‘Dark City’ Author & TCM ‘Noir Alley’ Host Eddie Muller: The Conskipper Interview

When it comes to the academic study and preservation of the film noir genre, no one out there is a greater authority on the subject than Eddie Muller. Every Saturday, Muller introduces movie buffs to a new film noir classic on the beloved TCM program, Noir Alley. And as the founder and president of the Film Noir Foundation, he has been instrumental in restoring and preserving over 30 classic movies which would have otherwise been lost to time. In July, Running Press released a revised and expanded edition of Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir, a painstakingly updated version of Muller’s influential 1998 classic which has since become a sacred text to genre film lovers. Mr. Muller took some time out of his busy schedule to speak with us about the book, the genre, and more in this exclusive interview.

Could you please walk me through your process for revising and expanding this new edition of Dark City? How have your experiences since publishing the original informed your revisions and expansions to the text?

Eddie Muller: I want to joke and say that I already feel like there’s a third edition to write! Maybe ten years ago, I felt that a lot of the work I was doing with the Film Noir Foundation in particular made me feel like, “Wow, there’s a lot of stuff I really didn’t get into this book that I just didn’t know at the time.” I felt that when I wrote the initial book, I didn’t consider myself the foremost authority of the subject, but I knew what I loved about the movies. And so that’s really what I wanted to get across and talk about. And I thought I had a somewhat unique and inventive approach to presenting the material. That book opened a lot of doors for me, and I felt like I was learning so much more than I realized during the onset when I wrote the first book. I really wanted to do a revised edition, which for various reasons just took longer than I thought to accomplish. But in the end, that wasn’t a bad thing, because I kept learning more and more. I kept meeting more people who could provide insight on these things. My perspective didn’t change in any great way; I just think I had a greater breadth in what I could write about in the new edition.

As a reader and a film lover myself, I feel that it’s great how not only are lost films being discovered, but so are new stories about how these films were made! You started talking to more people and you started hearing more stories about the production of these films which may have never been told to anyone if you hadn’t opened those doors with that first edition.

Muller: Correct. And then it works the reverse as well. The story I tell in the original edition and in this one about Raymond Chandler writing The Blue Dahlia, where he said, “I have to work at home. I’m gonna be drunk. You’ll have to ferry script pages to the set…”, that’s a legendary story. Now there are people who claim that story is apocryphal, that (producer) John Houseman made it up, and that it wasn’t true. So, who knows. I stuck with it, because it’s a great story. That was something that for many, many years was just a given. When Houseman wrote that, it was amazing… adding to the Chandler legend! And then, lo and behold, somebody finds a memo or something that seems to contradict it, and a whole different story emerges. So you’re dealing with that stuff all the time.

In the book, you argue how film noir often reflects the soldier’s experience, and perhaps disillusionment, in America, post World War II. Horror film scholars argue that the soldiers’ postwar experience after World War I led to the creation of the sympathetic monsters of the classic American horror films. What do you think it says about each of these genres, time periods, and wars that World War I led to the establishment of American Horror and World War II resulted in film noir?

Muller: I was actually not aware of that analysis of classic horror and World War I. That’s a really interesting observation. That’s a big topic to grasp. I will say this, and this may be splitting hairs but I think it’s important to do that: I don’t think that World War II created film noir. I think that World War II led to an environment that allowed film noir to flourish. Those are slightly different things. I think that the underpinnings of film noir were there in the 1930s. It’s just that Hollywood implemented the production code and it didn’t really allow for those types of stories to flourish. And then when the war came, there was a demand that Hollywood do its part for the war effort just like it had done in the 30s to help America get through the depression. In the aftermath of the war, suddenly you found artists who had to grapple with living in a world in which such a cataclysm was possible. And I think that’s why you saw noir happen then. Somebody had to account for the negative energy that was unleashed by all of this. I think that’s what genre pictures do more than anything else. Because they are a little bit under the radar, but in many ways they are the films addressing the what is going on in society. On the A pictures, the executives are more nervous about how the culture is going to react to them. They have more money invested in them. It’s the movies under the radar, the genre pictures, that can be stuffed full of this stuff. It’s interesting as well, because obviously a lot of these movies were about soldiers, but they weren’t written by soldiers. They were written by artists imagining that soldiers’ experience. Except for something like Crossfire, where Richard Brooks was actually a marine and he wrote the novel that Crossfire is based on. That’s a very long-winded way of saying that it was time for this to happen. And it’s interesting, as you point out, that these two things, horror and noir, emerge out of world wars.

In the case of film noir, I just think that it was brewing for a long time. It grew out of the hard-boiled fiction of the 30s, like the James M. Cain stories, which was sort of a reaction to the depression and the crime that you saw… outlaw crime that was very prominent in the 30s. You saw Warner Bros. put it in their gangster pictures. But those criminals were different from the everyday people who learned what they were capable of in film noir. I just think that artists were so primed to write stories that overturned the myth of, “Everything will be fine. We’re all gonna live happily every after.” They couldn’t do that with a good conscience after having lived through not one, but two world wards. I think that’s mainly what you see in noir. Especially when you consider this European influence that came to Hollywood. Escaping the rise of the Third Reich was essentially the aftermath of first world war. And these artists escaped and were in America for the second world war. Those directors certainly had a more jaundiced, pessimistic view than what you would find in American-born filmmakers at that point. Although it’s an interesting mix because most of the material that was used for these films was a particularly American kind of hard-boiled crime fiction that was created here. But the visualization was by and large created by these European directors who had come from war-torn Europe.

To your point that these are artists who’ve lived through two world wars, I wonder if the fact that film noir villains and anti-heroes are so grounded in reality as opposed to classic movie monsters has something to do with the fact that these artists had grown more pessimistic after living through the second one.

Muller: It’s very interesting that you’re bringing that up because it made me think of my favorite noir director, Robert Siodmak. His brother Curt Siodmak is a horror movie guy, you know? It’s funny that the Siodmak brothers are Exhibit A in your hypothesis here.

In Dark City and on Noir Alley, you often reveal your research on all of the sordid details surrounding how each of these classic films were made, and the personal circumstances of the artists and performers who made them. If you could have been a fly on the wall during the production of just one and only one classic film noir title in history, which one would you choose and why?

Muller: Hmmm, that’s a really interesting question. Some of them were so catastrophic! I should stop short of catastrophic. We were just talking about world wars, right? That’s catastrophic. Making movies is not catastrophic. But some of them were so torturous. I don’t know that I would want to be with Orson Welles while he was making The Lady from Shanghai. I’d love to be hanging out with Rita Hayworth, but that was an unpleasant production. That’s a really, really good question! Nobody has ever asked me that before. It’s so hard to say because in some ways I would want to say something like Detour. I would love to see how that film actually got made. It was done so quickly, so cheaply, but so creatively. It would be really fascinating to be a witness to it.

On the other hand, wouldn’t it be fun to be on a production like The Killers or something, where you’ve got this amazingly flamboyant producer like Mark Hellinger, who was just an amazing character. And I’d love to see Robert Siodmak, my favorite noir director, at work and just see how he does that. And it has that extraordinary cast. Plus, you get Ava Gardner! And every supporting character and bit player in that movie is so fantastic that it would have been just great to hang out during the making of that film. Wow!

So, for an A picture I’d say The Killers and for a B picture, I’d say Detour.

And for me, with The Killers, you’ve got the connection to Ernest Hemingway as well!

Muller: Of course!

My next question is about modern films and I know from the press release for the book that you don’t really like referring to modern films as “neo noir” and you prefer the expression “modern examples of film noir”…

Muller: (laughs) Yeah, but I did that whole Neo-Noir series for TCM, so I guess I’d better revise that!

There are some excellent examples of film noir which have been made in the past 30 or 40 years, but many other attempts are not as good or memorable. What are some elements of the genre that contemporary filmmakers seem to forget or not understand when they make a bad movie? Also, what are some of the more recent noir films that you think worked, and why?

Muller: Empathy for the characters. To me, that’s it in the nutshell. The big mistake people make when they set out to do a modern film noir is they focus on all of the window dressings and they lose sight of the fact that these were stories that connected because you empathized with somebody who was doing the wrong thing. And you identified with them. It’s like, “What would I do in this situation?” Right? And that’s what noir is: people who know they’re doing the wrong thing and they do it anyway. That’s it.

I think too much focus is placed on the stylistics of it and not enough on the writing, frankly. Writing and performance is the main thing. The style is a bonus. And so I really think that that’s what they’re missing, is that really strong connection that makes people empathize with the characters.

It all starts in the writers’ room.

Muller: I totally believe that. And the thing is, a lot of modern filmmakers—I’m gonna generalize here and say this is not just noir—they really think they’re going to make it, they’re going to score, because they’re gonna come up with an idea that is so clever that nobody’s done it before. Or, “this is gonna be a modern version of…” whatever. And they don’t really focus on the human connection that draws people into a movie in the first place. I just watched a film the other night that I really shouldn’t say by name, but it just lost me. I was 30 minutes in and this movie was all effects. And I was like, “I don’t feel the slightest connection to anything that’s going on in this movie. Nothing. It means absolutely zero to me.” If you can write a story which gets me hooked from the very first scene because it’s so dynamic… It doesn’t have to be new. It doesn’t have to be startling in its visualization or anything. It just has to make you say, “If I was in that situation, what would I do?” And then you’re hooked. I don’t see that often.

I will say that I do see it more often these days in noir films that are female-centric. Because you watch stuff like I’m Your Woman, with Rachel Brosnahan, which is great. There are a number of reworkings of classic noir in which they’ve said, “what if the protagonist was a woman instead of a man?” And I find that those work pretty well. Because I think that a lot of female writers and directors now focus more on character perhaps than their male counterparts do. Put it that way.

I’ve been thinking about this next question ever since Criterion Collection just announced their new 4K restoration of Citizen Kane: As the founder and president of the Film Noir Foundation, you are responsible for restoring and preserving dozens of lost noir films. Using 4K resolution to scan the negatives is a popular process these days due to the increased clarity. What are your thoughts on the more sophisticated and polarizing restoration processes, such as applying high dynamic range, also known as HDR, to classic films? Could film noir benefit from HDR and other restoration techniques which add elements to the film which weren’t there in the first place, or should people never touch what’s captured in the film itself? 

Muller: Well, this is an issue that I deal with all the time. It requires an incredible sensitivity. I think the same thing is going to happen that happened years ago, which is when things first started to be digitized. Everybody fell in love with it because of the convenience and because they knew they were going to be able recycle so much material. Even if you owned it on VHS, you’ve got to buy it on DVD. Now you’ve got to buy it again because it’s on Blu-Ray, and then it’s on 4K. I get that part of the business. But you really need to be sensitive to the intentions of the original filmmakers. I’ve said this many times: the magic of Hollywood is that they could take plywood and gilt paint and make you believe that that was the queen’s palace, you know? And part of that is because they were shooting on film and the artistry was they knew exactly how to light it. They knew exactly what lenses to use to make that cheap prop look great. And make it look opulent. When you render it in 4K, it looks like a cheap prop! You’re seeing what it actually is. Unless the people doing this are hyper-vigilant and very, very sensitive to retaining what the artist created.

And in some cases, if something is out of focus, it doesn’t need to be fixed. It was meant to be out of focus. That’s the shot. That’s the way that it is. I always use as an example my colleague Grover Crisp, who is a restorationist who works for Sony Pictures. He restored Dr. Strangelove and he was sensitive to go through all of Kubrick’s production notes to determine what his intention was for virtually every scene in the movie. Because you’ve seen Dr. Strangelove, I’m sure, and when you’re in the plane stuff’s out of focus. He’s shooting with a handheld camera and a lot of that is out of focus… intentionally! Everything Stanley Kubrick did was intentional. And Grover remembers screening the film and there were executives who said, “Oh, you’ll be able to fix this!” And Grover was horrified! Like, “This is genius! There’s nothing to fix here! This is the way it’s supposed to look.”

So I get nervous because I think there are people who use the new technology as a marketing thing. Like, “Now you can buy it as you’ve never seen it before!” Well, maybe it wasn’t intended to be seen that way.

I’m not saying I’m against it, because there are some restored films I love, like the high def version of The Treasure of Sierra Madre. I thought it really enhanced the picture. It made it even more grueling when they’re out there in the Mexican desert. It was terrific. You can see the sweat on Bogart’s face. It’s fantastic. But you have to be really, really careful and not just assume that high def is automatically better for everything. I don’t believe it is.

With the masters like Kubrick, they knew exactly what they were photographing on the set that day and how it would come out when the film was developed. That’s what they wanted, so why would we try to make it something else?

Muller: Precisely. I learned a lot about this from people that I’ve worked with on these restorations. And it is interesting because there are other examples where if you bothered to look at the production notes and determine what the intention was, you will at times come across things that didn’t work out on set. Where they didn’t actually get the effect that they were after because the technology didn’t exist to accomplish that extraordinary depth of focus that they wanted in that scene. Well, now maybe you can get it. And you can actually give that filmmaker the gift of getting what they were after now, 60 or 70 years later. So it goes both ways.

I remember Grover showed me a scene from Dr. Strangelove, I think it was a scene with George C. Scott and his mistress or something, where it was clear to him that it was Kubrick’s intention to show as much detail as possible in this wide shot. And he wanted everything to be in focus. And he had clearly chosen props in that scene to put on the vanity that were important. At least to Kubrick. But in earlier prints, you can’t quite make them out. And Grover was actually able enhance the film enough that you got about 50-60% more out of the background than what was originally there. And he was very proud of that. And he felt like, “I think Kubrick would approve.”

So the decision to apply these techniques depends not even just on the film, but on every scene of the film. You have to be a detective.

Muller: And that’s the thing: you want somebody in charge of these things who cares. Because that’s going to make all of the difference in the world. (laughs) And I don’t know that that always happens!

I’m sure Criterion’s 4K edition of Citizen Kane is going to be a spectacular production because Peter Becker at Criterion cares. He cares, you know? I’m sure it’ll be great.

How is the research and your creative and academic process similar when working on books like Dark City and working on television with Noir Alley? How is it different working in the two formats?

Muller: It varies. I’ve learned over time that you really have to be aware and you have to adjust for each thing you’re doing. When I’m writing a book, it’s like running a marathon. You’re mounting this huge production in a sense, and you have to know how to pace yourself and what the expectations of the reader are. When I’m writing for TCM, it’s a totally different thing. I don’t want to say I have a formula for it, but I do have a recipe for my intros and outros. I know the way I want to approach them and I have an understanding of what I can accomplish in a very limited amount of time. So you do approach it quite differently. To me, it’s all storytelling. It just depends on whether I’m telling you a two-minute story, or a ten-minute story, or a 30-minute story. That’s it. And there are different ways to approach each one. Everything to me is a story. But you have to understand the time constraints, where you’re telling the story, how it’s being conveyed… all of these things. Is it a leisurely thing, where someone is sitting down with a book to read, or are you standing in front of an audience and they’re waiting to watch a movie that they’ve paid money for and they’ve got a dinner date afterwards? Your whole approach is different if that’s the case.

Now that Dark City is completed and in bookstores everywhere, what new projects are you currently working on that film noir fans can look forward to?

Muller: I have another book coming out with Running Press that I’m not going to divulge anything about because I can’t really do that without their permission. I’m also working on a screenplay that is kind of noir-adjacent. I’m not going to say that it’s film noir or anything. But it’s noir-adjacent and it’s based on real people. I’ve just constantly got all kinds of projects, but those are the two that stand out right now.

Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir is available in bookstores everywhere. You can read our exclusive review of the book by clicking this link. New episodes of Noir Alley will air on TCM every Saturday this fall at midnight ET. Stay tuned to Conskipper for complete coverage of all things film noir as soon as it breaks!

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