Arts Listings

The Theater: SF Theater Group Brings Noir Classic to the Stage

By Ken Bullock, Special to the Planet
Tuesday August 14, 2007

I’ve been around plenty, and ‘around’ wasn’t pretty ...” So intones a hard-boiled chorus girl with a beautiful visage, who teams up with “a cop too tough to be crooked” in Cornell Woolrich’s celebrated noir thriller, Angel Face, originally published in the pulp mag Black Mask, and now translated onstage by Word For Word in their inimitable combo of acting and self-narration, at Theater Artaud in San Francisco’s Mission District, through Sept. 3. 

And giving the backstory on Cornell Woolrich and the tradition of noir fiction and film at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow night (Wednesday, Aug. 14) will be Alameda resident Eddie Muller, “writer and cultural archaeologist,” best-known for his opus Dark City, and his Noir City Film Festival held annually at San Francisco’s Castro Theater in late January. 

“There’s nothing too subtle about Cornell Woolrich,” Muller said, “though it depends on who’s watching, how they’ll react. Word For Word gives a great lesson in how writing gets adapted—different than in the big media. Leaving everything [of the text] in is a great lesson. It’s tricky to do this kind of material without winking at the audience, being ironic and trying to rise above it all.” 

Muller praised the Word For Word cast and director Stephanie Hunt for “the courage to take it back to the source, to cube noir iconography and translate it to the stage in a clear and effective way. It’s not oversold. They’re not banging you over the head with it. And a lot of intriguing decisions were made on parsing out the exposition from the story to the various actors. It’s kind of ‘follow the bouncing ball’—and it’s pretty invigorating.” 

Muller said he’d been in touch with the Word For Word people for some time, contemplating some sort of collaboration, “and for Angel Face, the company dramaturg used Dark City in working with the cast to give them background.” 

Muller himself can relate to the experience of adapting noir fiction to performance. He recently finished shooting a short film he directed, The Grand Inquisitor, based on a short story he was commissioned to write for a forthcoming noir anthology titled A Hell of a Woman. The film is a five-day wonder, “like a Twilight Zone episode,” says Muller, that features a return to the screen by Hollywood actress Marcia Hunt.  

“As soon as the last period was put on the story, it was a film,” Muller said, “and the film might well be finished before the story’s in print. Everything just seemed to line up.” 

Working with Hunt, who Muller dubbed “the ultimate trouper,” was “a revelation ... I was often taken out of the moment on set, I was so in awe of her ability. She had the sharpness to call me on the script—not as a prima donna, but to restore dialogue I’d cut for the other actress, Leah Dashe [a 2003 UC Berkeley graduate], who’s at the beginning of her career. Marcia is 89, a famous blacklisted Hollywood actress, who was directed by Jules Dassin, Fred Zinneman, Anthony Mann ... friends with people like Orson Welles, Bernard Hermann. And Marcia plays, well, not a good woman, but one who drinks, takes drugs ... I think when the last minute of the film plays, people will be slackjawed.”  

Muller found his metier through his fascination with the culture of the ’40s and ’50s, predicated by his relationship with his father, a boxing writer for the San Francisco Examiner whose byline also read Eddie Muller.  

“Sometimes I feel like I’m an imposter, and my father the genuine article,” said Muller. “Watching, say, Sam Fuller’s Pickup On South Street feels like watching my dad’s home movies. Not of the world he lived in; the world he worked in. At home, it played like a domestic comedy, but it was film noir when he went out into the San Francisco nightlife and sports world. 

“He was older,” said Muller of his father. “I was born late in his life, and was always around older people, who were more interesting to me than the younger ones. I didn’t know them in their prime, and I became obsessed with that world of their time.” 

Looking into noir fiction and film, and then writing about it, Muller said “I didn’t feel too many others were trying to build a cultural bridge between past and present. Most in the media were trying to burn the bridge down! I was the guy trying to build it back up again.” 

His first book was Grindhouse, on “Adults Only” cinema, then Dark City, his breakthrough, though originally planned as a follow-up to Grindhouse, but “a book about movies I actually like!” 

“I was trying to explore how we got from there to here,” Muller said, “Trying to explore how the culture creates its iconography.” 

In 1999, the American Cinematheque invited Muller to do a program in its annual film fest, and “I was exposed to people who worked in, acted in noir films—it was an eye-opener! My exploration took on a real human aspect. Critics often come up with their opinion, then twist everything else to fit their thesis. From that point in particular, I’ve been trying to go deeper, to understand the people who made noir film and fiction.” 

The book that followed, from interviews that were initiated through his encounters with surviving film noir actresses, Dark City Dames, “was a significant book for me, less for learning about the movies than learning about human nature. A valuable thing for a young man to write! And what prepared me to work with Marcia Hunt.” 

Hunt was a special guest at last year’s Noir City fest, an event that has traveled to Seattle and is beginning to garner national recognition. “When [Berkeley resident] Anita Monga was at the Castro, she saw clearly the value of the American Cinematheque festival in Hollywood, and asked, Why not here? So it’s Anita’s doing. And she’s the producer of my film!” 

Muller, a San Francisco native, moved to Alameda some time ago when his wife visited on business and mentioned it to him. “I never set foot in Alameda the entire time I was growing up in San Francisco! The third break-in of our car decided it—we left the Haight and moved to Alameda. I love it. It’s a great place for a writer, easy to work here. I just pray they don’t overdevelop it.” 

Ruminating on the staging of Angel Face, Muller asks, “Have we approached with noir now a sort of post-ironic stage? Word For Word’s commitment makes Angel Face a flesh-and-blood production. They really inhabit Woolrich’s text. His stories became the basis for films by Hitchcock, by Truffaut, but he could be so melodramatic, almost like a cartoon parody at times ... it’s interesting about noir today—it’s become so familiar, it can be trotted out to get a laugh, corny old movies and so forth. Or you can bore back down to the basics and rebuild from the ground up ... I don’t want to appeal to converts, I want to make converts. When a 15-year-old kid comes into town from the suburbs and buys a ticket for the Noir City festival to see his first black-and-white movie on a big screen, I call that a triumph!” 


For more information, see or Word For Word’s website at 


Photograph by Andrew Taylor. Eddie Muller will introduce Word For Word’s presentation of Cornell Woolrich’s Angel Face.