Eddie Muller began his speech at the AFI Silver Theater and Cultural Center by showing a film clip by Serena Bramble, a young lady who made this montage when she was 18 after having seen only a dozen or so films noir. “It’s better than any of those montage clips they show at the Oscars,” Muller said, and he was right.
Everyone in the audience was absolutely knocked out like we’d been sucker-punched by Ralph Meeker. But Muller was just getting warmed up.
For the next hour – although it seemed like 5 minutes – Muller spoke about what we’d all come to see and hear – film noir, “the swampy dark place in the soul that ferments.” He also called film noir “Hollywood’s only organic artistic movement,” then explained why.
“I’m basically going to interview myself,” Muller said, and spoke about the history of film noir, starting with the five most pivotal noir films, all from the same year (1944), all from different studios:
The Woman in the Window
Murder, My Sweet
These five films were all about murder, daring, and perversity, and they all made money. It’s easy to look back on these films in 2015 and see them as a sure thing, but for an actor like Barbara Stanwyck (not only the highest paid woman in the movies, but also the highest paid woman in America), the role of Phyllis Dietrichson was a huge gamble. No need to worry. This film about murder and adultery was nominated for seven Oscars (losing in all categories).
Why did noir disappear? Mainly, said Muller, because people stopped going to see them. Hollywood produced an avalanche of noir for about six years, between 350 and 400 films, and when television became Hollywood’s biggest competition, noir began to evaporate. Yet noir has never completely disappeared, proven by films like Chinatown, L.A. Confidential, and Mulholland Drive as well as somewhat forgotten films like Arlington Road and The Yards.
All you really need for a film noir, Muller said, is a man, a woman, a hotel room and a weapon.
Muller also spent a few minutes correcting some misconceptions about exactly what is a femme fatale. Many female roles are misconstrued as femme fatale roles because the women are often treated as equals with the men. Gilda (which Muller called “the most perverse movie made in the 40s ever!”) is not a femme fatale. Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) is not leading Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) around in Double Indemnity; he’s making his own decisions and the two are fully co-conspirators.
So what makes a femme fatale a femme fatale? “She does not want to work for a living!” The totally self-sufficient, self-reliant woman (Ella Raines, Audrey Totter, etc.) is not necessarily a femme fatale. Those women were the salvation of men, not their ruin.
Muller also spoke about some of the great films that many noir fans have never heard of, much less viewed. These are noir films from other countries, such as two 1952 films from Argentina, Never Open That Door and If I Die Before I Wake (both screened at the festival). Other notable films include Kurosawa’s Drunken Angel (1948), Stray Dog (1949) and a Norwegian film titled Death is a Caress (above, 1949).
Muller ended by discussing some of the fine work being done by the Film Noir Foundation, especially in film restoration, and answered a few questions from the audience. I also got to meet Muller, speak with him briefly, and get him to sign a book for me. More on that and the screening of Woman on the Run (1950) next time.