The Celluloid Gumshoe
Eddie Muller has dedicated his life to finding, restoring, and re-releasing lost films of the great Film Noir era of the 1940s and ’50s. His goal: the preservation of our cinematic history, well beyond film noir.
By BARBARA TANNENBAUM
When Eddie Muller opened his email one day in 2012, he found an odd and brief message asking for his home phone number. He answered in one word: “Why?” The reply: “Fed-Ex requires it. I’m sending a check.”
The next day, Muller received a $10,000 donation to the non-profit Muller founded to rescue and preserve the old film noirs of the mid-20th century. Muller promptly called the guy, Joseph K. McLaughlin, inviting him to dinner when his next “Noir City” film festival rolled into the donor’s neighborhood, in Silver Springs, Maryland. Muller recalls standing in the lobby of the AFI Silver Theater as a lanky, silver-haired gentleman approached him. Without a word, the man pulled out an envelope from his suit pocket with another large check and stuffed it into Muller’s startled hands.
“For once, I didn’t do my advance work,” Muller admits. Over dinner, he couldn’t find a way to redirect the conversation. The donor raved on about Muller’s career. He’d read every one of his books on the film noir genre, listened to each DVD commentary.
“Stop,” says Muller, who gets embarrassed when the spotlight turns on him. “It’s not like I’m curing cancer.”
“No,” McLaughlin replied. “That’s what I do.”
As it turned out, Joe McLaughlin was a scientist who directed research at the Institute of Epidemiology. “At the end of the day, he just wanted to relax with these films,” Muller says. “He found comfort in these anti-myths, the flip side of happily ever-after.” McLaughlin soon became a board member for Muller’s organization, the Film Noir Foundation. Before he died in 2014, the good doctor donated more than $78,000 to its cause. His widow asked Muller to speak at McLaughlin’s funeral, and now continues her late husband’s philanthropic donations.
The appeal of film noir, Muller says, is that it “captures our brilliance at exactly the moment when we lost our innocence. When we asked, ‘whoa—what are we doing this for?’”
What could there possibly be in these old noir films that so possessed a busy epidemiologist like McLaughlin? And why is Muller so determined to chase down those that have been lost? To Muller, the reason is as plain as a corner streetlight on a dark night. “These noir films represent the apex of American culture,” he says.
As a genre, critics coined the term “noir” (French for black) to describe the outlook of hard-boiled detective novels that were first published in the late 1930s. When adopted by Hollywood, the genre was marked by its stark black-and-white look and low-budget production values. The Maltese Falcon starring Humphrey Bogart in 1941 is said to be Hollywood’s first noir, Orson Wells’ Touch of Evil from 1958 the last.
Some film critics have expanded the canon to include German and French films made before World War II, and occasionally squeeze in a few titles from the 1960s. Whatever your definition, what unifies the group is a point Muller articulates in his first book, “Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir,” written in 1998.
The genre, he wrote, “expresses the unfinished business from the Great Depression.” It voices “the cynicism of a generation” that hadn’t been allowed to spin tales with unhappy endings until that era’s economic deprivation and wartime horror had safely receded in the rear-view mirror. The noir films that arose to make sense of that moment, Muller argues, “capture our brilliance at exactly the moment when we lost our innocence. When we asked, ‘whoa—what are we doing this for?’”
As the youngest of four kids raised in San Francisco in a Catholic household, Muller stumbled across noir while cutting school to watch television, and thus escape the nuns. The first film that captivated him was Thieves’ Highway, a 1949 noir set in the city’s old produce market, long since bulldozed to create the Embarcadero Center’s shops and high-rise offices. As luck would have it, many of the best films noir were based in Muller’s hometown. This was partly because one of the genre’s premier writers, Dashiell Hammett, took up residence in San Francisco, but it was also because the city provided the perfect setting. Its foggy nights, as one reviewer put it, gave the city a “reputation as a shadowy land of easy vice and hard virtue.”
As soon as he saw Thieves’ Highway, Muller felt a visceral connection to the blue-collar world of his father, Edward “Eddie” Muller, a popular sports writer who had covered boxing for the San Francisco Examiner. “I came to realize that film, though fictional, imparts our sense of history,” Muller says.
Years later, after dropping out of art school, Muller was knocking about as a freelance journalist and graphic artist writing what would eventually become “Dark City.” The book led to an invitation from the American Cinematheque for Muller to program a noir festival at Hollywood’s Egyptian Theater, a 1922 classic movie house inspired by the discovery that year of King Tut’s tomb. Muller accepted, then followed up with two more books. “Dark City Dames” in 2001 profiled six surviving femmes fatales, and 2002’s “The Art of Noir” explored the mix of women, longing, fate, and fashion that infuses noir with its timeless whiff.
I remember the first time I met Muller, at a Noir City Festival in 2003 in San Francisco, one of many now staged across the country by his audacious non-profit, the Film Noir Foundation (FNF). In film after film, no matter which story unspooled before the packed auditorium, I felt transported by the luminous quality of those black and white images. Here was a highly stylized corner of post-war America, where the stories of dames and chumps, their crimes and betrayals, coalesced to make a bygone era of cars, clothes, and neon-drenched streetscapes breathe with life.
Despite such enduring qualities, most films don’t survive physically. Scholars estimate that 90 percent of all silent films made before 1929 are lost and 50 percent of sound films made before 1950 are gone, too.
One reason is that the old celluloid, made with a base of silver nitrate, was extremely flammable. The film posed such danger that when Kodak rushed a new type of film stock to market, several studios and processing labs dumped their nitrate reels into a landfill or the ocean, taking care to first scrape off its valuable coating of silver. That any films from this era survive is a testament to luck, accident, and the forward-thinking efforts of a select group of archivists and fans—in other words, fanatics like Muller.
To learn why so many old film classics are hard to find, I arranged to meet Muller at his home. Muller now lives, with his wife, Kathleen Milne, on a quiet, tree-lined street in Alameda, California—an island on the San Francisco Bay that is one part quaint suburbia and one part naval base.
When I arrive, Muller escorts me to his upstairs office, passing through rooms filled with vintage furniture and framed movie posters. He clears his desk, placing his laptop on a nearby podium where the tall writer (6′ 1″) works. The screen is open to a time-stamped version of 1948’s Cry of the City. The source material for his commentary—a pulp paperback, “The Chair for Martin Rome”—sits on his desk.
As we settle in, I ask about those “lost films.” Movies, it would appear, are everywhere. Like popcorn, there’s a never-ending supply. If we’ve missed something in the theater, hasn’t it been on television, sold on tape or DVD, or sent streaming on the latest device? Given all this redundancy, how could a title ever get lost?
Leaning back in his swivel chair, Muller says, “I’m interested in those noir titles that slipped between the cracks of studio protection. The majority were independently produced movies.” The timing of noir’s heyday, he explains, coincided with an economic punch that changed the industry’s marketplace, creating one of the first niches for “indie films.”
The door cracked open in 1948, with a Supreme Court antitrust ruling known as the Paramount consent decree. That ruling forced the studios (which made the product) to sell off their theaters (which exhibited the product). “Harry Cohn, Columbia’s head, used to say that making pictures wasn’t a business—it was a racket,” Muller laughs. “He wasn’t kidding.”
Over the following years, the “Big Five” studios (MGM, Paramount, 20th Century Fox, Warner Brothers, and RKO) tried their best to weather the loss of their vertical monopolies. And the “Little Three” (Universal, Columbia, and United Artists) struggled without their mega-market’s revenue. Then, in the early fifties, came television. With audiences staying home, movie executives tried anything to hold onto their audiences. They produced movies using ultra-widescreen formats like Cinemascope and VistaVision, Smell-O-Vision (with cardboard scratch-and sniff handouts), even brief alliances with independent production companies.
Muller stands up, and grabs a few reissued DVDs off his bookshelf. “Let me give you an example,” he says, pulling out a 1950 film called Woman on the Run. Directed by a protégé of Orson Welles named Norman Foster, the film tells the story of a husband gone missing after witnessing a murder, and his wife’s efforts to find him. “Anything that could happen to make film disappear did happen to Woman on the Run,” Muller says.
I remembered this film—I’d seen it at the Noir City festival launch in 2003. I was moved by the way it took us through San Francisco’s old dockyards, Chinatown, Playland at the Beach, and Telegraph Hill—all quintessential city locations, some now gone forever.
The film, Muller believes, was ahead of its time. Aimed at a post-war female audience and produced by a woman, Ann Sheridan (without onscreen credit, as was common in that era), the movie flopped. “In 1967, Ann Sheridan died young—only 51.” Muller leans forward, shaking his head. “The director died in 1976. The producer passed away in 1980. There’s no one left making sure the distributor, Universal, was protecting the celluloid reels.” Muller rises to his feet, his raspy voice suddenly solemn. “Instead, Woman on the Run was completely forgotten.”
Luckily, one day in the mid 1990s, when a young Eddie Muller was scouting video rental stores for book research, he came upon a bootleg VHS tape of Woman on the Run. When Muller took it home, he discovered that it was a dreadful copy—taped off television with a muddy soundtrack, scratched visuals, and washed-out contrast settings. Because of this, Muller left the film out of his first book—a decision, he says, that “I sorely regret.” But its story stuck with him.
If you ever watched old movies on VHS, those scratchy treatments are what you often saw. They were often made from “television prints”—quickie reproductions that were produced en masse because that’s where the money was in television’s early days. Eric Hoyt, writing in “Hollywood Vault: Film Libraries Before Home Video,” notes that between 1956 and 1961, Warner Brothers never made more than $1.4 million from reissuing old films in theaters; yet the studio earned in excess of $57 million from television income. This is undoubtedly why, in 1958, the three Warner brothers (Harry, Jack, Sam, and Albert) sold their film library to television broadcasters. By 1964, every film studio had sold off its back catalogue.
Before doing so, however, in an effort to keep control of their assets, the studios transferred their original 35mm prints onto inferior 16mm versions, without taking measures to hide scratches or blemishes. Sometimes the studios changed the film’s contrast settings because early TV sets couldn’t register gradations of dark lighting. Those darker gray tones appeared deeply black, a process called “bleeding out.” With noir especially, studios reset dark images to not overpower the early TVs’ tiny cathode screens.
In the process, the film packagers made broadcasters “eat the dog”—that is, buy mixed bags of everything: classics, unusable films, B-flick dregs, and stock footage, almost all of which got chopped to fit commercial time slots. These substandard versions often were the ones that made it onto the VHS tapes that proliferated during the rise of the multiplex era in the 1980s and 1990s.
Meanwhile, the number of screen-able prints was dropping. “Those automated projection booths didn’t help,” says Anita Monga, the artistic director of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. “Untrained kids spliced reels onto one giant platter, hit start, and left the room. You wouldn’t know if dirt or grime stuck in the gate scratched a film to ruin until you played it again.”
In a certain way, Monga discovered Muller. Back in 2002, she recalls, an old college friend and crime-fiction writer named David Corbett “kept haranguing me about this great guy who had all these great ideas for a festival.” Monga’s response: “Let’s bring him to the Castro” (a magnificent theater that, like The Egyptian, was built in 1922, and still accompanies movies with its massive Wurlitzer pipe organ). Monga eventually joined Muller’s Film Noir Foundation, and soon found herself driving to Los Angeles with Muller once a year to meet with studio executives in search of lost treasures.
To understand what these two film fanatics were looking for, I made my own trip to Los Angeles. My target was the organization that has become Muller’s primary collaborator: the UCLA Film & Television Archive, which is now housed in a vast, Greek-styled building in Santa Clarita, 30 miles north of Burbank Airport. The archive is the second largest in the U.S., storing more than 350,000 titles. Only the Library of Congress holds more films and videos.
Forty-five technical staffers work in this facility. Built by the Packard Humanities Institute, it goes by the name PHI Stoa. Todd Wiener, UCLA’s motion picture archivist and another council member in Muller’s foundation, escorts me through the expansive interior, which is modeled after a 15th-century monastery. “David Packard wanted to highlight our connection with monks and ancient scholars who rescued lost manuscripts,” he says. A wall in Wiener’s office is covered with Doris Day movie posters. “But I brought the joy,” he laughs.
We are soon joined by Edward Richmond, a wiry, professorial man who is the operation’s head curator. My tour starts in the “Preservationist Workroom,” which sits at one end of a long, high-ceilinged hallway. “Our job is like assembling a jigsaw puzzle,” Wiener says. At one end of the room, he points out a set of silver air filtration tubes over a workbench, an eye wash station, and two exit doors—all of which, I soon learn, are vital safety measures in this kind of work.
In the old days, film was made with nitrocellulose, a highly flammable product that contains nitrate and was sold by Kodak. It was pulled from the market in 1950—right at the mid-point of classic noir film production. How dangerous is it? One Friday night, an employee at UCLA’s old facility, Hollywood’s Technicolor Building, left the light on with an open canister nearby. During the warm weekend, the reel burst into flames. Although the sprinklers immediately sprang into action, “nitrate fires generate oxygen as they burn,” Richmond says. All that was left was a tin of brown powder.
At one point, Wiener pulls out a large, round film canister from a freestanding metal shelf. A canister like this can hold a thousand feet of celluloid—good for a mere 8 to 10 minutes of screen time. “These reels,” Wiener explains, “are called ‘preservation elements.'” The ideal elements are the earliest negatives the studio made—the ones used to manufacture copies for theatrical distribution. The next best are the first copies, called “fine-grain” prints. These are the first positives made from the original negative. If they can’t find either of these, they look for the best duplicates they can find—ideally, some kind of early generation that the studio labs produced on special stock to preserve clarity.
Both Wiener and Muller find these elements by searching databases, talking to commercial labs going out of business, and hearing from private collectors. Some turn up through dumb luck, discovered by people in the midst of a home remodel who stumble on basement treasures. In one instance, they turned up a remarkable find from a projectionist in Washington state who had an unusual method of storing nitrate films. He poured motor oil in his canisters and buried them in the dirt. “I don’t know how he thought of this,” Wiener says. “His relatives discovered the cache and donated the material. We had to clean each frame, but it was beautifully preserved.”
Once a full set of elements has been assembled, in assorted stages of originality, a technician checks for visual and sound quality on an old, analog machine called a Steenbeck. The console looks like the control panel in an airplane’s cockpit with side-by-side video monitors. The machine, Richmond says, “lets us compare two versions of the same film, shot by shot.” If, say, only 200 feet of reel number three is damaged, a technician can then find the same segment on another reel, reprint it, then stitch it into a new negative.
After the whole film is assembled, it’s time to repair the damage. We walk to another room, where preservationists are examining each reel for tears, broken splices, or holes, which they fix with glue or cement. In one corner, Sharol Olson, a straight-talking lab technician, is standing near another massive console called the Hazeltine. “I’m the color timer,” she says, taking a seat in front of the take-up reels and another video monitor. Using hand controls to mark settings on a paper tape, Olson calibrates printer settings for the amount of light needed for each different camera set-up. In the old days, this job was a standard part of film production; unfortunately, those settings were rarely saved and must be recalculated the first time a reel is reprinted. “We want the film to have a clear, rich tone,” Olson says. “I try to recreate the director’s original intentions.”
Next, after a chemical bath to remove dust, oil, and particulates, the repaired reels move to Dave Tucker, who operates an Oxberry optical printer, yet another gargantuan machine. The Oxberry is almost steam-punk with its myriad glass gauges and tubing. Tucker uses it for celluloid that is warped, suffering from shrinkage, or afflicted with “vinegar syndrome,” a form of decay that attacks celluloid made from acetate.
Acetate celluloid was created by Kodak in 1950—and marketed at the time as “safety film” when the company was scrambling to replace nitrate. Alas, it too had its shortcomings—a hard plastic base, which can turn sticky or gummy. When this happens, the images laid onto the celluloid peel back like a wet scab. “That’s when I baby the print through the machine,” Tucker says.
Vinegar syndrome is a reviled pestilence in the film world. It spreads so easily that any piece of film infected with it has to be quarantined. To avoid this, film studios constructed underground humidity- and temperature-controlled vaults. For extra safety, they sent copies to other vaults that were geographically dispersed, such as those run by the information security firm Iron Mountain in Oklahoma and Kansas City.
On this particular day in Santa Clarita, the staff is gathering in a screening room to evaluate their restoration of The Black Vampire, a 1953 Argentinean noir classic inspired by Fritz Lang’s famous movie, M. Eddie Muller discovered the film on a trip to Buenos Aires, after meeting the Museum of Latin American Art’s film curator, Fernando Péna.
“There is no long-term mechanism to hold digital data,” says UCLA’s head film preservationist, referring to the format for today’s films. The storage media, he says, was designed for bankers who don’t want it to survive beyond legal requirements. “As an industry wag once said, ‘digital formats will last forever or five years—whichever comes first.’”
“The original negative was hanging on by a thread,” recalls Scott MacQueen, UCLA’s head preservationist. “The lab could barely get it through their printer, it was so gummy and sticky. Eddie saw the artistry within the 16mm version, and brought it to our attention.” Sure enough, as the camera takes us through the cosmopolitan streets of Buenos Aires before plunging into its underground sewers, the image sometimes seems to jitter, and black dots occasionally appear, then scatter.
“That’s the damage from vinegar syndrome,” says MacQueen. If they can raise the money for a full restoration, MacQueen and his team plan to digitally scan the problem scenes, remove the spots with a software program, and then export the file to special equipment that prints out to celluloid.
Ironically, celluloid had a chance to avoid these vulnerabilities. In 1988, Kodak came out with a film stock made of polyester that appeared to be truly durable. “It was an answer to our prayers,” says MacQueen. “Polyester 35mm can sit in good, passive storage for hundreds of years and be reliable for future generations.” Unfortunately, Kodak’s timing could not have been worse. Polyester film would soon be muscled out by the rise of digital technology.
Everyone I spoke with admitted digital’s convenience. It makes distribution quick, and inexpensive. And new software tools can erase blemishes, damage, and reverse discoloration with ease. As an archival medium, however, digital falls woefully short. “Digital formats have a fragility that many don’t understand and others don’t want to talk about,” says MacQueen. “It is not an archival format. Not yet. And that’s the industry’s dirty secret.”
No kidding. While vinegar syndrome at least emits a warning order, digital files crash without notice. When they do, the entire file—not just a segment—is corrupted. And that seductive cost equation cuts both ways. In the long term, archiving digital content can end up being quite expensive, as institutions struggle to migrate these materials over to the next whiz-bang format.
“There is no long-term mechanism to hold digital data,” MacQueen adds. “Off-line storage media like LTO tapes and DAT were created for bankers whose legal storage requirements are seven years. After that, they don’t want it to survive—it could encourage litigation and subpoena of records. As an industry wag once said, ‘digital formats will last forever or five years—whichever comes first.’”
As his search for Woman on the Run continued, Muller kept describing the film to his widening circle of contacts. One day, he got a lucky phone call. A fellow programmer in Los Angeles had been searching through production files at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, and she stumbled on a distribution agreement between Woman on the Run’s producer and Universal Pictures.
“Universal was legally required to keep an archival print!,” Muller exclaimed, recalling that phone call. Yet it still didn’t turn up in the studio’s database. Anita Monga called her contact at Universal and described the legal memos they’d found. A week later, her contact called back. “He’d actually gone down the stairs and into the vault. That’s not something everybody did,” Monga says with a laugh. The film’s fresh, unopened cans were tucked away in another building, stored under the radar. Then came another turn of bum luck. “It had fallen out of copyright,” Monga says. “Universal didn’t hold the legal right to show it.”
Enthralled with his new lead, Muller began searching for the copyright holder, starting with a phone number on the film’s canister. “Disconnected, of course, to a lawyer’s office in Beverly Hills,” Monga says. Like any good gumshoe, Muller then hired some hit men—a team of copyright detectives. Their specialty: delving into U.S. Patent and Copyright databases to find owners and their next-of-kin.
But no one turned up. So a compromise was reached. Muller got the rights to show the film; in exchange, he signed a “quit-claim” deed protecting Universal from financial liability if an owner surfaced demanding compensation. “I signed it happily,” he grins. “No one’s ever sued me.”
A happy ending, right? Not so fast—this is Noir City.
“Remember the 2008 fire at Universal Studios?” Muller asks. As coincidence would have it, Muller and Monga were in a meeting with Universal executives the previous day. “We knew there was only one print,” Muller says. “We suggested storing it at UCLA’s film archive. And they probably would have gotten around to doing that.” As Muller and Monga were driving north on the freeway, they saw a plume of black smoke. Sure enough, Muller’s hunch was right. Woman on the Run was on the wrong shelf at the wrong time. The film burned to a crisp.
Muller was plenty discouraged, but he wasn’t beaten. There’s always another lead, another trail. So many donations pour into archives, there is always a backlog the staff hasn’t entered into the database. Often, a title may seem lost but isn’t, says Wiener. “It may be that a copy is finally discovered in New Zealand or Australia.”
That is exactly how Muller stumbled on another print of Woman on the Run. During a London trip in 2012, Muller paid a visit to his contact at the British Film Institute, Nigel Alger. Over drinks at a nearby pub, Alger asked Muller if he’d be interested in beta-testing BFI’s new database. “Password in hand, I get back to my hotel room and flipped open my laptop,” Muller says. “First thing I type is ‘woman on the run.’ And there it was.”
Muller immediately reached out to UCLA. Its archivists borrowed the newly discovered copy from BFI, then plunged into some restorative work on the film’s images and to fix a damaged soundtrack. In 2015, Muller unveiled a brand new 35mm version of Woman on the Run at two Noir City festivals, in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Meanwhile, Muller and Monga continued to persuade studio executives to strike new prints of old classics. Doing so, however, has been expensive—$5,000 to $15,000, just to make a new, wet-gate print; full restorations by UCLA can run $50,000 to $85,000 apiece. No problem, Muller and Monga argued—those expenses can be recouped from booking receipts on the Noir City circuit. Surprisingly, that strategy often worked. Thanks to Muller’s efforts (and his festival revenues), Hollywood studios have returned seven noir titles to circulation. And Muller’s Film Noir Foundation has funded the reprint of 15 more.
Equally important, young people now flock to see these classics at Noir City festivals. “They get it,” Muller argues. “Sure, they’ll laugh. There are corny, outdated parts. Some of that’s nerves, like hearing your parents talk about sex.” He shakes his head. “I refuse to believe that’s grounds for dismissing a whole film. And if the movie’s powerful, it has a lasting impact.” Noir City has now grown into a full-fledged circuit, with programs pulling up in Portland, Seattle, Kansas City, Austin, Chicago, Detroit, and Washington, DC. and more cities begging to be added to the roster.
So what’s more important—preserving noir’s storytelling style or saving the original films? For his part, Muller favors the film, with a little wiggle room.
“My communion is with the artist who made that film,” he says. “Any significance for contemporary audiences comes after that.” He admits, however, that his greatest thrill comes from standing in the back of theater, watching the noirs. “I don’t mean to be mawkish, but when I introduce Woman on the Run, I always dedicate it to Ann Sheridan. She knew she’d made something really good. But she never got to see it with a full house. I feel the audience react, see? That’s when I tell her: ‘Your film still plays.'”