Noir City Confidential: How Portland went Noir

Ted Hurliman meets Noir expert Eddie Muller and the rest is dark and juicy in Portland

By TED HURLIMAN

In 1998, Universal Films re-released Orson Welles’ Touch Of Evil on the strength of a re-edit that purportedly resembled Welles’ original vision. I was in college at the time and had a part-time job pushing popcorn at a small art house theatre, The Flicks.

The Flicks had one larger screen, and three smaller. On top of that, it offered a huge selection of film for rent. I spent my free time either watching films in the theater or watching rented VHS tapes. On one such occasion, I sat down in the main theater to watch Touch of Evil, my only frame of reference that I knew Welles had also directed Citizen Kane. From the moment the lights went down and the now celebrated long tracking shot blazed onto the screen, I knew I was seeing something I’d never seen before.

The visuals alone were enough to transfix me—deep shadows hid whole swaths of the frame, suggesting something sinister just at the edge of perception. As the film hurtled along and I was introduced to the characters, I realized that I didn’t trust any of them, didn’t even like some of them. I was enraptured. I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen, and when the film reached its inevitable conclusion, I realized I wasn’t going get up, walk out of the theatre, and let the relatively sunny afternoon burn the experience out of me. No, I decided right then and there to stay in the dark and watch it again. Touch of Evil was originally released in 1958 and is generally accepted as the last film in the American film noir cycle. For me, however, it was the beginning of my obsession with film noir, an obsession that continues this weekend with Noir City Portland at the Hollywood Theatre.

Over the next few years, I spent a good amount of time watching as much film noir as I could get my hands on. I discovered films like Double Indemnity, The Maltese Falcon, Lady from Shanghai, and considered myself rather versed in the subject. Eventually, I went on to land a job programming films at the Northwest Film Center, and at every conceivable opportunity, I’d put together a noir series. For the most part, film noir filled just enough seats that I was able to justify noir programming on a fairly consistent basis.

Lizabeth Scott in "Too Late for Tears," part of this weekend's Noir City festival.

Lizabeth Scott in “Too Late for Tears,” part of this weekend’s Noir City festival.

I got to thinking—what if someone put together a film festival centered squarely around film noir? The idea was intriguing, but there was something of a complication: I knew that the last American noir film had been produced in 1958. I might be able to sustain a noir film festival for a few years running, but eventually I’d run up against the fact that there were a limited number of noir films in existence and even fewer in circulation. I realized that, in order to sustain a film noir festival, some part of that festival must be dedicated to finding and restoring lost noir films. The profits from the festival could be donated to fund new restorations, and those new restorations would feed back into the festival, sustaining it for years to come.

It was a perfect idea.

I went immediately to the internet and typed, “lost film noirs,” into a search engine. I imagined the results would guide me towards obscure noir titles that I would fully research. Were there surviving prints? Original camera negatives? Who owned the screening rights? The potential gave me chills.

However, the search results gave me something different:

Result #1: Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir: Eddie Muller

Result #2: Film Noir Discussion with Eddie Muller and Alan Rode

I clicked the first link which led me to an amazon.com description of a book that I’d somehow overlooked in my amateur noir scholarship. Based on the subject matter alone, I decided I needed to read the book right away. The description alone intimated that Eddie Muller had specific knowledge that my film noir festival might benefit from.

I went back to my search results and noted that Eddie Muller’s name was also included in the second link. I clicked the link which led me to an article entitled “Film Noir Discussion with Eddie Muller.” I quickly scanned the first few paragraphs:

Alan Rode, senior staff writer for Filmmonthly.com sat down with Film Noir Foundation president Eddie Muller in late 2005 to discuss the mission and progress of the newly-formed non-profit corporation. Muller, noted novelist and film noir expert, and author of Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir, Dark City Dames and The Art of Noir recently wrapped up his seventh year hosting and co-programming the American Cinematheque’s Annual Festival of Film Noir in Hollywood. The “Czar of Noir” was clearly in an ebullient mood over the success of his two 2005 noir film festivals and recent events concerning the Film Noir Foundation.

A.R. The Film Noir Foundation is approaching its first year of existence. For those who may be unfamiliar with the Foundation, could you summarize the mission?

E.M. The Foundation was created when I realized a non-profit could get access to film archives that were off-limits to most for-profit theaters. In all honesty, that was the original impetus. I wanted people to see certain hard-to-find movies on the big screen, like Losey’s M and Try and Get Me. After a few years programming festivals, it also became obvious that there was an opportunity to sharpen the studios’ focus as to what they had in their vaults, and convince them there was some commercial viability in those films. 1

I read the entirety of the conversation. Then, I reread it again. It slowly dawned on me that my idea was not as original as I’d thought. I realized the article I was reading was one page of a much larger site. I continued to click through the site, and moments later, found this:

NOIR CITY, The Annual San Francisco Film Noir Festival, began in January, 2003. It immediately grew into the largest film noir-specific annual event in the United States, the centerpiece of the Film Noir Foundation’s public awareness campaign. Viewers are drawn every January from all over the world, eager to submerge themselves in a ten-day extravaganza of rare films, special guests, music, literary tie-ins — a communal celebration of all things noir. 2

Muller, and his staff at the Film Noir Foundation had fully executed the concept that I hadn’t even come close to fleshing out. They’d executed it with style. They’d executed it with grace. They’d executed it on a level that I’d never dreamt of.

I was ecstatic.

I was on my way to San Francisco.

****

"The Breaking Point" with John Garfield and Patricia Neal is part of this year's Noir City festival.

“The Breaking Point” with John Garfield and Patricia Neal is part of this year’s Noir City festival.

The Noir City Film Festival takes place at the Castro Theatre. I’d seen pictures of the historic building from the outside, but I’d never been in. And it would be a while yet before I made it in:  When I arrived almost twenty-five minutes early for the 7pm screening of Thieves Highway, the line traced all the way back up the sidewalk and out of sight around the corner. I hadn’t considered the fact that the film might sell out—after all, the Castro Theatre seats 1400 people. I made it into the theatre right as the house manager informed the crowd behind me that capacity had been reached.

I made a beeline for the theatre, but before I could make the double doors, a woman dressed as a cigarette girl from the 1940s stepped in front of me. “Apple for two bits, mister?” Rather than Camels or Pall Malls in her cigarette box, she was carrying apples. It wasn’t until later that I made the connection: the main action of Thieves Highway revolves around a truckful of Golden Delicious apples. A local orchard had come on as a sponsor. What better way to get the sponsor’s product out in front of the audience and, at the same time, play right into the theme of the film?

The cigarette girl was clever, but nothing could have prepared me for the utter grandeur of the theatre. Built in 1922, the Castro is one of last great movie palaces in existence. The walls of the interior are covered in classic motif murals, and reach up to an intricately domed ceiling where a huge, art deco chandelier softly illuminates the audience.

As I entered, dominantly pervading every corner of the theatre were the sounds of a mighty wurlitzer organ, the organist confidently playing in time with the rhythmic clapping of the audience. As the organist finished, the platform supporting the organ and the player sank down into the recesses of the orchestra pit. The house lights went down and a single spot light went up. Eddie Muller stepped into view.

Any quick blurb mentioning Eddie Muller usually includes “noted film historian” or “noir film expert” in the same sentence. To be certain, he is both. However, above all, Eddie Muller is a storyteller. When he introduces a film, Muller is careful to avoid academic rhetoric. He does not couch his comments in critical theory. Muller introduces a film by telling a story about the film.

When Muller stepped out onto the stage that night and started his introduction, I ended up watching the audience more than I watched Muller, they listened so intently. When Muller spoke, he was able to impart the perfect amount of context to set the audience up for the film, while never giving too much away nor testing their patience. Muller’s intros are carefully crafted to create an intimate relationship between the audience and the film. A true showman in every regard, he knew exactly when to step off the stage and let the film take over.

I spent the entire weekend in the Castro and watched a total of nine noir films, most of which were unknown to me at the time. Each film was a revelation—between Muller’s intros, the atmospheric Castro Theatre, and the enthusiastic audiences around me, I was experiencing the films the way that they were intended to be experienced.

I flew home late on a Sunday night. I was exhilarated and exhausted, but above all, I was determined. How could I get Muller to come to Portland? Turns out, the answer was a simple one.

I asked.

****

Inspired by my recent experiences in San Francisco, I put together a pretty good program of noir films. The titles were solid, many of the prints newly restored, but all the same, I felt like there was something missing. On a whim, I emailed Muller. I don’t remember the text of the email, but I do know it ended with something like, “if you’re available, we’d love to have you in Portland.” I got a reply that same day. “Sure. What do you have in mind? Eddie M.”

Muller has traveled all over the world on behalf of the Film Noir Foundation. When he’s not hosting one of the satellite Noir City festivals in Seattle, Los Angeles, Kansas, Chicago, Austin, or Washington D.C., he often makes one-off appearances. I asked if Muller would be at all interested in coming up to Portland for an evening to introduce a noir film of his choice and do a post-film Q&A. Muller did me one better and decided to stay for two nights, two films. A consummate showman straight down the line. We discussed particulars via email, dates, times, etcetera, and in a relatively short amount of time, we locked the program down.

I’d been at the Northwest Film Center for 12 years and had put together a few programs that I was proud of. This one was my favorite. It was also my last.

Soon after my conversation with Muller, I was offered another job. My time at the Northwest Film Center had been formative in many ways, but aside from the one bright spot which was Muller’s upcoming appearance, I’d begun to suffer from an overall malaise. I knew that if I took the job, I wouldn’t be able to enjoy the fruits of my noir programming efforts. But, I also knew that I needed to do something different. I left the Northwest Film Center two months before my last noir series was set to begin.

However, the week before the series opened, I got an email from my old alma mater. Would I be interested in hosting Muller for the two nights he was in town? The weekend was going to be busy, Film Center resources were stretched thin, and since I’d put the series together, it made sense that I come back for one last hurrah. I accepted with all the grace I was capable of.

Muller came to town and did what he does best. The audience numbers for the two screenings he hosted were by far the highest numbers of the series. I got the chance to sit down with Muller over dinner and talk film, the film business, the whole gamut. When we shook hands and said goodbye, Muller said, “let’s do this again.”

I said, “You bet.”

I wondered how we’d do it, but I figured something would work out. The next day, I was asked to sit on the board of the Hollywood Theatre.

****

The Hollywood Theatre offers a truly impressive range of film programming. Head programmer, Dan Halsted, is a master at reading the tastes of his audience and screening films that please as much as they surprise. If you’ve attended any of the films in the series that Dan puts together, such as the Grindhouse Film Festival or Kung Fu Theatre, then you’ve probably seen Dan Halsted in his element. The man loves film. When he introduces a film, his love of the medium is readily apparent, and refreshingly overwhelming.

Hollywood-marquee at nightThe Hollywood Theatre itself is a work of art. Built in 1926, a few years after the Castro, the Hollywood is one of the last standing historic theatres in Portland. The theatre fell on hard times during the mid-eighties and languished as a second-run theatre for most of the next decade. However, a few years back, the theatre came under new management.  Executive director Doug Whyte, Director of Programs and Community Engagement Justen Harn, along with Dan Halsted and the relatively small staff have dedicated themselves to the preservation of the traditional cinema-going experience, while pioneering new ways for audiences to interact with our increasingly media saturated world.  The results are nothing short of stunning. Restored, the theatre maintains a classic feel while remaining relevant to contemporary audiences.

Dan and I sat down one afternoon and talked programming ideas. Eventually, the conversation came around to film noir.

“I’d love to do something like that here,” Dan said. “This venue is perfect for it.”

I agreed, already thinking of Noir City. The Hollywood Theatre was, in my opinion, Portland’s answer to the Castro Theatre. I could already see Muller on the stage.

“You know,” I said, “I could send Muller an email, see what he thinks.”

“Sure,” said Dan.

“But here’s the thing,” I said. I went on to explain that, while Muller’s appearance had worked relatively well, a fair amount of energy dropped out of the series after he’d left. “The numbers were fine, but there was no energy. It just wasn’t the same experience without Muller.”

“Maybe we should have him for a whole weekend,” Dan said.

I emailed Eddie again, ran the idea of a whole weekend by him. He replied, “in that case, why not just do a Noir City festival?”

Noir City Portland returns to the Hollywood Theatre this Friday, September 19. Hosted by Eddie Muller, the festival will feature the Film Noir Foundation’s latest restoration, Too Late For Tears, starring Noir siren Lizbeth Scott, The Breaking Point, a little-seen Michael Curtiz classic, and Deadline U.S.A. with Humphrey Bogart. Screening a total of ten films in all, Noir City Portland is set to deliver on every conceivable level. For the complete line-up, tickets, and showtimes, visit the website.

 

NOTES

1 “Film Noir Discussion with Eddie Muller.” filmnoirfoundation.org. Alan Rode, n.d. Web. 15 Sept. 2014.

 2 “Noir City.” filmnoirfoundation.org. n.d. Web. 15 Sept. 2014.

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