Interview: Eddie Muller, Film Noir Foundation

Gun Crazy hi-resA warning: the following interview with Eddie Muller does not contain any discussion of the question, ‘what is film noir?’ It’s one of the few film noir related topics I didn’t talk about with him. Muller, sometimes known as ‘the Czar of Noir’, is a busy guy, founder and president of the Film Noir Foundation, fiction and non-fiction author, publisher, film restorer and now DVD distributor. His Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir (1998) and Dark City Dames: The Wicked Women of Film Noir (2001) are required reading for all would-be scholars film noir, and he has a new book out, Gun Crazy: The Origin of American Outlaw Cinema. Directed by Joseph H Lewis, Gun Crazy is the sordid story of a husband and wife team of criminal sociopaths, played by Peggy Cummins and John Dall. The film sank without a trace upon its release in 1950, but is now regarded as a classic and a much earlier precursor to the 1967 film, Bonnie and Clyde.

You have a new book out, Gun Crazy: The Origin of American Outlaw Cinema. As the title suggests, it’s about the making and influence of Joseph H Lewis’s 1950 film, Gun Crazy. As you stress in the book, the film hardly caused a ripple when it was first released. Why a book about this film, what’s so significant about it?

For the very reason you point out, Andrew! I’m intrigued by how a film that almost completely slipped through the cracks on its initial release went on to become probably the most influential film from the year it was made. Its producers, the King Brothers, really put their hearts into this one; they believed they were making something several cuts above their usual fare and wouldn’t you know it — it’s the only film they ever produced that lost money. The other main reason I wanted to write this book — and don’t take offense at this — is that I wanted to stick a nail in the whole notion of the auteur theory. In fact, I say right in the introduction that one of my goals is to convince anyone who reads the book to never again call it “Joseph H. Lewis’ Gun Crazy.” There were too many essential collaborators for Lewis to get all the credit.

One of the highlights of the book is it’s full of never-before-seen ephemera, everything from original script notes to on set photos. Without giving away too many trade secrets, where do you source this material? I presume you have some pretty good networks as a result of your previous work on film noir?

It’s not that the sources are a trade secret, it’s just that you have to be willing to disregard the conventional wisdom and dig deeper on your own. The bulk of my material came from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Library of Congress, and the Film Center at the Art Institute of Chicago (where Lewis donated a lot of his papers). And yes, in some ways my reputation worked decidedly to my advantage. There was some terrific material on the King Brothers at the Academy but it had never been formally catalogued, so it was off limits to researchers. Fortunately, I was able to persuade them to give me access, and I gained valuable insights, especially into Frank Kings professional and personal life. He was a more complicated man than I suspect he’ll be portrayed (by John Goodman) in the forthcoming biopic of Dalton Trumbo.

Gun Crazy: The Origin of American Outlaw Cinema is released by Black Pool Productions, a publishing house you founded in 2013. You don’t seem to have had too many problems getting your material published in the past. What led to the decision to set up your own publishing house?

For a book this size there is virtually no reason not to publish it myself. Thanks to my previous books and my Noir City film festivals I’ve established something close to a “brand.” The kind of work I do isn’t really intended to break through to a mainstream audience — I’m preaching to the converted, although my goal is to shake things up a bit and subvert some of the calcified conventional wisdom. Also, strictly from a financial standpoint, I’ll come out much better publishing the book myself than if I sold it to a big house and let it dole out the royalties. I’ve had my fill of those arcane, incomprehensible accounting practices. I know my costs down to the nickel. I’ve already broken even on the two books I’ve published through Black Pool.

Gun Crazy

Black Pool has published one previous book, the first ever-English language edition of Philippe Garnier’s biography of pulp writer David Goodis, Goodis: A Life in Black and White. How did that project come about?

Garnier and I have become not just colleagues, but very dear friends. He is singularly responsible for my being published and accepted in France. We’ve known each other as long as I’ve been doing my Czar of Noir shtick; to be honest, at first he thought I was a bit of an asshole, because I had so little work to substantiate my persona as an “impresario.” But then I dug up and screened a few films noir that even he had never seen. I guess that won him over. He really liked my first novel, The Distance, and shepherded its publication in French. Anyway, he wrote that Goodis bio in French, back in 1983, and resisted every come-on from a United States publisher because he didn’t feel confident in their commitment to it. Finally, I just said “Hell, I’ll publish it”— mainly because I wanted to read the damn thing! I can’t read French to save my life.

Do you have any future book project in the pipeline for Black Pool?

Oh, yeah. I’ll never run out of projects. The key thing is finding a project that is the right size for you to do yourself. It doesn’t mean I’ll never work with a large publishing house again — but it definitely gives me bargaining leverage that didn’t exist when I was starting out. If they want my book, they can do it my way— otherwise I’ll just do it myself. It’s not like they can or would promote me any more than I’ve been able to promote myself. Also, my expectations are very realistic. I’m not looking to sell 60,000 copies and become some literary sensation. I just like spending my time doing things that interest me and knowing there is an avid audience of like-minded people who are just fine not being in the mainstream.

I don’t want to get into the old chestnut about ‘what is film noir’ but I am interested in your thoughts about why it seems to be so popular at the moment. Is it an extension of general popularity of cult and rare film that has occurred with the rise of the Internet or are there some factors behind it specific to the film noir genre?

The artist in me believes that film noir is endlessly fascinating because there was a perfect storm of factors that led to it being an organic artistic movement. There was a the literary angle, the cinematic innovations, the economic factors in the industry, and of course the social and political convulsions that were playing out in the background. That stuff is largely for the scholars. On a more practical level, I think the people who are drawn to noir today recognize it as a product of the last time America was truly great. In these films you see the zenith of American style, but you’re seeing it precisely at the time the nation is losing its innocence. It’s interesting to note that the films inspired a great deal of fear at the time of their release because they were saying such dark and cynical things about the culture we had become. So it’s amusing to me to realize that for a contemporary audience these movies are now essentially comfort food. We are so much worse today then we were back then. Movies that were once warning shots are now a respite from the cesspool of our contemporary society.

The work of the Film Noir Foundation is widely known, including the work it does preserving old film noir. What may be less well known is that in addition to preserving old US film noir, the Foundation is increasingly involved in preserving noir films made elsewhere in the world. How did this come about and could you very briefly tell us about some of the overseas films the Foundation has worked to preserve.

Well, that’s pretty simple. We Americans grew up thinking we were the center of the universe. We may have invented jazz and we may have invented burlesque, but I am coming around to the conclusion that we didn’t necessarily invent film noir. I do believe we perfected it. Although I’ve found examples of noir in other countries— not just France, but Mexico, Norway, Spain, Italy, India, Japan, and especially Argentina— that’s not to say noir was a “movement” in those places, like it was in the States. But lately I’m completely fascinated by how this cross-pollination happened during what we know as the “classic noir era.” Among the films from Argentina that we have either preserved or restored are a re-working of Fritz Lang’s classic M called El Vampiro Negro, and a pair of brilliant adaptations of Cornell Woolrich, No abras nunca esa puerta (Never Open That Door, 1952) and Si muero antes de despertar (If Die Before I Wake, 1952). And next year we’ll release our restoration of Los tallos amargos (The Bitter Stems, 1956) — which is one of the best noir films no one has ever seen.

The overseas preservation work is interesting because underlines the fact that film noir isn’t exclusively an American phenomenon, but took place in other places, such as Mexico and parts of Scandinavia. This is a very recent shift. How do you think it changes our previous understanding of film noir?

I think it shows that true artists are citizens of the world. American movies have been deeply influenced by the British and the French, whether were willing to admit it or not. German cinema was obviously a factor in the development of noir. American films were hugely influential overseas. One of the Argentine films we’ve preserved, Apenas un delincuente (Hardly a Criminal, 1949), was clearly influenced by the work of Jules Dassin, especially Naked City and Brute Force. As far as the “understanding of film noir” goes, I don’t think the average, enthusiastic cinephile has any problem understanding it; it is what they want it to be, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The big change will be in the so-called scholars who have so much invested in the official history.

What have been the challenges of preserving some of these overseas films? Have you got a favourite of the ones the foundation has worked on so far?

There are definite challenges, mostly logistical ones. But there are also advantages, because other cultures aren’t quite as litigious as America. If you behave honestly, and take care of people, the doors open. In America, there are typically attorneys and accountants standing guard to make sure nothing is easy. As I mentioned, I’m very keen on Los tallos amargos, which is so wonderfully conceived, written, and directed. It’s genuine noir, and it doesn’t cop out at the end. It’s noir straight down the line, to the bitter end. I’m very excited to find out how many more such films are out there, in other countries, as well.

In addition to all your other activities, you are also a published fiction author. You have two novels under your belt, The Distance (2002) and Shadow Boxer (2003). When you spoke at Noir Con in Philadelphia last year, you mentioned you had started work on a third novel. How is that going?

I’m very pleased with what I’ve written so far, but I have to face the fact that all these other activities cut into my long-form writing time. I’m getting better about being able to work no matter where I am — on airplanes, in hotels, etc. To be honest about it I hit a rough patch for a while where I felt that what I was writing- a crime thriller with a boxing background set in Hollywood in 1951 at the height of the Communist witchhunt – was so obvious, for me, that I was afraid I’d get a critical lambasting. Thankfully, I got over that. It’s obviously the book I’m supposed to write. And I hope it’s the book people want to read. Hey, if nobody wants to publish it, I’ll do it myself. At least that way I’ll get cover I want.

The Distance and Shadow Boxer both featured a character called Billy Nichols, influenced, I believe, by your late father who was a well-known sportswriter for the San Francisco Examiner who earned the nickname ‘Mr Boxing’. Are you a boxing fan?

I have no choice. It’s in the blood. I’m presenting a lecture on the history and influence of film noir at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC next month— and my real concern is finding a bar somewhere in the area that will be broadcasting the Gennady Golovkin vs. David Lemieux title fight.

What else are you working on at the moment?

My taxes. And we’re finally putting out some of our film restorations on Blu-ray, in partnership with a wonderful company called Flicker Alley—so we’re preparing a nice assortment of special features. I edit the quarterly magazine of the Film Noir Foundation, NOIR CITY— which I’m absolutely convinced is one of the best cinema magazines in the world (you know, you’ve contributed). I’m also co-editing an anthology for Akashic Books called Oakland Noir, to which I’ll be contributing a short story. I had a short story published in Jewish Noir, which just came out. A few years back I contributed to the female-centric anthology A Hell of a Woman—so I’m proud to now be an honorary Jew and an honorary woman. Shows I’m versatile.

Gun Crazy: The Origin of American Outlaw Cinema is available here from Black Pool Productions: http://blackpoolproductions.com/

The Film Noir Foundation can be found at http://www.filmnoirfoundation.org/home.html

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