(Though gussied-up imprints like the Criterion Collection give the sense that the classics are safe, the films they release represent only a small fraction of what's in the vaults.) Muller details his maneuverings for Joan Crawford films ("She is the force behind these films.... She is the auteur as much as John Waters is an auteur") and how he ended up trading 1952's This Woman Is Dangerous for 1950's The Damned Don't Cry for this year's fest. The urgency in his voice is from more than just trying to score an outrageous Crawford vehicle. "In these last five or six years," he says, "I've learned the possibility is very real that American culture can just decay and slip away."
Muller's experience runs deep enough that it's easy to forget Noir City is such a babe. A spree through three venues in five years (the festival has also run at the Balboa Theater) has a way of making a festival grow up fast, though the major renovation to Noir City has taken place behind the scenes. Formed in the autumn of 2005, the Film Noir Foundation was originally conceived of as a means to land the best available prints of rare films, something very much on Muller's mind after his experience booking Edgar G. Ulmer's gonzo 1945 B-movie Detour for the second Noir City.
"What I came to realize was that there are prints that are circuutf8g prints and there are prints that are archival prints," Muller says. "When we had [Detour 's] Ann Savage as a guest that second year, the only print in circulation of Detour was junk. I knew that the Cinémathèque Française had a print that was good, but they would never ship it to the Castro [a for-profit theater]. So that's where the San Francisco Film Society stepped in, and they said they'd book it for us.... Altruism wasn't my initial motivation for doing this. It was about getting the good prints."
In the time since, the Film Noir Foundation has blossomed into a vital preservation group. "It achieved a life of its own," Muller explains, "because it became a viable way to create an entity that presents a united front to the studios to show that there was a reason and a value in saving these films. In the case of The Window [a 1949 film that anticipates Hitchcock's Rear Window] and Nobody Lives Forever [from 1946, a taut con man picture with a typically strong John Garfield performance], we've done the restoration and put them back in circulation, and they show at other festivals, and the film carries the Film Noir Foundation logo. It's a way of saying [to the studios], 'Look, if we do this, you're going to get more bookings out of the film.' We're almost like a lobbying group for film noir."
For every victory like those films' restoration or, for that matter, bringing celebrity writers such as Denis Lehane and James Ellroy on to the foundation's board there are many grueling and perhaps futile battles. The foundation, for example, has located the elements and "contacted the people we need to contact," Muller says, to restore 1951's The Prowler, an edgy feature about a sociopathic cop. The film might be a key noir, but the Film Noir Foundation hasn't been able to fund the process (which Muller quotes at $40,000). The ultimate trick would be to get the studios to realize the potential and take on these costs themselves, and that is happening but not necessarily fast enough to keep many prints from disappearing. "Even films by major filmmakers," Muller adds. "There are Billy Wilder ones that are questionable.... [1942's] The Major and the Minor is anyone preserving that film?"
Muller relishes talking shop about forgotten films (this year 12 of 20 films in the Noir City program guide are marked, in red type, "RARITY!!!