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.

Many audience members attend Noir City simply to see fresh 35mm prints on the big screen. "If the story's good, that's a bonus," says Muller. Today, with 98% of the world's theaters switching to digital projection, only a thousand or so theaters remain in North America that can project celluloid. | (Film Noir Foundation/Courtesy Craftsmanship)

The birth of film noir

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?'"

The making of a gumshoe

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.

The invasion of the broadcasters

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?

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