Czar of noir

Eddie Muller paints it black with the Noir City festival

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One doesn't feel far from the dark, stylized universe of classic film noir in Tosca, a long, obliquely angled bar in North Beach. It is where I am to meet Eddie Muller, the man behind San Francisco's Noir City festival and corresponding Film Noir Foundation, a self-described "writer and cultural archaeologist" with several spry volumes of film history to his credit — alluring, fanatic titles such as Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir, Dark City Dames, and Grindhouse: The Forbidden World of "Adults Only" Cinema.

"There seems to be an almost Freudian attachment to water. The empty noir streets are almost always glistening with fresh evening rain ... even in Los Angeles," writer-director Paul Schrader writes in his seminal essay "Notes on Film Noir." Now, as the afternoon darkens, the Columbus Avenue strip is dry, but the Lusty Lady's neon glows while I wait for the bar to open. Noir's trademark deep focus would lend itself well to the space inside, filled with the stale smoke of yesterday's cigarettes and deep red and mahogany: it's a romantic kind of place, a remembrance of things past. One of the many dizzying plot twists in Jacques Tourneur's 1947 Out of the Past — perhaps the most knotty and melancholy of the noirs, a preeminent example of the genus — has Robert Mitchum's heavy chasing after a double-cross in a North Beach bar. I think about this as Muller strides in with an easy gait. We settle in to talk, and the jukebox turns to smoky jazz: "Mood music," he says and then laughs.

Setting the mood is something Muller is exceedingly good at. The first time I met him was at the press conference for last year's Noir City, staged at the York Hotel's appropriately named Empire Plush Room — deep red, again, with little flutes of champagne. The nightclub decor of last year's festival may have been sucked up by the cavernous dimensions of the Palace of Fine Arts, but the attempt to establish a kind of interstitial lobby space was a nice gesture, especially since these films are, if nothing else, about atmosphere.

After two years away, this coming installment of Noir City, the fifth, will be held at the Castro Theatre. Muller's decision to return to the Castro — made difficult by the theater's firing of programmer and chief Noir City collaborator Anita Monga — speaks to the emphasis he places on the moviegoing experience, as well as his deep respect for Bay Area audiences. "We struggle to get 200 people to the theater in LA," Muller muses before adding excitedly, "I mean, we get five times that many people out here. The studios can't believe it.... I always have to be careful when I talk about the numbers." He laughs. "You want it to be great, but you don't want it to be so great that they're thinking, 'Wait a second, why are we giving these guys a break on these old films?' "

It's no wonder that studios take note of Muller's successes. Hollywood's big players trot out old movies on DVD not so much from altruistic preservation impulses as from an urge to fatten the bottom line, the sense that there's an extra buck to be made from some old holdings. The studios have a long history of neglecting their archives, but when hundreds of people come out and pay their money for Raw Deal (a tough little 1948 Anthony Mann picture opening this year's festival), heads turn.

Muller is modest when discussing some of the DVD sets he has helped spark, but this propriety does nothing to disguise his missionary zeal. When he describes a preservation victory, such as an upcoming John Garfield DVD set, he beams. But as he mulls over decaying prints, his countenance turns worried.

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