Eddie Muller is famous for digging up classic cinema, but he made his bones as a writer.
If you’re a fan of film noir or really anything with “noir” attached to it, you most likely know the name and work of my old friend Eddie Muller, and know it well.
For one thing, Eddie is the founder and president of the Film Noir Foundation, a globally networked organization that has resurrected and preserved many iconic movies, produced in several languages, that would otherwise have been completely forgotten, literally disintegrating into the dustbin of history.
The world-renowned “Czar of Noir” has built his reputation steadily over the past couple of decades with his award-winning literary accomplishments in both fiction and non-fiction, his skills as producer and programmer of the national Noir City film festivals, and most recently, his high profile stint as host of TCM’s Noir Alley, which airs every Sunday morning (which is why God created the DVR for late-rising lazy folks, hungover hedonists and churchgoers alike.)
But when I first met Eddie about twenty years ago, while working as a clerk in a video store called Movie Image in Berkeley, CA, I only knew him as a writer, like me. I was selling my first published novel, Love Stories Are Too Violent For Me, over the counter, like a punk-ass version of Tarantino. I swapped a copy in exchange for Eddie’s first book, Grindhouse: The Forbidden World of “Adults Only” Cinema (with Daniel Farris, 1996), which was right up, or down, my dark alley.
At the time, Eddie was also researching what was to become his breakthrough book, the definition guide to the genre, Dark City: the Lost World of Film Noir (2001), renting rare bootleg VHS copies of classic noir, a specialty at this store.
After that, Eddie often co-hosted by own annual film noir festivals at The Parkway Speakeasy Theater in Oakland, where I was resident programmer/publicist for a dozen years. My wife and I also hosted and produced a regular “cult movie cabaret," called Thrillville, and Eddie was an occasional guest there when I featured films like his personal favorite noir, In a Lonely Place (1950), starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame.
Eddie's career took off when Noir City debuted at San Francisco’s palatial Castro Theater in 2002, an incredibly popular event which has since been “franchised” around the country, and he hasn’t looked back since, except when he’s watching and talking classic movies, of course. He’s even made one of his own, a short film inspired by the infamous Zodiac serial killer spree of the 1970s, called The Grand Inquisitor (2008), starring Hollywood legend Marsha Hunt.
His two published novels thus far, The Distance and Shadow Boxer, both feature 1940s era sportswriter cum amateur gumshoe Billy Nichols, modeled after the senior Eddie Muller, who covered boxing for the San Francisco Examiner back in the day.
In this exchange, Eddie talks about his first and true love (other than his wife Kathleen), since he always has and always will identify as “a writer,” and he should, since he’s one of the best…
I’ve heard you say in person and read in print that you consider yourself primarily a writer, despite the fact that you wear a lot of hats, including filmmaker, artist, curator, preservationist, and most recently, "famous television personality.” Does it bother you to be known more as an impresario than an author, which is your original and true passion?
I've come to terms with the juggling act by just saying I'm a storyteller. That's what I do on TCM. Even when I'm programming film festivals I feel like that's what I'm doing — telling a story. And just so everybody is clear on this— I have never yet uttered a word in public than anybody else has written for me, including those wine club spots I do for TCM. I'm just making that stuff up as we go along. No matter what I do—whether its writing a novel, a short story, or introducing movies—I'm telling a story.
Your elegantly composed crime fiction has been nominated for various industry awards, while your universally acclaimed non-fiction books on Noir are taught in classrooms all over the country, maybe the world. Do you feel equally gratified from a creative standpoint whether you’re writing about the history of noir or creating your own?
I always wanted to write fiction. That was always my primary goal— and despite what has transpired with my becoming a mouthpiece for noir, I still consider myself a "creative" above and beyond everything else. But it has been very gratifying and surprising to discover the satisfaction of restoring and preserving other artists' work—whether it's rescuing a film that might otherwise fall into oblivion or publishing the only English-language translation of Philippe Garnier's David Goodis biography. This "impresario" thing is something I never anticipated, but I do have to say it has a pretty big upside.
For what it's worth, I don't think my books are "taught" that often. I'm not a favorite of academics because my approach is largely at odds with much of the grad-school theorizing about noir. My angle on the subject is rooted more in verifiable research and a concern for the historical accuracy of the context and conditions under which the artists worked. I shy away from theorizing.
“Noir" has become a common and I would say overly-used - even misused - marketing niche for contemporary indie crime fiction, often employed by those totally ignorant of its origins in cinema. Let’s get this down for the record: speaking as the Czar, what truly defines “noir,” in any medium?
No matter what I say, somebody's good take exception to it and argue. I'm not entirely sure it's a bad thing that noir has been appropriated and diffused into the mainstream, given what the cultural baseline is these days regarding style and substance. Where I might say the definition of noir has proven to be "elastic," others will assert its been "bastardized." Here's the thing— as a guy who now spends a LOT of time trying to save old movies and get people to watch them, I have found the use of "noir" as a marketing term to be very useful—even if I'm applying to stuff that I don't think is truly noir. Hey, if that's what it takes to get people to pay attention, is there really a harm in it? As a writer of crime fiction, however, I see a definite distinction between mysteries, detective fiction, and noir. When I want to be hard-core about it, I will assert that in genuine noir the protagonist is the "villain," the person who knows what they're doing is wrong and does it anyway. And the very best noir—Cain, Thompson, Highsmith—makes you empathize with these people and understand why they're doing it. That's not the same as asking you to condone it.
What are your influences, literary or otherwise?
My father, the sportswriter. He showed me that you can make a living as a writer— and that writers didn't have to be stuffy intellectual academics. Like a lot of crime writers, I was intoxicated by Raymond Chandler's prose when I was a teenager. As I got older, I became much more a Hammett guy. I want to be that spare and direct and insightful. Although I can't say he is a direct influence on my work, I am a fan of Paul Auster— whenever I read his novels and essays I'm always reinvigorated about the value and possibility of written words.
What’s next for you?
I'm just going to keep doing what I'm doing. I would love to carve out more personal time to get more fiction written. It seems like I've been halfway through my next novel for the past five years! I keep writing short stories to keep my hand in. Where I see the Chandler influence in my novels, I definitely see the Hammett influence in the short stories. My dad explained to me one time, talking about boxing, that the punch that hits the hardest is the one that travels the least distance— and that's the sort of the approach I want to take now in my fiction writing. A review of "The Handy Man," the short story I contributed to the Oakland Noir anthology I co-edited, called it "a painful read." I'm taking that as a compliment, so I hope the reviewer meant it that way!
Cheers, my friend.
Eddie Muller is a second generation San Franciscan, product of a lousy public school education, a couple of crazy years in art school, and too much time in newspaper offices and sporting arenas. No college, but he's compensated by always hanging around smarter people, an effortless feat typically accomplished in bars. Since 1998 Muller has devoted himself full-time to projects that pique his interest, ranging from the creation of a Historical Boxing Museum, to a fully illustrated history of Adults Only movies, to acting as co-writer and -producer of one of the first completely digital theatrical documentaries, Mau Mau Sex Sex. He created his own graphics firm, St. Francis Studio, which enables him to design, as well as write, his non-fiction books. He has achieved much acclaim for his three books on film noir, earning the nickname "The Czar of Noir.”