Anyone who’s watched a noir on TCM knows the name Eddie Muller, the “Czar of Noir.” Founder and president of the Film Noir Foundation and the co-programmer of the San Francisco Noir City Film Festival (he’s also from my neck of the woods!), Muller has become TCM’s go-to man for all things dark, gritty, and noirish. This year he’ll be the host of TCM’s Summer of Darkness, introducing nothing but noir titles for two months this summer. He was gracious enough to do an interview with me in promotion of this Saturday’s upcoming premiere, talking about the event, his time with TCM and more.
Kristen: For those who don’t obsessively follow TCM news (and they should be) can you give a brief overview of TCM’s Summer of Darkness?
Eddie Muller: The Summer of Darkness is a weekly marathon of film noir; 24 hours worth of gloriously sexy and sinister crime films every Friday in June and July. This is the network’s second go-round with the concept. The first Summer of Darkness was back in 2002 or 2003, but I was only peripherally involved with that one.
K: When TCM decided to revive this, I’m assuming due to your deep association with TCM and noir you were the only choice for presenting this lineup? Was this a situation where they called you and said “We want you to do this” or where you in collaboration with them?
EM: I think my recent work with the network led up to this. I’ve presented plenty of noir, among other things, at the TCM Classic Film Festival and on the TCM Classic Film Cruise, and the audience reaction has been very positive. The noir films really pack the house in Hollywood. Film Noir was the theme of the last cruise. I don’t know if I was the only choice to host, but I’m sure Charlie Tabesh would never admit if anyone else was considered. (That’s a joke.) Charlie called me up and said, “Would you consider doing this?” and of course I said, “Yes.”
K: You’ve become so synonymous with TCM and Noir City, that it seems as if us classic film fans see you everywhere. How do you balance all your obligations? Is there ever a moment where you become sick – or at least burnt out – on classic films and noir itself?
EM: No, I never get burned out or even the least bit tired. I’m extremely grateful to be able to do something I enjoy and feel passionate about. It is difficult to juggle everything, especially as I self-identify as a writer and all the time I spend as a producer, preservationist and host really cuts into my productivity as a writer. But seriously, that’s a luxurious “problem” to have. As for burning out on the films—no. I’m in the enviable position of being able to search out and discover films that have been long neglected—like Woman on the Run (1950) and Too Late for Tears (1949), which we’re debuting on TCM as part of the Summer of Darkness—and I’m also finding examples of noir in places like Buenos Aires and Norway and Mexico. It’s fun being a film detective.
K: What got you interested in noir? Was there a movie that just spoke to you and made you say, “I have to study this?”
EM: I cite Thieves’ Highway (1949) as the noir that resonated with me at an early age, largely because it was set in my hometown of San Francisco, and was shot in a section that had virtually vanished by the time I saw the film. So that helped develop my sense of films being a window into an earlier time. As for why noir in particular intrigues me, I guess it fits with my essential character. Some folks respond to musicals, some to comedies … film noir just makes philosophical and artistic sense to me. Plus, I find that period of American history—mid-20th century—endlessly fascinating. In many areas, the nation reached its peak in those immediate postwar years; the fashion, the music, the architecture, the language, all of which plays a part in classic noir.
K: I loved seeing you at the TCM Film Fest this year, in fact, I do believe I sat in front of you during the screening of Rebel Without a Cause. What’s the festival like for you as a presenter?
EM: It’s nirvana. It’s been proven, I feel, that the film-viewing experience can be enhanced for many people by providing some pertinent context, and I’m pretty good at that, knowing what background to provide without trying to overly influence people’s own experience of the movie. I especially love presenting classic films to people who are seeing them for the first time. There was a woman at that Rebel screening who’d never seen James Dean onscreen before. Can you imagine? What a pleasure to share that revelation with her, and the whole audience. So, I enjoy it as much as the audience. Of course, the big bonus for me is that I get to talk to guests backstage—some of the stories that get shared can’t be told in public.
K: Are there any films missing from the Summer of Darkness lineup that you wish could be included? And why?
EM: Oh, there’s many. But if this is successful, maybe we’ll have a chance to screen them next time around.
K: By the same token, is there a “white whale,” or very important noir film that you would especially like to restore and present on TCM or at Noir City?
EM: It used to be Too Late for Tears! So our showing that on July 17 is a tremendous culmination of many, many years of determination and hard work. Scott MacQueen at the UCLA Film & Television Archive managed a very difficult restoration process on that title, mixing and matching from several incomplete sources to bring the film back to life. These days my focus is on uncovering films that are unknown even to me—so the discoveries will be shared by all of us.
K: Fans are eager to know whether you’re working on a book at the moment?
EM: Always. My book just came out, and not coincidentally I’m presenting Gun Crazy (1950) on June 12th as part of the Summer of Darkness. I’m trying to finish the next novel in my Billy Nichols crime series, which TCM fans will enjoy because it’s set in Hollywood in 1951. They’ll especially enjoy figuring out which real people the characters are based upon.
K: Another fan question, will you be participating in the TCM Classic Cruise?
EM: Yes, I expect to be aboard once again. Maybe I’ll see you there.
K: Is there a noir film you consider underrated and, controversially perhaps, is there one that’s overrated?
EM: That’s a tough one, because I’m a big believer in ‘To each his (or her) own.” I think most films that are underrated just aren’t well known enough. I’d cite titles like Tomorrow Is Another Day (1951), 99 River Street (1953), Woman on the Run … they’re not necessarily devalued, they’re just not as familiar to viewers or “scholars.” As for overrated, I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that the reverence for the 1946 Postman Always Rings Twice is not entirely deserved. I love John Garfield, but for me the film misses the essential toughness of the novella. Now I’m sure I just disparaged someone’s favorite noir. Sorry—to each his/her own!
K: What are your thoughts on the rise of neo-noirs in the 1980s-1990s? Do they hold a candle to the original lineup in the 1940s?
EM: The noir films of the 1940s were part of an organic artistic movement—there were dozens of examples of the style being produced at all the studios, so by sheer numbers there’d have to be more, and better, examples of noir produced during that period. By contrast, “neo-noir” films were made by singular artists trying to uphold or extend the tradition. I’ve always preferred the neo-noir films that did something fresh with the genre, rather than trying to recreate what was great about the originals. Sometimes they nail it, like Towne and Polanski did with Chinatown (1974). But films that throw in a wrinkle, like Night Moves (1975) and Memento (2000) and Mulholland Drive (2001)—I particularly appreciate those.
A huge thanks to Eddie Muller for taking the time to talk to me! TCM’s Summer of Darkness starts Saturday, June 5th and details can be found at the event website.