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The Noir City Film Festival is right at home at Detroit’s Redford Theatre
The Redford Theatre is special. In its heyday, it was one of more than 100 movie theaters in Detroit, many of which disappeared throughout the second half of the 20th century with the rise of television. But not the Redford. The palatial theater has continuously operated since 1928 in its northwest neighborhood.
That direct line to a bygone era makes the theater the perfect venue for the Noir City Film Festival, which is making its first-ever Motor City stop in September. The festival was started in San Francisco in 2003 by writer and historian Eddie Muller (the so-called “Czar of Noir”), and is the largest dedicated to the genre: gritty, black and white films made famous for hardboiled anti-heroes and doomed femme fatales.
Muller first fell in love with film noir growing up in the ’70s, when he would play hooky from school to catch films on the TV program Dialing for Dollars in Oakland, Calif. “It was like anthropology,” he says. “Before this stuff was so readily available, as it is now, you really had to search it out.”
He started hosting his own film screenings, but soon realized that prints of many of the genre’s best films were increasingly rare. In some cases, Muller was screening the only known copy. Realizing that he could have better access to film archives as a nonprofit, Muller created the Film Noir Foundation in 2005. “I never set out to do this,” he says. “This was not a career goal, let’s put it that way.”
Now, the festival donates all of its profits to the restoration and preservation of film noir. “In my role as czar, I became a real socialist,” Muller says with a laugh. So far, the foundation has restored nine films, including the critical favorite and buried treasure Woman on the Run, which will screen at the Redford.
If not for the efforts of Muller, the 1950 film would have been lost to history — and the story of how it was rescued is a heist tale worthy of its own film. In 2003, Muller managed to track down what was believed to be the only existing version of the film, a never-before-seen print that was forgotten in the archives of Universal-International. The print still had its original laboratory seal. Realizing the importance of this rare find, Muller made an illegal digital copy before he returned the print to Universal. “You feel these pangs,” he says. “I thought, what if the truck crashes? What if somebody steals it?”
It wound up being a smart move. Just five years later, the original print was destroyed in a fire at Universal. “Good stewardship,” was reportedly the vice president of asset’s official response when Muller revealed he pirated it. Later, a dupe negative was discovered at the British Film Institute, but its soundtrack was found to be irreparably damaged. Muller’s digital copy was used to restore it, and these resources were eventually used to make a new digital master of Woman on the Run, which has since been used for its official DVD and Blu-ray release.
The film will be part of the unique lineup for Noir City’s Detroit stop. Three double features will pair a well-known film with an obscure one: The Killers with 99 River Street on Friday, Double Indemnity with The Prowler on Saturday, and The Lady From Shanghai with Woman on the Run on Sunday. There will be a Saturday late showing of David Lynch’s noir-inspired Blue Velvet, which turns 30 this year. Muller will be on hand Sunday for a talk over coffee.
The festival comes to Detroit thanks to John Monaghan, a Redford Theatre volunteer who reached out to Muller with a case for why the fest should make a Detroit stop. The Detroit Free Press writer and Grosse Pointe South English teacher is one of the many volunteers who keep the Redford Theatre in operation, helping secure prints to screen, selling concessions, and sweeping up afterward. “We all do it just for love,” he says. “And it works, somehow. We all get the work done.”
Monaghan says he has been attending the theater for 30 years, but first became involved as a volunteer six years ago. He was able to help the theater obtain 35mm prints, saving on shipping costs by connecting the theater to other local collectors.
Because of enthusiasts like Monaghan, the theater was able to survive into the present. The theater switched to a second-run format in the late ’60s, and at this time the Motor City Theatre Organ Society began work restoring the theater’s original pipe organ, which had been in disuse for decades. When the ownership decided to sell in the ’70s, they first offered it to the MCTOS.
It’s been a 40-year restoration process ever since. The theater’s original Asian motif, which included murals and pagoda-style fixtures, were dismantled and whitewashed amid World War II-era Japanophobia.
Today, the murals have been restored, and the auditorium once again resembles a Japanese garden with gold and red arches. “I got to say, it’s looking pretty darn good lately,” Monaghan says.
The preservation efforts arguably extend beyond the theater to the surrounding neighborhood. “Those people were real pioneers,” Monaghan says of the MCTOS. “Without the theater as an anchor in the neighborhood, I don’t know what we would be like.”
Woman on the Run is one of the films slated to be screened at the Noir City Film Festival's Michigan stop.
Today, the Redford’s home on Lahser Road off Grand River Avenue is bustling with activity. Sweet Potato Sensations and Motor City Java and Tea House are nearby. In 2015, Meijer opened its second Detroit store around the corner. That same year, Mayor Michael Duggan chose the venue for his State of the City address.
“It really put us on the national stage,” Monaghan says. “It was really exciting to see all these dignitaries sitting in the seats that we sit in for films.”
Today, the 1,661-seat theater’s main programming is classic films. The theater routinely books stars for special meet and greets, such as To Kill A Mockingbird’s Mary Badham or ’70s cult favorite Pam Grier. The theater shows most movies on 35mm film, but recently acquired a new digital projector.
Monaghan says the theater’s motto is “the way movies were meant to be seen” — in this case on film, with cheap concessions and $5 ticket prices, in an ornate, classic theater.
That jibes with Muller’s goal with the Noir City Film Festival — to preserve the experience, and to foster a new, younger audience.
“We’re not just in the business of preserving the movies. We’re in the business of preserving the moviegoing experience,” Muller says. “There’s so few opportunities for people to see movies made in that era, in a venue from that era, and really have going to the pictures be a night out.”