Inside TCM’s Noir Alley with Eddie Muller

The Czar of Noir, Eddie Muller, walks us through the darkest shadows in Turner Classic Movies' Noir Alley. We also search for noir's future.

Eddie Muller Noir Czar Turner Classic Movies Interview

Eddie Muller is proud of his alias as the Czar of Noir. Being the founder of The Noir Foundation comes that kind of infamy, as does being the host of Turner Classic Movies’ Noir Alley every Saturday night. A scholar of the film movement that shot a bullet of cynicism right through the heart of post-World War II America, Muller has spent a lifetime as an author, conservationist, and simply a fan of the hardboiled form.

When we sit down for a lengthy phone conversation about Noir Alley’s continuing schedule this summer, he’s just returned to American crime fiction’s birthplace, at least in literary form, San Francisco. It was the Bay Area where Dashiell Hammett invented The Maltese Falcon’s Sam Spade, and it’s also there that Muller grew up obsessed with various fictions extrapolated from that tale, including the 1941 movie of the same name that’s often cited as the first noir.

Today, however, it is as much the future of noir as the past that we have on our mind while speaking with Muller. As he’s quick to point out, there is a larger young audience for film noir than there was 20 years ago, not least of all because of the work of enterprises like TCM. And yet, less than a year after FilmStruck was shut down, and with crime fiction increasingly a rarity in big screen Hollywood productions, we have to wonder how easy it will be to soak up noir’s bloody history in the streaming age… and for it to find an heir apparent. Below is that conversation.

What is the first noir movie you recall seeing, and what impact it have on you?

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Eddie Muller: I don’t know if it was the first, but I can say that the first one that had a substantial impact on me was Thieves’ Highway, a Fox film from 1949. In fact, it’s coming up on the Noir Alley schedule, and I make a big deal about it and how this was the movie that put the hook in.

What was it about it that put the hook in and when in your life did you see it?

I think I was maybe 13 or 14 years old, and it definitely hit me because the bulk of the movie is set in San Francisco, and seeing the city in that way through a noir lens. It takes place in a part of San Francisco that no longer existed, the old produce market down at the Embarcadero, which is long gone. That fed my ongoing fascination with things that are so important in one era and then seemed to have vanished and reclaiming those things, shall we say, which I guess has eventually led to my trying to save and restore movies and things like that. So I don’t know if I can draw a straight line between those things, but it exists for me, definitely.

It’s interesting you say that because of the entire discussion about whether film noir is a genre or a post-World War II movement. Where do you come down on that? Do you look at noir as something you’re trying to save by discussing it strictly in the ‘40s and ‘50s, or do you think neo noir counts as part of that ongoing heritage?

I definitely see film noir as a cinematic movement that was of that original era, where the movement really caught fire and became a movement from 1944 through the early ‘50s, that was when it was really a movement. Beyond that, I tend to refer to things as noir, as distinct from film noir, because I’ve written novels, and I know a lot of writers who think they write noir. I know a lot of musicians who call their music noir-influenced music. I certainly know a lot of visual artists, painters, and the lot, who were clearly inspired by noir. So to me, noir is just an approach to things that I believe continues to this day. But when I speak of film noir in the classic sense, then we’re definitely referring to an artistic movement from a certain period, which I don’t believe is limited just to the United States. It’s not just a Hollywood thing.

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I believe it was Dennis Hopper who said, noir, maybe not necessarily film noir but noir itself is a director’s favorite genre. What do you think it is that fascinates people about this style and form, particularly those behind the camera?

That it truly is a style. I’ve often said that there is a parallel between noir and jazz in the sense that, yes, we’re familiar with these stories, but the artists get to play the stories in a different way, in a distinctive way that represents their style and their approach to it. So The Postman Always Rings Twice is sort of like the “Stardust.” A director gets to tell that story again, but they can tell it in their way. And every jazz musician has their own way of playing “Stardust,” right?

Not that that’s the only one, but you know what I’m saying, they’re standards that everybody gets a crack at. And I really think that that’s why directors like it so much. In addition to which, I think you will find on the resumes of a lot of established well-known directors you’ll see that they tend to make a noir early in their career, because it requires so little, because they’re minimalist films. These aren’t sprawling casts, they don’t call for a big budget. You can make a film like Chris Nolan’s The Following or the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple, or something like that when you’re young and you have very limited resources. You can muster a noir.

Looking just at the schedule for Noir Alley, I really appreciated your inclusion of Key Largo, which is to me, I would argue is John Huston’s definitive film about post-war America. But do you think it is traditional noir as a film, even though Bogie and Bacall both play fairly moral people?

It’s funny when we showed that recently, I noticed on social media there were a lot of people saying, “This isn’t a noir at all.” Which I don’t really understand. I mean, I have no problem showing that film and discussing it as a noir. I think that the key there is the perspective is much broader than you usually find in film noir. As you say, the film is very, very emblematic of larger issues. I mean, I know when Richard Brooks wrote the screenplay for that movie—and I don’t know if you saw my introduction to the film when it was on Noir Alley, but it gets into how the original play, Key Largo, was written at a totally different time in history, and it was really referring to a pre-World War II era, and it specifically had to do with the Spanish Civil War and Americans fighting in the Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War.

Then when it was adapted to the film, it became about a totally different time and took on a different meaning, and that Richard Brooks clearly wrote it where the Edward G. Robinson character was a stand-in for fascist dictators. So that was clearly the minimalist approach, but symbolically speaking about issues much larger than you normally find in a film noir movie. And so the thing that’s different about that film is that with Bogart, there’s a moral compass there in his character that you don’t always find in a more representative noir film where the protagonists are at loose ends and not sure of what they’re doing, and are much more desperate. It’s also interesting to know that in the original play, that character, the Frank McCloud character, was much more of a noir character, because he was coming to Key Largo to beg forgiveness from the widow of his war buddy, whom he abandoned in the hills of Andalusia.

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He was coming looking for some kind of forgiveness from her, which is a much more noir thing than what Huston actually ended up making out of it.

That would have been a very interesting aspect to the character in that.

At that point, in 1948, it would’ve been really shocking to see that group of people maintain that angle in the story, because by that time, Bogart was—despite the fact that he still played antagonists on occasion, at that point America had decided that he was a hero. To play that compromised of a character would’ve really been an astounding thing that I don’t think Warner Brothers would’ve allowed.

read more: Key Largo, Lauren Bacall, and the Definitive Post-War Film

I heard that with In a Lonely Place, which is one of my favorite noirs, Bogart regretted how nasty of a son of a bitch that character turned out to be, because it was so against his image. I don’t know if that’s true, but I’ve heard that said before.

Well, I don’t know. I have my doubts about that because that was Bogart’s project. I mean, he chose that novel and that’s a Santana production, which is his own production company, and made outside of Warner Brothers, because he had to take it to Columbia to get that picture made the way he wanted to make it. So I don’t put a lot of faith in that story that Bogart ended up not liking the character.

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I do know that he was a worse son of a bitch in the original version of the film, which didn’t make it to the screen, where he actually kills Gloria Grahame at the end of the movie. Nick Ray said, “We can’t really do this.” Not that they wouldn’t have allowed it, I don’t think that was the issue. I think that they just felt that it was too melodramatic an ending, and that they were after something different. And I think that, that’s what makes that movie so special. I agree with you, it is actually my favorite film, period, noir or otherwise.

I did not know that! On Key Largo though, what’s interesting is that while you do have the standard two women dichotomy, it’s not the classic noir virgin/femme fatale cliché that people generally associate with noir. Bacall plays a widow and Claire Trevor plays a moll, but not necessarily a temptress. Even though the term noir didn’t exist in ‘48, did you think it serves as a noir because it was already trying to subvert what we now consider to be the conventions?

I don’t know, that’s a good question. I think that they definitely, the women in that film, represent to me the sadness and the vulnerability that women have when they’re under the thumb of these grotesque, power mad men. I think that’s pretty much it. To me, it’s interesting that—this doesn’t answer your question completely, but I will say that it’s interesting to know that Lauren Bacall never played a femme fatale in the movies, which I just think is intriguing because so many people associate her with the movement and with noir. Because she’s so sexy and because she has that voice, they ascribe this temptress thing to her that never existed, because she is that rare thing in film noir.

She and Ella Raines, to me, were the two actresses that really had this. They are very sexy, they are very alluring, and they always play good girls. Stupid term, but for lack of a better one, it gets the point across, right?

They are not morally compromised. They are always the salvation of the men, not the temptation of the man, which I think is an interesting thing that people don’t actually realize.

That’s very true. So what do you think needs to occur in a film from that era for it to be considered a true noir?

Well, for me, it’s simply that noir are stories in which the protagonist is compromised in some way, that he’s not heroic. I’ve said a few times that, to me, noir is all about people know they’re doing the wrong thing and they do it anyway. For whatever reason it may be, they will do the wrong thing, maybe out of some pure motivation, like, “I have to rob this bank to get the money for the operation that’s going to pay to save my daughter.” Or it’s just they’ve given up on the program, like Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity. It’s just like, “I’m going to do this just to prove that all this stuff is a bunch of nonsense, and the world exists for you to get away with whatever you can get away with.” And I certainly think that, that has sadly proven to be the case in our country these days, that whatever you can get away with is what you can get away with.

But I think that that was something that wasn’t really allowed on movie screens until the noir movement steamrolled it, which it allowed audiences to empathize with people who were doing the wrong thing, which they really tried to stay away from, right? I mean, that’s why they have the Production Code, and that’s why they have the whole “crime does not pay” thing. All of which holds up in the end of all these classic noirs. Nobody gets away with it, but the difference is that the audiences empathize with the people who are trying to get away with it. Because they could see themselves like, “What it would take for me to be in that position, where I would say, ‘Yeah, sign me up. I am going to participate in this bank robbery. Or, ‘Yes, I am going to kill her husband and try to get away with it.?’” You know?

Isn’t that the purpose of art like this, is to allow you to imagine that and experience that without actually having to do it? Which is a great service of art, I think. A lot of people complained about these movies at the time, saying they were a bad influence. And it’s like do you really think that people are so silly that they can’t tell that this is just a story? It’s not really advocating that you go on and commit crimes. So to me, the answer to your question is simply that it allowed the protagonist to be more complex than was traditional. And of course, these are crime movies. Nine out of 10 noir films are crime movies in which somebody’s going to actually break the law, and noir allows you to imagine valid reasons for doing that even though it’s not going to turn out well.

It leaves you rooting for them. I think everyone’s sad Fred MacMurray doesn’t get away with it at the end. When they basically remade the movie in the ‘80s, they did have the Barbara Stanwyck character getting away with it, which is probably the best ending.

Are you referring to Body Heat?

Yeah.

Yeah, and then there’s another good one I’m sure you’ve seen, The Last Seduction with Linda Fiorentino, which was created specifically like Body Heat. “We’re going to let the woman get away with it for a change.” I like both of those movies very much. And there’s also all those heist movies, which were really a challenge for the Production Code, like The Asphalt Jungle, because the audiences are helpless in a heist movie, because no matter what they end up rooting for the criminals to get away with it. [Laughs] You can’t help it, you just do.

Because we’ve been talking a bit about Bogie and Bacall, I realized I should ask you: Who do you think killed the driver in The Big Sleep?

I have absolutely no idea. I know his name is Owen Taylor, I know that. I don’t read Raymond Chandler or watch Raymond Chandler movies for the plot. It matters not a whit to me. I’ve watched The Big Sleep probably 20 times, and I happily lose track of the plot every time. [Laughs]

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I think you and Raymond Chandler both. Looking to the future of your Noir Alley schedule, there are some that aficionados are quite familiar with, like Pickup On South Street, but there are some that at least I am not as familiar with, like The Tattooed Stranger or The People Against O’Hara. How would you describe the remaining schedule, and what is it that you look for in picking the movies that you do?

I actually try to program Noir Alley very much like I program my own film festivals, which I’ve been doing for over 20 years now, which is ensuring that they are a mix of the familiar and the obscure. The thing that I learned as a film programmer is that you don’t program for aficionados. You program because every 10 years there is a new generation just coming of age that will be seeing these movies for the very first time. For God’s sakes, when I showed Double Indemnity, social media was filled with tweets and posts from people who had not seen it. So it kills me when I see fans, and I appreciate their passion, but when fans belittle people for, “What’s wrong with you? You haven’t seen this movie before? Oh my God, and you call yourself a fan?” That actually upsets me, because I envy the people who haven’t seen these before, and I relish the fact that I am the person who gets to introduce it to them for the first time.

I think that’s a great responsibility, and it’s something I take very seriously in this role at TCM. So when I choose the movies, I will always try to strike that balance between showing Key Largo and White Heat, and The Big Sleep is coming up, and showing stuff that people just don’t know that much about. And when I show the familiar stuff, I always try to find something fresh and not very well-known about the film, some kind of backstory about the making of the film or the people involved in it, to shed something new on these movies. Or in some cases to correct a narrative that’s grown up around the film that I find to be fraudulent. So I will do that on occasion as well.

It sounds like In a Lonely Place had one. But I do know you’re a proud San Franciscan, so I have to assume you consider the city to be something of a ground zero for noir fiction, would that be correct?

You put that precisely, which I appreciate. I do consider it ground zero for not just noir fiction, but for modern crime fiction, because that’s where [Dashiell] Hammett started writing his short stories and the first few novels, and I do think that that is what gave birth to at least the literally side of things. As Chandler said, Hammett is the guy who changed crime fiction from a diversion into something much more serious, because he was writing about real crime and real human motivations in these things, not just playing games with the form. So yeah, I definitely see San Francisco as the literary birthplace of the serious American crime fiction genre.

But of course you could say that Los Angeles or New York, or Chicago, any of these big cities make just as vivid a noir backdrop as does San Francisco… Any big city really. There’s great noir fiction in London and Paris, and Tokyo and Buenos Aires. There’s a strain of this type of fiction in film in all of these places.

I’m curious if you’ve ever had the lamb chops at John’s Grill [like Sam Spade]?

You might be shocked to learn this, but I haven’t eaten a piece of meat in 35 years. I’m giving you a scoop here. [Laughs] The czar of noir is a vegetarian. I have eaten at John’s Grill a bunch of times. I always have the Jack LaLanne Salad and a couple of martinis.

What can you tell me about The Film Noir Foundation’s current work and your aspirations for it in the future?

I’m very excited, because next year we will actually have two restorations coming out. One is done; we are working on another one. They’re both films from Argentina that have not really been seen outside of Argentina, so I’m very thrilled about that. We of course have a film that we completed this year called Trapped, that is a traditional Hollywood B-noir that I’ve been showing on the festival circuit. I’m not sure of the date, but it will air on Noir Alley sometime later this year. But one of my big ambitions is to—I don’t know that we’re going to find too many more completely unknown American noir films to restore, but I am finding a lot of stuff overseas that will surprise people with how—this is why early on in our conversation I said this is not strictly a Hollywood phenomenon, because there are movies made contemporaneous with the movement in America that were done in other countries around the world.

This is something that I find completely fascinating and puts a whole chapter on cinema history that people were not really aware of, and that’s the thing I am most enthusiastic about.

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Does it appear that it could become more difficult when movie lovers and younger generations are increasingly consuming cinema entirely via streaming. Do you worry that this transition in the industry will make it harder for future generations to discover the classics if they’re not on Netflix or Disney+, or whatever else it is they’re subscribing to?

Yes. [Laughs] In a short word, yes. But the problem, to me, does not lie with the technology or the younger generation. The problem lies in the ownership of these films increasingly being in fewer and fewer hands, so to speak. That’s the thing that is really alarming.

So there are many reasons to feel optimistic, because I do these festivals and I see who comes to the festivals. There are a lot of young people, and I find that absolutely fantastic. I think that you probably have more people today at this point watching old movies than you had 25 or 30 years ago. People of the same age were less likely to watch old movies 30 years ago than they are today. And that is due in large measure to TCM, but it’s also due to the availability of these movies in these new more convenient forms. When I was growing up, you had to go to a rep house to see these movies, days that I cherish. But now, rep houses are almost non-existent.

That doesn’t mean that the people can’t see the movies. It means they can’t see the movies in the format they were meant to be seen. So I think that young people today are more savvy than ever about the history of cinema, so that’s not my major concern. My major concern is that the ownership of the films is in these huge corporations that own them, and they really—if they don’t appreciate them for what they are, and they take a completely soulless approach to it, treating art like it’s units of some product, then they can make a gigantic blunder and devalue cinema history in a way that we might not be able to maintain it at all, which would be an absolute tragedy. So that is my concern.

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What noir movie would you recommend to someone who is interested in getting into film noir, but maybe they’re not very familiar with the form or haven’t seen a lot of noir movies yet?

I guess the two movies that I would say are representative of the movement are Double Indemnity and Out of the Past. I would say that if you watched those very intently and understand them, you will understand what it’s all about. You don’t have to see a hundred of them to figure it out. Those two will suffice, and if you’re like me, those two will inspire you to watch them all. But I’m trying to think if there’s a more current movie that could effectively serve as a gateway—

I used to say L.A. Confidential or Memento, but yeah, those are a while ago.

That’s what makes it difficult. Honestly, David, most of the truly noir films being made today are being made in other countries, not in the United States. Because as feature films, you don’t see it that often. On television, you can definitely see noir type things. I mean, I think that Breaking Bad is a classic noir story, but it’s a long form television series, you know? I don’t really think of it as something that would automatically say, “Well, if you like Breaking Bad, go back and watch these old noir films.” It doesn’t necessarily follow.

True Detective might be a good one on that wavelength.

Yeah, I definitely felt that there was something traditional about that, but I love the fractured narrative. I mean, that’s the main thing about True Detective the series that I thought was most effective: the way it broke the storylines up into three different timeframes in which the stories played out, I thought was really, really good. And interestingly, that’s why the second season wasn’t as good as the first and the third seasons, because the fractured time narrative didn’t really work in the second season whereas it worked in the first and third seasons. So I’m curious to see what they have up their sleeve next.

Noir Alley airs every Saturday at midnight and again at 10am on Sundays for the next month on TCM.

David Crow is the Film Section Editor at Den of Geek. He’s also a member of the Online Film Critics Society. Read more of his work here. You can follow him on Twitter @DCrowsNest.