It happens every Saturday night—or rather Sunday morning. The TV’s on, the lights are out, and before the latest entry of celluloid majesty glowingly presents itself before us, that familiar voice starts rolling from the speakers: assured and inviting…
Noir Alley’s resident Wise Guy, Eddie Muller, sells cinema like the bartender he also often reveals himself to be. Whether the “drink” is on the rocks, straight up, or oh so dirty, the way he crafts it makes the offering impossible to resist and—prepped by a true connoisseur—appreciable on a whole other level.
Muller’s love of cinema, and devotion to Film Noir in particular, is evident in his many contributions as a historian, a writer, a programmer, and a very vocal fan. It is his surprisingly cool-as-a-cucumber enthusiasm that has made him a character all his own, as well as the trusted last word on that scintillating, game of shadows, bareknuckle genre—NOIR. We interview him today in the hopes that his expertise can not only broaden our knowledge of Classis Film but peel away the layers of our favorite– the ultimate– Femme Fatale: Ms. Barbara Stanwyck.
EDDIE MULLER: THE CZAR OF NOIR
I absolutely love your TCM intros for Noir Alley. You so prime the viewer for the experience they are about to have that you make even the most diabolically twisted film sound absolutely delicious! How long does it take you to prepare these intros? With all your cinematic knowledge, how do you select what to share and what to leave out?
Thank you so much, I appreciate the kind words. Prep time for an intro varies depending on how well I know the film. I do all my own research and writing and even if I know a film’s backstory well, I still might explore a different angle, especially if I’ve shown it before. So, it varies quite a bit when you add up the research and writing. It can take anywhere from an hour per film to a day or more. Because TCM gives me a bit more time with my intros I try to make them like stories, not just fact-filled preambles. I’m always looking for an unexpected bit of information that might surprise the viewer.
When did you “discover” Film Noir, and what was the film that hooked you?
I first discovered what I’d later learn was film noir on TV, when I was around twelve. Dialing for Dollars in the afternoon, Movies ’til Dawn in the dead of night. Whether it’s entirely accurate or not, I always cite Thieves’ Highway as the film that hooked me. It’s set in San Francisco and takes place largely over one long night, which I always enjoy. Then I was lucky enough to attend many of the great old rep cinemas in San Francisco, calendar houses that showed classic films on 35mm, a new show every day. There were dozens of them back in the 1970s. Sadly there are none left now. Like everyone else, I was first hooked by the noir style. Not just the photography, but the language and the mid-century look, the clothes, the cars, the architecture—that was American style at its zenith. Sadly, it’s been sliding downhill ever since.
You and the Film Noir Foundation are doing an amazing job at restoring the lesser-known Noirs, and above all, revitalizing Noir mythology, making it accessible across generations. Tell us how the Foundation got started and what your short- and long-term goals for it are.
You explained it perfectly. When I created the Film Noir Foundation (FNF) the idea was to rescue missing or orphaned films. When we started exhibiting at multiple Noir City film festivals, the mission expanded to preserving the moviegoing experience; I wanted to not only save the films, but the adventure of going out to see them on a big screen. After twenty years, the mission is now to preserve the audience. It may not seem like it, but most of what I do is aimed at inspiring the curiosity and imagination of young people, so classic cinema will never go out of style. Luckily, noir is the “genre” that has the most across-the-board generational appeal. I call it the “gateway drug to classic cinema.”
Dark City Book Cover
FNF Magazine Cover
Even during their hey-day, Noirs were not considered “prestige” films, which seems quite shocking given the quality of the stories. Why didn’t the studios put their weight behind the genre? And did the films seem to attract a certain demographic?
That’s not exactly true. There are fewer “prestigious” noir productions than there are “B” examples of the form, but they’re significant: Double Indemnity, The Killers, Gilda, The Big Clock, The Postman Always Rings Twice … these were big films. But because noir requires so little in the way of production values — a man, a woman, a hotel room, a gun — once the style caught on with the artists it definitely became a movement in Hollywood—one created and maintained by the craftspeople, not by the studio bosses. The pictures were not expensive to make, and that meant they didn’t lose money making them. For a while, noir was a fairly safe bet to round out studios’ production schedules — at least until competition from TV forced the movies to adopt widescreen and Technicolor to pull viewers out of the house. I don’t believe there was a “demographic” to the audience. What mattered was the main star. In other words, pictures like Mildred Pierce, Sorry Wrong Number, The Man I Love, Nora Prentiss, even The Postman Always Rings Twice were marketed to women because of the popular female stars. Crime pictures, things with Victor Mature, Richard Conte, Richard Widmark, Robert Ryan … those were aimed more at male audiences.
After its elevation to cult-like status– primarily due to reappraisals by 60s French Film critics– Film Noir seemed to be branded as a cerebral, albeit often animal, alternative to the allegedly “more popular” genres of classic film. In the last 20 years, its status and general appreciation has only increased and, one could argue, become more relevant than its counterparts while engaging new generations of fans. Why do you think this is?
It may seem silly, but a big part of it is that the word itself entered the mainstream. “Noir” is now a crossword puzzle answer. It’s not daunting. When I started programming festivals, I was aware that the hardcore cinephiles sort of resented that I sought to appeal to a wider audience. A lot of them wanted to keep it to themselves, scoffing at latecomers who “didn’t get it.” What’s the value of that? How do you create new film lovers? Also, retro-vintage culture resurrected mid-century style, and films noir are the movies that offer that style with wit and sass and sexiness. That’s a big reason the appeal remains so strong. And as I’ve pointed out many times, the definition of noir being somewhat fluid only helps raise interest. People can discuss and debate their own definitions, since it’s not as easily classifiable as a western or a musical or a screwball comedy.
Considerably few of the Oscar-winning ladies & gentlemen of the screen appeared in Noirs, likely due to the bias mentioned earlier. Who of those would you have liked to have seen in Noirs and why?
You mean an Oscar-winning actress who wasn’t in noir? The trick is to not have them play a femme fatale. It needs to be a female protagonist who strays into the underworld either knowingly or unwittingly. Somebody like Greer Garson. It’d be interesting to see her nobility at risk. Anyway, I don’t lose much sleep thinking about who won, or didn’t win, Oscars. Don’t tell Dave Karger … I couldn’t care less about the Oscars.
I know I’m putting you on the spot here, and I know you won’t be able to choose just one, so what are your Top 10 Noirs?
In a Lonely Place, Criss Cross, Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, The Asphalt Jungle, Out of the Past, Nightmare Alley, Raw Deal, The Breaking Point, The Third Man … is that ten? OK, there you go. Ask me next week, I’ll give you a different ten.
Outside of Noir, what are your favorites films, actors, or directors in the grand scheme of Classic Film? Any guilty pleasures, or does such a thing exist in your world?
I don’t believe in guilty pleasures. Nobody has to apologize for liking something. I’ll answer this by sharing the ten films I chose for my contribution to Sight & Sound’s 100 Greatest Films list — another thing I don’t subscribe to: Lists of the “greatest” anything. But it was the first time I’d been asked, so I did it. Napoleon; The Passion of Joan of Arc; The Rules of the Game; Citizen Kane; Sunset Boulevard; The Seven Samurai; Au Hazard Balthazar; The Wild Bunch; Chinatown, and Mulholland Drive. But I like all sorts of movies: History is Made at Night, The Shop Around the Corner, Pale Flower, Vertigo…
With such a grasp of cinematic history, what contemporary films or shows resound with you? Has any modern project ever impacted you the way Golden Era films have?
No, and I don’t think that’s possible. There are things I enjoy of course, but art hits you most profoundly when you are young and impressionable—those are the things you carry with you the longest. To go back to the that Sought & Sound list, the only two films on it that I saw for the first time in the last 20 years were Napoleon and Mulholland Dr. One made in the silent era, the other at the turn of this century. The others I all saw for the first time when I was between 15 and 25. And they have stuck with me … that’s why I consider them “great.” But it’s totally subjective. Lists like these tell you more about the sociology of the times, and the character of the list-maker, than anything significant about the films.
Noir is a highly debatable genre and, per your Film Noir Foundation Facebook webpage, that ‘debate’ — “What makes a film “Noir?”— is actually part of the fun. What is YOUR definition of Noir? What are some examples of films that live more on the fringes and consistently seem to create the most debate?
I come at it from two perspectives. As an American film “historian,” I maintain that film noir was an organic artistic movement that began in the early 1940s and reached into the early ’60s. It was fostered by talents within the studio system, and it had a profound effect on independent filmmakers who’d come to prominence after the studio system was in decline. But as a writer, I see noir from a thematic standpoint. In a truly noir story, the protagonist is rarely innocent. Writers like James M. Cain, Patricia Highsmith, Jim Thompson, David Goodis … they’re noir. The genre-bending thing is interesting. The most crossover is with melodrama. In most cases, film noir is a romantic melodrama with a murder in the mix. That’s pretty much everything by James M. Cain. But people ask me all the time about Westerns that might be considered noir.
With the advent of new technologies, the fragmentation of the entertainment industry, and a myriad of streaming platforms available to viewers, how can Film Noir in particular, and Classic Films in general, compete and continue to live on?
Well, that’s the $64,000 question, isn’t it? I’m certainly doing what I can to carry the torch. It’s not good that our film history, like virtually everything in American culture, is being consolidated into fewer and fewer corporate-owned entities. The tap can be turned off at any time, if they feel there isn’t a sufficient return. That’s not good.
And a natural follow-up question: how much do you think TCM has contributed to the staying power of the Golden Age of films? Do you, as most fans do, consider it a cinematic savior?
Over its 25-plus years of existence, TCM has positioned itself as the gatekeeper of America’s cinematic legacy. The brand is so strong and recognized that when AT&T took over Turner as part of its acquisition of Warner Bros., it took Ted Turner’s name off everything — except TCM. The brand was too strong. But streaming is the challenge. All the studios still extant seem to believe they can have individual streaming services. If they reserve their classic film libraries for those services, it’ll be a big hit to TCM. The network cannot be perceived in the marketplace as a branch of WarnerMedia — TCM must represent the complete spectrum of Hollywood moviemaking, from all the studios, if it is to maintain credibility as the “Gatekeeper of American Cinema.”
Who are the three film personalities of the Golden Era that you would love to have an unfiltered conversation with—presumably over martinis in a smoke-filled speakeasy?
Joan Harrison, Barbara Stanwyck, and Ben Hecht.
Is there/are there any particular Noirs that could have been “perfect,” but there was a creative flaw, a miscasting, etc., that ruined it for you?
That’s a tough one. I’ll repeat two I’ve mentioned in the past. Ricardo Montalban should have played Lt. Vargas in Touch of Evil (which is silly, because Heston got Welles the job directing the picture, so there’s no movie without Heston), and I’d have cast Gloria Grahame in Tight Spot instead of Ginger Rogers. Not that Tight Spot is otherwise perfect, but it is a perfect role for Gloria. Ginger is terrible in it.
If Eddie Muller had not found Noir, what would he most likely be doing today?
Writing. That was always the plan. Honestly, if it wasn’t for Noir, I’d probably have written more novels by now.
What do you consider the touchstone Noirs that can be shared with any “Noir Novice” to make them fall in love? What would be an appropriate age to introduce a kid to Noir? Would you suggest different ones for different age groups?
You may not know this, but I have a children’s book coming out this fall. Running Press, the publisher, is initiating a line called Kid Noir. I wrote the first one, Kitty Feral and the Case of the Marshmallow Monkey. A terrific young artist, Forrest Burdett, did the illustrations. I really wanted to do this because it’s in black-and-white and for ages 4-8. It felt like a great way to familiarize kids with the look of old movies and the iconography of noir. The parents will get a kick out of the references to classic noir films. I like to think a lot of the stuff we included will have a time-release impact; maybe ten or fifteen years down the road a young person will see a noir film and say, “Hey, I get it now—this was like my Kitty Feral book!” But in answer to your other question: I’d show ‘em either Double Indemnity or Out of the Past. And I’d start early, before media over-stimulation ruins their attention spans.
BARBARA STANWYCK: THE QUEEN OF NOIR
Moving on to Stanwyck: in her own words at the AFI Tribute, Billy Wilder “taught her how to kill,” but prior to Double Indemnity (1944), there was nothing in her filmography that would indicate she would become the ultimate Femme Fatale. What made Stanwyck so uniquely qualified for Noir? What did Wilder see in her to utilize or “unleash” that no other filmmaker had before?
Oh, I don’t know about that. In some of Stanwyck’s pre-Code movies she’s already flashing the tough-as-nails attitude that she’d bring to noir, ones like Baby Face and Night Nurse and Ladies They Talk About. I think Wilder knew she’d bring gravity to a character that’s cryptic and a bit underwritten. Any actor who can do Stella Dallas and Ball of Fire can pretty much do anything. But it’s Stanwyck’s ingrained toughness that makes her perfect in noir. She handled hardboiled dialogue as well as Bogart.
What are your favorite Stanwyck Noirs and why?
Impossible to pick one. Instead, I’ll just point out that she’s never really the same in any of them. Phyllis is different from Martha Ivers, who’s nothing like Leona Stevenson, the woman she plays in Sorry, Wrong Number. I love her face in No Man of Her Own when the Justice of the Peace says, “Until death do you part,” and you realize she’s found the way out. A classic Stanwyck moment. I don’t love Clash by Night, but her character, Mae Doyle, is absolutely fantastic—it’s a brilliant gender reversal of all the roles. Her scenes with Robert Ryan are incredible. She’s the alienated, ennui-ridden loner and he’s the homme fatal. And Paul Douglas is the male equivalent of the staid and loyal female homebody you see in so many noirs—the “good girl” left behind by the cheating spouse. Witness to Murder and Crime of Passion are both fascinating because Stanwyck is still flashing a lot of that fierce dame from the ’40s but the regrouped patriarchy of 1950s America is trying to shove her back in the margins. Those are really interesting films … although I hate Stanwyck’s hair in them.
We made a list of Stanwyck’s top 10 Film Noirs. Anything you would change about the list? Can you tell us a bit about each one of the films and Stanwyck’s contribution to it?
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers
Sorry, Wrong Number
The Lady Gambles
The File on Thelma Jordon
No Man of Her Own
Clash by Night
Witness to Murder
Crime of Passion
I’d probably rate No Man of Her Own higher, maybe fourth. But it seems to me these are in chronological order, not necessarily rated [Note from the editor: They are rated, it happened to coincide chronologically too]. The Lady Gambles becomes an even more intriguing film if you replace gambling with sex. The Production Code would never have allowed a story about a nymphomaniac — but I swear that’s what this movie is really about. I think the gambling is a ruse. Joan Boothe, the character Stanwyck plays, is really a sex addict. Watch it again one of these days and let me know what you think. The Furies is still an underrated picture, sort of a missing Anthony Mann western, like The Tall Target and Devil’s Doorway. Did any actress ride a horse better than Stanwyck?
Two Stanwyck films were brought to my attention recently as potential Noirs: The Violent Men and Jeopardy. In your estimation, do they qualify?
I haven’t seen The Violent Men, so I can’t comment—although if I was going to add a couple of films to your list, I’d go with Cry Wolf and The Two Mrs. Carrolls. Neither is top-tier, but they’re right in the midst of the noir movement and feel at least noir-stained. I love Jeopardy, but it’s really more of a suspense film than a noir. Stanwyck’s fight scene with Ralph Meeker is really something…
Gonna put you on the spot here: do you like the wig in Double Indemnity?
I have no issue with it. It was meant to look cheap and fake, like a big warning beacon that Walter completely ignores. I don’t think people object to the platinum color, they can’t get over the curled bangs.
If you could meet Stanwyck today and ask her a few questions, what would you ask?
If I met Stanwyck today she’d be 116 years old, so I’d ask, “What’s your diet?” But if you mean meeting at a time when it was actually possible, I guess I’d say, “May I buy a drink for the greatest actress of all time?” You know, I dedicated a cocktail to her in Noir Bar, my new cocktail book. I chose The Brooklyn, and paired it with The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, which I suppose is the noir in which she plays a character closest to herself. I’d just encourage to tell stories about her career.
What is/are your favorite Stanwyck movies outside of Noir and why?
Holy Cow! Where to start? All those pre-Codes I mentioned earlier. Remember the Night. I love the Douglas Sirk films, All I Desire and There’s Always Tomorrow. The Lady Eve is one of the greatest romantic comedies ever. And Ball of Fire. Stella Dallas, truly a heartbreaker. Christmas in Connecticut, of course. And Forty Guns might be the most dominant Stanwyck performance of all-time. I also love her chapter in Flesh and Fantasy, the romance with Charles Boyer.
In your words, what is Stanwyck’s place in Noir mythology? What is her place within the overall Classic Film realm. What did Stanwyck bring to the table that none other did?
In my estimation she is the greatest movie actress ever. And she would be that with or without the noir movement. She was completely natural in her approach and could disappear into roles in ways that other actresses, like Davis or Crawford, could not. As magnetic and compelling as other actresses are, Stanwyck never seems to be acting, she just embodies the character. Her range is greater than anyone’s. The same woman who plays Sugarpuss O’Shea plays Jessica Drummond in Forty Guns. How’s that possible? Stella Dallas is also Phyllis Dietrichsen. Stanwyck is the most protean actress to ever work in front a camera.
Through your intros in TCM, we’ve learned that you have had the privilege to know many of the Noir personalities. Did you get to meet Stanwyck? At the very least, do you have any Stanwyck anecdotes you’ve heard over the years?
Never did meet her. All I know is that no one I’ve met who worked with her had a single negative thing to say, even if they were miles apart politically. Like Buzz Bezzerides, who was a dyed-in-the-wool lefty. He created The Big Valley for Stanwyck because he hated the idea that she wasn’t getting steady film work as she got older. Stanwyck’s reputation is as the ultimate professional.
We just came out of “Oscars Season.” Any Stanwyck Noir performances besides Double Indemnity you think deserved a nomination or award? By the way, was Stany robbed of an Oscar in 1944?
As I said, I don’t delve too deeply into Oscar stuff. The fact that Stanwyck never won an Oscar tells you all you need to know. Anyway, Oscars tend to go to the best-written character. The true test of a great actor is when they make you believe in a badly written character! That’s where actors really earn their pay! Look at No Man of Her Own — it’s an absolutely preposterous premise but Stanwyck sells every single minute of it.
Who do you consider to be Stanwyck’s greatest Femme Fatale Foil?
Fred McMurray doesn’t get enough credit for his performance in Double Indemnity. He’s great. And it’s hard not to argue that he’s her greatest foil. Granted, I have yet to see The Moonlighter, but they’re great together in Remember the Night, Double Indemnity, and There’s Always Tomorrow.
If Stany were working today, do you think any directors currently in the industry would be able to bring out performances from her on par with what she did with Wilder or Frank Capra?
I have no doubt. I’m sure she could teach the youngsters a thing or two, as well.
The current industry is filled with creative women taking the helm in the director’s chair, writing and producing projects of their own… How do you think Stany would have fared as a filmmaker?
I don’t think she would have chosen that route. I’d be curious if she ever talked to Ida Lupino about it. It never seemed to me that Stanwyck had ambitions beyond being the best actress she could be. I respect her for that.
In the world of imagination, what is the greatest Stanwyck role or Stanwyck Film Noir never made or where she should have been cast?
I’d have enjoyed seeing her play the dual role that Olivia de Haviland had in The Dark Mirror. It would have suited her. And then the Queen of Noir would have made a film with the guy I consider to be the best director of noir, Robert Siodmak.
You’re Philip Marlowe. It’s after midnight in the City of Angels. You’re neck deep in Scotch and drinking off your latest migraine. Stanwyck walks into your office and offers you a case… Do you take it? Or does the well-informed Muller voice inside compel you to run for the fire escape?!
I take it. All the way to the end of the line, baby.
Thank you so much Eddie for enriching our readers with your protean answers and for your love for The Queen of Noir.