134: TCM's Eddie Muller On All Things Noir
January 13, 2018 6 a.m.
Episode 134: TCM's Eddie Muller On All Things Noir
Eddie Muller, host of TCM's Noir Alley and founder/president of the Film Noir Foundation talks about his Noir City Festival that's coming up, the literary roots of noir, and femme fatales versus female agency. And find out what really defines film noir.
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Related Story: Podcast Episode 134: TCM's Eddie Muller On All Things Noir
Beth Accomando: Welcome back to another edition of listener’s supported KPBS Cinema Junkie Podcasts. I’m Beth Accomando. Today we’re going to talk about All Things Noir and here’s a little something to put you in the mood.
Clip – It was a hot afternoon, and I can still remember the smell of honeysuckle all along that street. How could I have known that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle?
And like I am in a frame. Don’t sound like you. I don’t know all I can see is the frame. I am going in there and I will look at the picture.
A black pool opened up at my feet. I dived in. It had no bottom
So you’re a private detector. I didn’t know they existed, except in books, or else they were greasy little men snooping around hotel corridors
I thought detectives were heavy drinkers.
No, well some of them are. Some of them just encourage other people to drink
This is my name.
What do I call you besides stupid.
Stupid'll do if you don't bruise easily. Otherwise you might try Danny.
Cato even feel sorry for me.
I’m not going to try.
But just get out at the sleep in his room.
Don’t ever change Tyler.
I don’t think I’d like you with a heart, keep asking for it and you’re going to get it plenty. I told you to shove off, shove off.
People lose teeth talking like that. If you want to hang around you’ll be polite.
That even just now fold your hands are all falling for you, if you took [indiscernible] [00:02:09].
I'll tell you right out - I'm a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk.
Swell. Will we talk about the black bird?
You just sit and stay beside yourself. You wait for me to talk. I like that. And then I will find out much listening to myself,
I don't mind if you don't like my manners. I don't like them myself. They're pretty bad. I grieve over them long winter evenings. And I don't mind your ritzing me, or drinking your lunch out of a bottle, but don't waste your time trying to cross-examine me.
Hold tight to that cheap cigar of yours, Keyes. I killed Dietrichson. Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money and for a woman. I didn't get the money and I didn't get the woman. Pretty, isn't it?
Beth Accomando: Since I’m Co-presenting a year of noir in San Diego at the Digital Gym Cinema called noir on the Boulevard. I wanted to devote an entire podcast of film noir and there’s no better person on earth to speak to then Eddie Muller.
So I’m thrilled to have as my guest, a man who is known as the Czar of noir, he’s also the host of TCM noir Alley, author of numerous books, including Gun Crazy: The Origin of Outlaw Cinema, Founder and President of the noir Foundation, and he oversees and host Noir City, which is enjoying its 16th year and will kick off on January 26th. So welcome Eddie.
Eddie Muller: Well, thank you for having me Beth. I’ve got to tell you right off the bat I’m a little jealous with noir on the Boulevard, I mean that’s pretty, that’s pretty Tony. I mean, we’re just noir alley at TCM, you know, you got the whole Boulevard that’s pretty good.
Beth Accomando: Well, our cinema is located on El Cajon Boulevard and they branded as the Boulevard so it’s kind of an easy one to pick for a title.
Eddie Muller: Sure, sure, very god, very good. And I want to stress in your – I thank you for that lovely introduction, and The Noir City Festival that you refer to is taking place in San Francisco, just to be clear about that.
Beth Accomando: Yes and we’re going to talk about your Film Festival in a little more detail coming up. But first I wanted to start with a clip from Gun Crazy because Peggy Cummins, the star of that film just passed away.
Clip – Laurie: When are you going to begin to live? Four years in reform school, then the Army. I should think they’d owe you something for a change. What’s it got you, being so particular?
Bart: Let’s not argue. I'll hock my guns. It'll give us enough dough to make another start.
Laurie: There isn't enough money in those guns for the kind of start I want. Bart, I want things, a lot of things, big things. I don't want to be afraid of life or anything else. I want a guy with spirit and guts. A guy who can laugh at anything, who will do anything, a guy who can kick over the traces and win the world for me.
Bart: Look, I don't want to look in that mirror and see nothing but a stick up man staring back at me.
Laurie: You better kiss me goodbye, Bart, because I won't be here when you get back. Come on, Bart, let's finish it the way we started it, on the level.
Beth Accomando: You knew her well, you wrote a book about the impact of the film that she so memorably starred in. What was her impact on noir, what’s kind of her legacy?
Eddie Muller: Well, it’s probably one of the great performances in all of film noir certainly when it comes to female roles I’d say. I mean I’ve described that character and Peggy’s performance is the most ferocious, femme fatale in film noir. And. I think that pretty much sums it up and it is sad, this is actually the first time I’ve talked publicly about it since Peggy passed away and I had just seen her in November. My wife and I took a trip to London and we visited with Peggy and she was in great, great spirits and we were making plans to do more of our travel to various festivals around the world. You know, introducing a new generation of people to this film and Peggy was always such an important part of that show.
You know, it’s – so that is her cinema legacy really, and she’s not alone in being one of those actresses that, sort of, the legacy will, will all revolve around this one movie I mean, she made a lot of other really good films but it’s this one that stands out. But for me personally, it was just getting to know her as a very special person who was so not a star and was so down-to-earth. And, you know, when we went – when we go to London we’d stay in her flat and she cooked for us and she was just a charming woman who taught me more about just dignity and how to go through life and how to age gracefully lessons that the movie don’t necessarily teach you. But I felt very, very fortunate to know her.
Beth Accomando: You mentioned the word “ferocious” in defining her performance, which I think is really accurate. What was it about her that kind of made her just leap off the screen in that role?
Eddie Muller: I think she just gave it her all, really. I mean, she was so not that person, the character as written was described as a delicate prairie flower that was, that was written in every iteration of the script there was that term. The whole crux of it was that there was this tiny little woman who loved her side arms and wasn’t afraid to, you know, she wanted action. And, I think a big part of why she gave – was able to give so much is that she had left Hollywood. I mean, this really was the last film she made in America.
She’d, she’d come to America, she was going to be groomed by Darryl Zanuck and Twentieth Century Fox to be the star of this big colossal production Forever Amber. They started making the movie and then he pulled the rug out from under and said there are various stories about why she was removed from the production either she was too young to be doing the things she was doing on screen, which would get the film in trouble with the Legion of Decency or she just wasn’t sexy enough in the Zanuck’s opinion.
And so she had left and gone back to England at the last minute The King Brothers who produced Gun Crazy, said yeah, Peggy Cummins will get her to play the part because they didn’t have an actress for this, this role. Knowing that this was it that she was going back to England and she was going to get married and she wasn’t sure that she was going to continue acting. I think she just turned it all loose in this performance. There was nothing, you know, there’s no going back, it’s like I’ve given it everything.
Beth Accomando: Well, I want to backtrack a little bit to talk about noir in kind of broader terms just in case there any people out there who are not familiar with it or want to learn a little bit more about it. But, for you, kind of what are the elements that really define noir, what are the things that a film really needs to have to be classified as noir?
Eddie Muller: Well, that’s a – that’s an interesting way of looking at it and it’s – a lot of people approach it that way like, you know. Stylistically there has to be, you know, it takes place at night. There’s rainy streets guys have to be wearing hats there, you know, there’s going to be a femme fatale lurking around somewhere, you know, that to me that’s all window dressing.
The real essence of it is that film noir was an artistic movement in Hollywood and a lot of it had to do with the business having gone through the depression and then immediately World War II and the movies had to do their part, they had to be uplifting and have a moral to the story that was good for the public. And in reality, there were all of these artists who wanted to write more realistic stories who were sort of kept from doing that in the movie business during the 30’s and 40’s, I’m going to say like 1934 to 1944 that was, that was the movie business, right?
And I think that film noir was really borne of the artist themselves saying “Well, now can we finally present an alternative to happily ever after.” And the place they were able to do that most comfortably inconveniently was in crime films because there were genre pictures, they weren’t all B movies. But the moral watchdogs in Hollywood didn’t pay as much attention to genre pictures as they did to the Big A movies that had the higher budgets and got all the attention and the awards and all that stuff.
So this whole movement of films began that reflected this alternative view of reality, if you will, a much darker, more cynical, more menacing view of the world and it was reflected in the scripts, the direction, the cinematography. The acting big stars would say “Well, I want to play the bad guy for a change.” It changed careers, it changed the look of films, it – either way at the production code. So that movie sort of grew up like, you know, it’s not going to always end well. So that’s really what the significance of film noir and the importance of film noir. And I really believe that these films stay relevant today because much more jaundiced, cynical audience.
Today, in many respects can look back at these films and say, you know, they don’t see them as being nostalgic or something like you can see the underpinnings of our modern world in these films.
Beth Accomando: You talk about window-dressing separate from, kind of, what defines it for you but I think that what you’re dressing is this, kind of, this notion of the tone and the themes and those are the things that I think really do define noir. I mean to me it’s kind of like that gray area, it’s always about, you know, things that are not clear-cut.
There’s, you know, – there’s so much of this gray area in those films and moral ambiguity.
Eddie Muller: Uh-huh.
Beth Accomando: And that’s what I found so fascinating about them. So, and also the other thing about that was looking at your list of films that you’ve got coming up for Noir City. And I think, I’m not sure if there’s any other genre maybe horror but that has just the titles alone, are just so wonderful. I mean, you’ve got I wake up screaming among the living, this gun for hire, quiet, peace.
Eddie Muller: That’s two movies, that’s two movies, by the way. I Wake Up Screaming…
Beth Accomando: Yes.
Eddie Muller: …and Among the Living that I wake up screaming…
Beth Accomando: Yes.
Eddie Muller: …among the livings.
Beth Accomando: Although that would be an interesting one.
Eddie Muller: Well, sometimes I pair movies as a double bill just to see them on the marquee.
Beth Accomando: But the titles are great and they seem to whether or not they tie directly into what the plot or the story is about but hearing these titles and if you look at some of the posters reading some of the taglines, it’ absolutely irresistible. I mean, how can you not want to see these films?
Eddie Muller: Well yeah, you totally get it Beth, I mean, they knew what they were doing and, you know, honestly that is a major part of the appeal is that style it just draws people, you know, there’s so many artists today. Visual artist, musicians that are all drawn to noir for those very reasons, the fabulous language in these movies, the slang all of this stuff has, has never lost its appeal. It just, it refuses to go out of styles, you know, yeah you hit it right on the head.
Beth Accomando: You now, a lot of noir is very rooted or noir itself is kind of very rooted in literature. There’s this whole kind of hard-boiled crime fiction where a lot of these films kind of have their roots, how did that impact it?
Eddie Muller: Well, it’s good of you to recognize that because I really do believe that the movement itself really kind of happened in the late 20s and the 1930s. But when the – when Hollywood asserted the production code in 1934 it was, it was always there but they didn’t really enforce it until 1934 and they said well, we’re never going to, we’re not going to show these things on the screen. It kept a lot of the literary works that were the underpinnings of noir from reaching the screen. I mean, a classic case in point would be The Postman Always Rings Twice which James M. Cain wrote in 1934 an MGM bought the book in 1935. But it took them 11 years to get it on to the screen because it was just too tough, it was too tough and too sexy and too raw. And it’s like, we can’t make a movie out of that but there are a lot of books like that.
And so, these writers were the writers who are extremely influential in the 30s Dashiell Hammett and James M Canes and Edward and Andersons Horace McCoy and these people, they had done their work in advance of the movement happening in Hollywood. And then when they sort of cross-pollinated with this visual style that developed thanks to a lot of expat. European directors who came to this country, who sort of had the perfect visual corollary for what these guys were putting on the page it was pretty, that was what fomented this, this movement.
Beth Accomando: And then you even had writers like Raymond Chandler, writing screenplays as well?
Eddie Muller: Uh-huh, yeah, The Blue Dahlia that was his original screenplay. I don’t –I don’t know if Chandler was a particularly great screenwriter to be honest with you. I’ve read his original screenplay for the Lady in the Lake and it’s bizarre, it’s like wow, this guy is just refusing to write a screenplay. He’s like spending eight pages on a conversation with the secretary and then he gets to the point of the scene in Page 9. I’m sure the check was for the same amount of money but wow, he was – he was wasting a lot of time.
Beth Accomando: One of the things we’re doing with our film series is, we’re focusing on films that do specifically have literary roots, films that were adapted from books and two of them were by women, which it’s not that common but there were some women noir writers.
Eddie Muller: More common than you would think.
Beth Accomando: Yes.
Eddie Muller: And I’m glad you’re doing that if you, if you take a really close look at the lineup of films that I’m presenting at the Noir City Festival in San Francisco, there are a lot of women involved in the creation of these movies either as the writers of the source novels, as writers of the screenplay, writers of the stories upon which the films are based it might be a magazine, series or something. Yeah, it’s something that I’ve really taken a very keen interest in lately because I’ve sort of discovered that over the years, film and I’m going to put this in quotes “scholarship” has been entirely driven by men.
And so the idea of what is film noir, that’s all been set up and decided by men. And it always amazed me as I watched more and more of these films that there were certain movies that were left out of the discussion. Basically anything starring Barbara Stanwyck or Joan Crawford was just not discussed as film noir. Maybe, Mildred Pierce would sneak in. But it was almost as if these guys were saying “Well, if a woman is the lead it’s not really noir” because we know that film noir is about men being destroyed by evil women that’s, that’s the point of it, right?
And I could not disagree more. So yes, all of those fabulous Stanwyck movies, you know, No Man of Her Own, Sorry, Wrong Number, The File on Thelma Jordon. Those Crawford Pictures like, Mildred Pierce in Sudden Fear and Flamingo Road and The Damned Don't Cry, you know. And lots of others picture that I restore called Woman on The Run with Ann Sheridan in the lead, you know, that’s a terrific film that was very overlooked.
And yeah, I think women played a much bigger role in this than people realized. In the industry in general, they played a huge role but they weren’t really allowed to have the glory positions that allowed historians to focus on them, right? And I’ve tried to kind of balance it where it make sense through the work of this woman Joan Harrison, who is Alfred Hitchcock’s protégé and became a writer and producer on her own and made some terrific noir films in the 1940’s and then ended up producing Alfred Hitchcock’s television show. So, I mean that’s somebody who had a major role to play in the, in this whole crime and suspense genre and nobody really knows about John Harrison at all.
Beth Accomando: Well, I have to say that it’s the women in noir that pulled me in because I grew up in the 60s and I remember being so frustrated with like this Doris Day films and stuff that I was being told was like, you know, this is what female role models should be like. And I’m like they were so repulsive to me and I was and I...
Eddie Muller: Now that’s -- don’t say that about Doris Day, I love Doris Day.
Beth Accomando: Oh, I’m sorry I know but it was tough as a kid. So, to me, it was like I was, I loved characters like I love the bond films with you know like Pussy Galore and then noir because the women noir I always got these, people would, you know, push back and say like oh, but aren’t those films so misogynistic and women look so bad. And I was like, but they are in control sometimes they may have, make bad choices and they may meet bad ends and, you know, the films may not hold them up as role models but these were women who frequently operated like men, who, like were driving the plot for good or for bad.
And I just was riveted by them, you know, people like Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity and Jane Greer in Out of the Past and Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice. I mean, my dad was a movie buff and so he took me to these films when I was like a little kid and those films just, I felt like it was such a different view that I was seeing and it was great and it totally sucked me in through those characters.
Eddie Muller: Yes, I couldn’t agree more and they continue to exert that thrall over audiences today. I mean, my audiences for the Noir City Festivals are completely mixed in terms of gender. I mean, at times I’m almost convinced there are more women in the audience than there are guys and it’s certainly true. I found this to certainly be true, the younger the audience it’s, I’ve gone out and spoken at schools when I, when I’m on the road doing the Noir City Festivals, I’ll frequently go to colleges and sometimes even high schools and invariably it is the young women who are taken by these films and show a real interest where it doesn’t really developed for the guys until a lot later. I mean this is true with lot of things with men and women.
And I find that there is a very, very hardcore female audience for these films based on exactly what you just described, right? That somehow the new term for this, I don’t know where this came from but now you can’t read about any of this without seeing it is female agency. I don’t know where agency suddenly developed it’s like the go-to word for this, right? But that’s exactly what Stanwyck and Joan Crawford and Rita Hayworth than Gloria Graham and I know it’s agency I guess is what they say now.
Beth Accomando: That’s a far less sexy term though.
Eddie Muller: Yes, you know they have power.
Beth Accomando: Yes.
Eddie Muller: You know that’s what they have. They have the power to control men if not themselves. But, you know, that’s, that’s a certain type of character in film noir that is eternally popular. But also when you watch enough of these films and people who come to noir series they’ll certainly come away with this. Is, you know, that’s not all that’s in these movies in terms of the women.
Beth Accomando: Uh-huh.
Eddie Muller: It’s not just the femme fatale. I mean, in these movies, it is clearly stated that the only hope the guy has is the right woman and for whatever – and the right woman is always shown in these movies, right? I mean she’s a self-reliant, upstanding, self-respecting career woman always, always. And the guy always makes the mistake of choosing the gold digger, the sexy gold digger instead and it all ends up badly. I mean it was, I find these films to be in some ways very subversive in that they were telling people at that time, you know, you’re better off letting women be independent and a bit liberated and self-reliance because they’re going to be more better citizens.
So the women in this movie that is always the villainous is the one who, I’ll just get the men to do it for me. And that’s the moral of so many of these stories really, it’s very timely moral I think.
Beth Accomando: Well, and there’re some interesting twists on it that you’re highlighting in this festival too. There’s a film that I saw recently that I hadn’t been familiar with Wicked Woman with Beverly Michaels.
Clip – Why is the wicked woman of …
How about having a drink with me?
I can’t, it’s against the rules.
You’ve broken the rules before.
He was reaching for something and slipped.
She has everything and every man wants what she’s got. You’ll hate every vicious bone in her body but you won’t be able to get her out of your mind.
Be among the first to see Beverly Michaels in a sensational performance as the girl who was stripped of all decency by uncontrollable desire.
Beth Accomando: She is a fascinating character because she’s, she’s kind of the femme fatale but she’s kind of a victim and she’s doesn’t necessarily have to get punished for her behavior exactly. And she’s very striking but she’s an interesting kind of twist on what people may think of as the conventional femme fatale.
Eddie Muller: I totally agree, I totally agree. It’s kind of a goofy movie in some respect but what you’re referring to is, and I don’t want to give any spoil…
Beth Accomando: You know, I don’t want to spoil.
Eddie Muller: …on it or anything but yes, it plays with the conventions of the femme fatale and I would, I would suggest that, you know, people who think that the femme fatale is, there’s evil character. Look at some of the classic examples in these movies like Gilda, right? Well, I don’t think she’s a femme fatale at all. I think she’s just trying to survive the craziness of these two men who are in love with her or one of my favorite characters is Yvonne De Carlo in a movie called Criss Cross, where she basically gives the feminist manifesto at the end of the movie when she realizes that Burt Lancaster has screwed everything up and she says, “You know I can’t help it if you don’t know how to take care of yourself, I didn’t ask you to do this stuff for me.”
Clip – I have to get away.
You don't know what you've done bringing him here. I have to pack. I have to hurry.
You're going away? You're gonna leave me? Here?
How far could i get with you? What kind of a chance would we have? You can't move. You couldn't last a day! Don't you understand? You need help, doctors. You could never make it. What do you want me to do? Let him get us both? Would that make you feel happier? Does that make sense to you?
No. Not anymore.
Why did you have to come here in the first place? Why? Why? It was all working out. Everything was fine. Papers said you'd be in the hospital for weeks!
All those things you said to me...you weren't lying. You meant it. I know you meant it. You love me.
Love, love! You have to watch out for yourself. That's the way it is, I’m sorry. What do you want me to do, throw away all this money? You always have to do what's best for yourself. That's the trouble with you. It always was, from the beginning. You just don't know what kind of a world it is.
Well, I'll know better next time.
Well, people get hurt! I can't help it! I can't help it if people don't know how to take care of themselves. I'm sorry I can't be like you.
I'm not like you. I wasn’t born that way.
Eddie Muller: It’s fantastic it’s one of my favorite scenes in film noir and yet people will still review that film and say, oh, it’s about a woman who destroy these men. And it’s like the movie I’m watching is the opposite. It’s a movie about men who destroy this woman who just was trying to get on with her life.
Beth Accomando: Well, I think a lot, sometimes people go in with a certain set of expectations and don’t see beyond that. And to me noir has always been this place where there seems to be so many layers to what’s going on and that’s why, that’s another reason why I think they hold up so well now is because you can see just the surface of, you know, what might have made them popular when they came out and then you can read more into it and, you know, kind of dig beneath and they just seem to hold up well because we can keep finding new things in them.
Eddie Muller: Yeah, I totally agree with that yes. And it’s interesting because, you know, I’ve been doing this for a lot of years now. And it’s fascinating that as a researcher and a writer, one of the things that make the subject so interesting is exactly as you describe. When you learn about the political climate of the time these movies were made, what was actually going on in Hollywood, the lives of the people making these films, all of these plays a part in the individual films and the noir movement in general, right? And so there’s endlessly fascinating stuff that you can read into the movies or learn in the movies. But then, here we are decades later and you can just watch the movies as these fabulous entertainments and it’s fascinating because these movies were born of a very complex, difficult, almost a time of crisis in the country and in the movie business.
And yet today people watch these as comfort food. It’s like oh I love these movies, you know, it’s, so great to not have to. You know, I can just escape into these movies and it’s like well, the people who made where at the escaping, but that’s how a lot of people interpret them today. And the truth is, Beth you can have it both ways. I mean, when I introduced the movies, you know, live, you know, I’ll sometimes go into the back story of a film like the prowler and explained politically out. Everybody who made this movie is going to be out of this country and blacklisted and their careers are going to be ruined. And some people are like you guys wow, that’s fascinating. Other people are like shut up and show the movies. And the – it’s kind of happens on both levels just like you’re describing.
Beth Accomando: Now, in talking about kind of the things that went into making these films at the time they were made, do you feel that true noir has to be rooted in a certain time period or the films that are classic noirs from a certain period in our contemporary noir somehow different or in kind of a separate category?
Eddie Muller: You know that’s, I don’t, here is my answer, I do believe that there was as I’ve described a movement, an artistic movement, right? And you can equate this to any kind of art form. You know, there’s the Bebop Movement or there’s the Cubist Movement or the Dadaist Movement, you know, and because it’s a movement we clearly identify it as like well here’s the starting point and here’s probably the endpoint. But that doesn’t mean that it vanishes into the ether when the movement ends.
I mean, it’s going that’s the purpose of art, right? It’s going to influence people. It’s going to affect people. It’s going to, you know, you can’t imagine that when Robert Towne wrote Chinatown he wasn’t thinking of these older films. He was thinking of Raymond Chandler. He was thinking of that whole period and he did his extension of it. That’s how I look at it and people do extensions of it.
You know, when I watch David Lynch movies, I see so much stuff that I think is like this guy has definitely seen Laura, right? He’s definitely seen, Born to Kill, I mean he is making direct references. You know, he makes a direct reference to Gilda in Mulholland Drive. He’s influenced by these films. Now, does that make his movies noir or they just under the influence of noir in some small way? I mean, I really respect the contemporary filmmakers who, where I can see that they’ve watched these movies, they’ve absorbed the movies and then what they make are comments on or extensions of traditional film noir.
Beth Accomando: So, what was it that made you fall in love with noir in the first place? Do you remember like how you got introduced to it?
Eddie Muller: Yeah cutting school. Staying home and watching movies on TV instead of going to school. So I guess it pays off in the end I didn’t say that, I didn’t say that.
I was just fascinated with the period. It was a time period that that really interested me because it was so different from the area in which I grew up. I mean, I was, come on – I came of age in San Francisco during the late 60s early 70s, you know, summer of love and hippies and all that stuff. And yet my dad who was a public figure in San Francisco is a newspaper guy, sportswriter. His career was chronicled I mean there was a visual timeline of his career that I could look at and it just fascinated me in part because it was so very different from what was happening at that time, right? Beards, long hair, beads, sandals, the whole thing and it’s like and I’m looking at all these pictures of guys in suits and overcoats and fedoras walking around on market street and it’s like what was this world.
So that was definitely where I started to pay attention and then when I found these movies. I’ve said a 100 times it was like, when I started watching noir when I was a young kid. It was felt like I was watching my dad’s home movies especially the boxing ones. But that was it I mean there was definitely that connection and my dad because he was around the boxing game. He – guys like that were I was familiar with them, you know, trainers and fighters and all this kind of stuff and they were like right out of a film noir. So, I always had a feel for it.
Beth Accomando: Did that love for noir leads you to founding the Noir Foundation?
Eddie Muller: Well, the foundation was a direct result of when we did the first festival of film noir in San Francisco. It was so successful, so unexpectedly successful that we made a ton of money. And the first year we did it, I just did it, you know, for the venue and they kept all the money. And then when I say well, this is really amazing thing then I had to take it seriously and treat it like a business and so I created this foundation. We rented the theater out right so that we actually kept the box office but I never felt like this money was mine.
I really felt like jeez, you know, what we need to do with this is use the money to save films that I want to show that I can’t show. You know, and that’s exactly what we do and we’ve been doing it for it’s going on 12 years now that the foundation has existed and we’ve restored and/or preserved like 20 movies at least 20 movies in that time. You know, it’s a beautiful closed loop. People come, we show the film. The money that we make, we find a film that we haven’t been able to show or that’s at risk of being lost. We restore it then we show that one the next year and then, you know, people comes and see that and it perpetuates itself and it’s been a fabulous experience.
Beth Accomando: And you have some films that you’re screening this year that are rare gems, films that you can’t just find on DVD. Can you highlight the ones that you are showing this year?
Eddie Muller: Well, the restoration we did is a movie called The Man Who Cheated Himself that we’re showing but we try to find these rarities. And our theme this year is, we want to do a genuine A and B double bills because I have found that over the years a lot of people have, they have a mistaken notion of what a B film is. They hear that and it somehow a pejorative like oh well, that’s just a B film. Okay that’s something to do with the quality or something and which isn’t really true. They were shorter movies made by the studios specifically for the purpose of filling out the bottom half of a double bill. And they’re almost always genre pictures. They are going to be a western or a crime movie or some kind of inexpensive adventure, yarn or something at the bottom half of the double Bill. And so we wanted to put, you know, and they’re never like more than 75 minutes long. That’s about it for a B.
But, you know, we’re showing stuff like Quiet Please: Murder which is a great Fox B. From Colombia there’s an amazing film called Address Unknown which really isn’t a true B, it’s 75 minutes long. Again, written by a woman Kathrine Taylor, who wrote under the name Kressmann Taylor. Because so many women who wrote for these movies used men’s names like Craig Rice is actually a woman Marty Holland is actually a woman and Kressmann Taylor is actually a woman. And anyway, Address Unknown is a great movie about the rise of the Nazis in Europe told in a very, very creative way.
There’s a movie called Jealousy that is one of the few Hollywood films by Gustav Machatý who is famous for making the film Ecstasy with Hedy Lamarr in the early 1930s. A film that we restore called High Tide that was a genuine B movie that is just fantastic. It’s so inventive, I love it. Anyway it’s, you know, we really go the extra mile to find and show these films that either have disappeared and we hunt them down and restore them or they’re buried deep in the vaults at the studios. And it’s like, thank you Eddie, nobody’s ever asked for that movie before, you know.
Beth Accomando: And you, you mentioned in the like the subtitle for your festival this year, it says film noir A to B. So, that’s representing you’re A and B movies?
Eddie Muller: Correct, correct. Yes.
Beth Accomando: Now in programming these, how hard is it to make the decision of what to show. I mean, when we were doing it, we had 12 slots to fill and it was agonizing because you’re torn between wanting to show stuff that people probably have never seen as well as kind of showing some of the stuff that’s so deliciously good that people are familiar with that is so much fun to see again on the big screen.
Eddie Muller: If you, well I mean, welcome to the world of programming, Beth.
Beth Accomando: It’s so hard.
Eddie Muller: Have you, is this the first time you’ve programmed a series?
Beth Accomando: No, I’ve gone through the agony many times, yes.
Eddie Muller: Okay, so you know what it’s all about. And yeah, I mean the thing is that when you’ve gone, you know, it’s 16 years for me in San Francisco but it will be 20 years in April in Los Angeles where I’ve shown at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood for 20 years this April and the trick to the programming is, it’s all balanced. To me, it’s all about balance. I have found, see the A and B show is a perfect way to put a more well-known A picture out there and then paired with something that is a real rarity. And if it’s not like the greatest film ever made, I’d say people don’t worry, it’s only 65 minutes long, right? You’ll live. But not that they aren’t all interesting to me but what I’ve discovered that’s really fascinating is some programmers they think they’re programming for themselves or they’re programming for other programmers. So they obsessively want to find the most esoteric thing and say, nobody’s ever shown this before, right?
And then 14 people come to the theater and it’s like those 14 people get to feel like they’re the smartest people in the world for the length of the show, right? All well and good but the reality is the audience cycles. You know, I mean, I kind of consider when I watched the crowd come in. I look and I say, “Who’s the youngest person in here” and like, you know, “Are we getting any 15 year old in here.” And what you have to realize is that 10 years from then they’re going to be 25 years old, right? I mean, I’ve been doing this for 20 years now so I literally have had people come to my screenings when they were 13, right? And now they’re 33 years old.
There’s a lot of movie going in there and I have found that it’s always worth showing Mildred Pierce again.
Beth Accomando: Uh-huh.
Eddie Muller: It’s okay to show Double Indemnity again because there’s somebody who’s seeing it for the first time or maybe they’ve seen it but they’ve never seen it on a movie screen before.
Beth Accomando: Yeah, uh-huh.
Eddie Muller: And so, you know, you can’t just focus on the rarities and be that super discriminating programmer who says I found a film that nobody’s seen before. So I like to put something like The Blue Dahlia or Double Indemnity or Mildred Pierce on a bill with a movie that nobody’s seen.
Beth Accomando: Yeah, well I am looking at your schedule the double bills are great because it seems like it has something more familiar that can entice someone in, who maybe is not a hardcore noir fan and will get them to stay for the second one, which is possibly that rare gem that they’ll never see anywhere else.
Eddie Muller: Believe me Beth, I didn’t think up this strategy. This is the way the movie business work forever.
Beth Accomando: Oh, claim the credit. You kick off the series – your festival this year with I Wake Up Screaming and Victor Mature stars in this. His daughter lives here in San Diego and she’s going to be coming when we screen it here in San Diego, and we were starting our series with Maltese Falcon which a lot of people look to as kind of kicking off the noir cycle. And she goes like no, no, no maybe you should consider my dad’s film as the first one and she sent me an article about it. So, you’re kicking off your series with that or are you going to be addressing that kind of idea in anyway?
Eddie Muller: Well, Victoria is going to be at my screening so...
Beth Accomando: Yeah, she’s getting around.
Eddie Muller: She’s working pretty good on her dad’s behalf.
Beth Accomando: Yes.
Eddie Muller: That’s not bad. Good, good, going Victoria. I mean she did not consult with me before I did this but, you know, she saw it and said wow, this is great, you know, can I come. So yes, she will be at the screening in San Francisco as well.
Beth Accomando: And are you a kind of addressing.
Eddie Muller: She’s delightful.
Beth Accomando: Yeah she is. And are you addressing it anyway like whether or not the dispute or the debate between I Wake Up Screaming and Maltese Falcon.
Eddie Muller: There is no dispute. I mean it’s, the reality is, you know, a movement has to gain traction, right? So, more than one film has to be made, right? I mean, I Wake Up Screaming looks much more like a film noir than the Maltese Falcon. But the Maltese Falcon was the huge success and Humphrey Bogart, his attitude in that film is what set the tone for the entire film noir movement. I mean it’s that characters Sam Spade is what the American public responded to, right? I won’t play the Sap for you and all that. That’s legendary.
There’s really nothing about I Wake Up Screaming that’s legendary. But it certainly had the look and it had the feel of noir, the flashback story, the whole thing. It was a – I Wake Up Screaming was a huge, the novel was a huge influence on Vera Caspary, another woman who wrote Laura. The novel Laura was inspired by Steve Fisher’s novel, I Wake Up Screaming. So this is how a movement builds. You get these artists, all kind of influencing and inspiring each other and then it happens.
And I’m much more interested in how that works than I’m interested in saying well this is the first one obviously and anybody who doesn’t think so is stupid. It’s like who cares, who cares what the first one is. You know, I am going – let’s go back to the cave paintings and find the first example of noir on the caves.
Beth Accomando: And you’re ending the festival with the film I love which is Big Heat and there’s so much good stuff in this film. You’ve got Gloria Grahame. You’ve got a young Lee Marvin. What is it about this film that you particularly enjoy?
Eddie Muller: I enjoy the story. William P. McGivern was the guy who wrote this. He was a crime reporter turned novelist and he wrote a really tight, brilliantly-structured revenge drama that is like I’ve always referred to the Dirty Harry of the Eisenhower era. And that’s really what it is and I think Glenn Ford is perfect in this film and the combination of his really tough stoic guy on a mission. That character contrasted with Gloria Grahame sort of dopy, funny but just as wounded character. It’s great and she’s fantastic and it’s obviously one of Fritz Lang’s best films that he made in America. This is the first time I’ve shown it in San Francisco at a noir festival. So, it finally was the perfect time.
Beth Accomando: And you’re also showing a Hitchcock film, the Shadow of a Doubt and, you know, a lot of people I think kind of pigeonhole Hitchcock as master of suspense and think of him in a very particular way. But he really has done some quality noir films.
Eddie Muller: Well, I certainly think so and I know there are people who say well it can’t, you know, Hitchcock his own thing you can’t classify him as film noir. But, I don’t know, Shadow of a Doubt, Strangers on a Train, I Confess, The Wrong Man. These all strike me as being stories that are completely noir. And, of course, Strangers on a Train written by Patricia Highsmith, woman, thank you very much.
And of course, my favorite film of all time In a Lonely Place based on a novel written by Dorothy Hughes, a woman, thank you very much. So, you know, I just with the Hitchcock thing a lot of his scripts of course worked on by his wife Alma Reville, there you go. I have no qualms saying that a lot of the darker even Vertigo. I will put on the list as a film that to me seems to be very much a noir as opposed to things like North by Northwest and…
Beth Accomando: Right.
Eddie Muller: … you know, the kind of adventurous fun Hitchcock movies. I’ll even go so far as to argue that in my book Dark City, I ended it with Psycho saying that Psycho to me symbolically represented the end of the noir era because it start, the movie starts out as a film noir and ends up as a horror movie.
Beth Accomando: Uh-huh.
Eddie Muller: And it’s like at a certain point the psychology trip over into the psychopathology thing that was beyond anything that noir was ever about and then it becomes horror. But the start of that film with Marion Crane decided that she’s going to rob the thing and escape. You know, I mean that’s a classic noir set up and it goes along feeling just like a film noir until she takes that shower. And then it becomes something else and of course, you know, as a writer you’re always looking for like the moment, the pivotal moment and it’s like there it is when cinema changed, you know, changed in that shower and who knows maybe.
Beth Accomando: So your festival Noir City is going to be running January 26 to February 4th at the Castro Theater in San Francisco. So if people can’t get to the festival which is a little bit hold sometimes but they can enjoy noir with you every Sunday on TCM. So, tell us about that.
Eddie Muller: Yes, yes, it’s fantastic. I mean, I’ve had a long, I guess I can say that now. I’ve had a long lovely relationship with Turner Classic Movies going back to the early days of this century. And I was just thrilled when they finally said well how would you just like to do your own show and it’s been greater than I ever expected. You know, they built me my own set. It’s absolutely fantastic and I’m really enjoying doing this. I mean you work very, very hard to fill a movie theater and get like a 1,000 people in there to watch a film. And then you do the stuff for TCM and you realize you’re reaching like incredible amounts of people. And I of course am watching it on my couch at home and realizing wow, lot of people are looking at this right now.
But it’s great and, you know, it’s fun to be part of what TCM is doing because as it has turned out the network is sort of the gatekeeper of America’s movie legacy, right? I mean that’s what TCM is now. And so, while it’s great fun I also take it quite seriously because this is I hope how a lot of younger people are going to experience classic cinema these days. They’re just aren’t the number of reps cinemas that existed when I was growing up. I mean, I had to go searching on TV pre-cable to find these movies when I was a kid. And now all you have to do is just watch TCM and it’s like this is just fantastic, you know. So I am very thrilled that they asked me to do this and I’m having a ball and it seems that people are enjoying it very much.
Beth Accomando: Well it always gives me a great pleasure to wake up Sunday morning and see Noir Alley trending on Twitter and...
Eddie Muller: Isn’t that something, yes.
Beth Accomando: Well, it’s...
Eddie Muller: Old movies trending on Twitter. I love that.
Beth Accomando: And it’s so appropriate that it’s on a Sunday because it feels like church. You know, you can just go in and worship.
Eddie Muller: Well, I’m glad, I’m glad you say that because some people wonder like why Sunday morning? Why Sunday morning? And, it makes sense to me. You know, I think that the audiences that I really would love to reach are people who are more likely to watch on a Sunday morning, to be quite honest. So, it always made sense to me.
Beth Accomando: Well, what better time you can be a little hung over from Saturday night and can be, maybe contemplating sins and moral transgressions and perfect for a Sunday morning.
Eddie Muller: Here you go, some of these movies are just like your Sunday sermon.
Beth Accomando: Well, I want to thank you very much for taking time to talk to me and hopefully we’re going to get you down here for one of our films to introduce.
Eddie Muller: That will happen, I’m certain that will happen.
Beth Accomando: I think it might be this Gun For Hire so in March, so hopefully, we can, we’ll be seeing you down here and you can chat with our lovely fans. Our group is called Film Geeks San Diego and we deal with yearlong programming at this little micro cinema. So, we’re a little nerdy about our films.
Eddie Muller: That’s good. It sounds great. I look forward to meeting you and seeing you then.
Beth Accomando: All right. Well, thanks very much and also, let people know where they can, you’re very accessible on social media. So, where can people find you?
Eddie Muller: Where is it they find at Noir Alley is – or Eddy Muller. I guess that I mean it’s funny when you say how do they find? It’s like I don’t know, I guess, you type in my name. I think that’s really how you do it. Either on Facebook or Twitter or you can do that at Noir Alley or you can do at the Film Noir Foundation that, you know, no aliases with me. You know, I don’t hide on social media. I’m not anonymous on social media. So if you want to find me, it’s really, really easy.
Beth Accomando: And where can people find information about the Film Fest if they want to get a ticket or…
Eddie Muller: noircity.com.
Beth Accomando: All right.
Eddie Muller: It’s as simple as that.
Beth Accomando: Well, thank you again. It’s been wonderful talking about noir, which is the genre that or a genre or style, there’s that argument too.
Eddie Muller: Yeah, good you caught yourself there Beth, yes and it opens up a whole other can of worms.
Beth Accomando: I know that’s whole other can of worms so we can talk about that another time.
Eddie Muller: Okay.
Beth Accomando: But it’s something that I adore and I’m so glad that I had a chance to speak with you.
Eddie Muller: It was good. It was entirely my pleasure. Thank you so much.
Beth Accomando: Thanks for listening to another edition of listener supported KPBS Cinema Junkie Podcasts. Once again I want to thank my guest Eddie Muller. You can find him every Sunday morning on TCM’s Noir Alley and his Film Festival Noir City will kick off January 26th in San Francisco.
And I’m excited to announce that the noir series that I’ve been working on with Film Geeks ST will kick off on January 28 at the Digital Gym Cinema. For that series there will be a noir one Sunday a month and those will be kind of classic noir. And then every other month we’ll be showcasing a contemporary noir on a Monday night.
So, if you want more information go to the Film Geeks ST page on Facebook. Until our next film fix, I’m Beth Accomando, your residence Cinema Junkie.