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'Noir City' organizer Eddie Muller on the evolution of the genre he loves

'Czar of Noir' Eddie Muller talks about the hard-boiled crime fiction that inspired film noir.

By Randy Dotinga / January 27, 2012

'He deserves more credit than any other writer for establishing the noir ethos,' Noir City festival organizer Eddie Muller says of author Dashiell Hammett.

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A darkness has descended over San Francisco.

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The streets hold an extra menace, while the alleys beckon you into their wicked grip. Whatever you want, you can't have it – at least not for long.

To borrow a phrase, it's a bitter little world.

Well, until Sunday, anyway. That's when the 10th annual Noir City film festival comes to an end.

Each year the festival spotlights the dark and often-depraved movies known as film noir. Festival organizer Eddie Muller, an author known as the "Czar of Noir," attracts sold-out crowds each night to a 1920s movie palace in the Castro neighborhood.

Some of the films are familiar to movie buffs, including classics like "Laura" and "The Maltese Falcon." But the festival focuses on lesser-known films that have fallen into obscurity but still pack a punch.

This year's festival highlights several films based on the work of mystery author Dashiell Hammett, who sat in his tiny San Francisco apartment and created the character of Sam Spade, the hard-boiled private eye who helped turn Humphrey Bogart into a star.

Before leaving to fly to San Francisco to attend the festival myself (arriving just in time for Bad Girls Night), I asked Muller to talk about how noir fiction affected film noir – and vice versa – and to describe what he found in Hammett's home.
 
Q: Which came first, film noir or noir fiction?
 
A: I will state with complete assurance that film noir would not exist were it not for the rise of hard-boiled fiction in the 1930s. So yes, that without question came first. It was Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, Cornell Woolrich, and Raymond Chandler – the writers who tilled the soil from which film noir grew.
 
To me it all starts with story, and it was those stories that Hollywood could not eventually resist, try as they might to resist them during the '30s.
 
Q: Cain wrote risque works that became classic noir movies, like "Double Indemnity," "The Postman Always Rings Twice," and "Mildred Pierce." Was that a problem in the days when the Production Code set strict rules about what movies could show when it came to things like crime and sexuality?
 
A: The Cain stuff was nothing that the Production Code was going to allow on screen. But then very savvy film makers like Otto Preminger and Billy Wilder figured out how to actually do it and deal with adult themes.
 
Let's face it, every film noir movie is based around crime and sex, and those are the two things that the production code tried to prevent from being shown on screen. It just took a lot of savvy on the part of these filmmakers to figure out ways to encode their films.
 
Look at "The Maltese Falcon," for example. In the book, Sam Spade can call Joel Cairo a "queer," but in the movie you can't do that. They don't want anything explicit to spell out sexuality. So they have Spade just sniff actor Peter Lorre's perfumed handkerchief and raise an eyebrow, and we get the whole thing.
 
Q: Did the books themselves have limits in how far they could handle sex?
 
A: When you read James M. Cain, it's very spelled out. In "The Postman Always Rings Twice," you know exactly what's going on, and nothing is really couched.
 
But when they make the transition to the screen they have to be far more subtle about it. It's fascinating.
 
Now that we've gone so far the other way that everything is so explicit, there's a great attraction to the taste and restraint that was exhibited in the '40s when conveying very provocative material.
 
It's not that film noir fans are prudish. It's just more interesting to not have everything shown.

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