with Eddie Muller:
The 'Czar of Noir' Talks Music and Film with SFJAZZ
co-curator of the Jazz/Noir
Film Festival, taking place May 19-21 at the
Balboa Theater, author Eddie Muller is the man behind the
annual San Francisco NOIR CITY film festival, as well as the
founder of the Film Noir Foundation, a non-profit dedicated
to "rescuing and restoring America's noir heritage."
In May, he'll be hosting the Jazz/Noir evening screenings,
and also presenting "A
Night in Noir City," featuring Charlie Haden's Quartet
West in a benefit concert for the Film Noir Foundation.
conducted the following interview with Eddie Muller earlier
As the title of this festival lets on, all six of these Noir
classics from the late '50s have something to do with the
jazz of the day. What does film noir have in common with jazz?
A: It's fascinating
that jazz and noir have become synonymous, because there are
no movies from the classic noir era (roughly 1944-1952) that
have a jazz score. Orchestral scores in the classical European
tradition are predominant. Jazz appeared within the films,
however, typically in nightclubs, a setting that's vital to
these movies -- it's where the players in the urban American
demimonde intersect, and jazz is the sound they swing to.
In the forties, jazz in films was representative of two things:
sex and the underworld. And both, of course, are essential
to film noir.
Q: Are there any threads you see connecting this particular
half-dozen films and their soundtracks?
A: They're all
from the 1950s, when cultural changes and studio economics
led to jazz being accepted, on a somewhat experimental basis,
as viable for film scores. Jazz is an essential component
of the films in this series, rather than being used to define
one aspect of the mise en scene. As a group, these films disprove
that jazz is ill-suited for film scores because of its improvisational
nature. Miles Davis's score for Elevator to the Gallows
is largely improvised, but Ellington's score for Anatomy
of a Murder and John Lewis's "third stream"
score for Odds Against Tomorrow are tightly-composed.
In general, and in these films specifically, jazz is used
to evoke a mood rather than to manipulate the audience to
feel a certain emotion. It takes confident directors to do
Q: And now, a true 21st-century question: Why should
I go to the Balboa Theater to see these films instead of staying
at home to watch them on DVD?
A: Movies are
society's communal subconscious. We sit together, the lights
go down, we share a common dream-state. We may all interpret
the dream differently, but seeing a movie in a public venue
is as close as we can get to a temporarily shared consciousness.
It's an experience. When was the last time you heard somebody
say they had an "experience" watching a DVD? Also,
I'll be introducing the evening shows, and providing some
context. So I guess I'm like the "special feature"
on the DVD.
Q: This festival is focusing on jazz in the cinema,
but your own Film Noir Foundation is about to present a concert
of live jazz—specifically, Charlie Haden's Quartet West—called
Night in Noir City." How does Charlie Haden's music
relate to film noir?
A: Mainly through
his love for the films and style of the original era. It's
only one aspect of Charlie's immense repertoire, but it's
one he feels deeply. The Quartet West albums, particularly
Haunted Heart, were designed as the soundtracks to noir films
that existed only in Charlie's head. Its partly homage, and
partly a re-imagining of period film scores through piano,
sax, bass, and drums -- saying, in effect, this is what it
should have sounded like. The concert is a benefit, to support
the Foundation's effort to rescue and restore vintage noir
films in danger of being lost. It's a mission that Charlie
relates to on a musical level. He, however, can interpret
the originals; once a film is lost, it's gone forever.
Q: On the topic of "Noir City," what do
you see as San Francisco's two or three greatest contributions
to the Film Noir legacy?
It's where Dashiell Hammett wrote The Maltese Falcon,
one of the building blocks of crime fiction, and by extension,
film noir. Thematically, it's a city people escape to, in
order to reinvent themselves — a major noir theme. It's
the setting of many great noir films: Dark Passage, Lady
From Shanghai, Sudden Fear, Thieves' Highway, Born to Kill,
Nora Prentiss, The Lineup, as well as Woman on the
Run, a brilliant film that I'm proud to say was resurrected
at the first Noir City film festival in 2002.
Q: In your opinion, are there any particular films,
or genres of film, in recent years that mix drama and soundtrack
music as effectively as the classic films noirs?
A: I'd like to
see filmmakers get away from the ingrained notion that the
saxophone is the be-all and end-all of the noir sound. I like
the scores that Terence Blanchard has done for Spike Lee's
crime dramas, Joe Hisaishi's scores for Beat Takeshi, the
great moody pieces that Angelo Badalamenti does with David
Lynch. He wrote songs for Nina Simone, did you know that?
There's much more freedom today in the way a film can be scored,
and I appreciate filmmakers who explore that, rather than
just filling the soundtrack with pop songs.
Friday-Sunday • May 19-21
Note: Beginning this Friday, May 19,
tickets for the Jazz/Noir Film Festival will only be available
in person at the Balboa Theater box office, beginning at
12:30pm each day of the festival. Tickets can only be
purchased at the Balboa for same-day screenings.
"Elis Regina," "Maria Rita," and "Rita
Lee" are all celebrated names in Brazilian popular music
(or "MPB"). Aside from this musical connection,
what do the names of these three singers have in common?
We received a number of intriguing and obviously knowledgeable
responses from you, our e-News readers (and we would
expect no less!), several pointing out that Elis Regina named
her daughter, Maria Rita, after Rita Lee. But what all
three names of these singers have in common is that they
are stage names formed by dropping the women’s surnames:
Elis Regina [Carvalho Costa], Maria Rita [Mariano], and Rita
Lee [Jones]. And the winner of the Maria Rita CD+DVD set is…
Marcia Bennett of Berkeley. Congratulations
Now here’s this week’s contest question, kindly
contributed by film noir maven Eddie Muller:
In the 1944 film noir
Phantom Lady, Elisha Cook, Jr. plays a jazz drummer
who tries to impress leading lady Ella Raines by beating out
a wicked solo at an after-hours club. Who actually handled
the sticks for the recording of this famous scene?
And this week’s contest prize:
Two tickets to the SFJAZZ Spring Season’s multi-media
Albert: Live Jazz + Classic Cartoons" on Saturday,
June 3, starring the SFJAZZ All-Star High School Ensemble
plus special guest Joshua Redman. This time,
the 3rd person to answer the question correctly will
take the prize. Good luck!
Your Answer (include "Film" in the subject line
of your email)
fine print: Our contest winner will be notified directly
by e-mail, and both the winner’s name and the correct
answer to the question will be published in next week’s
e-News. The following are not eligible to enter: employees
and current contractors of SFJAZZ and its seasonal sponsors;
past e-News Jazz Trivia Contest winners.