'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.

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    '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.

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.

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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.

Q: How did film noir affect hard-boiled detective fiction?
 
A: The first generation of crime fiction writers were really the architects of what became film noir. They created the characters, the type of stories, and the world view that the filmmakers put up on the scene.
 
Those films influenced the next generation of literary crime writers, like David Goodis, Charles Willeford, and Jim Thompson, who developed an even more cinematic style in their books.
 
But when I say that film noir and Hollywood influenced these writers, I don’t always mean that they always wanted to write that way. Sometimes they were writing in opposition to it: We're going to write something that you can only get on the page that would never work as a movie.
 
Willeford was like that. "Pick-Up" is an amazing book, in which you’re following this protagonist – a classic noir loser – through the entire book and wondering why people treat him the way they do, why people are giving him so much grief.
 
It’s not until the last sentence that you realize why people have been treating him the way they have. In a movie, if you never showed the guy, that’s all the viewers would think about.
 
Q: Why the focus on Hammett this year?
 
A: My festival is in San Francisco, I’m a big Hammett fan, and he deserves more credit than any other writer for establishing the noir ethos. He popularized this tough attitude – lifting the lid on corruption in law enforcement and politics, and not really being shocked by it, saying this is the way things work. That’s what he brought to popular fiction.
 
And as a guy who tries to rescue obscure films, it occurred to me that there were a number of early Hammett films that were never seen. I figured that if I could get these resurrected, San Francisco is the obvious place.
 
Q: You shot the poster for this year's festival in a studio apartment on Post Street in San Francisco where Hammett lived. What does the apartment mean to you?
 
A: He kept an apartment in San Francisco while he was working as an ad copy writer. He'd come home, and that's where he'd write his stories.

It's obvious when you read "The Maltese Falcon" that this is Sam Spade's apartment: The layout is identical, the views out the windows, the logistics of all the scenes where the characters are crowding his apartment, chipping away at the black bird.
 
I have a friend who took over the lease, and he invested in restoring the apartment to how it was when Hammett lived there. It's been returned to the way it looked in 1929 – the fixtures, the Murphy bed.
 
Q: I've saved the most important question for last: What's the proper way to pronounce "noir" in film noir?
 
A: N-wah.  But in America, everybody pronounces the "r." The correct pronunciation is without the "r."
 
When I first started doing all this 10 or 12 years, ago, I defiantly refused to pronounce it properly. I didn't want to be considered like an academic, taking this stuff too seriously.
 
But after being accepted by the French for my work finding obscure films, I decided to pronounce to it properly: Film n-wah.
 
*************************
 
You don't need to travel to San Francisco to find a film noir festival. Muller hosts fests in Seattle, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Washington D.C. There are also other film noir festivals each year in places like Palm Springs, Calif.
 
For more on noir fiction, check my previous Christian Science Monitor stories in which I interviewed the screenwriter behind HBO's "Mildred Pierce," asked crime fiction authors about their favorite noir books-turned-movies, and took a bus tour of James M. Cain's Los Angeles.
 
I also interviewed a book editor about a long-lost Cain novel that will soon appear on bookshelves and explored the debate over what counts as a noir movie. 

Randy Dotinga is a Monitor correspondent.

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