Down these mean streets

Eddie Muller navigates one of cinema’s most durable genres in ‘Dark City’

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I was gonna be a dancer. I was a brunette. Started on my toes and wound up on my heels.

So says Ruth Roman in Tomorrow is Another Day, a forgotten lovers-on-the-lam noir from 1951. Or it would have been forgotten if not for Eddie Muller. He’s the founder and president of the Film Noir Foundation, head honcho of the Noir City Film Festival, host of TCM’s Noir Alley and author of several books on, you guessed it, noir. His seminal text, Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir, has recently been revised and expanded for a handsome new hardback release. In short, if you have a question about noir, Muller’s your guy.

“You know, these films were threatening and ominous when they first appeared,” Muller says. “As I say right up top in Dark City, some of these were distress flares. The artists were making a statement that the world is not good. There’s corruption everywhere.”

True, but the allure of noir isn’t so much what it says but how it says it. Take Tomorrow is Another Day, it’s “such a crummy title it’s no wonder the film escaped critical reappraisal for decades,” Muller writes in Dark City. “Too bad, since it’s brimming with simple and stylish pleasures, like a jazz standard played hundreds of times—but then you’re amazed to hear it played in a fresh and soulful way.”

What’s noir to Muller? It’s “suffering in style.”

“There’s a whole retro/vintage culture out there that gravitates to these movies because they recognize the style of that period as being sort of the quintessential American,” Muller says. “The clothes were better. The cars were better. The nightclubs were better.” And despite how dark and disturbing these movies can get, noir “is a world a lot of people want to live in.”

For Muller, that world is Dark City.

“It seems to me that in film noir, it’s all taking place in one big mythological garden,” Muller explains. “You expect to run into the same—not just the same characters, but the same actors playing the same characters—in these movies.”

So Muller took that idea and ran with it, constructing Dark City as a guided tour through 13 noir-soaked neighborhoods.

“I said, ‘Well, what if all these stories came from a different neighborhood in this town?’” Muller continues. “Here’s what the big crooks live, and here’s where the cops operate. Here’s where the husbands and wives murder each other.”

An approach that makes reading Dark City as fun as watching the movies. Muller gleaned the idea from Geoffrey O’Brien’s The Phantom Empire, a “very heady, very intellectual book, but it has this notion: What if movies were for real?” Muller recalls. “What if all these people and stories and everything actually existed somewhere in this phantom empire? I loved that notion. It really struck my fancy.”

First released in 1998 by St. Martin’s Press, Dark City changed Muller’s life. It was a hit, and more books followed. Then came a chance to curate and program a noir-themed film festival. Then the opportunity to start a foundation to rescue and restore lost and orphaned noirs. Then TCM came and gave Muller a summer full of Fridays for a noir program. Two years later, TCM offered Muller a weekly time slot. 

“When I started building Dark City more than 25 years ago,” Muller writes in the afterword, “it was a shot in the dark. Imagine my surprise, discovering that films about desperation, deceit, betrayal and paranoia can unite people around the world in a shared passion.”

Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir, the revised and expanded edition, is available now from TCM and Running Press. Find it wherever good books are sold. 

ON THE BILL: Eddie Muller’s new book on film noir, Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir, takes readers to the darkest places in cinema.

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