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NOIR CITY 12 – 'It's A Bitter Little World' – Talking with Producer Eddie Muller

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NOIR CITY 12 opens tonight at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco. This year’s theme – “It’s A Bitter Little World!” – reflects the international phenomenon of Film Noir through the most amazing roster of films ever assembled for this extraordinary annual festival.

“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” said Eddie Muller during our recent interview. As producer and host of one of The City’s most important film festivals, Eddie has often heard the dire prediction that at some future point he is going to run out of films. “We will never run out of projects. It’s not possible. What they meant was that Film Noir is strictly an American phenomenon. I have seen a lot of other films that I consider to be Film Noir from overseas, but I was always a little reticent about putting one or two in the program because I felt that they might not draw as well or that people might take a night off. I didn’t want to ghettoize the international films. My work as the head of the Film Noir Foundation has taken me overseas enough times to make the connections I needed to make this happen. This year, because I had found the right balance between an international festival and the core audience that may be only interested in the Hollywood films and then stretching out enough to satisfy the hard core who want something they’ve never seen before. For me, this is the most exciting program we’ve done.”

The festival opens tonight with a double-bill which pairs-up Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten – JOURNEY INTO FEAR (1943) and THE THIRD MAN (1949). Tomorrow’s triple feature matinee heads south to Mexico starting at Noon with BORDER INCIDENT (1949) starring Ricardo Montalban. Director Roberto Gavaldón’s IN THE PALM OF YOUR HAND (En La Palma De Tu Mano) begins at 2:00 and is followed by the ultimate in Mexican cabaret melodrama, VICTIMS OF SIN (Victimas Del Pecado) featuring Ninón Sevilla.

“The thing that sort-of stalled us before,” said Eddie, “were suggestions that we should test the waters by starting off with just the French or Mexican Noir. That was not as interesting to me as what we have done, which is to provide a guided tour of international cinema in a certain place and time. My goal is to show films from 1948 to around 1954 which everybody agrees are the prime years of Film Noir in the United States. I wanted to show what was happening around the world contemporaneously. Those who make the commitment to attend the entire festival will come away with this strong sense of how this was a global phenomenon and not just what was happening in Hollywood. It’s an entertaining history lesson on how cinema was reflecting post World War II, the fallout of the war across the globe.”

“Most of the scholarship about Film Noir and ‘what it means’ is coming from American writers. It’s all about how America grew up, the angst in the workforce, and the terror of living in the shadow of the atomic bomb. People read all this anxiety and paranoia into Film Noir from an American perspective. Imagine if you’re making films in a country that lost the war! Our film from Germany, The Murderers are Among Us grapples with the whole idea of national identity through one man’s story. The question is – How do we rebuild the national identity when the whole world realizes that we are the villains? The films we’re showing from Kurosawa [A double-feature matinee, 1/26: Stray Dog and Drunken Angel] are clearly about Hiroshima. The Japanese have to come out of this devastation. Kurosawa gives us glimpses of how toxic it was. The same is true with our British films, both from 1947 – It Always Rains on Sunday and Brighton Rock. To see these films coming out of countries where the battles took place and the bombs actually fell is extraordinary.”

I asked Eddie if the foreign-made films emulating what was going on in American cinema or was it just by chance? In other words, were they designing and incorporating what we now see as the classic elements of our own Film Noir?

“Yes, in some cases. This is what will be fun for the cinophiles who come to this festival and are asking this question about who was inspiring who. Come to the screening of Pépé Le Moko which was released in France in 1937. It looks more Noir than any film made in America up until that time. It has a different flavor, because French Noir is much more romantic.”

PÉPÉ LE MOKO was co-directed by Julien Duvivier and Henri La Barthe. Duvivier went on to Hollywood where he directed The Great Waltz at MGM in 1938. Producer Louis B. Mayer admitted that this was his personal favorite. In 1948, Duvivier directed Vivien Leigh in a condensed version and essentially a character portrait of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Pépé Le Moko is on a triple feature matinee with JENNY LAMOUR (Quai Des Orfèvres) and RIPTIDE (Une Si Jolie Petite Plage).

Every year the Film Noir Foundation presents a film that has been on the high risk list or thought to have been completely lost. The ultimate goal is to locate, restore and preserve films that are still on nitrate stock or disintegrating even in 35mm. This year’s golden rescue by the NFN is TOO LATE FOR TEARS (1949). Directed by Byron Haskin (I Walk Alone, The War of the Worlds) and starring Lizabeth Scott, Dan Duryea, and Arthur Kennedy, the completely restored film will be presented in 35mm format. It shares a double bill with THE HITCH-HIKER, which was restored by the Library of Congress, also in 35mm.

Too Late for Tears is a film we have been working on diligently for five years. I could not believe it was gone, that it just disappeared. There is one version of this film which every Film Noir fan in America has seen – and it’s terrible! The DVD is made from a horrible, butchered master video that is atrocious. We’ve been looking forever. Sometimes you get lucky and find a really strong element that is still in good shape – a negative or a fine grain positive, something you can work with. But every version we could find – which was only four prints and the negative is gone – every one of them had something wrong going on. The thing you have to be really careful about – when you watch your pennies the way we do – is that you don’t want to commit to doing a restoration and then find a great piece of source material. We had heard that there was a nitrate negative of the film in the hands of a private collector back east. The process of trying to get that film just dragged on. Then, like out of a detective movie, a guy called me and said that he knew we were trying to do Too Late for Tears but that he’d sold a nitrate print of it to a guy in Baltimore. So, I said, ‘Who is it? I’ll call him!’ Part of the deal was that I wouldn’t reveal his identity. And the reason for that is because it’s illegal for private citizens to own nitrate films. [Nitrate is completely combustible.] ‘I can’t tell ya,’ he says. So, every couple of months I’d go back to this guy and ask him if he’d changed his mind yet and say hat we just had to make this happen. Finally, one day he calls me and says, ‘The guy’s name is – Bill.‘ I finally found him and we actually spoke. I promised him we would send the film back. He said he would prefer to send it during the winter because it wouldn’t travel well during the summer since it gets too hot. We had to work out a deal with the Library of Congress to handle the film because they are the only people in his part of the world who are licensed to handle nitrate film.”

“Then Bill dies! Now I have to deal with his brother who can’t find the film. And everybody is asking, ‘Are we going to go with this project or not?!’ This is killing me because I know there’s this nitrate print out there. I tried everything to get him to live up to the deal his brother had made. Finally, he was just incommunicado. I never found out what happened. But! We found a dupe negative of the film in France – under a different title. When you do a lot of this kind of research, you have to know the title in foreign countries. When you’re dealing with foreign laboratories and foreign archives they won’t know it as Too Late for Tears. They know it as La Tigress. It was shipped to UCLA and that became the basis for our restoration. I will feel a huge sense of triumph when it screens at the Castro Theatre.”

I asked Eddie if the money for this restoration was accumulated from last year’s festival at the Castro Theatre or from a fund that has been building?

“We absolutely rely on the Noir City Festival at the Castro replenishing our war chest. So, to answer your question – yes. I instinctively look at it like every festival every year funds our next restoration. But it’s not like we take the money and put it aside in an account that says that. We have bills we have to pay as we go along. But that is kind-of the way it works. The Hollywood Foreign Press stepped in and gave us a little bump toward the end as part of their grants program. It takes a lot to get the Hollywood Foreign Press to acknowledge you. So, this was a major step forward for us. I’m anticipating that, next year, they may fund an entire restoration.”

Eddie Muller and I share a mutual passion for the amazing actress/director/writer and occasional crooner, Ida Lupino. My attachments go back to the 3rd grade when I was at St. Monica’s and feeling wracked with sin because I had latched onto her TV show, Mr. Adams and Eve, co-starring then husband Howard Duff. While everyone else was in love with Lucy, I was smitten with Ida’s beauty and fluttering vitality. Created by Collier Young, her former husband, the series lasted for 66 episodes and is nowhere in sight today. Mr. Young collaborated with Ida on the screenplay of The Hitch-Hiker. Ida Lupino secured the budget for the film and directed it. Ida handpicked the trio of leading men – Edmond O'Brien, Frank Lovejoy and William Talman.

The Hitch-Hiker is all about twisted, crazed masculine stuff. Two men wondering if they’re going to be brave and courageous enough to deal with a psychopath. It seems to be total male psychology and Ida Lupino is totally brilliant with it. Unfortunately, material like this is all too common today. But it’s amazing to watch it made in 1953 when it really was something shocking and completely new.”

“And short!” I replied. “Only 71 minutes.”

“They knew how to make movies back then. It means that when I’m putting a program together, I can have double-bills. The total running time is less than one new movie. Ida was really into men. When I see photographs of her directing The Hitch-Hiker, it’s pretty astounding to think of that little woman in charge of an entire film crew shooting down in Baja, California and having everybody’s complete respect and attention at all times. She was extraordinary. She was the real deal.”

NOIR CITY 12: IT'S A BITTER LITTLE WORLD! continues through February 2. Click here for the complete schedule and ticket information.

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