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The Way You Wear Your Black Hat: A Chat with Eddie Muller, Part 2

24 February 2010 Stories and Appreciations 4,538 views One CommentPrint This Post Print This Post Email This Post Email This Post

EDITOR’S NOTE: In part one of this interview with “The Czar of Noir” Eddie Muller, the film historian explained what film noir is. This time, he talks about the things that makes film noir so easy to love. Read part one here.

It’s blessedly easy to get the Czar of Noir to go off on tangents. Sure, Eddie Muller is immersed in the history and mythos of film noir, but he’s not averse to using that genre as a lens to examine other kinds of movies. In the course of our 40-minute chat in the lobby of Seattle’s venerable Sorrento Hotel, talk ranged from Muller’s take on Curtis Hanson’s adaptation of James Ellroy’s “LA Confidential” (“Good script, well-acted … everybody’s great in that movie, even Kim Basinger”) to his opinion of Leonardo DiCaprio (an exceptionally talented actor, but usually miscast). We talked appreciatively of Clive Owen and Daniel Craig, and how cool it would have been if Sterling Hayden had gotten the Quint role in “Jaws.” And we talked about modern Hollywood’s seeming allergy to unique and unusual actors like Hayden, without whom film noir might scarcely have existed.

“In old Hollywood so many people came from theater and radio where they primarily used their voices to get their character across, and you just don’t see that anymore,” says Muller. “You know what’s gone? You never see impressionists any longer, because there’s nobody to impersonate. Jack Nicholson was pretty much the last really, really distinctive movie star — almost to a fault, because it gets to a point where he’s doing ‘that jack Nicholson thing’ again. But other than that, I don’t know if there is anybody else that is that distinctive. You’re never going to see another Edward G Robinson as a movie star – you’re just not going to see that, where a guy who looks like that is the star of movies for years and years and years. You’re not going to see another Bogart.”

That night, at the opening of the Noir City film series at SIFF Cinema, Muller screened living proof of those words in the form of a music video. “The Endless Night,” a hypnotic collage of noir clips set to Massive Attack’s “Angel,” encapsulates nearly everything there is to love about film noir: the austere lighting, the inventive camera angles, the tough palaver, the unique voices, the unforgettable faces. It’s all in there. And as Muller notes with unabashed pleasure, the clip was made by a 20-year-old girl. It’s living proof that the dark city of film noir is still there, still luring in onlookers with the promise of easy riches and trapping them in failed plans. Good thing, too.

Monkey Goggles:
When I got into film noir, I was surprised by how many other genres it encapsulated. Noirs don’t have to be set in the 1940s or 50s or even have the standard assortment of gangsters and cops. “The Big Clock,” one of my favorites, is almost sci-fi.

Eddie Muller: Have you read the book? You should go back and read up on Kenneth Fearing, the guy that wrote “The Big Clock.” Fascinating character. He was primarily a poet, and an incredible socialist fireband of the 1930s… The book is really something; there’s a lot more going on in the book than there is in the movie. There’s a lot of strange sex in that one; a lot of homosexuality that, needless to say, didn’t make it into the movie at that time.

MG: American, French and British directors all tackled film noir. Are there major stylistic differences between them?

EM: There’s a difference in tone. There’s no question in my mind that the French have a very romanticized approach to all of this; French noir is very much about the doomed romance. American noir is much tougher, much more unsentimental. British noir can be pretty nasty but it has that interesting British refinement on top of it, where it’s not as down and dirty as what you’re going to see in the States. But I’m not describing noir, I’m describing the cultures themselves. It all plays out in noir; you see the cultural differences.

MG: Let’s talk about the actors a bit. Here’s a question from my friend Krysztof: Who’s the hottest dame in noir?

EM: As a connoisseur, I would have to say that there are many ways to answer that question. Probably the ultimate noir woman is Gloria Grahame. Personally, I’m a Linda Darnell freak. If you’re asking me who I wanna travel back in time and try to pick up at a bar, then it definitely would be Darnell.

MG: Who’s the most hapless patsy?

EM: That has to be Elisha Cook, Jr. He’s Hollywood’s definitive patsy, or loser, or whichever word you want to use.

MG: Are there any actors you wish had done a film noir, but never did?

EM: I’m going to twist the question a little. The one I wish had done more in noir, who I feel was really great and underutilized, was actress Ella Raines. She was terrific, but she never played opposite the right guy, and that was the problem. If she had played opposite (Richard) Widmark or Robert Mitchum or Richard Conte, someone like that, I think she would have had more of an impact. She ended up opposite Franchot Tone, Brian Donlevy … and no offense to Edmond O’Brien, but he didn’t have the sexual charisma going on, and she never got to display hers. She was so smart and sexy, and she could have done a lot more in the genre then she did. She never really had that defining part in the way Linda Darnell had one in “Fallen Angel,” where she’s a definitive femme fatale. I think Ella Raines could have been really interesting, but it never quite happened.

MG: On that note: You’re one of the biggest proponents of getting these films restored and back into circulation. Are there any film noirs you’d like to see restored, but it just hasn’t happened yet?

EM: “Too Late for Tears” was at the top of the list, but we’re restoring that now, so that’s a good thing. There’s a film called “Guilty Bystander” that I really want to restore. There are films that I know of that the studios are letting slip away, but there’s only so much I can do if it’s owned by a studio. It’s definitely not a priority for them. It’s somewhat shocking, but it really isn’t, you know. (The major studios) are landlords, and in some cases, they’re slumlords. It’s as simple as that; they own too much property, and some of it is going to deteriorate and run down.

MG: Are there any restored films at this year’s Noir City festival?

EM: “Larceny.” It’s a great movie that no one has seen, and it’s a brand-new 35mm print. There are good guys at the studios; Universal works very well with us. They grant us three wishes every so often. The only print (of “Larceny”) we’d ever seen was 16mm and it was pretty lousy, (so Universal gave us) a brand-new 35mm print and the audience will love it. The chatter in this movie is so funny, and Shelley Winters is incredible.

MG: Have you seen pretty much every noir there is?

EM: I consciously do not see everything because I’ve realized that I want to have films that I can watch when I’m 60, 70 years old. I haven’t seen every Gloria Grahame movie — there’s, like, three that I don’t want to watch now, I want to watch them in ten years.

MG: Fair enough. So, what do we say to people to get them started down these mean streets? What do say to get them out of line for “Shutter Island” and into SIFF?

EM: See the real thing before you see the imitation. You’ll appreciate the imitation more — or not. If you want to see guys who can really wear a hat, come see these movies.

Geoff Carter


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One Comment »

  1. […] EDITOR’S NOTE: Film noir isn’t just a genre of filmmaking; it’s practically a world unto itself, a entire dark city that’s too big to cover in one pass. In this installment, film historian Eddie Muller talks about what film noir is, and in part 2, he tells you some of the reasons he loves it. Read part 2 here. […]

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