Few people still alive and kicking know noir like Eddie Muller. The San Franciscan’s work is in his blood—literally. The protagonist of Muller’s Billy Nichols crime novels is a sportswriter based on the author’s father. The books’ sights, smells, and back-alley vernacular of postwar San Francisco emerge from the pages with a legitimacy only a local can achieve.
Eddie Muller joined Alta Asks Live. WATCH
Muller has been bringing noir to the masses for more than two decades. Fans of the genre know him as the host of Turner Classic Movies’ Noir Alley series. He’s also the founder and president of the Film Noir Foundation and programmer for the San Francisco Film Noir Festival. His nonfiction books include Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir, Dark City Dames: The Wicked Women of Film Noir, and Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star, written with Hunter. For our recent noir special section, Alta turned to Muller for “California Schemin’,” which examines three overlooked neo-noir movies that “reveal the dark side of the California dream.”
EXCERPT from The Distance: A Crime Novel Introducing Billy Nichols (2002):
I got off at West Portal Station to call Ida and say I needed to go to the office for a few hours. Before I made the call I ran into Frank Bennett, a desk cop at downtown headquarters who’d just moved his family into a nice place on Ulloa, up the hill. Bennett was a huge fight fan. Whenever I ate at Joe’s, on the corner right across from the station, Bennett would badge whoever was next to me at the counter, chasing him off. “Official police business,” he’d say, then sit down to shoot the shit. I’d drop ducats on him and he’d keep me posted on the latest, most vinegary vice action.
Alta caught up with Muller via email to discuss his passion for crime fiction.
What is it about noir that inspired you to make it your life’s work?
Both the style and the ethos. The former is what appealed to me initially, as it does to most fans, but over time the underlying philosophical attitude pretty much became my view of the world. Back in 1998, I wrote a line in my first book on noir: “The challenge for the conscious person becomes how to live with dignity in a society where the cancer is inoperable.” I’d say that pretty much sums it up.
How did you decide to throw your fedora in the ring and write The Distance?
The Distance came before all the noir business. I worked on it for more than 10 years, and during that time I considered it my life’s calling: to fictionally commemorate my father’s life, the sport of boxing, and a San Francisco that once was real but assumed for me a mythic quality. Originally, it was not a crime story. But after doing the research for Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir, I reenvisioned The Distance as a crime story with a whodunit at the core—and suddenly it got published.
What role does geography play in noir?
Geography is significant. Noir set in New York is about being trapped in a teeming metropolis and fighting for every breath. Los Angeles noir is about the terror of freedom, vast open spaces, and endless possibilities—and screwing it up. San Francisco noir presents a dichotomy writers and filmmakers love: it’s as picturesque as any place in America, but there’s a sense of entrapment and dread because everything is so close and you’re surrounded by water on three sides. From a cinematic viewpoint, I jokingly say that in New York, the camera is always tilting up, vertically, to show the city’s height. In L.A., the camera is always panning, to show the vastness of the sprawl. In San Francisco, you get both—thanks to the hills and the bay.
Who are the unknown noir greats? What are the titles that we haven’t read but should?
Oh, this is endless. It depends on how far into it you’ve already ventured. David L. Ulin’s article [“The Journey of the Antihero”] in Alta certainly was a terrific primer for the uninitiated. One writer who I think doesn’t get enough mention when the “greats” are discussed is Patricia Highsmith. She certainly isn’t neglected; many movies, especially in Europe, have been adapted from her books, not just The Talented Mr. Ripley. But I don’t see how she doesn’t rate inclusion in any list of the top five noir novelists—which is a separate thing from detective fiction. Then there are the one-offs, like Elliott Chaze’s Black Wings Has My Angel—he wrote other novels, like Tiger in the Honeysuckle and Mr. Yesterday, but Black Wings, which was published in 1953, is the one that made his reputation. It’s dark and crazy and has so far resisted adaptation to film, although attempts are ongoing.
How do you program your film festivals and TCM show? Do viewers ever take issue with your selections?
For the festivals, I’m always looking for subsets within the overall concept of noir, something to link the films thematically. It’s been a lot of fun. Now we have to take it online due to the pandemic—we’ll see how that goes. You can get more people in the tent, obviously, but it’s not nearly as much fun as doing it live. But then, that applies to everything these days.
And yes, some people will always grouse about my showing something they don’t consider to be noir. It comes with the territory. I don’t care. I favor a more expansive definition if it means I can show something rare that doesn’t fit elsewhere. I always say, “Noir is the gateway drug to classic cinema,” and for me, using it to entice younger people to watch older films more than justifies stretching the circumscribed boundaries of the genre.
We know about your passion for noir. What other genre would we be surprised to know you enjoy?
TCM was kind of shocked when I did an on-camera promo and expressed my fondness for Doris Day. That’s become kind of a “thing” at the network. I love Doris Day unequivocally—her movies, not so much. She was a supremely talented singer and actress, and it’s too bad ’60s Hollywood molded her into that perky, middle-aged professional virgin. Her 1950s films are fantastic.
What’s the last book you read, and what’s in your to-read pile?
I just read The Monster Enters by Mike Davis, an extremely unsettling book about the COVID-19 pandemic. Also The Murders That Made Us: How Vigilantes, Hoodlums, Mob Bosses, Serial Killers and Cult Leaders Built the San Francisco Bay Area by Bob Calhoun. It’s about San Francisco’s noir history, from the gold rush to today, told in vignettes. To be read: David Mamet’s The Diary of a Porn Star, which he gave to me last March following the last public event I did, a night of conversation with him at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica.
What are you working on now?
I’m preparing to interview my favorite writer, Paul Auster. Trying not to obsess over it, hoping it’ll be a fun conversation. I was told he watches Noir Alley regularly. I just finished the revised and expanded manuscript for a new edition of Dark City, which will be coming out next spring. I’m working on a screenplay, as well as a third Billy Nichols novel. There’s also the chore of maintaining the Noir City film festivals—I do eight of them in the U.S. annually, but we’re having to shift them online, which creates a whole new paradigm for what I do in that regard. We’re still sorting out how the pandemic is affecting the work of the Film Noir Foundation, the nonprofit I run that rescues and restores at-risk examples of film noir. Of course, I’m always working on Noir Alley, which I’ve done from home most of this year. There’s no shortage of irons in the fire—only, it seems, a shortage of time.