NOIR CITY Detroit Film Festival a treat for fans of genre

Kurt Anthony Krug
Special to The Detroit News

There are stark differences between the film noir movies of the 1940s and the film noir movies of the 1950s, and Eddie Muller, alias the “czar of noir” and the host of “Noir Alley” on TCM, will speak about them at this weekend's the 4th Annual NOIR CITY Detroit Film Festival.

The poster for 1958’s “Touch of Evil,” a film noir movie in the genre’s classic period written and directed by Hollywood legend Orson Welles, considered one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. Welles co-starred in “Evil” with Charlton Heston, who grew up in Michigan, and Janet Leigh. This movie will be screened as part of the NOIR CITY Detroit Film Festival at the Redford Theatre in Detroit on Sunday.

This year, the festival has expanded to two locations. The first location is the Detroit Film Theatre, located inside the Detroit Institute of Arts, on Friday. The second location is the Redford Theatre in Detroit on Saturday and Sunday (see sidebar).

Eight film noir movies will be screened over the weekend. With the exception of 1949’s “Trapped,” the remaining seven movies are from the 1950s. Some of the more notable films include 1953’s “Niagara” with Marilyn Monroe, 1954’s “Pushover” with Kim Novak, 1958’s “Touch of Evil” with Orson Welles, and 1955’s “Kiss Me Deadly” with Ralph Meeker in an adaptation of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer novel of the same name.

“They have a different relationship with the production code, which dictated what you could and could not do on-screen," said Muller, 60, who lives in California's San Francisco Bay area. That code was waning a bit in the 1950s, reflecting changes in the society at large. People were coming to accept certain things (after) the anti-communist witch-hunt. That certainly had a bearing on things. The witch-hunt was developing in the late 1940s with the rise of film noir but reached its peak in the early 1950s and then you saw that the films became a reaction to the witch-hunt. That’s certainly true of ‘Kiss Me Deadly,’ which is the ultimate Cold War film noir movie.”

Two movies that reflect the changing times of the 1950s are “Niagara” and “Pushover,” he said.

“There’s stuff in ‘Niagara’ that wouldn’t be seen in the 1940s – like Marilyn Monroe,” said Muller, laughing. “There’s no way she’d be allowed to be as blatantly sexual as she is in ‘Niagara’ in the 1940s... They’re photographing (Monroe) where you can practically see her nude. By looking at her through a shower curtain and lying in bed – it’s obvious she doesn’t have any clothes on. This was a major thing for a major studio like 20th Century Fox to be doing... We’re showing Kim Novak’s film debut in ‘Pushover.’ What applies to Marilyn applies to Kim: She has a blatant sexual appeal in the movie that wouldn’t have passed muster in the 1940s. (The studio) would’ve had her change her outfit.”

In fact, people debate that “Niagara” is even film noir.

“It’s a Marilyn Monroe picture in lush color." said Muller. "A lot of people will immediately blanch at that and say, ‘That can’t be film noir if it’s in color.’ I very much enjoy engaging in that conversation because I don’t know what you can call ‘Niagara’ if it’s not film noir. It hits all of the bullet points for being film noir, except it’s in color. That makes me laugh. People think noir is about black and white and that’s it. If you’re gonna make that argument, you’re ignoring all the other things about that film that make it noir.”

Muller said noir has its own storyline in terms of how it developed, how it grew, how it diminished, and how it was absorbed into the mainstream where it was no longer a movement. It was something people understood and somewhat took for granted towards the end of the 1950s, which he called a “staid and uptight era.” However, filmmakers pushed the envelope and set the stage for the 1960s. The production code was replaced with a voluntary ratings system (G, PG, R) by the Motion Picture Association of America to limit censorship of movies.

“There was no ratings system for movies in the 1950s,” said Muller. “Everybody could go see everything. They had to be careful about what America’s youth was seeing.”

Muller is the president/founder of the Film Noir Foundation, which preserves film noir movies. He has hosted NOIR CITY Detroit, organized by teacher/writer/movie buff/Redford volunteer John Monaghan, since its inception.

“I’ve come to realize in the work that I do – preserving films – is vitally important. Then you have to preserve a place to show the films and then you have to preserve the actual experience of going to see the films in a theater…” said Muller. “I’m very supportive of the Redford because I know how hard they work to maintain that venue; it’s an entirely volunteer operation. Sometimes I’m in regular, for-profit theaters that are doing just fine like… The Redford is a special case because it’s such a community-based thing. Everybody who’s responsible for its operation is a volunteer, all the way down to the projectionist!”

NOIR CITY is more popular than ever, according to Monaghan, of Pleasant Ridge, which is why it’s at two venues this year.

“Some people can’t even come yet they’re still supporting the event by buying tickets, which is very generous of them,” said Monaghan.

On a personal note, the DFT is full circle for Monaghan.

“We’re joining forces with the place where I discovered film noir for the first time when I was a kid. I saw (1955’s) ‘The Phenix City Story’ at the DFT in the 1970s,” said Monaghan. “The DFT brings us more exposure because it has such a following. It gives people more options for where they can see these films. It’s exciting to be working with the DFT; it’s great for them to be a part of the festival. By bridging the gaps between the two theaters, we’re adding to the area’s film culture in different ways.”

: The poster for this year’s NOIR CITY Detroit Film Festival, which is in its 4th year.

The 4th annual NOIR CITY Detroit Film Festival

Sept. 20-22

7 p.m. Friday, Detroit Film Theatre, inside the Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward. For tickets, visit

2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, Redford Theatre, 17360 Lahser in Detroit. For tickets, visit for tickets.