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Gettin' Drunk With: Eddie Muller, the Czar of Noir 

Wednesday, Jan 20 2016
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Not surprisingly, Eddie Muller, founder and president of the Film Noir Foundation and a man seldom seen without a pocket square, drinks bourbon neat.

"I'm drinking Bulleit because they didn't have Four Roses," he says when I meet him at the Ha-Ra Club on Geary Street. Muller chose this renovated Tenderloin dive, founded by a wrestler and a boxer named Harry and Ray, respectively, because its personal history is tied up with his own. A sepia photo on the wall shows a guy named Pat Valentino, who was a pallbearer at the funeral for Muller's father (a former sportswriter for the San Francisco Examiner). And Muller was acquainted with an erudite, cantankerous Ha-Ra bartender named Carl Kickery.

"He was a crusty fuck," Muller says. "One night he was like, 'You read this? You read that?' and went through five books I hadn't read. He said, 'What's the matter with you? Wait here. Hold the bar.' And he left. He was the only one here and he went to his apartment, so I was the bartender for the 30 minutes he was gone. I've been a bartender, so it wasn't a huge deal, but he decided it was more important to get me those books than to maintain the bar. Carl was a character. He moved to Cambodia."

Muller is a bartender to this day, as it turns out, having built his own "art-directed" Polynesian cocktail lounge in the un-winterized garage at the end of his driveway. (That's all he will divulge about where he lives.) It's full of memorabilia, and Tab Hunter and James Ellroy have been by for a drink, but don't expect him to screen films in there.

"No way. No TVs in this place," he says, adding, "I hate TVs in bars, although I do kind of have one eye on the Warriors game."

This year's Noir City film festival includes an Argentine film from 1956, Los Tallos Amargos ("the bitter stems"), that was once thought lost. Muller considers the tale of an embezzler who accepts a short prison sentence in order to live off the money once he's free to be one of the best noir films he's seen.

"The screenplay's great, the protagonist is a classic noir character, the cinematography is unbelievable," he says. "I'm really psyched about unleashing this on an unsuspecting public."

The film's resurrection is a long story, and tied to one of the most famous rediscoveries in cinematic history: the original cut of Fritz Lang's Metropolis. Found in a vault in Buenos Aires' Museo del Cine after a 20-year search, the 180-minute version of Metropolis exists only because some long-dead Argentine cinephile defied an order from Lang's studio to return it. Muller met the surviving principals in that drama via the Canadian director Guy Maddin, and now the Castro Theatre will present Los Tallos Amargos on Saturday, Jan. 23, as part of Noir City 14. Then it hits the circuit, as Muller's beloved homegrown festival has expanded to eight others of varying lengths — not including one-off screenings around the country.

"I love the fact that we're showing it here first," Muller says. "San Francisco is ahead of the MOMA [in New York]. That's very important to me."

Muller's entire line of work consists of restoring and preserving lost films, screening them at festivals to expose the public to the genre, and plowing the proceeds back into the restoration work to furnish material for more screenings. Consequently, Noir City has grown. It won't necessarily sell out all 13 double features at the 1,408-seat Castro, but the fact that the theater screens films on a Monday and Tuesday is a testament to the festival's fan base. Noir's mystique — from the '30s Packards to the neon to the endless smoking to the fact that nobody on-screen seems to finish their drinks — is irresistible. Is it because the genre captures a vanished era, or is it inherent?

"I think what people love about the films is that it's next to impossible to recreate this today," Muller says. "That level of cinematography is not being done... A lot has to do with something in the culture that began to prefer naturalism, whatever that means. Naturalism in movies is as fake as anything else, but for some reason, people became much more comfortable with it. It always cracks me up when people say, 'Oh, noir is those gritty, real, true-life dramas.' Noir is archly theatrical. These films are telling you a story not as it happens, but as you might remember it."

And this city — from Dashiell Hammett Street to the Art Deco house on Telegraph Hill, where Lauren Bacall takes escaped con Humphrey Bogart in Dark Passage — is a noir city indeed. Does Muller have a favorite film shot in San Francisco?

"Woman on the Run," he says, referring to the 1950 crime caper. "Because I restored it. I found it and I restored it. It's my baby now."

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About The Author

Peter Lawrence Kane

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Peter Lawrence Kane is SF Weekly's Arts Editor. He has lived in San Francisco since 2008 and is two-thirds the way toward his goal of visiting all 59 national parks.

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