by Sara Michelle Fetters -
SGN Contributing Writer
Starting today, the folks over at SIFF Cinema present Noir City, a weeklong tribute to all things classic film noir. This annual mini-festival is programmed and presented by Eddie Mueller, acclaimed writer (Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir, Dark City Dames: The Wicked Women of Film Noir) and the founder and president of the internationally recognized Film Noir Foundation.
This year's lineup includes classic favorites like Angel Face with Jean Simmons and Don't Bother to Knock with Marilyn Monroe, little-seen gems like George Cukor's A Double Life and still-unavailable on DVD classics like Jean Renoir's The Woman on the Beach. The festival also sports three titles - High Wall with Robert Taylor, Loophole with Barry Sullivan, and Jack Bernhard's The Hunted - restored to their original 35mm glory by the Film Noir Foundation itself, none of which are available on DVD.
Speaking with him via telephone and before his scheduled arrival here in Seattle, I had the opportunity to chat with Mueller about this year's SIFF Cinema lineup, the enduring popularity of film noir, and the state of cinema in general. Here are some the highlights from that conversation.
Sara Michelle Fetters: How did you decide upon the lineup for this year's edition of Noir City? How difficult is it to come up with the 14 titles you feel excited about programming?
Eddie Mueller: Funnily enough, I picked [this year's lineup] while I was in Seattle for the festival last year. For whatever reasons, that's generally how it works. There's something about Seattle that gets me thinking, and my trips up there seem to be quite productive. In that week, I amass all these ideas and come up with some possible themes for a festival, and I take it from there. There is no simple pat answer to this question - all sorts of factors come into play, like the rarity of the films and the fact I really want to show films we haven't shown before and ones that are not readily available. Then there are, of course, the pictures the Film Noir Foundation has spent the time restoring and manufacturing new prints for. Films that we save and rescue we intend to show.
Fetters: That has to make you feel pretty great - that you get the opportunity to showcase films that you yourself had a hand in saving for future posterity.
Mueller: It's why I do this. If it was just like, 'Let's show movies,' quite honestly I'd do something else. I'd get back to the career as a writer I'd set out for myself originally. But that's how all this started. I wrote my first book on film noir and was promoting it and someone suggested I stage a festival as a way to promote the book, and it just snowballed. & Now the festivals and the Film Noir Foundation have become the career, and the writing is something I try to do in-between.
But to get back to your pertinent observations, rescuing the films is extraordinarily gratifying. I feel a great connection to the filmmakers and the actors and actresses themselves. What is the shelf life of a film? If not properly cared for, I think it might be 50 or 60 years, tops, so it's not timeless, and it's a major issue that everyone is dealing with right now in regards to their back catalogs and libraries. Digital is great, but truth be told it's not the best preservation medium around. It's a volatile medium, and there is no guarantee it's going to look appropriate or as the filmmaker intended. My concern is what a damn shame if a particular film no longer [exists] in its original format and if there is something that we can do to ensure that it does then we damn well better make sure and do it.
Fetters: I love the way that you have the double features lined up. You're pairing movies like Otto Preminger's amazing Angel Face with one of the Film Noir Foundation's own restorations, Jack Bernhard's (Decoy) almost unheard of surreal noir The Hunted. Every night it's something semi-familiar with something almost entirely unknown, and as cinematic double-whammies go that seems like the right way to do it when you're programming a festival such as this.
Mueller: You see it kind of clearly. That's the principle. In the case of those two films in particular, Angel Face is one of the great femme fatale movies. It's definitive in the sense that people almost always talk about how the femme fatale in these movies [are] the most important element and you can't always agree with that assessment, but in the case of Angel Face, it is a true femme fatale movie. [Jean Simmons] is that last person that Robert Mitchum should be getting involved with. She is the most dangerous woman on earth.
The Hunted appears to be one of those kinds of femme fatale movies, but in reality it is not. It makes for an interesting double-bill because all of the themes and ideas that you see in Angel Face come to bear in The Hunted, but then Steve Fisher, the screenwriter, starts playing around and turns things on their head. Who's the real predator in this, is it the woman or the guy in love with her? It's a very interesting film.
Fetters: Writer James Ellroy has dubbed you 'the czar of noir.' With that being the case, why do you think film noir has managed to make such an indelible impression on the cinematic landscape? What is it about these characters and these images that has made them stand the test of time?
Mueller: There are several reasons for this, I believe. The films come from a place in American history that, to me at least, was America at its zenith in terms of its style. American style was at its highest point in the mid-20th century; the cars, the clothes, the sets, the cinematography, the music, there is nothing more gorgeous visually than these films. But there is a real cynicism to them as well and it is sort of where American culture lost its innocence. & You watch these films and they are very tough and hard-edged so that they remain vital for a contemporary audience - there is nothing sappy about them.
I also think the reason these films stay so popular is that people aren't exactly sure what it is. People always argue about film noir. What is it? What exactly does it mean? I think the elusiveness of a definition is part of why the genre remains so popular. People have a very intense reaction to [these films] that you just don't see with other movies and I think that's a big part of the reason film noir remains so popular.
Fetters: And what do you think of the current state of film noir?
Mueller: I said this to someone earlier, but as far as the current state of film noir is concerned, I don't think you can recreate it; I only think you can appropriate it. To me it is completely valid if contemporary filmmakers are taking the underpinnings of noir and using them in their films to expand the notion of what noir is. To me, that style is of a period and it can only exist in that period. It happened for a reason when it did, it was a perfect storm. Artistically, intellectually, and poetically, Noir had to happen right when it did - there's no way it couldn't have happened. So trying to recreate them now is a total mistake because a mainstream audience won't relate to them in the same way. But if you're making a film that generally understands the underlying psychology of noir, that you're telling stories about desperate people doing the wrong thing and having to pay the consequences, then I think that is entirely appropriate, and that there are modern filmmakers capable of tapping into noir in that way.
Fetters: So, putting you completely and unfairly on the spot, you've got 14 films in this year's Noir City festival. If a person could only go to one night and see only two of them, what night should they attend? And, yes, I know, this is quite possibly the worst question ever.
Mueller: [Laughs.] Well, it kind of is the worst question ever & we feel like we've been pretty smart in our programming to make sure that we have something that appeals to everybody. So I don't want to tell people what films to choose or what night they should prioritize to attend as I want them to try and go to as many of them as they can.
But if I had to choose, obviously I'd urge people to go to a show where it might be the only chance to see a particular movie, period. So many of these titles aren't available on DVD, and they might never be. I will state without hesitation that Angel Face is the best movie that we are showing, but it is available on DVD. But movies like The Hunted, or Crashout, or The Dark Mirror, or The Woman on the Beach are not, and you may not ever get another chance to see them - especially in these instances, where the prints are just gorgeous. That's my tip. That's what I'd suggest. Go see the ones you wouldn't get the opportunity to see otherwise.
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