Noir City DC: AFI Silver’s Noir Film Festival. With an exclusive interview with host Eddie Muller
By Duran Aziz
The lights dimmed. The projector fired up. The picture settled in the frame. I was suddenly watching a film few have seen since it was first released in 1945.
For all Washington DC-area film fans, there is arguably no better place for cinema than the AFI Silver theater in Silver Spring, Maryland. Ever since I heard about the theater as a new film student, I have religiously attended their screenings of new independent films and retrospective showings of older classics. When the theater closed in March 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, there was a fear among the community that it would be permanently crippled in some way.
But the passion of DC cinephiles rang true. After a successful crowdfunding campaign, the theater finally reopened in May of this year. I went as soon as I could, and in the last few months I watched some new international films like Riders of Justice, The Woman who Ran, and Titane, as well as classics such as Shaft, Lawrence of Arabia, and my favorite film of all time, 8 ½.
When AFI announced they would once again be hosting Noir City DC, I knew I had to attend. Noir City is an annual film noir festival hosted by AFI Silver in collaboration with the Film Noir Foundation. The festival has screenings presented by Eddie Muller, founder and president of the foundation, who is most well-known as the host of TCM’s weekly show Noir Alley. Dubbed as “The Czar of Noir,” Muller has rightly earned his reputation as America’s leading figure in the restoration and study of film noir. His Film Noir Foundation restores and releases lost or hard-to-find noirs, giving them a new life for the next generation of cinephiles across the globe.
While Muller programs several film noir festivals every year, Noir City DC specifically has been running since 2008. Last year’s festival had to be online due to the COVID-19 lockdowns, though according to Muller and Todd Hitchcock, the director of programming at AFI Silver, despite this limitation it still was a moderate success.
I arrived on the second day of the festival. To my surprise, there was an intimidating line outside the box office. I couldn’t remember the last time I saw a line that long! I got my ticket and entered the beautiful art-deco auditorium to see the biggest crowd I have ever seen at AFI Silver, even when considering the countless times I attended prior to the lockdowns.
The film was Jealousy, a 1945 Republic Pictures B-noir directed by Czech filmmaker Gustav Machaty. Mr. Muller presented the film to us, an excited audience of noir fans from all walks of life. He noted that this film had not been digitized nor restored yet, and unfortunately there were no plans to do so at the moment. Due to this, the film was presented on 35mm. I cannot emphasize how grateful I am that AFI Silver has the capacity to show movies on film; this luxury is one only a handful of theaters around the world are able to have.
Jealousy’s plot isn’t particularly compelling. It is about a cab driver, Janet Urban (Jane Randolph) who is married to Czech immigrant Peter Urban (Nils Asther) and finds herself falling in love with a doctor played by John Loder. When Janet’s alcoholic husband suspects her of cheating, her life becomes a living hell. Janet’s situation becomes even more complicated once the audience learns that the good doctor’s colleague, Dr. Monica Anderson (Karen Morley), is also in love with the doctor, and she will stop at nothing to prevent Janet from getting with him.
But why Jealously is interesting has nothing to do with its plot. I agree with Mr. Muller that Machaty was much more of a poet than a storyteller. He said in his presentation that Machaty has absolutely no idea how to tell a story, and during the dialogue scenes, he completely “gives up” and “does not know what to do with the camera.” But the rest of the film amazingly shot. Machaty makes heavy use of Dutch angles and double exposure, especially in the film’s nightmarish opening scene. It depicts Los Angeles as this hectic place, with Jane Randolph’s draining voice narrating over the hellish montage. It’s such a strange film, and according to Muller, it captures this sense of alienation and anxiety that European filmmakers perfected far before the Americans.
Outside the auditorium, local DC bookstore Politics and Prose was selling copies of Muller’s newest book Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir. Muller had published a version of this book years ago but this 2021 edition features many more obscure gems from Muller’s journey through film noir. I had the pleasure of exchanging a few words with Mr. Muller while he signed my copy. I couldn’t help but ask him more about Jealousy and the strong impression it gave me.
He told me that Gustav Machaty was a Czech immigrant, like the Nils Asther character in his film. Jealousy’s Peter Urban was a famous writer in his home country but upon immigrating to America, he struggled to get anything published. This mirrored Machaty’s experience making films in Czechoslovakia versus in the United States. In his home country, Machaty gained fame and notoriety for directing boundary-pushing films such as Ecstasy, the 1933 film which many film scholars believe to be the first film to show a female orgasm. After coming to America however, Machaty was relegated to directing B movies, and after Jealousy, all he was able to do was lower-level contract work, like shooting test footage and pick-up shots. He ended up going back to Europe and became a film professor, teaching many of the filmmakers who eventually formed the Czech New Wave.
I saw many great films that day, including Shakedown and a surprise screening of an ultra-rare, recently restored film. Shakedown is about a photographer played by Howard Duff who will stop at nothing to get a sensational shot. Loosely modeled on photographer Arthur “Weegee” Fellig, the main character Jack Early is the most ruthless, amoral noir protagonist I have ever seen. His absolute relentlessness shocked me; it’s comparable to Jack Gyllenhaal’s character in the 2014 film Nightcrawler though I would argue that Duff’s performance here is much more disturbing especially in the context of the Hays Code restrictions. In his introduction, Eddie Muller mentioned that Kino Lorber will be releasing a Blu-ray of Shakedown soon; I look forward to rewatching this incredible movie once that happens.
For the die-hard noir fans in the audience, the day’s final showing must’ve been the highlight. Due to a dizzying web of legal reasons, this film although recently restored by the Film Noir Foundation, cannot be legally screened in North America. Therefore, the film was shown for free. Nevertheless, Muller pleaded with us not to disclose the film’s name for fear of legal consequence. Though I am dying to do so, out of respect for Mr. Muller and AFI I will not say what the film was, but I will say that it is the most requested film in the history of the Film Noir Foundation and Noir Alley. I do however, have a sneaking suspicion that Muller screened this film in order to pressure the rights holders into letting the foundation release the film, and if so, I hope this tactic is successful. This is an extremely unique film, and it needs the release it deserves.
Day 3 was the last day of screenings hosted by Mr. Muller. The highlight of the day was the 35mm screening the 1948 film Somewhere in the Night directed by Hollywood legend Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve, Sleuth, Cleopatra). This is a severely underrated film about a WWII veteran with amnesia who returns home and gets caught up in a nefarious criminal conspiracy. This compelling thriller is a great commentary on the postwar experience of returning soldiers, who experienced alienation from and confusion towards the new America they found themselves in. The film opens with a formally innovative point-of-view sequence, where the camera wanders around the room, mimicking the eye movements of the recently injured main character, George Taylor (John Hodiak). Hodiak superbly narrates this sequence of pure paranoia.
The final screening hosted by Eddie Muller was He Walked by Night. The 1948 film was based on the real crimes of Erwin “Machine-Gun” Walker, who terrorized Los Angeles with his 1945-6 crime spree. This film is notable due to its cinematography by film noir legend John Alton, who Muller credits as being a key figure in establishing the look of the noir genre. The film’s credited director is Alfred L. Werker, though apparently a good amount of it was ghost directed by Anthony Mann, most well-known for his Westerns with James Stewart like Winchester ’73 and Bend of the River. Though the extent of Mann’s contributions is unknown, Muller suspects that Mann was primarily responsible for the film’s explosive climax. This takes place in the murky L.A. sewer system, which is very reminiscent of the climax from Carol Reed’s The Third Man, despite He Walked by Night being released a year prior.
Attending this festival and seeing these films on glorious 35mm was nothing short of magical. The passion shared by the other attendees and festival organizers gave me a real sense that the medium I love so much was back. CloselyObservedFrames reached out to Mr. Muller who said that “advance sales indicate this will be the most well-attended [DC] noir festival ever.” Todd Hitchcock announced halfway through day 2 that AFI Silver had sold 1,000 tickets that day, a feat the theater hadn’t achieved since they reopened in May. Not even a global pandemic could kill the medium we love so deeply. To all DC-area film lovers, thank you for continuing to support one of the last bastions of cinema on the East Coast. The future of this art form depends on us.
Eddie Muller on the Noir City DC Festival
COF: Could you give me an overview of the Noir City D.C. Film Festival?
EM: We've been doing the festival with AFI Silver for thirteen years. It's one of eight Noir City festivals I do annually around the United States. This year I republished a revised and expanded edition of my book Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir, which is what inspired my initial foray into film festival programming more than twenty years ago. So, this year's program features many of the films I discuss in the book, which are emblematic of noir's themes and style.
COF: How did you get involved with the festival, and what has been the reaction to this year’s festival so far?
EM: Todd Hitchcock, the programmer at AFI Silver, with whom I've collaborated since the beginning here, said that advance sales indicate this will be the most well-attended noir festival ever, which is very gratifying. People are eager to get back to watching films in theaters, and it was wonderful to hear from so many people on the opening weekend that this is their first time back since COVID. The masking and vaccine requirements did not dampen anyone's enthusiasm. It was great to see so many people coming great distances to spend all day — five films in a row — in the theater.
COF: What are some of your favorite film noirs?
EM: I have favorites, sure — In a Lonely Place, Criss Cross, The Asphalt Jungle — but these days my favorites are the obscure movies that I know most viewers have never seen, things like City That Never Sleeps, Jealousy, and The Velvet Touch, which were new to most attendees and very well-received. I enjoy unearthing these lesser-known films and bringing them to light. Guess you could say I'm a noircheologist.
Noir City DC plays from October 15th-28th. Film historian Foster Hirsch will host screenings from October 22nd-24th. To view the festival’s full slate, go to https://silver.afi.com/Browsing/EventsAndExperiences/EventDetails/0000000010.
About the writer
In 2021, Duran received a Bachelor's of Arts from the University of Maryland in Cinema & Media Studies and English. He currently writes freelance with hopes of becoming a film studies academic. Follow his work at https://duranaziz.wordpress.com/ and contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.