The Kilduff File: The Czar of Noir
Eddie Muller talks bad guys, suits, hats, and cocktails.
Growing up San Francisco in the ’60s and ’70s, by all rights Eddie Muller should have ended up some kind of hippie. But being raised by a hard-boiled sportswriter already in his 50s when Eddie was born, Muller got to see and appreciate a true ’40s/’50s era guy up close and personal. And it stuck. Instead of going goo-goo ga-ga over Easy Rider when it debuted in 1969, Muller was soaking up noir movies and fiction—the kind of stuff his dad and his cronies might have churned out while knocking back a little scotch (neat, of course) if they weren’t newspaper guys. After a 16-year career as a journalist himself, Muller decided to work only on projects that piqued his interest, including noir. In 2003, he started the country’s first noir film festival, Noir City, in San Francisco, and it remains the largest such festival of its kind. He also writes noirish tales, edits collections of noir fiction, and has produced a documentary on a couple of pioneering adult filmmakers. He even finds time to host a very popular show each Sunday devoted to noir film on the Turner Classic Movie channel, Noir Alley. And he does it all while being impeccably dressed, but then what would you expect from a noir kind of guy? I caught up with Alameda’s “Noir Czar” recently as he prepared for the Noir City festival that kicks off Jan. 26 at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco.
Paul Kilduff: Is noir an official genre of film? I hear there’s some debate about that.
Eddie Muller: If there is a genre in which noir fits, it’s crime. Stories about people doing the wrong thing. I mean, that’s what the movies are. And most of those movies fall into the crime genre, but noir transcended also to be a stylistic thing. So it’s the way it looks and the way it feels. When you really deeply get into it, it becomes almost a philosophical thing—the noir ethos. And as somebody who’s earned his living as a writer, I see that. Those are the things I focus on. It came to fruition in the 1940s, and it kind of petered out in the 1950s. Guess why? Because color became the prevalent thing. Noir style is so black and white, so synonymous with that style of cinematography, that a lot of people think it’s just black and white. You can’t even have a color movie that’s noir. And I don’t agree with that. And to be quite honest, Paul, it is that argument that keeps this subject so fresh.
PK: What’s an example of a fairly recent film that you feel qualifies as noir?
EM: Oh, Mulholland Drive. That’s 16 years old now, but Mulholland Drive is one of my favorite movies of all time. To me, it checks off every box, except it is so unusual in its structure, and it’s a nonlinear form of storytelling. People are like, ‘Oh no, I don’t get it.’ If you really look at the film, it’s about the disintegrating psyche of a young woman who’s driven to commit murder. That’s what that story is. And that’s pretty damn noir if you ask me. One definition I tend to favor is a focus on a protagonist who is a villain. When I read crime fiction, if it’s a detective story, it’s a detective story, right? If it’s a Jim Thompson novel where the protagonist is a guy like Lou Ford in the Killer Inside Me who’s a lawman, who’s a psychopath, that’s noir. If it’s a cop movie where the cop is a dirty cop like Internal Affairs with Richard Gere, I consider that to be noir, because you’re asking the audience to buy into a story where the lead character is the bad guy.
PK: The cocktail scene, dressing up a little more formally now in suits and wearing hats, is making a comeback. It seems like you could make a noir film set in that world today, right?
EM: I know there are people trying to do it. And I will say this, as popular as noir is once again, it’s still marginal when you look at it in terms of the overall culture. If you want to talk about, is there a place for classic noir, the look of classic noir in today’s culture? I don’t think you can sell a movie with that idea.
PK: What about noir with whiz-bang special effects?
EM: You mean Batman?
EM: One of the promotional things that has happened from my noir show, Noir Alley, is there’s a Batman comic book with me. I’m in it.
PK: I did not know that.
EM: I’ll send you one.
PK: You co-edited a book of Oakland noir-themed fiction. What’s “noiry” about Oakland?
EM: When it was announced that I was going to be co-editing this book, a lot of people I know who write crime fiction were like, ‘Hey, Eddie, I want to contribute a story. It’ll be about these drug gangs and blah, blah, blah.’ And it was just all gang shit—all the people could think about when they thought about Oakland. And I’m like, ‘I hate to tell you guys this, but I live there.’ And it’s more than that. We have our gang stories, we have our drug abuse stories, all this kind of stuff. But the goal for this book was to really give a much more well-rounded depiction of who lives in Oakland and what are the pressures that these people live under. And I was just very happy with the way it turned out. I felt like we did Oakland a solid. Even though it’s oriented toward crime, in the end you won’t walk away saying, ‘Wow, that Oakland. That’s just a crime infested hell hole.’
PK: You’re well dressed. Are you always suited up with a fedora? Or do you ever have a sartorial day off where you just say screw it and wear sweats to the grocery store?
EM: I learned a long time ago that I’m actually pretty comfortable dressing. I’m not a stick in the mud about this stuff or anything—I don’t dress up necessarily to impress anybody. I just do it because I think it’s a sign of respect to people. Here’s the reality: I see people who go out in public or go to a restaurant or a show or something and they’re in their sweats or something like that. And I just find it kind of thoughtless and rude in a way. Because when I do dress up and somebody will think like, ‘Who is this guy?’ And they’ll go, ‘Who are you all dressed up for?’ And I’ll say, ‘Well, you. I thought we might be meeting today, so I dressed up for you.’ It floors them. ’Cause it’s like, ‘Oh, well, I hadn’t thought about it that way.’
PK: I’m stealing that line.
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This story appeared in the January issue of our sister publication, The Monthly.