As Turner Classic Movies’ “Czar of Noir,” Eddie Muller has seen some dark films – movies with no actual good guy, or where the good guy turns bad. Maybe the innocent don’t always survive, or bad deeds go unpunished.
But as the host of TCM’s 10 a.m. Sunday morning series “Noir Alley,” the suave Muller always has a twinkle in his eye as he presents films from a moody, shadow-strewn set, with an implied (or real) cocktail close at hand.
In a recent “Noir Alley” he showed a film in which hero Glenn Ford discovers a lover’s perfidy when he finds her robe in a man’s bathroom. At the end, Muller intoned: “And remember, never leave your monogrammed robe in the wrong bathroom!”
Muller will return to Detroit to host the second annual Detroit Film Noir Festival this weekend at the Redford Theatre, including a private reception and a question and answer session in which he will be able to be looser than he is on camera. Muller believes in entertaining his audience, as he educates them — colorfully — about his favorite genre of film.
“Yes, we know these films were dark and appeared at a particular time in the history of American culture for a reason, there are very serious aspects to it,” Muller said. “But there’s humor in it, too.”
The tag “film noir” was bestowed upon the genre in the 1950s by the French, referring to films made in the immediate post-World War II era. After almost a decade of bright, cheerful patriotism, these films reflected a more somber mood, with American society absorbing soldiers damaged by what they saw in battle, and riven by postwar fears of crime and Communism.
“Obsessed” by the genre at a young age, Muller wasn’t satisfied with the books he found on the subject.
“I was always disappointed, they were so dry and analytical and academic,” Muller said. “I thought, ‘Why are they not feeling the same things I’m feeling?’ I wanted to write a book about it that would make people feel the way I feel when I watch these movies. And a lot of times there’s humor in that, or when you look behind the curtain.”
Muller will inform his audience when a film noir is bad but still worth watching, maybe for a great performance by a character actor (Elisha Cook Jr. is a noir icon). And he has fun pointing out the errors.
“I know a movie’s bad if I start looking at the furniture,” Muller said. “If you find yourself looking at a lamp, odds are, it’s a bad movie. With ‘The Price of Fear,’ my two-word review was: ‘Nice lamps.’
On Saturday, Muller will preside over a private, 6 p.m. reception at the Redford, open to those holding festival passes, as well as an hour and a half question and answer session starting at 6:30 p.m.
He has plenty of stories from years of interviewing noir icons and writing books (“Dark City Dames,” “Dark City: The Lost World of Noir” are just a few), and some of his yarns aren’t ready for prime time. One such tale involves the actor Lawrence Tierney, who was in his outspoken, no holds barred ’80s, when he made quite an impression on Muller and others attending a screening of one of his films in California.
Last year was the first film noir festival at the Redford, and Muller points to the Detroit festival as a model for the many he is launching nationally.
“I realized at a certain point, when I’m doing these festivals, I’m all about saving the films, but it works best when we do this in a specific type of venue,” Muller said. “The Redford set-up checked all the boxes, set off all the alarms. It’s such an incredible theater, and I felt so simpatico with the people there. It’s an all- volunteer operation. This was the perfect place.”
The film host does wish he could bring a noir film with a Detroit theme here, but there are few that reference the city.
“There’s one that I would love to find somehow, just for Detroit,” Muller said. “It’s called ‘Inside Detroit.’ In the ’50s there was a whole series of expose films — they’re not particularly good but this one was actually shot on location in Detroit. There’s a Portland expose, ‘New Orleans Uncensored,’ Chicago, Kansas City, ‘Miami Exposed’ — and ‘Inside Detroit.’ ”
Maybe next year.
The weekend’s offerings will include several classic film noirs: 1947’s “Out of the Past,” 1950’s “Gun Crazy” and “The Asphalt Jungle” (the film that introduced a young Marilyn Monroe). The familiar films are coupled with some lesser-known works that have been saved and/or restored by the Film Noir Foundation.
In a time when new films are drawing fewer people into movie theaters, TCM has been successful in bringing people together in the real world to watch and celebrate films. Muller is doing that with his noir festivals.
“I want people to come together to see these movies and realize that there are other people out there and seeing these films, instead of watching at home on your TV or laptop.”
And while noir classics such as “Out of the Past” are familiar to veteran fans, Muller is emphatic that such films still need to be shown at festivals, for younger noir buffs.
“In April, it will be 20 years that I’ve been programming film noir festivals, and an incredible thing that I’ve learned is how cyclical everything is,” Muller said. “There will be 25-year-olds coming to see ‘Out of the Past’ in Detroit who were 5 when I started doing this.” People say, ‘Oh Eddie come on, you’re showing ‘Out of the Past’ again? Everybody’s seen that.’ I say, ‘you don’t understand film programming at all!’ It all comes back around. You have to show the classics like ‘Out of the Past’ and ‘Double Indemnity.’ ”
Susan Whitall is an author and longtime contributor to the Detroit News. Contact her at susanwhitall.com
Noir City Detroit: The 2nd Annual Detroit Film Noir Festival
Historic Redford Theatre
17360 Lahser, Detroit.
Friday: 8 p.m. “Out of the Past” (1947); 10 p.m. “Nightfall” (1957)
Saturday: 8 p.m. “Gun Crazy” (1950); 10 p.m. “Try and Get Me!” (1951)
Sunday: 2 p.m. “The Asphalt Jungle” (1950); 4:15 p.m. “Cry Danger” (1951)
Tickets: All shows sold as double features, $10. Three-day Noir City Festival pass, $25. Festival pass entitles patrons to all films, plus a private 6 p.m. Sept. 23 reception with host Eddie Muller, followed by a Q&A session with him from 6:15-7:30 p.m.
Visit redfordtheatre.com for festival passes and tickets.