TCM host Eddie Muller on his festival lineup of Classy A's and Trashy B's
by Sara Michelle Fetters -
SGN A&E Writer
NOIR CITY FILM FESTIVAL
SIFF CINEMA EGYPTIAN THEATRE
For fans of classic films, the return of the Noir City Film Festival to the SIFF Egyptian is cause for celebration. Best-selling author, Film Noir Foundation founder and Turner Classic Movies (TCM) 'Noir Alley' host Eddie Muller returns once again to showcase seven days of dark, twisted favorites he likes to call, 'One week of classy A's and trashy B's.' An intoxicating mixture that ranges from signature classics like The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon, two films that made a superstar out of Humphrey Bogart, to lesser known discoveries like 1942's Quiet Please, Murder with George Sanders and 1950's The Man Who Cheated Himself with recognizable character actor Lee J. Cobb in one of his few starring roles, each night offers a familiar favorite paired with a lesser known discovery, the idea being audiences will treat them as a double-feature and stay for both.
I had the great pleasure to chatting with Muller over the phone about the Noir City festival, his upcoming trip to Seattle, working for TCM, film restoration and a number of other items covering both classic and modern film. Here are some of the highlights from our sprawling, hour-long conversation:
Sara Michelle Fetters: Looking at the lineup this year, A) it's outstanding, but B) it's also an interesting mix of familiar favorites and then a lot of really provocative, so-called 'B's' in here, too. How did you come up with this lineup?
Eddie Muller: You can call them 'B's,' because they truly are.
But there were a few things involved with programming this year's festival. Number one, I really wanted to reclaim the term 'B-movie' for actual B-movies, because I think a lot of people misuse the term these days. They think it's a pejorative, like, 'Oh, that's just a B-movie,' like it's cheesy or something. In a lot of people's minds, that's what defines a B-movie. It's somehow discussing the quality of the film, or what type of film it is.
In reality, a B-movie from this era was nothing but a movie made to play on the bottom half of the double-bill. That was one of the reasons. I was tired of people saying stuff like this. It's amazing! Last night I was standing in the lobby of the theater and somebody who was kind of new to the whole thing walks up to me and says, 'Should I just ask you what is your definition of Film Noir?' and this woman walking by says, 'They're B-movies!' It's like, no! Don't listen to her! That's just not true, and I don't know where people get this weird idea about what a B-movie is. Every studio either had a B-unit or they were a studio that existed for the express purpose of making B-movies.
When you went to the theatre there was the A picture and a B picture, and invariably people went to the movies to see the A picture. That was the one that was getting the publicity. That was the one that was getting the reviews. But as a bonus, it was like, here's the B picture, too. That's how generous all of this used to be, right? Also, because the movies were a lot shorter back then, you could have two movies, because the A picture might be 90 minutes long, and the B picture would be 65 minutes long or 70 minutes long, or something similar to that.
Sara Michelle Fetters: I look at the first two nights of the festival. There's John Huston's The Maltese Falcon. There's Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt. But then there are the films they are paired with. I'd never even heard of Quiet Please, Murder, but once I read the synopsis and saw that it starred George Sanders I knew it was one I had to put right at the top of my list. As for William Cameron Menzies's 1944 WWII Noir Address Unknown, I had heard of that one, but I never imagined I'd get the opportunity to see it in a theatre paired with a Hitchcock classic.
Eddie Muller: And they both went over like gangbusters at the festival, here in San Francisco! They're crowd pleasers. I just think that, when you present these films in the proper context, and you're telling people here's what a B-film was, it just makes such a difference. These films were shorter. They had smaller budgets. They were a proving ground for a lot of directors. These movies were a lifeline for a lot of actors who, maybe, not always, were on the way down. These films forced people to be more creative and resourceful. They were working with less.
Those two movies, they don't have to apologize for anything. They're really well written and beautifully directed, beautifully photographed, and it's amazing what they could do in Hollywood during this time period.
But the other idea with this festival was that I really wanted to show the films in chronological order. I just felt that it was really important for people to see how Film Noir developed and why I think The Maltese Falcon is the first real example of it. But I also want to show people that this style touched on other types of film. Address Unknown is not really a Film Noir, and neither are Flesh and Fantasy and Destiny. But they look sort of like Film Noir, especially Flesh and Fantasy, but the film itself is still a slightly different thing, more like an early 'Twilight Zone.'
Sara Michelle Fetters: What is it like putting a festival like this together with the folks over at SIFF? How does Noir City differ from say the version your putting on in San Francisco right now?
Eddie Muller: Well, in San Francisco these are presented as double-features, so there's only one ticket price for each set of films. With SIFF running the theatre and being a non-profit, it's understandable they'd still want to sell individual tickets for each film, but I've still programmed things in the double-feature format.
SIFF did want to focus on some big titles. The Big Sleep. Mildred Pierce. Films like that. SIFF had kind of requested those, and that's fine by me. Here's the chance to see The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep and Mildred Pierce on a big screen, which is nice. We worked to place them into the proper flow of the program; but, like you pointed out, I'm really excited about showing the B-movies that are very rare; showing audiences just how different B-movies could be. Jealousy is a print from the British Film Institute that is a very arty, European-style take on a B about a woman who is kind of framed for murdering her husband. Her already suicidal husband. Then stuff like Blind Spot, Bodyguard and The Threat, these are all classic B-movies, in some cases, made by people that you'd never heard of again. Blind Spot is directly by this guy named Robert Gordon. Nobody knows anything about him. But Bodyguard is directed by Richard Fleischer, it's an early film of his, and he'd go on to be one of the biggest A-list directors in Hollywood.
Sara Michelle Fetters: Does it surprise you at all by how successful this festival has been on an annual basis? That people have really embraced the whole idea of Noir City and are so excited to see these films?
Eddie Muller: I'm not going to say I'm surprised. I am going to say I'm grateful. I think it fulfills something that maybe people didn't even know they wanted, or needed, but as the festival has gone on, it will be 20 years that I've been doing this film festival this Spring, the popularity has only increased. As the culture has veered further away from this kind of communal, movie-going experience, it's only gotten more popular. The culture, going one way, has created the opportunity for success for this festival because the people who come to it are people who love movies. They don't want to see the new thing just being rammed down their throat. They can think for themselves.
In some respects, it's a style thing. Obviously, there's a whole section of the culture, a younger section of the culture, that has embraced it, whether it's retro-style or the cocktail culture, any of that kind of vintage, these people really turn out for Noir City. I think it gives them a chance to meet like-minded people and explore these films as they were originally meant to be seen, communally in a darkened theatre. They can dress up, if they choose to. In San Francisco, it's amazing - it's like a party, a social event.
Seattle's a little tougher on that front. [laughs] Everybody wants their parkas and their flannel. You all come out for the movies, you love the films, but you don't dress up. I've come to the conclusion that Seattle doesn't dress up for anybody.
Sara Michelle Fetters: Well, we dress up for Star Wars and Star Trek, but that might be just about it.
Eddie Muller: Well, yeah. That's almost to be expected, right?
But all joking aside, I do want to be clear, none of what I said doesn't mean Seattle isn't appreciating the festival. You do. A lot. It's just that Seattle doesn't dress up, which I think is interesting because it's also apparent just how seriously your city takes these movies. Seattle loves classic film. The passion is palpable.
I do think it helps that my being so visible as a host, providing context, it's helps to put a face and voice to the festival. I honestly don't know how significant it is, but I do think it is significant. I think if these were un-hosted events I don't know if Noir City would go over quite as well.
But it isn't like I'm taking people back to film school. It's just fun context to make the movies that much more interesting. I give you a backstory. If you're saying, 'I've never seen this guy before, who is he?' I'll tell you who he is. I think that really helps.
Sara Michelle Fetters: You talk about being visible. I think a major case could be made that you've never been more visible than you are right now, what with the success of 'Noir Alley' on TCM.
Eddie Muller: The response has been fantastic. It's meant so much to me. Obviously, if somebody comes along, gives you your own television show, even if it's nothing different than what you've been doing all along, that's still a validation. Having audiences embrace what we're doing? That's even more of one.
Of course, I can reach more people on 'Noir Alley' than I could ever reach doing book tours or hosting Noir City festivals in cities like Seattle. What I find most gratifying about the whole experience is that Turner Classic Movies has not tried to co-opt anything that I do. They haven't tried to change any of it. They saw what I did and said they wanted me to come do the same thing for them. But they have never tried to make me fit any other mold but my own. They've always been like, 'Just do what you do. That's fine.'
Sara Michelle Fetters: I actually interviewed the late TCM host Robert Osborne a couple of times, and I always got the feeling after speaking with him that that was exactly his point of view as it pertained to talking about and exploring, not just classic film, but all films. Period. It's nice to hear that this is how TCM is still choosing to do things.
Eddie Muller: That's exactly right. Robert always set the tone for the network. What I find very gratifying was that when they said they wanted me to do the show I immediately responded by saying I was going to write my own material. And they said that was fine. No pressure. No questions asked. I could never get in front of a camera and just speak somebody else's words about a movie. I can't do that.
When I wrote my first introductions, they were long, much longer than the standard TCM introduction. Their response? They said it was fine. They thought it was good. It separated Noir Alley from anything else on TCM. It was distinct. They felt that, if I was fine with it, then they were good with these introductions being a little longer and more intricate, too. That was pretty empowering.
It's just, that's my comfort zone. I only do a movie a week. Current TCM prime time host Mankiewicz does everything. Ben isn't going to do five-minute intros to every movie. It wouldn't make any sense. It would be logistically impossible for him to record that many, at that length. So I get this little perk of I can talk as much as I want, and it's comfortable for me to do that.
And they built me that set. [laughs] Everybody is very jealous of my set.
Sara Michelle Fetters: You've got the show; it's a success. You do Noir City every year; it's a big success. You're at the Film Noir Foundation, still helping run things and making all these decisions in regards to restorations and other matter related to these classic films. How do you balance everything?
Eddie Muller: It's sort of all integrated, but still distinct. Everything flows together. Even 'Noir Alley' is part of that now. The restoration we just did for the Film Noir Foundation of The Man Who Cheated Himself, which we will be showing in Seattle on February 22nd, that just started because I just knew the film had to be restored. The only print that we knew existed contracted Vinegar Syndrome. We were never going to be able to show that film again. But I was like, let's see if we could find some good material. Let's see if we can get this film in shape so it can be exhibited.
I knew that there was a negative out there, but the rights issues on this movie are very questionable. It was like nobody actually owned it. So you have to be very persuasive and talk with the people who possess the negative. You have to convince them to hand it over to you. You say, 'You're not going to be able to make money with this movie anyway because you don't own it. So give it up. Let us save it.'
That happened, and because that was what transpired it gave us the opportunity to restore the film. As soon as it is restored, of course, we now have a film to show at the Noir City festivals. Once that happens, I also work in partnership with a company, Flicker Alley, that produces DVDs and Blu-Rays, and so it's like, now we can put this movie out on DVD and Blu-ray. Then once we know we've got a digital transfer to make the Blu-ray, I talk to the head of programming at TCM and it's like, now we can show this on 'Noir Alley' because TCM has never had the opportunity to show this film before.
So there you go. Film Noir Foundation, Noir City, the Blu-ray/DVD market and then showing on TCM, the restoration of this film touches all of the things that I'm involved in. And that's how it should be. It works really well. Everybody has an interest in it and everybody contributes, which I think is fantastic. The Film Noir Foundation pays to have the film restored, but then the cost of doing a digital transfer and the cost of all of those other things gets kind of shared between all of these other partners who have an interest in the film once it has been restored. It works really well. It's a good system.
Sara Michelle Fetters: What's next for you? What do you still want to do that you haven't already?
Eddie Muller: That's a good question. I don't know. The answer is that I always want to be productive and I always want to do creative things. I think that's what I'm doing, even if I do wish I had more time to work on the novel I'm writing. I've also had a script that I intend to film and turn into a movie that I've been trying to get done for a year and a half now, and I can never find a long enough window of time to just concentrate on that.
Sara Michelle Fetters: For people who are uncertain about attending a festival like Noir City, what do you say to them?
Eddie Muller: I have absolutely no idea why someone would be pensive. I'll answer that question with an anecdote. A friend of mine, I wish I could find this post and send it to you, this fellow who came from just outside Washington, D.C., he came to the festival in San Francisco and he wrote this beautiful post. It wasn't even about the movies. It was about the experiences; going to the festival and watching these movies with all different types of people. He said that, one night, on the last Monday, we showed this Humphrey Bogart movie, Conflict.
Sara Michelle Fetters: Such a great movie.
Eddie Muller: It is. It's very, very good.
But, anyway, he sat next to a guy who had never seen a Humphrey Bogart movie before and the guy admitted to him that he was just walking by the theater and I saw all of these really incredible looking people going into the theater. This is my crowd that dresses up, right? He just stood there and watched for ten minutes and realized that it was a mix of people just going to a movie. It wasn't a private party. Wasn't some high-priced thing. He saw all these other people going in wearing jeans and t-shirts and thought, 'I've got to see what this is.' He just went in cold. He didn't know what Film Noir was. He didn't know anything about it at all. But he said it was a revelation. He watched Conflict and it was like it was one of the greatest things he'd ever seen. The guy was 24-years-old. He had no idea what this was. But he didn't care. It was just a great experience. The movie captivated him and he said to this guy from Washington D.C., 'I'm coming back.'
That's it. That's all you could ask for, so that's my answer to that question.
Sara Michelle Fetters: You look at the Noir movement of the '40s and '50s, you look at the counter-culture movement of the '70s, these were huge moments in cinema history where the major Hollywood studios actually funded some pretty daring and dangerous films. Do you think that in today's environment that something like this is even possible? That even though there are filmmakers out there that want to try to tell some of those stories, especially with the current political and social climate being what it is, that anyone in Hollywood would be willing to take similar sort of risks?
Eddie Muller: That's a good question. I don't know. I think our culture is so fractured now that I don't think there's anything that would be a tidal wave like Film Noir was, or like those films you speak of from the 1970s were. It's just a thousand cuts now. Sequels and superheroes. Franchises. Back then, back when Billy Wilder could make Double Indemnity, this was a time when there was a major shift in Hollywood. You take hugely popular stars, stars like Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck, and you make them murderers. You could get the audience to kind of empathize with them.
When it looks like they're not going to get away with the murder, you're secretly going, 'Come on, come on. They're going to pull this off, right?' That's pretty subversive for America in 1944. I don't know that you can do anything like that in a movie today. What's subversive today? I don't really know. People thought La La Land was subversive because it was a musical. I don't know.
Now, it's not that the form in any way is subversive; it's more like they're just trading parts. It's like they're saying, 'We're going to make this movie, but we're going to have a Black cast in it,' or 'We're going to switch and make the women the stars of this thing.' You know what I'm saying? And that is important. That is different. I'm not belittling any of that. But that's just reconfiguring the tried and true. I'm not sure there's anything truly subversive there.
The way Film Noir just looked different than anything else; do you think it's possible to have that happen now? I don't know. I guess, in some respects, that was like action movies. All of a sudden, when you got The Matrix, it just changed the way people photograph action. Now, I think that is a movement that is over and done. I do not need to see another slow motion bullet traveling through the air as long as I live. I don't need to see people go into an exaggerated leap and suddenly it's slow motion. But that movie did do something different. It changed things. There's no denying that.
I guess that's my answer to your question. I just think the culture is far too fragmented now for anything to appear to be a massive shift. The Hollywood studios don't take those sort of risks.
Noir City begins tonight at the SIFF Cinema Egyptian Theatre with 1941's The Maltese Falcon and 1942's Quiet Please, Murder. Some of the notable films scheduled to be screened during the festival are Mildred Pierce, 'Shadow of a Doubt,' 'The Big Sleep,' 'Kiss of Death' and a freshly restored print 1950's 'The Man Who Cheated Himself.' Tickets can be bought at the SIFF Egyptian box office or at https://www.siff.net/year-round-cinema/film-festivals/noir-city.
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