Czar of noir - Page 4

Eddie Muller paints it black with the Noir City festival

A college professor of mine considered noir less a genre than a virus: a stylish, fatalistic streak infecting normal melodramas, gangster pictures, and even westerns and comedies. This jibes with the different ways noir announces itself: sometimes in the overall tone of a film, other times in a single character or lighting setup. Definitions aside, one emergent truth is a high benchmark of quality for films under the rubric. This film species has survived the decades better than most, especially those born of Hollywood. Schrader put it this way: "Picked at random, a film noir is likely to be a better-made film than a randomly selected silent comedy, musical, western, and so on."

Schrader follows this with the observation that "film noir seemed to bring out the best in everyone: directors, cameramen, screenwriters, actors." In other words, film noirs are creditable examples of what the esteemed critic André Bazin referred to as the "genius of the system," that strange mix of artistry, economics, and streamlined collaboration that helped to define the studio era. It's a point not lost on Muller. "There are business factors as well as artistic factors that are brought to bear," he says. "You can't look at one without the other." During our conversation an implicit criticism of auteurism (the mode of movie critique that is interested in films in terms of their directors) begins to emerge.

Muller has his favorite directors, of course, but he's more interested in untangling a film's production history — the messy business of sorting out who did what — than in pontificating about why one director's style is better than another's. (Indeed, auteurist debates often have the quality of those childhood arguments over whether Superman would beat Batman in a fight.) There are, of course, those directors who really did shape their own work, exerting an unusual degree of control, but far more typical is someone like Robert Wise, a by-assignment director who turned in salty noirs such as 1947's Born to Kill and 1949's The Set-Up (a superior boxing picture that runs circles around Raging Bull ) in addition to better-known schlock like The Sound of Music.

Considering the fact that so many of noir's characters are fallen (the forgotten man and the spurned woman), it seems all too appropriate that the achievements of many of the form's major contributors remain unsung. To take a sterling example, cinematographer John Alton is as responsible for the noir look as any director, doing for the city landscape what John Ford did for the open West. "We always have a John Alton night [at Noir City]," Muller says. "The guy is the uncredited director of some of those pictures.... Every director's best film is with John Alton." Accordingly, this year's Noir City will double-feature a pair of Alton-shot films, Joseph Lewis's top-notch late noir The Big Combo (1955) and a new 35mm print of The Spiritualist (1948).

With Noir City showing additional programs spotlighting other little-known noir luminaries such as screenwriter William Bowers (1951's Cry Danger and 1949's Abandoned ) and actor Charles McGraw (1949's The Threat and 1951's Roadblock), as well as beefcake-era Burt Lancaster (1948's I Walk Alone and, from the same year and costarring Joan Fontaine, Kiss the Blood off My Hands), it's clear that Muller's emphasis on a broadened sense of film production isn't an abstract philosophy. It's about recognizing real people and contributions, something crystallized by the fest's guest appearances.

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