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Past Article

Eddie Muller, Cultural Archaeologist
By Jonathan Marlow
October 28, 2005 - 9:37 AM PDT

"It's a big deal for him. It's quite a big deal."

Now Mau Mau wasn't your first experience with motion pictures, as far as...

You found those porno films?

Well, you were wearing a mask, if I recall. No...

But there is that distinctive other... oh, nevermind.

You appear in a few of George Kuchar's films and you made a film of your own. When the hell are we going to see this film?

I have to find the print. People can't believe that Bay City Blues was shot in color, but it was not a tribute to film noir, it was a tribute to Raymond Chandler. When I read Raymond Chandler, it is in full color. I defy anybody to read a Chandler novel and see it in black and white.

I agree. I recently re-read The Little Sister and there isn't anything black and white about it.

It just explodes off the page. That's part of the reason why I made that film, because I found Chandler to be such a vivid visual writer that I wanted to see if I could find some kind of corollary for it on film. It was a grandiose student film which ended up being fifteen or sixteen minutes long. The 16mm film is around here somewhere. I'm scared to run it because I'm afraid of what the color's going to look like. It's going to be so faded.

If you shot it on Kodachrome...

Kodachrome in the 70s. Forget it.

There you go.

It'll look like hell.

It's going to be a bit pink now. You can repair that digitally.

Maybe I'll do that. Years ago, I had it transferred to video when I realized that it would start to fade. Maybe I'll run it through the computer and do all these fancy things, too. The restored version.

So the old saw is, "Write what you know." You moved into fiction with a story that doesn't fall very far from the tree. You're writing about your parents, thinly veiled, with The Distance and Shadow Boxer. At what point did you say, "I need to tell this story about my family," and to write about boxing in San Francisco during that period?

A long, long, long time before. The Distance started way back in the 1980s. Actually, the poetic way I'd like to tell the tale is that the book leaped into my head at my father's funeral. I distinctly recall this first image. The image stuck with me of this boxer who was one of the pallbearers at my father's funeral. His hands were so big that he couldn't get the white pallbearer's gloves on. I remember seeing him trying to put these gloves on his hands, these hands that had beaten up all of these people in his profession, and while he was trying to get these gloves on, he was crying. Partly because he was sad that my dad had died, but partly because he just felt weak that he couldn't do this one simple thing. That image became the touchstone for the whole novel.

I saw that and I said, "There is a story in that." That became the basis of everything and it took ten years to write the book. I actually started it and had a finished manuscript for the novel before I ever started Dark City. I always say that it was writing Dark City that taught me how to go back and make The Distance an accessible, readable book. What I learned from the screenwriters of those film noir movies was how to entertain and how to be accessible and still get your point across. It was a crash course in storytelling, watching all of those films again. So I rewrote the book and turned it into a crime thriller instead of a big expansive work of general fiction, and I'm good with that decision. I'm happy about it. I think it was a good decision.

Shadow Boxer pretty much picks up where The Distance left off. Was that always the intention?

Not at all. I did not write the books to be a series. The Distance was supposed to be just a stand-alone. It has a very ambivalent, ambiguous ending...

A very appropriate ambiguous ending.

And I just said, "That's that." But when Scribner bought the book - whenever you write for a publisher now, it's automatically a two book deal and they want to see it as a series. Speaking quite frankly, I did some things in the second book that were things you're not supposed to do if you're writing a series. You're not supposed to [possible spoiler ahead] essentially invalidate the entire plot of the first book. "Everything you read in the first book was kind of wrong. Here's what was really going on." I've never been comfortable with the idea of a mystery series. I mean comfortable, myself. To be quite honest, I read books by crime writers and, after one or two books, I'm kind of done. Unless you do something different, unless you keep changing it up and telling me a long, brilliant novel in installments, I'm not going to read the book over and over again.

Unfortunately, what publishers want is the same book over and over again. It's a different season, it's... you know, this little thing changes, but it's essentially the same book. Ninety percent of the people who write mystery series do that and I have no interest in doing it. With Shadow Boxer, I just wanted the story to go in these different directions. It's all character driven stuff. No one is dead in the second book. There's a mystery to solve, but nobody's murdered. There are no dead bodies. We'll see if there will ever be a third one.

Do you have a desire to write a third one?

It just depends on if anybody has the desire to publish a third one! I have five more stories in the works for that character, Billy Nichols. The kind of writing that is terrific, and I think is the best writing today, is on cable television. You watch shows like the Sopranos, Deadwood, Six Feet Under, Rescue Me, The Shield and all of that stuff, and it is not just the same hour over and over again. There's character development, there's a story arch and, by the time the whole thing plays out, you've seen the equivalent of an eight-hundred page Russian novel.

Sopranos is War and Peace of its era?

There you go. I love that, because the idea of an ending, that this is all leading toward some conclusion, is tremendously exciting. The stupid networks think that cable TV is different because you can curse and you can show tits and ass. How stupid are they?

Well, they're stupid enough to keep making these formulaic pieces of crap year after year.

Exactly. Cable TV is different because they are stories built on characters that work their way to a conclusion. Ergo, they are more interesting and more dramatic. I really think that that's where the best writing is today.

Out of all this writing that you've done, how on Earth were you approached to collaborate on a biography with Tab Hunter?

Mutual friend, Evelyn Keyes. Tab contacted me because he had read Dark City Dames and he felt that my portrait of Evelyn Keyes was right on. He liked the way that I wrote about Hollywood, in that you understand the lure of it and the excitement of it, but I also have a somewhat cynical and jaundiced view of it as well. Both of those things can coexist. When we would talk about Hollywood, he would get excited and enthused. He's a big movie fan and yet he knew that Hollywood screwed with him and could have ruined him but, for a few lucky breaks, he became grounded into who he was. We met and talked and it worked out. It was a good collaboration.

I was happy to see the book prominently plugged in the New York Times a few weeks ago. They had a great still, which I'm sure appears in the book, of Tab Hunter and Anthony Perkins sitting side by side with their dates. That's a priceless photo.

Almost as priceless as the one of Tab with [Rudolf] Nureyev on the Riviera. I always joked that if we could make a poster of that they could keep my royalties. I just want the proceeds from the poster! I am really happy at the way the book turned out and my working relationship with Tab. He was deeply involved in the creation of this book. I did not go off and do this on my own. Every single word that was written, every punctuation mark and comma, involved a discussion between us as to why I wanted to do something a certain way or why he wanted to do something another way. I will freely admit that there was stuff that I wrote in that book that Tab adamantly said, "No, I don't want to do it that way. It's not me." And he was absolutely right. There was stuff in the book that was a little too writerly. He had a bullshit detector that would go off and he was right.

Outside of a few films from the earlier part of his career and then, of course, more recently, Polyester and Lust the Dust, Tab is not very well represented on DVD. There's just criminally very little.

I will say that when there is something that pops somewhere in the culture, the studios are pretty aware of it and they will get stuff back in circulation. Now, this is not a science. It's not like there's a whole line of Tab Hunter DVDs that are going to coincide with the release of this book. But the book will raise awareness and direct attention towards some movies, just like what happened with Dark City, that should be resurrected. When the book comes out, Tab will come to San Francisco and we'll do a little thing together at the Balboa Theater. We're showing Polyester, but the following night we're showing Gunman's Walk, a fantastic western that Tab made in the late 1950s with Van Heflin. Tab's great in this movie. It's just an unknown film. Directed by the great Phil Karlson, it's widescreen and it's just dynamite. I would not be at all surprised if this book and all of the resulting publicity helps to resurrect that film.

He was in a really terrific movie called That Kind of Woman, which Sidney Lumet made after 12 Angry Men. It's really good and you can't find it anywhere. We tried to unearth it at Paramount to see if we could show it out here and they said that the print isn't screenable. That's frustrating, but we'll see. We might be able to get that back into circulation now, thanks to the book.

How did you handle the duality of Tab Hunter's public persona and his private life.

You handle it delicately. That's the whole point of the book. If there's such a thing as being forthright and delicate simultaneously, that's what we endeavored to do. Tab is very old school and he is not a badge wearer. He does not really talk about his private life at all. So, trust me. It was, as John Ford would say, a job of work. It's there and I feel that the tone and the amount of revelation is appropriate considering who Tab is. It's a big deal for him. It's quite a big deal.

Once again, this book still fits in with the theme that we were talking about of trying to bridge this generational thing between what the younger people think and the older people know. To me, that's really fascinating because Tab has issues, in some respects he has more issues with gay people that he has with the straight people who would want to harm the gay community. It's very, very complex, but Tab is just old school and he gets to express that in this book. It's like, "My business is my business, and please don't ask me to be a poster boy." I'm curious to see how this all shapes out when he's out there promoting the book.

Let's deal a little bit with your fourth Noir City festival here in San Francisco, of which GreenCine will have a small, perhaps not insignificant but, in the shape of things, relatively negligible part.

Oh, it's definitely not negligible. Don't tell me that.

Farley Granger, one of my favorite actors, will be feted and the aforementioned Coleen Gray will be back in town. James Ellroy will be here as well.

We've added Stanley Rubin as a guest. Stanley produced The Narrow Margin, which we have added to the bill, and he's also the guy who wrote the original story for Decoy, which was one of our sleeper hits of Noir City 2 and one of the goofiest B-movies ever made. I'd like to try to pin Stanley down and have him explain what the hell that movie was supposed to be about.

So these are our guests, among others which I don't believe I am at liberty to mention. Some of the films, of course, as you noted, The Narrow Margin, which is a fantastic movie. It was remade...

...with Gene Hackman and Anne Archer.

It's not quite the same.

They opened it up and turned it into an action picture. It wasn't a terrible movie, but I just don't think it was as interesting as the original.

Not at all. How about the resurrection of The Man Who Cheated Himself?

Yeah, that's our big find for this year. It was really fantastic when, the first year of Noir City, we were able to resurrect Woman on the Run, which had not been seen in decades. It was especially exciting because it's a really good film set in San Francisco and I think people just dug it. I know they did because we had to bring it back again the next year! So that first year, when we did the "every movie set in San Francisco" theme, the one that got away was The Man Who Cheated Himself, which we just could not find a print of. There was a lot of uncertainty about the rights situation with that movie. I know it was distributed by 20th Century Fox but there was just a lot of uncertainty about who still owned the rights. All of that has now been worked out and we have uncovered an archival print of the film. I think it'll be as exciting as watching Woman on the Run because it was shot entirely on location in San Francisco.

There's a tribute, as well, to the great Dashiell Hammett?

That's something that we sort of just came up with. We're going to show City Streets, which is a really good film and the only story that Hammett wrote directly for the screen. We're showing something else and we're not exactly sure what that is yet. It may be the first version of The Maltese Falcon. We heard for years and years that the first two versions were bad. Well, in fact, the second version is terrible, but the first [also known as Dangerous Female] is a much, much better film than people realize. So we may pull that out, or something else. We've got a couple of other things we're pursuing for Hammett. We'll have some Hammett experts involved on that day.

In the mention of author-related events, what about your appearance at LitQuake?

I have absolutely no idea what to expect, other than it will be cramped and it will be interesting. [It was cramped and it was interesting.]

Is Carl bartending that night?

If Carl isn't the bartender, I'm going to leave [Carl was indeed behind the bar and in rare form]. It's San Francisco Noir with several of the contributors of this short story collection that was recently published. I hope that it'll be a lot of fun. I mean, in general, I'm not a huge fan of group readings but that is one of the reasons why we thought we'd make it a little more intriguing by staging it in a... Do you think Carl would be offended if I called it a "dive" bar?

I don't think he would be offended, no. [It has a relatively recent paint job which might elevate it from "dive" status, though.]

That's why we're holding it in a saloon entirely appropriate to a noir story collection.

And in the few moments I have remaining, I want to briefly address what we both seem to believe as the best noir film of all time - In a Lonely Place. What can you say about this film that hasn't already been said?

I think it explains to me why noir does not require action, it does not require firearms, it's more of a state-of-mind kind of thing. I really do think that In a Lonely Place is a rare movie where the film version is actually better than the novel, and the novel is really good. Rarely does a Hollywood movie take a story and add complexity and add depth. It is really one of the few examples that I can think of where the movie is far more adult and more thought-provoking and complex than the novel upon which is based. The thing we haven't talked about, though, are the DVD commentaries.

Sorry about that. I inadvertently skipped over your contributions in this area.

I'm glad that the studios are now asking me to participate in this stuff.

Because they pay so well.

At first I was a little put off by the fact that they don't pay...

Note: To date, Eddie Muller can be heard illuminating various aspects of Somewhere in the Night and The House on 92nd St. On December 6, he will be featured on the discs of Where the Sidewalk Ends and No Way Out. Look for Fallen Angel, House on Telegraph Hill and The Brasher Doubloon sometime in 2006.

back to past articles >>>

"I've always had great interest in the experiences of older people."
"It's a big deal for him. It's quite a big deal."

back to past articles


Jonathan Marlow
In addition to his persistence in acquiring obscure films for GreenCine, Marlow is a writer, filmmaker, curator and occasional critic. Not necessarily in that order. He is also a dedicated skeptic.

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