Dark Times in Austin With Noir City

The czar of noir Eddie Muller on Walter White and classic dread

Dark Times in Austin With Noir City

Grab your lid, dust off your trench coat, and get wise. Noir City Austin is blowing into town, and is set to put you wise about the best of Hollywood's most sinister era, savvy?

Actually, forget the jargon and the antiquated phrasing. For Eddie Muller, president of the Film Noir Foundation and founder of the Noir City family of film festivals, noir is a state of mind. "When we're talking about film noir," he said, "we're talking about a particular artistic movement that happened in cinema."

So just before SXSW, Feb. 28-March 2, he'll be bringing 10 underground classics from out of the vault, compiled from nearly two decades of research and collection and showing these films at Noir City events in Los Angeles and his native San Francisco. "Austin has totally lucked out, because this is a greatest hits package."

Muller has been chronicling the form since his 1998 book Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir, and he admits it's an obsession. He said, "It grew out of an early fascination that was based on my craving more information about america in the mid-20th century." His father was a newspaperman, "and in these films I saw what I imagined was his life as a younger man."

So what is a true noir? To Muller, it's another case of "you know it when you see it." "It's a certain story where the reader can empathize with characters who are bad, who are doing something that's bad." It's not just crime stories: He sees the style spilling over into westerns, court room dramas, and even the borderline surrealist. While the exact timing of classic noir is hazy around the edges, like a drunk's recollection after an all-night bender, for him the core era runs from 1944 to 1952. The world was staggering through the closing hours of World War 2, and the culture was reeling. "They found a visual corollary in film noir," said Muller, "a feel of dread and pessimism that was new to American cinema."

He quickly corrects himself. "I used to say in America," he said, but when he started looking overseas, he found all the raw elements of noir in international cinema. "I was discovering films in Buenos Aries that had never screened in the U.S. before."

That search is a big part of what the self-proclaimed Czar of Noir does. Through the foundation, he finds and restores films. That's something Austin's ever-expanding community exploitation cinema fans know a lot about: With institutions like the American Genre Film Archive, and before that local entity the seminal Something Weird Video, there's a huge selection of 50s nudie cuties, 60s sleaze and 70s grind that has been saved from the trash heap. But Muller faces a different challenge. When Something Weird founder Mike Vraney got his start, it was because he opened up an existing treasure trove. Muller said, "Mike found that all at once, because that was the Dave Friedman and Dan Sonney collection. Mike had that entrepreneurial thing of 'I can make some money of this.'"

If only it was so easy for Muller. "I wish we were finding prints," he sighed. "The reason we have to do a restoration is there are none." His hunt has included working from partial prints, negatives and fine grain positives, trying to find enough clues to piece the clues together to see the whole puzzle of a movie. "It goes from foreign archives to private collectors hoarding stuff in a storage lock-up in the outskirts of Baltimore." He'll be sharing some of those stories over the festival weekend with Austinites, including the quest to restore stolen cash caper Too Late for Tears. "It's pretty remarkable," said Muller. "It involves opportunities and strange phone calls in the middle of the night, 'I can't tell you who, but I can tell you where to look.' … One guy died in the middle of the night."

In some cases, the film exists, but the tangle of legal paperwork is so complicated that it makes the plot of The Maltese Falcon seem transparent. The end result is that he is able to show some films that will not appear on DVD or TV until the copyright expires. Muller said, "You could write a book on this one court decision that has lead to so many films ending up in limbo, because studios won't invest the money in the legal fees to find the heirs of the original authors."

And while the classic era of noir may be passed, there are still good people doing terrible things. Indeed, some modern creations have more in common than older works that look the part. Case in point: The classic detective series Dragnet has all the outer markings of noir, but at heart it's a straight-ahead police procedural. That's not true of HBO's True Detective. "I'm getting the feeling that these cops did something very bad," said Muller. As for Breaking Bad, "that series is definitive noir to me. … The definition is elastic enough that it keeps morphing. There's no lack of dark alleys and streets to explore."

The Noir City Austin festival runs Feb. 28-March 2 at the Alamo Ritz. Tickets and info at www.drafthouse.com/packages/noir-city-austin. Here's the full list of all screenings

Friday, February 28
7pm Too Late For Tears (1949) Restored by the Film Noir Foundation and ULCA Television Archive, Byron Haskin's tale of how far a Hollywood Hills house wife (Lizabeth Scott) will go to keep $6,000.
10pm Try and Get Me (1943) Blacklisted writer-director Cy Endfield drags ex-soldier (Frank Lovejoy) into a murderous life of crime

Saturday, March 1
2pm Larceny (1948) Shelley Winters plays the femme fatale to Jean Caulfield's far from merry widow in this tale of the grift.
4:40pm Crashout (1955) A prison break, a man hunt, and a hidden stash of cash.
7:15pm Cry Danger (1951) A proto-Point Blank, Dick Powell stalks LA as a man seeking revenge for being framed by the criminal underworld.
10pm The Breaking Point (1950) A sometime overshadowed version of To Have And Have Not featuring John Garfield (The Postman Always Rings Twice) in one of his final roles.

Sunday, March 2
2pm Repeat Performance (1947) It's Groundhog Day with bloodshed, as Joan Leslie gets a chance to undo the murder of her husband - the murder she committed.
4:30pm Three Strangers (1946) It's a reunion of the most charismatic duo from The Maltese Falcon: Yup, Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre as two men sucked into the greed-filled clutches of a mysterious Oriental idol.
7:05pm Alias Nick Beal (1949) The devil really is in the details when Ray Milland turns up as a fedora-wearing Lucifer, with Audrey Totter as the satanic seductress after Thomas Mitchell's soul. Brand new 35mm print by Universal.
9:45pm The Chase (1946) Back when Cuba was the corrupt center of the world, Robert Cummings gets crosswise with his gangster boss Steve Cochran after helping his wife (Michele Morgan) hightail it to Havana.

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