Czar of noir - Page 5

Eddie Muller paints it black with the Noir City festival

Actress Marsha Hunt (Raw Deal) and actor Richard Erdman (Cry Danger) will appear this year, and past festivals have featured actors Farley Granger, Sean Penn, Coleen Grey (Nightmare Alley), and, of course, Detour's amazing Savage.

"The greatest thing to me about having done these festivals with the original people is that it gives audiences a view of noir that is very blue-collar, on the ground," Muller muses. "They never attached the name 'film noir' to it, but [it's important] to talk with the actresses and to hear firsthand what they thought they were doing, and to get the writers' point of view, which was by and large more politicized ... much more so than the directors or the producers, who are a riot because they always say, 'We shot it that way because we didn't have a cent.' "

When I ask Muller how the old-school talent responds to all this attention decades after the fact, he says plainly, "I can tell you in Ann's case, it was the greatest night of her life. I mean, she has not stopped talking about it since. In some cases, it's almost overwhelming." Such events are increasingly a challenge to put together; 60 years outside noir's prime, it's not getting any easier to find the genre's original contributors. Robert Altman, who directed one of the first key neonoirs (1976's The Long Goodbye), died the day before my meeting with Muller. If he's gone, one wonders, how many of the original lot can be left?

The talent, of course, isn't the only thing disappearing. DVDs are a wonderful auxiliary format for digesting cinema, but in the case of studio films from the classical era, it seems silly to contend that something isn't lost without the full theatrical experience. A couple of weeks ago I went to the Castro to see Casablanca, a classical classic, not an extraordinary one like, say, Citizen Kane. I'd seen the film several times but never on a screen like the Castro's. The moments when I felt its size most acutely were the most intimate ones: those interminable close-ups on Ingrid Bergman that so revel in the star's introspective glamour. One cannot really grasp what these close-ups were designed to do without experiencing them on this scale. Everything comes into sharper relief in the theater: the close-ups are more wrenching, the dialogue funnier, the fantasy more complete.

Toward the end of his "Noir City, Our City" essay, Muller reflects on programming Noir City: "We tried to connect the audience, in a sort of cinematic séance, with 1940s era filmmakers and filmgoers," he writes. "San Francisco theaters appropriate to such a concept comprised a short list: the Castro and Balboa were the only ones still standing with even a trace of the old-style panache that once was commonplace." According to Muller, we ought to count ourselves lucky for those two. "It doesn't really happen anyplace else," he says, referring to the electricity of a capacity crowd at the Castro. "New York has nothing like this. The best they can do is the Film Forum.... The Film Forum fills a need, but New York does not have a venue like the Castro. It does not have audiences like this, honestly."

And so, in the end, it's about sitting alone together in the dark. Noir films possess the dream logic and stylization that make the theater necessary and, as an added bonus, a cynical sting that disintegrates any of the sloppy moralism or cheesy gentility that might otherwise taint our experience of classical Hollywood cinema (Schrader again: they are "an uneasy, exhilarating combination of realism and expressionism"). The work Muller does with Noir City strives toward many ends, but its most important function is also its most basic — strange and seductive, the films of Noir City often remind us why we fell for the movies in the first place.

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