach; what I think as a guy whose job is to rescue movies and what I think as a guy who analyzes classic film are kind of two different disciplines, and I am willing to stretch the definition of noir if it means I can save this movie and get it seen by people. Even if someone on Twitter is going to call me an imbecile because he doesn’t really understand what noir is!

 

 

KL: Twitter is a tough platform, but it’s worth it if you are going to save a movie!


EM: Absolutely. That’s how I feel about it.

 

 

KL: I like that you brought up foreign noir, because I really loved the international flair you brought to the 2020 Noir City Hollywood festival that was cut short due to the pandemic. What other countries do you think do film noir well or put their unique cultural spin on it?

 

EM: Obviously, France. That kind of goes without saying. You can find noir here, too, but Japan has some of the best crime movies. I’ve seen such great stuff from Mexico—it was a little difficult to get the Mexican titles I wanted for that festival in Los Angeles, but I got some of them in the San Francisco festival earlier that year. Obviously Argentina, too; I’ve been kind of the point man for rescuing stuff out of Argentina, but I’m finding more all the time. Recently a colleague of mine in Europe saw some things from Finland that he was very excited about, and I know I’ve found some Swedish noir.

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Carlos Cores in the Argentinian noir Los tallos amargos/The Bitter Stems (1956). Muller played a big role in rediscovering and restoring this picture.

The most amazing thing, I haven’t been able to get these over here yet, but my friend Ehsan Khoshbakht, who’s Iranian, was able to convince the archive in Tehran to allow him to show some Iranian films at the Bologna festival a couple of years ago, and they are very, very much noir. Boy, would I love to show Iranian films; this is pre-Ayatollah films, obviously, made in the late 50s-early 60s in Iran, and I think it would be eye-opening to see how Westernized that country was before the cultural revolution over there: think Cadillac convertibles and rock ‘n roll music and the women have big beehive hairdos. The movies are very much like Western thrillers, except they have the unbreakable cultural codes built into them that set you back on your heels. There’s stuff there with age differences between the men and women, who are really girls, that are just taken for granted and shocking to a Western audience. It’s that kind of stuff that absolutely fascinates me. There are also actual Indian noirs that were made, Bollywood films in the 50s. If you’re familiar with Indian cinema, you know the movies are long and they sing, and it’s a challenge to try to present something like that to an American audience. But if you’re into it, this is how they would do film noir in India. It’s amazing.

 

 

KL: That’s so interesting; I hope we get to see some of those films in the future. Circling back to the book, I used your original edition from 1998 more as a research text, but this one I read  cover to cover, and I was very glad I did, because you write so evocatively.

 

EM: Thank you so much. I did an interview recently where someone asked, "How do you want people to read it?" and I said, "I want them to read it from the front to the back!" Because it’s clearly written like we’re on an excursion; we’re taking a tour of this mythological city, and the last chapter is supposed to be the punchline where you realize that Dark City is Hollywood.

 

 

KL: Yes, reading it this time, I realized it was crafted like a city. For me, it made the reading experience all the richer because it really pulled me into the text. What was your impetus for structuring the book like that?

 

EM: I have a much more novelistic and filmmaker’s approach to the material than an academic would take. I really feel like I’m a storyteller, and I wanted to tell this story. The true inspiration for it was a book by Geoffrey O’Brien called The Phantom Empire. It’s a wonderful book about cinema, in which he has this fabulous conceit that movies are real, and all of this stuff actually happened. Reading that book is really what triggered it, for me. People always say film noir is such an urban genre—it’s about corruption in the big city and everything—and then I started playing around with that, what if I wrote about it and broke the city down to these neighborhoods and those were like the subsets of noir. That’s how the structure of the book developed.

 

 

KL: It’s such a great way to format it. It makes so much sense for the reader.

 

EM: I’m proud of that. St. Martin’s told me I was being overly ambitious, so I never did get to write about the newspaper, the prisons, and the theater district, if you will, or the show business chapter; those didn’t make it into the original book. I didn’t even write them until now. I guess Covid was good for something, because I had wanted to do this for so long, and then trapped in the house, I finally knuckled down and got it done.

 

 

KL: I know you said that you added those sections and revised some text to add movies you recently discovered, like Jealousy (1945). Are there any films that you found or rediscovered that exploded in popularity between editions and surprised you to the point where you thought, “I have to add this to the book!”

 

EM: Oh, absolutely. The two that really stand out that are not in the first edition were Woman on the Run (1950) and Too Late for Tears (1949), both of which have been restored by The Film Noir Foundation and both of which are great examples of noir and very distinctive for different reasons.

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A Danish poster for Too Late for Tears.

When I started work on that book, there’s a fella I knew, his name is Don Hyde, and I told him I was working on this book. I didn’t know him very well—he was a friend of a friend—

and he said, “You’ll have to write about my favorite film noir, Too Late for Tears,” and I was embarrassed that I had never seen it; I didn’t know what he was talking about! When I tried to find it, I could not find the movie. So, it goes almost unmentioned in the first volume, and then it took me 10 years to track down enough elements of that film to be able to restore it. Now we’ve shown it on TCM and I see people on Twitter saying, “Too Late for Tears is my favorite film noir,” and don’t think I don’t get a big swell of pride when I see that, because it’s like they wouldn’t be saying that if it wasn’t for me!

 

 

KL: Speaking of Too Late for Tears, I wrote about the censorship that movie faced when the DVD came out. You mention censorship and the PCA (Production Code Administration) many times in the book, and rightly so, because these filmmakers had to get so creative to skirt the Code especially with sexuality and violence. Is there any one movie or scene that really sticks out to you that makes you wonder how it got by the censors?

 

EM: Oh my gosh, that’s a really good question. Well, the one I always love to talk about is the scene in Thieves’ Highway (1949) where Valentina Cortese plays tic-tac-toe on Richard Conte’s chest. It’s so sexual and there’s nothing in the Code against it, because they were so obsessed with women’s sexuality, they never thought about the men. There’s no way in hell that scene can be reversed in 1949 and a guy can be playing tic-tac-toe on Ava Gardner’s chest, you know? But when you think about it, the dynamic is the same, the intention is the same, the sexiness is the same—they just switched the gender roles, and it’s really hot. There’s no mistaking what’s going on there.

Thieves Highway tic tac toe gif.gif

Richard Conte and Valentina Cortese in Thieves' Highway.

The other thing in film noir that kills me is how the Irish Catholics and the Production Code office kind of ignored gay characters, because they didn’t want to admit they recognized them as gay. So that was always funny, because film noir probably has, per capita, more gay characters than any other genre in Hollywood, except maybe movies about the theater. But it’s kind of interesting they just let that go.

 

 

KL: It is mind-boggling the things they took issue with and then you see everything that passed right through.
 

EM: There’s a funny story about that. When they made Pushover (1954), Richard Quine had his wardrobe person submit all these sketches of Kim Novak’s wardrobe to the PCA, and they consciously covered her up with all these high-collared outfits and coats and stuff, but they never specified what material they were going to be made of. Of course, if you’ve seen the movie, Kim walks into her apartment with Fred MacMurray and takes off her coat, and she might as well be naked, because the material is so sheer and she’s not wearing a bra. I brought this up to her, and I thought, “Can I actually mention this to her? Will she be offended?” I said, “You make a striking first impression in Pushover because you walk in and take your jacket off, and it’s apparent you’re not wearing a bra,” and she says, “Honey, I never wore a bra! I never wore a bra in any movie!”

 

KL: Your book really focuses on that classic noir era of the 40s and 50s, but I know you’ve programmed proto-noir and neo-noir at the festivals and on TCM recently. You also mentioned earlier how noir plays so well to modern audiences because the themes are still so relatable and relevant. I’m curious, how do you see noir manifesting in contemporary films and TV?

 

EM: I find it fascinating that today it seems the new versions of noir are representing the people who are under-represented in the classic films. So many movies and shows now feature female protagonists, and there’s things I would consider to be noir, like I’m Your Woman (2020) and Mare of Easttown (2021)—that’s like a whodunit, but you can still consider it a noir, and it’s a female protagonist. Or the one that Soderbergh just did, No Sudden Move (2021), where he takes a character that would have been on the edge of the frame in 1955—Don Cheadle playing a low-level crook in Detroit—and makes him the protagonist in the story. I think that’s great; you’re seeing the gender and racial things come into these stories that were not allowed back then.

 

 

KL: That's very interesting. Speaking of performers, if you could choose one actor who you would have loved to see star in a film noir who didn’t, who would it have been?

 

EM: Interesting question. This is going to be weird, but I probably would have liked to have seen Doris Day in more noir stuff. She did some, like Storm Warning (1951), where she is terrific—she’s not the star, Ginger Rogers is the star; she was good in Julie (1956), which is kind of a dopey movie at times, but she sells it like a million bucks; and Love Me or Leave Me (1955), the musical with Jimmy Cagney, I kind of think of as a noir musical, and she’s great in that.

There’s just something about her wholesome, clean-cut, virginal blonde image being in a film noir that is really kind of compelling to me. I wish she had done more of them. What’s the one she did with Rex Harrison? It’s set in England, he’s her husband, and she believes someone is out to kill her. That’s kind of a noir.

 

 

KL: I think that’s Midnight Lace (1960).

 

EM: That is the title! See, I’m kind of not completely satisfied with any of the noirs that she made. I think Love Me or Leave Me is great, but I would have liked to see her in something else. And it’s interesting, because she wouldn’t be the femme fatale; she would be the protagonist of the movie. She would fall for the wrong guy, kind of like she does in Julie, and then she’d have to get herself out of all this trouble. I’d love to see that.

 

 

KL: I agree that it would be fun to see someone with a clean-cut image in a noir. I would have loved to have seen Greer Garson in a film noir, because it’s so out of the ordinary.

 

EM: Exactly, we’re on the same wave length with that. That’s a good one!

 

 

KL: I think I might know the answer to this, but I’m curious if I’ll be right: What would you say is the craziest thing you’ve ever done for film noir or in the pursuit of saving film noir?

 

EM: I don’t know if I’d call it crazy; I thought it was quite brilliant: When we showed Woman on the Run [for the first time], we got that print from Universal, and it was perfect. It had never been shown. It had actually never been through a projector. It had the original lab band still wrapped around the reels, and I couldn’t send it back without making a copy of it, because it was so perfect. And so I paid my own money to go and make a copy; it was before the foundation was even created. It wasn’t a film copy—I didn’t have the wherewithal to do that—but a friend of mine ran a laboratory in San Francisco and I talked him into, against his better judgement, making a digital copy of the film just for posterity, because you never know what could happen. I put it in a safety deposit box in the bank, and I left it there. And wouldn’t you know it, that print burned in the Universal fire in 2008. We found a dupe negative of the film at the BFI without a soundtrack, so the digital copy that I made was the basis for the restored soundtrack, and now the film exists. I don’t think that was crazy; I think that was great!

 

The funny thing was that I admitted to Universal what happened after the fire. I asked what happened to Woman on the Run, and they said, “Sorry Eddie, it burned up,” and I said, “Well, I’m going to admit something to you: I copied it when you gave it to me.” There were people at Universal who said, “I don’t see how we can ever trust you with a film again.” Then Bob O’Neill, who at that time was the VP of Archives at Universal, sent an email saying, “That is good stewardship,” and that was it; no one ever said another word about it. It was great.

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Dennis O'Keefe and Ann Sheridan in Woman on the Run.

KL: I mean, he’s right. Crazy wasn’t the right word, but brilliant, that is the right word. You helped save a film and now we can all see and enjoy it. I think he was absolutely correct in commending you.

 

EM: Bob was a great guy; he’s happily retired now. I really, really appreciated that. When I started out doing this, it was odd, because the people who ran the archives at the studios were like, “Who is this guy?” I didn’t have a TV show; I had one book. That was it. And it was always great when they would finally agree to see me, and I’d walk in and my book would be on their bookshelf. That was a good sign. And now, they all know who I am when I call, so that’s great.

Thank you to Eddie Muller for taking the time to chat with me about Dark City and film noir. Even if you own the original book, I highly recommend adding this revised and expanded edition to your collection. You can purchase your own copy through TCM or a local bookstore like Larry Edmunds.

Thanks to Taryn Jacobs and Wendy Gardner at WarnerMedia for setting up this interview and providing me with a review copy of the new edition of Dark City from TCM and Running Press.

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I See a Dark Theater is a website dedicated to classic movie-going—and loving—in the City of Angels. Whether it's coverage on screenings, special presentations, or Q&As around Los Angeles that you're looking for, or commentary on the wonderful and sometimes wacky world of classic cinema, you've come to the right place for a variety of pieces written with zeal, awe, and (occasionally) wit. Enjoy.

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