"From the dim recesses of cocktail lounges they beckoned, shimmering like irresistible lures. They gazed at the city's twinkling panorama from a kingpin's penthouse, plotting sweet revenge. They fled posh hotels, valises full of silky nothings smothering a still warm pistol. In dozens of brooding crime dramas ... they routinely proved the equals of men they challenged: equally tempted, equally compromised, every bit as guilty. Film noir is where Pollyanna went after payback." -- Eddie Muller, "Dark City Dames: The Wicked Women of Film Noir" (2001)
ALAMEDA -- Alameda's very own noir impresario, Eddie Muller, once described film noir as the "vivid co-mingling of lost innocence, doomed romanticism, hard-edged cynicism, desperate desire and shadowy sexuality."
That provocative brew and the genre's heightened visual style have proved irresistible to audiences who regularly pack sold-out houses for Muller's popular Noir City festival, where attendees often come attired in cocktail dresses and fedoras.
"Noir City 12: It's a Bitter Little World," a 27-film, 10-day event that injects an international theme into the mix, gets under way Jan. 24 at San Francisco's Castro Theatre.
Versions of the series play in Seattle, Los Angeles, Portland, Austin, Texas, Washington, D.C., Chicago, and Paris, where a recent program of 40 films ran for two months.
"In France, they do things big," Muller said. "They take food, wine and noir very seriously over there. One of the badges of honor I wear most proudly is that the French, who pride themselves on being great cinephiles, have totally accepted me and said, 'This guy's for real.' "
When he's not globe-trotting, making the rounds of the festival circuit or journeying to Argentina to retrieve rare films never seen outside their native country, Muller lives and works in the elegant craftsman home on the border of Alameda's Gold Coast that he has shared with his wife for more than 20 years.
A self-described "second-generation San Franciscan, product of a lousy public school education, a couple of crazy years in art school and too much time spent in newspaper offices and sporting arenas," Muller is a charming raconteur, onstage and off, and an entertaining, witty and marvelously fluent commentator; no less a literary figure than crime fiction writer James Ellroy christened him "The Czar of Noir."
"He's a born showman," said San Francisco Chronicle movie correspondent Ruthe Stein. "In an earlier time, he would have been organizing the vaudeville acts and introducing them. I love his larger-than-life persona at the festival, and I think audiences really get a kick out of him."
Despite his comfort in front of a crowd, Muller, a novelist and former journalist, considers himself a writer first. He's the author of eight books including "Grindhouse: The Forbidden World of 'Adults Only' Cinema" (1996), "Dark City Dames: The Wicked Women of Film Noir" (2001), and "Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star" (2005). But it was his volume "Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir" (1998) that helped Muller build a small empire around his passion for the dark, hard-bitten movies that peaked in Hollywood between 1944 and 1955.
"People who ran repertory cinemas invited me to program festivals based on that book, and that's what changed everything," he recalled. "The success of those festivals, first in L.A. at the Egyptian Theatre, and then in San Francisco, is how this whole thing exploded."
The phenomenon has continued for 15 years and the public's enthusiasm shows no signs of abating.
"They love the older movies because they represent the height of American style," Muller explained. "In terms of the cinematography, the wardrobe, the automobiles, the nightclubs and music -- that was America at its zenith, and it has been downhill ever since."
Though he's the founder of the Noir City Foundation, which finds, restores and preserves damaged or forgotten gems, and he's always on the hunt, one wonders how he manages to unearth fresh noirs each year.
"I don't think we're going to find another lost 'Out of the Past' or 'Citizen Kane' out there," Muller conceded. "But there's a lot outside this country we haven't seen. For this year's festival, I focused on what everyone perceives as the core classic film noir era, which is immediate postwar through the early 1950s, and tried to find as many examples of noir in various parts of the world as I could. We have films from Mexico, Japan, France, Germany, South America, and we even have one directed by a woman that's Norway's answer to 'The Postman Always Rings Twice.'"
"Eddie is not only an iconic personality, he's a film scholar and a great writer with a keen eye for rare and unique cinema that he has the skills to chase down," noted Castro Theatre programmer Keith Arnold. "We're lucky to witness his wonderful obsession."
At an age when most people are contemplating retirement, Muller's dance card is full. Turner Classic Movies (TCM) has offered him a three-year contract to join the network's on-air commentary team; he's finishing up "Left Hook," the third novel of a boxing trilogy whose protagonist is based on his late father, a well-known sportswriter for the San Francisco Examiner; he just completed a 220-page tome on "Gun Crazy" that was published in France last month; and a revised, expanded edition of "Dark City," the book that started it all, is due out later this year.
"It's like I'm living my own detective story," Muller reflected. "When I started, it was about shameless self-promotion -- look at me, read my book -- but that has been upstaged by the fulfillment that comes from discovering something lost or unknown, restoring it and having a way to put it back out to the public in such a grand and exciting way. It's pretty fantastic. But what has been the most gratifying is the incredible number of people I've encountered around the world who share this passion. That's what keeps me going."
What: Eddie Muller's "Noir City 12: It's a Bitter Little World"
When: Jan. 24 to Feb. 2 at the Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St., San Francisco
Muller's favorite film
Muller's favorite film is "In a Lonely Place," starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Graham.
"It's about a writer and it's from the peak of that period I'm so fascinated with," he said. "It was made in 1950, which in my estimation is the best year for movies ever. 1950 is 'Sunset Boulevard,' 'All About Eve,' 'Gun Crazy,' 'Born Yesterday,' and 'Asphalt Jungle.' It's based on a book adapted by Nicholas Ray and it's perfectly directed. It just speaks to me."