Movies

The man who speaks film noir is on a mission

The newspaper noir “Shakedown” is one of 10 films being screened during the Noir City festival at the Brattle.
Universal Pictures
The newspaper noir “Shakedown” is one of 10 films being screened during the Noir City festival at the Brattle.
Paul Grandsard
Eddie Muller

The Brattle Theatre, which has long been nicknamed “Boston’s unofficial film school,” will host a renowned visiting lecturer: Eddie Muller, whose name is synonymous with the gritty genre known as film noir.

Fans of hard-boiled detectives, double-crossing gangsters, ex-cons, and gun molls know Muller as the nattily dressed host of the weekly “Noir Alley” screenings on TCM; as the author of seminal books such as “Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir”; and as the founder and president of the Film Noir Foundation (FNF), which finds and preserves classic films of the genre. A former reporter with The San Francisco Examiner, Muller has earned legions of fans for his informative film introductions that are rich with obscure bits of lore, delivered with his trademark command of the vernacular and poetry of the genre.

Muller will be at the Brattle June 8-10 introducing 10 films he’s selected specifically for the Boston debut of Noir City, the film festival he programs and hosts in cities across the country.

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“I believe film noir is the gateway drug to classic cinema,” says Muller over the phone from a Noir City event in Texas. “I’m programming for new audiences. I’m not doing it for the hardcore fans who know all these movies and want to argue about minutiae.”

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He says his Noir City screenings attract a surprising number of college-age viewers, who like that the films are “cynical, super-stylish, and smart-mouthed. If [younger audiences] are going to watch a black-and-white movie, it’s going to be film noir. I take that job seriously. What’s the point of saving these movies if you’re not regenerating an audience for them?”

For the Brattle, Muller has programed five double-features that pair a better-known, studio-made “A” noir like Stuart Heisler’s adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s “The Glass Key” (1942) starring Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake (screening on June 8) and Robert Siodmak’s “The Killers” (1946) with Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner (showing June 9), with a shorter, scrappier B picture, such as director Joseph Pevney’s tough newspaper noir “Shakedown” (1950) which closes the series June 10.

Universal Pictures
Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner in “The Killers.”

“I’m trying to make the series a brief weekend history of film noir and show some really obscure movies,” says Muller. “‘Street of Chance’ [from 1942, screening June 8] has been in limbo for years and it’s not easy to see. ‘Strangers in the Night’ [from 1944, screening June 9] I helped get restored a few years ago. It’s very early [work by director] Anthony Mann and it’s crazy. ‘So Dark the Night’ [from 1946, screening June 9] is noir character actor Steven Geray’s only starring role. I’ll talk about how much he loved it and loved playing a leading man.”

Ned Hinkle, the Brattle’s creative director, says bringing the Noir City festival to the Brattle has been a goal for many years and the timing finally worked. “Despite the Brattle’s extensive history with film noir, it seems like we’ve never screened a few of these titles including ‘Strangers in the Night,’ ‘The Guilty,’ and ‘Try and Get Me!’ all of which I’m looking forward to catching in restored 35mm prints from the UCLA Film and Television Archive,” he says. “Oh, and I’m also a sucker for Veronica Lake, so I’m excited to watch ‘The Glass Key’ again on the big screen.”

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John Reinhardt’s “The Guilty” (1948), based on a Cornell Woolrich story, and Cy Endfield’s “Try and Get Me!” (1950) are two of the FNF’s 35mm restorations in the program (both screen on June 10). Muller describes “Try and Get Me!” as a “very timely” indictment of media manipulation and vigilante violence. Abraham Polonsky’s 1948 directing debut, “Force of Evil” (June 10), starring John Garfield, is “a crucial movie for the time,” says Muller. “Besides how innovative it is, the film addresses the politics of the era and many participants in it were blacklisted.”

The Hollywood blacklist is an ongoing theme of Muller’s backstories; not surprising, since the postwar era was noir’s heyday and its subject matter is by definition dark and often nihilistic. Muller says that viewers occasionally tell him they’re not interested in the politics of the era, they just want to be entertained.

“That’s missing the whole point,” he says. “The politics of the time was a large reason that these films existed; the dread and the paranoia was what these people were living through and what inspired them.These movies were born of a tumultuous period in American history. They are still entertainment, but they came out of this turmoil.”

As a historian, Muller aims to provide context for noir’s brilliant, brutal, and often bitter stories. “Younger audiences are invariably responding to the style; they love the clothes, the language, how handsome the men are and how sexy the women are,” he says. “It doesn’t exist any more, so, to them, it’s a fantasyland. I’m always conscious of [pointing out] the reality beneath the fantasy. They were making these wonderful images that are immortal now but it wasn’t necessarily fun.”

Loren King can be reached at loren.king@comcast.net.