Showing posts with label Eddie Muller. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Eddie Muller. Show all posts

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Kitty Feral and the Case of the Marshmallow Monkey by Eddie Muller

Kitty Feral and the Case of the Marshmallow Monkey
TCM Kid Noir
by Eddie Muller and Jessica Schmidt
illustrated by Forrest Burdett
Running Press Kids and TCM
Hardcover ISBN: 9780762481682
32 pages
4 years and up
September 2023

"My name is Kitty Feral. I was a gumshoe with no shoes, but I quit that racket. But when I overheard Cora talking about the missing Marshmallow Monkey, it was too sweet to ignore."

In his first picture book for children, Eddie Muller—along with writer Jessica Schmidt and illustrator Forrest Burdett—offers budding classic movie enthusiasts a kid-friendly introduction to film noir.

Kitty Feral and the Case of the Marshmallow Monkey is a mystery in the style of The Maltese Falcon (1941). The story a two-fold mystery with hardboiled detective Kitty Feral solving the case of the stolen chocolate covered Marshmallow Monkey while also trying to locate his missing partner, Mitch the Mutt. We follow along as Kitty Feral roams the dark city streets searching for answers.

Published by by TCM and Running Press Kids, Kitty Feral and the Case of the Marshmallow Monkey is a delightful ode to film noir and a must-have for noir enthusiasts, especially those who want to instill a love of classic movies in their children.

The book is chock full of film noir references. The endpapers display animal-inspired noir posters for movies like Nut Crazy, He Squawked by Night and The Possum Always Rings Twice. Kitty Feral visits the Acme Book Shop—a hat-tip to the famous bookstore sequence in The Big Sleep (1946). I spotted references to noirs like Deadline at Dawn (1946), On Dangerous Ground (1951) and I Walk Alone (1947) and to actors like Humphrey Bogart, Sydney Greenstreet, Gloria Grahame and Dorothy Malone. There are even references to non-noir classics like The Leopard Man (1943) and On the Waterfront (1954). Visual clues make this book a veritable treasure hunt for children (the villains are referenced on almost every page) as well as adult noir enthusiasts.

The style of the book is very fitting with film noir aesthetics. It features a limited color palette of black-and-white with pops of color. Kitty Feral wears a blue fedora and trenchcoat, Mitch the Mutt wears a red collar and the two are seen enjoying the multi-colored sunrise, signaling the end of the story's nighttime adventure.

Interior spread courtesy of Running Press Kids via Edelweiss

Interior spread courtesy of Running Press Kids via Edelweiss

The backmatter includes a single page entitled What is Film Noir which gives young readers the fundamentals of understanding noir. It explains why film noir was often black-and-white, the meanings behind certain terms and a gentle introduction to character and story types.

As a read aloud story this book has a lot of potential. I do wish the narrative flowed a bit better. There are a couple of awkward points in the narrative that could have easily been fixed. A design error on page 25 obscures one moment of dialogue. With that said, I read this book several times out loud and found that experience quite enjoyable. This book would make for a great bedtime story or read aloud for a group storytime. You'll want to develop character voices for Kitty Feral (who is also the narrator), Casper the Nighthawk, Polly the Bookstore Guard Dog, Mitch the Mutt and Lucky Lapin the mob bunny.

I hope Kitty Feral is the first of a series. I can see many more mysteries for Kitty Feral and Mitch the Mutt to solve and plenty of noir references to make.

Thank you to Running Press Kids for sending me a copy of Kitty Feral and the Case of the Marshmallow Monkey for review!

Monday, May 22, 2023

Noir Bar by Eddie Muller

Noir Bar
Cocktails Inspired by the World of Film Noir
by Eddie Muller
TCM and Running Press
Hardcover ISBN: 9780762480623
May 2023
248 pages

“Noir Bar offers a booze-based excursion through America’s most popular film genre, pairing easy-to-master recipes with the kind of behind-the-scenes anecdotes I like to include in my film intros and books.... This book is designed to be a drinking companion for anyone taking a deep dive into the glamorous and gritty world of noir.” — Eddie Muller

Cocktails and film noir make for a perfect pair in TCM host Eddie Muller's latest book: Noir Bar. Presented in alphabetical order, Noir Bar features 50 different films, each with a cocktail recipe to accompany it. Muller's curation of titles is as exciting as the cocktails he picks for each. The recipes were carefully selected by Muller—who is both the Czar of Noir and an experienced mixologist—to tie into the movie. The connection between noir and cocktail can be as simple as a reference to the title, protagonist or one of the actors. Some are thematic based on elements of the story. And there are numerous Eddie Muller originals. As someone who loves both film noir and cocktails, I had fun reading how Muller ties the cocktail to the movie and his reasoning behind each choice.

Here are some of my favorite film noir and cocktail pairings:

  • The Blue Gardenia (1953) The Pearl Diver — This is a hat tip to the Tiki cocktail that Raymond Burr's character buys for Anne Baxter in order to get her intoxicated. Not many cocktails in the book have a direct connection
  • D.O.A. (1949)The Last Word — The name is a reference to the protagonist's plight to get the "last word" on his murder. The cocktail recipe ingredients put together look reminiscent of the luminous poison from the film.
  • Hell’s Half Acre (1954)Mai Tai — This film noir takes place in and was filmed on location in Hawaii. As someone who has enjoyed many a Mai Tai in Oahu, I appreciated Muller's tips on how to make a quality Mai Tai at home.
  • Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) Johnny & Earle — Named after Robert Ryan and Harry Belafonte’s characters, this Eddie Muller original is probably the most clever cocktails in the whole book. He writes: “My mixology strategy here is obvious and symbolic—like the end of the movie. Two base spirits that rarely engage with each other are unexpectedly combined: Jamaican dark rum… and Southern Comfort… In the spirit of the story, my formula calls for fifty-fifty use of the two spirits…The bitters and the Allspice Dram smooth things out between two headstrong leads.”
  • Pickup on South Street (1953)Bloody Mary — Eddie Muller prides himself on his signature recipe and this cocktail happens to be director Samuel Fuller's drink of choice.
  • Suspense (1946) Belita — This frozen cocktail is named after the film's star Belita and is a hat tip to her career as an ice skater.

And of course I had to make the Out of the Past (1947) Paloma. In the book Muller writes, 

"this [is a] humble concoction of tequila, lime, and grapefruit soda... Mitchum, of course, would have waved off grapefruit soda in his tequila. Granted. This one's for Jane [Greer]." 

I've had Palomas in the past but have never made one at home. I'm not terribly experienced when it comes to crafting cocktails. I appreciated Noir Bar's front matter which includes Muller's introductions on spirits, garnishes and tools to have on hand as well as a guide to basic cocktail making techniques. And for those of you who love to look up old cocktail recipes and are often dismayed by how many of them contain egg whites, fear not because this book only has one such recipe!

The mix of titles include some of the most famous entries into the film noir canon as well as some obscure titles I've never heard of—and everything in between. Two of my favorites, Double Indemnity (1944) and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), were missing but that didn't take away from my enjoyment of the book.

Each film noir has a 4-6 page entry complete with a brief foray into the film's history, an explanation of the cocktail pairing, a recipe and some images from the film. Some of the cocktails are presented with a stylized photograph that has a sort of hazy 1980s neo-noir vibe to it that gave me a twinge of nostalgia. The book is a nice compact size but because of its binding and dark matte gloss pages, I do suggest placing it in a cookbook holder for reading and reference purposes if you can. I would not recommend this for someone who abstains from alcohol because the book leans heavily on the cocktail related content. They are not sections you can just skip.

Interior spread courtesy of Running Press. Champagne Cocktail to accompany Sunset Blvd. (1951).

Noir Bar is the perfect companion for film noir enthusiasts who enjoy a well-made cocktail.

Don't forget to drink responsibly!

Thank you to Running Press for sending me a copy of Noir Bar to review!

Friday, August 20, 2021

TCM: Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir by Eddie Muller

Dark City
The Lost World of Film Noir
Revised and Expanded Edition
by Eddie Muller
TCM and Running Press
July 2021
Hardcover ISBN: 9780762498970
272 pages

Published in 1998, Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir put Eddie Muller on the map. What would soon became a best seller and one of the definitive books about the genre, opened many doors for Muller. He programmed noir screenings for film festivals, started the Film Noir Foundation, an organization dedicated to the preservation of film noir, and eventually became the host of Noir Alley on Turner Classic Movies. The book that started it all is now back in print in a beautifully designed, revised and expanded edition.

"Film noirs were distress flares launched into America's movie screens by artists working the night shift at the Dream Factory." — Eddie Muller

In telling the story of film noir, Eddie Muller imagines all of the stories, their literary origins, the subsequent films, the players involved and the era in which they were born, as a single place: Dark City. Muller traces the origins of different film noir tropes and themes, giving each its own Dark City address. Each chapter is a stop at a different address where the reader learns about a particular theme and how it was used in film noir. Sprinkled throughout are mini biographies that provide crucial background information as well as context. Everything flows together with seamless transitions and Muller's special brand of noir infused language.

The addresses in Dark City include:

Sinister Heights — Corruption
The Precinct — Crime and Punishment
Hate Street — Murder
The City Desk — News and Reporters
Shamus Flats — Private Eyes
Vixenville — Femme Fatales
Blind Alley — Mysteries
The Psych Ward — Mental Illness
Knockville Square — Heists
Loser's Lane — Deranged Men
The Big House — Prison Dramas
Thieves' Highway — Criminals on the Run
The Stage Door — The last days of Film Noir

Interspersed throughout the book are inserts with expanded biographies which are mostly about movie stars with a few exceptions. Each appears where it makes most sense in context of the discussion happening at that point in the book. These are fantastic biographies that range from 1-4 pages and offer more than the mini biographies that appear in the body of text.

Subjects include: John Garfield, Gloria Grahame, Joan Crawford, Ben Hecht, Robert Mitchum, Belita, Joan Harrison, Robert Ryan, Sterling Hayden, Barbara Payton, Ida Lupino, Tom Neal, Desert Fury (1947) and Steve Cochran.

This new edition includes additional chapters, restored photographs and a new layout. Kudos to the team who worked on the design of this book. The pages are beautifully laid out. Whenever an insert appears it's at a natural point in the text where you don't have to stop mid paragraph in order to read another section. That's very difficult to do but worth it for a better reading experience.

Eddie Muller does a fantastic job of immersing the reader into the world of film noir from all the fascinating information, context galore and stylish language that puts you right into the heart of Dark City. 

Here are some of my favorite lines from the book: 

"[Orson Welles] changed the grammar of motion picture storytelling and set the cinematic syntax for film noir: the quest for truth in morally ambiguous terrain, the cynical take on the corrupting influence of power, the off-kilter visual style."

"Power-mad women are smart enough not to bloody their own hands. That's what men are for." 

"In Dark City, psychiatrists are as corrupt as gangsters, misusing their power over mind to dominate the hapless and disturbed."

"The blurring of moral distinctions was part and parcel of noir."

"In the wake of the studios' Communist purge, social criticism was out. Films could no longer suggest that people did bad things due to economic pressure."

My only minor quibble is with the use of some words to describe female characters. However, we're dealing with some nefarious characters in many of these stories so the usage is not completely out of context. The book itself is quite large which makes it perfect for flipping through to look at photographs but not as easy for someone, like me, who read the book cover to cover. It made me want to invest in an ergonomic book stand!

Dark City by Eddie Muller is evocative of a long gone era of filmmaking that still captivates film lovers today. It effectively transports readers into the world of film noir with its fine use language, images, context and information. A must have for film noir fans.

Thank you to Running Press for sending me a copy of Dark City for review.

This is my third review for the Summer Reading Challenge.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

A Morning with Marsha Hunt

Larry Edmund's Bookshop Display

Every year Jeff and his team at Larry Edmund's Bookshop host a special Sunday morning book event during the TCM Classic Film Festival. Previous special guests included Carl Reiner, Tippi Hedren, Illeana Douglas and more. I've always wanted to go to these but had never been able to work them into my schedule. This year on their Instagram (it's private so you'll have to follow to see) Jeff from Larry Edmund's did a retrospective leading up to the announcement of this year's mystery guest. I waited with bated breath to find out who it would be. When it was announced I cried for a good twenty minutes. It was Marsha Hunt, THE Marsha Hunt. I had already made plans to see her at the TCMFF None Shall Escape (1944) screening but I opted to skip that so I can see The Set-Up (1949) on the big screen and attend this Sunday morning event instead. I called ahead to the bookshop, put my name down for a coveted spot and counted down the days, hours and minutes until the event. My dream of seeing Marsha Hunt in person was about to come true.

As I was walking down Hollywood Boulevard towards the bookstore I stopped by Marsha Hunt's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for her television work. It seemed very apropos.

When I arrived at the bookstore I purchased my copy of The Way We Wore: Styles of the 1930s and '40s and Our World Since Then by Marsha Hunt. Copies were autographed in advance and the event was not a book signing but more of a tribute to Marsha Hunt. I've had my eye on this book for a while and considered purchasing a used copy a few months before learning about this event. I'm glad I held out because I got my hands on a brand new signed copy instead.

Left to right: Me, Kim, Angela, Nora and "Fussy"

Czar of Noir Eddie Muller with Noir Girl Casey

Once I got in line for the event I saw lots of friendly faces. Angela from The Hollywood Revue, Kim from I See a Dark Theater, Casey from Noir Girl, Nora from Nitrate Diva and her mom "Fussy" plus more friends from Twitter. I even spotted Monika Henreid, daughter of actor Paul Henreid, in attendance.

The guest of honor: Marsha Hunt

Marsha Hunt with Eddie Muller

Marsha Hunt, Alan K. Rode and Eddie Muller

The presentation was co-hosted by film historian Alan K. Rode and Eddie Muller. I briefly chatted with Alan on the TCMFF red carpet about his long-time friendship with Marsha Hunt and the importance of her work and activism. You can watch my interview with him here. Both Alan and Eddie spoke at length about Marsha Hunt and took turns interviewing her. Even at 100 years of age, Marsha was eloquent, thoughtful and as smart as a whip. That spark has never diminished. She's still the actress, activist and glamour queen she's always been.

Here are some excerpts of what she had to say.

On fashion and her start in Hollywood:

[Muller described a moment from TCMFF when Marsha Hunt wouldn't let the make-up artist put lipstick on her because she wanted to do it herself] "I haven't been made up within memory. I've always done my own make-up. I was a Powers model in New York when I was 16.... If Powers doesn't mean anything, John Robert Powers was a former model who started his own model agency. The best New York models were Powers clients. He managed a great wonderful salon of models."

"I'm long-waisted. It's a small waist. I guess that qualifies me as a fashion model. I did some fashion work in New York. I graduated high school at 16. Meant to be actress my whole life and oddly enough I was never stage struck. It had to be movies. I knew that was going to take some managing but in the meantime what can I do to help prepare for that. Well let's see, I ought to learn how to dress, and make up and be groomed. For all of the visuals. I went to dramatic school. There was no training for movies. You learn how to make movies then by making movies. But you could train for the theater. I auditioned at NBC as a radio actress and passed muster. Though I left for California before they ever called me to do radio. I was trying to set the scene and train in every aspect I could to be prepared for film acting. It all fell into place very blessedly. At 17, a year out of high school, Paramount signed me to a contract at $250 a week. Now that may not impress you today. Then it did. My first film work was the feminine romantic lead in a Paramount feature film with two leading men. What a way to break in. Bob Cummings was one of my leading men. Darling man. And Johnny Downs who had been part of the Our Gang comedies. Those are my two leading men on my first movie. Break in on the top. Only way to do it."

On the home she's lived in since 1946:

"I lived in a house on a hill that I had helped design. But it was time for a different kind of house architecturally. For what it provided. So we [her and her husband Robert Presnell Jr.] looked and found our place on Magnolia. An acre and a third it is. With a guest house, two bedrooms, living room. Complete house. Always fully occupied. A barn for stowing all sorts of colorful things. It's nice to have an acreage. Where square feet are charged. Well this is an old place. We were able to get it. So I've lived there for many years. It has a pool and a tennis court. I grew up in Manhattan, New York City. And you had an apartment. And your window looked out upon somebody else's window. You didn't have sports and space and all these wonderful privileges that we do get around here. So no wonder we came and no wonder we've stayed. Good place to be."

On politics

"I spoke very freely about whatever I cared about. Those were dangerous days. There was the left and there was the right. People made lists that had nothing to do with their talent. How they wrote or directed or acted or composed. Any of that. But it was a day when politics kind of ruled the local scene. It was unpleasant. I remember at my house we had several friends over. Just listening late one afternoon. Another friend arrived and one of the people in the room got up and left. He was not going to be in the same room with that new arrival. I think that's a shame. To carry your beliefs, unless you're talking murder or some real sins, then I think how you believe politically is your own business. I think it's rather healthy for people who disagree to have some chats and conversations."

I recorded a short video about Marsha Hunt speaking on the topic of being labeled a Communist during the HUAC era:

Roger C. Memos, director of the documentary Marsha Hunt's Sweet Adversity, was also at the event and he treated us to a few excerpts from his film. If you want to learn more about the doc you can follow his Facebook page. I've been wanting to watch this doc for a long time. I hope a screening in Boston happens in the near future. 

Eddie Muller, Marsha Hunt, and Alan K. Rode

Even though Marsha Hunt turned 100 in October of last year, that milestone is something to continue celebrating. The event ended with a birthday celebration complete with a magnificent cake. Marsha's favorite flavor is lemon so we were all treated to a lemon cake with chocolate frosting. All the attendees sang happy birthday to her. My friend Casey filmed this portion which you can see below:

Selfie with Marsha Hunt (sort of)

After the birthday celebration everyone was clamoring for a bit of time with Marsha. I was wearing my Marsha Hunt pin created by Kate Gabrielle as part of her TCMFF button pack. I showed it to Marsha but I think the pin was too small and she was too far away to see it. So I handed it to her so she could take a look and I let her keep it. I think she was surprised to see her face on a button. It was a sweet moment I'll treasure!

Marsha Hunt admiring the button I just gave her 

A big thanks to Marsha Hunt, Alan K. Rode, Eddie Muller and Roger C. Memos for a great event. And a special thanks to Jeff and his team at Larry Edmund's Bookshop. They opened the shop early and closed it off just for us. I watched Jeff working hard to make sure we had the best view, the best audio and the best set up for watching the documentary. And the cake, well that was the cherry on top. Thanks to them for making this a memorable event.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Argentinian Film Noir Los Tallos Amargos (1956)

Los Tallos Amargos (1956)
Los Tallos Amargos
At the 2016 TCM Classic Film Festival, attendees were treated to a special screening of Los Tallos Amargos (translated in English as The Bitter Stems), a 1956 Film Noir from Argentina. Eddie Muller of the Film Noir Foundation introduced the film and regaled us with the fascinating story of how this little known Noir, never before screened in English, made it from Argentina to the US.

Eddie Muller and his wife traveled to Buenos Aires, Argentina, shortly after a more complete version of  Metropolis (1927) was discovered in a museum vault in 2008. Muller met with Fernando Martin Peña, whom he described as “one of the greatest cinephiles in the world.” Peña is the director of the Mar del Plata International Film Festival and a film curator for the MALBA in Buenos Aires. Muller recalled that Peña is “a very distrustful sort” so it was a special treat when Peña invited him to a private screening of his personal collection of 16mm films. Among those was what Muller referred to as “extraordinary” and a “hardcore Noir”: Los Tallos Amargos (1956). At the TCMFF screening he warned the audience “If you entered the theater in a good mood, sorry! Because you’re going to experience Film Noir the way Film Noir is really supposed to be.”

Los Tallos Amargos was an adaption by Sergio Leonardo of the Adolfo Jasca’s 1955 novel of the same name. It was directed by Fernando Ayala and starring Carlos Cores, Pablo Moret, Aida Luz, Julia Sandoval and Vassili Lambrinos.  

Los Tallos Amargos (1956)
Carlos Cores and Julia Sandoval in Los Tallos Amargos (1956)

Carlos Cores plays Alfredo Gaspar, a journalist at a Buenos Aires newspaper. Down on his luck and completely broke, he learns of a get-rich-quick scheme devised by Hungarian expat Liudas (Vassili Lambrinos). He's come up with a fake correspondence course in order to extort journalists. Alfredo has his doubts but Liudas convinces him in the end. After a brief period of success, the situation begins to sour as Alfredo's paranoia intensifies. He grows suspicious of Liudas which drives him to commit an act of desperation. The second half of the film deals with Alfredo's cover-up, guilt and the gruesome realization of what he's done.

The first half of the film is told in a flashback just as Alfredo plans to commit the act that drives the second half of the story. There is a dream-like sequence where we learn more about Alfredo's troubled upbringing and we hear Alfredo's thoughts in a voice-over. Deception, revenge, guilt, desperation, paranoia are all themes of this gripping Noir.

Los Tallos Amargos won the Silver Condor Award (Premio Cóndor de Plata) the following year. According to Muller it’s Argentina’s equivalent of the Best Picture Oscar. Muller also noted the fantastic score by Astor Piazzolla, a musician known for his Nuevo Tango which blends Jazz, Classical Music and Tango. Piazolla’s work resulted in “a remarkably innovative score for this film where he at any time is able to utilize any type of musical form to convey what he wants to convey emotionally” said Muller. For example, there is a scene when Cores is spying on Lambrinos at a night club and the music intensifies as the situation grows more desperate.

Then there is the work on the film by Chilean cinematographer Ricardo Younis, a protégé of Gregg Toland  who worked on Citizen Kane (1941) and won the Oscar for his work on Wuthering Heights (1939). According to Muller, at one point the American Cinematographer’s Magazine named Los Tallos Amargos one of the best photographed movies of all time.

After having seen Peña’s 16mm print, Muller took on Los Tallos Amargos as a project. He proclaimed to Peña “I will do whatever it takes to raise money to restore this film and to have it finally seen in English-speaking countries.” It had never been released with English subtitles nor had it been distributed in the English-speaking world. One day Peña called Muller up to tell him that he met the family of one of the producers of Los Tallos Amargos and that a camera negatives of that film and several other films were currently sitting in the basement of the family estate. Peña sent Muller photos of the discovery and he was horrified. Muller remembers:
“It’s a film curator’s nightmare. To see these films in the condition they were stored, weeds growing up from the floor, no air-conditioning whatsoever, the cans completely rusted shut. Amazingly, we were able to salvage the original camera negative of this film. There were other films in that room that were like bricks. When you take them out of the can it’s just solid. There’s no way you can save these movies. I consider it somewhat like Providence that this film was not in that condition.”
With the help of the UCLA Film & Television Archive and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s Charitable Trust they salvaged Los Tallos Amargos, added the subtitles and digitally restored the soundtrack (which came from Peña’s 16mm print because the original camera negative was missing the sound). The end result was a beautiful product ready to be screened to eager Film Noir-loving audiences.

Muller later shared with us what ended up being my favorite anecdote from the entire presentation (and the entire festival too. I still think about it today). Actor Vassili Lambrinos, who plays Liudas, made a surprise appearance made a surprise appearance at the MoMA screening of the film earlier this year. He's 90 years old, lives three blocks from the MoMA and had never watched the film on the big screen. Can you imagine? That must have been a thrilling moment for everyone involved. MALBA shares the following story from Peña who was also at the event:

[Spanish] “Lambrinos contó que se animó al protagónico de Los tallos amargos porque Ayala, que era un gran director de actores, le dio la confianza suficiente para hacerlo y lo cuidó mucho durante el rodaje. Nunca se tomó en serio su carrera como actor y ni siquiera recibió el premio al mejor actor de reparto que se ganó por el film, porque simplemente se olvidó de asistir a la ceremonia. Lo recibió Ayala en su lugar. Hasta hoy, nunca había visto la película con público. La vio en privado con el equipo en el laboratorio, apenas terminada, y luego muchos años después, en un VHS que le grabó un amigo”. 

[English] “Lambrinos remembers that he was encouraged to act in Los Tallos Amargos because Ayala, who was a great actor’s director, gave him confidence enough to do it and took great care during the filming. He never took his acting career seriously and didn’t receive the best actor award for his part because he forgot to show up for the ceremony. Director Ayala received the award on his behalf. Until today [the MoMA screening], Lambrinos had never seen the film with an audience. He saw it privately in the film lab, having just been edited and then years later when a friend recorded the film on VHS.”

Muller wasn’t kidding when he called this film a “hardcore noir”. Los Tallos Amargos digs deep into the darkest facets of the human condition. South American stories have a long tradition of dark tales which continues today and is apparent when you look to the novels and films from this part of the world. I have a particular interest in South American fiction but have never been able to full immerse myself because of how dark and disturbing these stories can get. It’s the reason why I could only manage to read one chapter of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Where the Bird Sings Best and why I hid behind a blanket during some scenes of the Argentine film Wild Tales (2014) (Relatos Salvajes). This is heavy stuff and not for the faint of heart. But there is such a rich culture of literature and film from this region and I will always gravitate towards it. And it’s why figures like Jorge Luis Borges continue to fascinate me.

Carlos Cores, Los Tallos Amargos (1956)
Carlos Cores in Los Tallos Amargos (1956)

As someone who is fluent in Spanish I was excited to see a classic film in a language other than English. While it’s special that this film now has English subtitles for non-Spanish speakers, I tried my best to ignore them and concentrate on listening to the beautiful Argentinian accents of the actors on screen.

This film might polarize Noir fans. It might be too strange a Noir for traditionalists but exciting and different enough for Noir fans who seek discover something new. I really enjoyed the film, especially on second viewing when my mind was a bit fresher.

For home viewers, Los Tallos Amargos only exists in the original Spanish with no subtitles on YouTube. It's a terrible print in comparison to the restoration we saw at TCMFF. I hope it'll be released in the near future on DVD/Blu-Ray so we can all enjoy a clearer image and better sound.

Eddie Muller’s presentation at the 2016 TCM Classic Film Festival
MALBA's article on the MoMA screening

Monday, April 13, 2015

Reign of Terror (1949) with Norman Lloyd and Eddie Muller

Press photo of Norman Lloyd and Eddie Muller
Norman Lloyd is a treasure. This is a sentiment echoed by many including Eddie Muller of the Film Noir Foundation who was these same words at the end of his interview with Lloyd at the 2015 TCM Classic Film Festival. Norman Lloyd is full of stories he can easily bring forth from his 100 year old brain. But it's not just the clarity of his mind that is a wonder; it's the way he can deliver a story from the distant past with wit, charm and a little bit of mischievousness.

Illeana Douglas introducing Reign of Terror (1949)

A packed house at the Chinese Multiplex had just been treated to a screening of Reign of Terror (1949), also known as The Black Book. Illeana Douglas introduced it as "Film Noir meets the French Revolution" and that's exactly what it was. The "Reign of Terror" was a time period of great violence during the French Revolution and is known for torture, executions and rival factions. The film representation of this era is suspenseful and dark but not without a good dose of humor. Art director William Cameron Menzies was not afraid to get the camera right up to the actor's faces creating some very dynamic shots. My favorite scene in the film is when Charles D'Aubigny (Robert Cummings) meets Tallien (Norman Lloyd) for the first time. Lloyd is in the foreground with his back turned away from Cummings and he's methodically eating cherries one by one out of a jar. The scene is strikingly shot and quite erotic in how Lloyd is devouring those cherries without a care in the world.

Norman Lloyd coming down the 39 Steps (plus a few more)
After the film I got another glimpse at the man who just made me squirm in my seat as the great Norman Lloyd descended the stairs. My seat was in the front row at the far right which was terrible for viewing the movie but perfect for getting very close to the man himself. I was very grateful for this spot because when he left I had the opportunity to say "thank you" to him. And you know what happened? He looked me in the eyes and said "thank YOU". I almost fainted. But enough of that. Let's get to the interview.

Eddie Muller interviews Norman Lloyd

Eddie Muller sat down with Norman Lloyd and first asked him about working with Anthony Mann and William Cameron Menzies. Now let me stop for a moment and preface this by saying that all the interviewers at the TCM film festival always ask legends about other people. Sometimes the entire interview is about other people. I find this a shame. Why ask someone only about other legends when you have a legend right in front of you? But that's a discussion for another time.

About the film Norman Lloyd said:
 “The making of the film is very interesting. David Selznick who had made a picture called Joan of Arc [1948] with Ingrid Bergman... The sets that Selnick had built for the picture remained but the actors took off. Selznick being a very enterprising and smart fellow kept looking at these sets. There was working with Selznick, one of the great men in the history of pictures, as an art director William Cameron Menzies, and he proposed one day to David Selznick that they make use of these sets and just find a script for which we can use the sets. Now you talk about a creative project. Here was all this wood and canvas sitting around and someone had to accomodate it.” 
Norman Lloyd has us all enraptured with his fantastic stories.

Muller interjected to call Reign of Terror "a set-driven movie". This seemed to please Norman Lloyd because it encapsulated exactly what he was trying to say. Writer Aeneas MacKenzie was hired to write for the film and Lloyd pointed out that MacKenzie specialized in period pieces.

Lloyd continued:
"[MacKenzie] was hired to develop this story… And the story was put into the sets. So if any of you have ideas about crashing motion pictures and how you do it: build a good set. One is often asked “what is your impetus?” “what was your inspiration?”... You say to the “sets”. “I had an inspiration with the most beautiful piece of wood you have ever seen and the canvas is untouched." 
Someone banged out the idea that we should behead somebody. And they thought of the French Revolution… Very very brilliantly directed by Tony Mann. And one of my favorite actors Robert Cummings with whom I made Saboteur for Hitchcock. A gentleman if there ever was one. Wonderful fellow. They had a very interesting cast. Somehow I stumbled into it. We made the picture and Cameron Menzies’ perception was justified. The sets did work very well. I think the actors came off pretty well. And there was this picture."
Reign of Terror was cobbled together in bits and pieces in a way that only made sense for this era. What resulted was this curio of a film which is as entertaining as it is dark.

The conversation between Eddie Muller and Norman Lloyd drifted away from Reign of Terror and to other things. Lloyd told us about a writer who went up to Louis B. Mayer with an idea for a film. Lloyd recounts the story like this:
“LB I have an idea for a picture.” “And what is it?” “Gable, Tracy, Jeannette MacDonald, San Francisco, the Earthquake.” Mayer said “make it”. True story. Which no one believes.”
Norman Lloyd first worked with Anthony Mann on the very early TV movie The Streets of New York (1939). Yes, you read the year correctly. 1939!

You can tell Lloyd was having some fun telling this story:
“At your urging I shall share it. Though I’m very embarrassed. Which is just a big lie. If any of you are so moved, and I know none of you will be, you would attend the museum here in Beverly Hills of TV and Radio. Does anyone remember there was a thing called Radio? They have archives of various television shows and they made the big mistake of doing an archive of a television show that I was in that Tony Mann directed. It was based on the Dion Boucicault play “The Streets of New York”… When I got finished with it, it was over. And we made this in the days when they would keep a record of it called a “Kinny/Kine”; a Kinescope of what you shot on film... George Coulouris and Johnny Call and myself and actress named Phyllis Isley, she changed her name to Jennifer Jones. And we made this “thing.” All that exists is a 5 minute piece, that is the oldest piece of Kinescope on record of television. Five minutes of me. The worst piece of acting you have ever seen. It is so bad that it could be good. I mean there’s a reason for looking at it... because it’s so bad. I look at it with wonder. I think 'Norman you’ve gone the wrong way.' You try to give a good performances, okay. But you are that bad you are great! It’s there. I could give you one or two gestures from it.”  [He then proceeds to do those gestures.]
The audience was cracking up at Lloyd, the great storyteller, as he charmed us with wit and humor. One of the things I noticed while transcribing Lloyd's interview is that he never says "movie" or film"; he always calls them "pictures". Very old school.

Muller and Lloyd had been discussing Spartacus (1960) earlier in the green room. For those of you who are not aware, the world premiere restoration of Spartacus was to be a top event at this year's festival but it wasn't completed in time. Instead, we got a behind-the-scenes story about the picture.

Lloyd shared this story about Anthony Mann, Charles Laughton and Laurence Olivier as told by Peter Ustinov:
“They were involved in rewrites. And they were sitting around a table for what they call, a latter day phrase, a table read... And a rewrite was brought in of a single page for Charles Laughton. Laughton reads aloud. Tony Mann at this point, if not him it would have been Stanley Kubrick who replaced him. Because Tony Mann had to resign. He resigned because he said “I can’t work with these actors they pay no attention to me.” 
But apparently Olivier used to assume the role of director. I hope I’m not telling tales out of school ... but I’ll tell it anyways! So Laughton read this page aloud that was to go into the script. And as I say this was a rehearsal. When he finished reading the page he said “I don’t understand. I just barely understand what this is all about.” He didn’t understand it. Olivier spoke up. He said “Charles, I think it is perfectly clear. Do you mind if I read it for you?” That’s like putting your head in a noose. Laughton said “by all means”. So Olivier read the speech. When he was finished Laughton said “if I just barely understood it before... I understand it not at all!” I’m giving you a behind-the-scenes. I don’t want you to think I make up these stories. This story was told to me by Peter Ustinov who had a great humor... Actors tend to be uncooperative.”
Bless Muller for sneaking in one last question before time ran out. In fact, time had already run out but everyone in the audience wanted to stretch the experience as far as it would go. Muller asked Lloyd who his favorite actors to work with were. Lloyd replied "Chaplin, an unbelievable genius", Pierre Fresnay who starred in Le Grand Illusion (1937) and Louis Calhern, who played King Lear in a production Lloyd was once in.

Norman Lloyd receiving a standing ovation
I've had the privilege of hearing Norman Lloyd speak on three different occasions, including a 90-minute interview with Ben Mankiewicz at the Montalban Theatre. I cannot express how much of an impact these events have had on me as a classic film fan and as a person. Norman Lloyd is a treasure.

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