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Dark City
book review by Gary Johnson

With his new book, Dark City, author Eddie Muller explores the dark alleys and musty backrooms of film noir. As he did with last year's Grindhouse, Muller has delivered a strikingly designed book that will first grab your attention with its stunning stills and poster reproductions. But if you get past the excellent layout and begin to actual read the text, you'll find Muller certainly knows his subject. He leads his readers through an astonishingly large group of movies--from Stranger on the Third Floor (arguably the first noir), through noir's last gasps with Orson Welles' Touch of Evil ("watching Touch of Evil is like drinking vintage wine not long before it turns to vinegar").

Muller has divided the book into chapters that represent the key settings and character types of film noir. For example, in "Vixenville" you'll encounter Lizabeth Scott, Rita Hayworth, Gene Tierney, Joan Bennett, Ava Gardner, and other femme fatales that sucked the life from the weak-willed heroes. (Remember Edward G. Robinson painting Bennett's toenails in Scarlet Street?) And in "Loser's Lane" you'll encounter Richard Widmark, Dan Duryea, and Lawrence Tierney, and other actors who excelled at playing sadistic killers and thieves. (Remember Tommy Udo [Widmark] lashing Mildred Dunnock to her wheelchair with electrical cord and then pushing her down the stairs of her tenement in Kiss of Death?) Other chapters introduce us to "Knockover Square," "Shamus Flats," "The Psych Ward," and other key locales.


Poster artwork for
Anthony Mann's
Raw Deal.

As Muller points out in the introduction, he feels that film noir needs to be saved from all the scholars and critics who have buried it under dense, life-draining analyses that convey little enthusiasm: "The academics tried to pin it down and dissect it." With Dark City, Muller tries "to resurrect these movies for another generation." I'm not sure I agree with Muller's notion that film noir has become "lost" due to over analysis. I always considered film noir to be better served by its critics than just about any other form/genre/style of film. But the proof is in Muller's writing and it's there that the book succeeds best. Muller provides such lucid descriptions of the movies and their main characters that I couldn't wait to re-experience some of the scenes that he describes. After only a few pages into Dark City, I was rewatching the great ending from Body and Soul, where John Garfield has refused to throw a boxing match. As he walks to the locker room, he encounters the racketeer who ordered that he throw the fight: "What are you gonna do, kill me? Everybody dies," says Garfield says.


Poster artwork for Jacques Tourneur's Out of the Past.

I'm guessing Muller's main intention is to help motivate people to watch these movies. He clearly loves his subject and wants to spread the word. He doesn't simply guide his readers through the most famous movies: he also finds room for some seedy, B-movies thrills, as with the gloriously brutal Born to Kill, the Poverty Row favorite Detour, and the manic-paced Narrow Margin. At the same time, Muller finds time to introduce us to some fascinating behind-the-scenes stories, such as the making of The Blue Dahlia (where screenwriter Raymond Chandler "thrashed out" pages in a "prodigious bourbon bender" while chauffeurs "funneled individual pages to the set").

While many writers only find symbolism and social criticism within the shadows of film noir, Eddie Muller finds exuberance, humor, and sensuality. Dark City serves as a reminder that movies are made to be watched and that readers deserve analyses that convey the excitement and spirit of the movies themselves.


Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir by Eddie Muller is now available from St. Martin's Griffin. Suggested retail price: $18.95 (softcover).


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