Editor’s Note: Below is Part 2 of Sean M. Wright’s interview with Eddie Muller, host of “Noir Alley” on Turner Classic Movie network and author of “Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir.” As founder and president of the Film Noir Foundation and co-programmer of the San Francisco Noir City film festival, Muller has been instrumental in saving these movies from neglect and destruction and has sparked greater public awareness of the noir art form. We pick up the conversation begun in the Nov. 5 issue of the Herald:
SMW: What biblical themes are in film noir? For instance, I see Edmund O’Brien’s character in “DOA” as inspired by Job, but a Job without God, who seeks his murderer without expecting any salvation in an afterlife.
EM: Tough one; I haven’t studied the Bible in a few years. The relationship between Joe Morse (John Garfield) and his brother Leo (Thomas Gomez) in Abraham Polonsky’s “Force of Evil” certainly has a Cain and Abel aspect to it, in that Joe’s surrender to the dark side (he’s a fixer for racketeers) leads directly to his brother’s death, and an inspired ending suggesting a quest for spiritual redemption.
SMW: So, there is a kind of biblical tension between good and evil in noir?
EM: Noir stories are almost always tales of temptation, with spectacular falls from grace — so it’s pretty easy to relate them all to the tale of Adam and Eve. Noir fans are just as likely to argue the relative guilt of the men and women in these films as Bible scholars are to argue about whether it’s Adam or Eve who’s really responsible for getting them tossed out of Eden.
SMW: Mitchell Leisen’s 1955 film “Bedevilled” presents temptress Anne Baxter almost causing Steve Forrest, who is studying for the priesthood, to leave the seminary for her “forbidden fruit.” Do you see any echoes of the serpent’s offer in Genesis?
EM: I confess: I haven’t seen it yet. Although I have no doubt Anne Baxter could tempt a man to leave the seminary.
SMW: Would you consider Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), the gruff, truth-seeking claims manager in “Double Indemnity,” and frequently beat-up detective Philip Marlowe (Dick Powell) in “Murder My Sweet,” as Christ figures? Are there any other characters who might fit this role?
EM: I’m leery of answering. I’ve found that “Christ symbolism” is one of the most abused notions in film criticism.
SMW: If the idea is that common there must be something to it.
EM: Well, it seems anytime characters stretch out their arms they are assuming a “Christ-like pose” which leads to all sorts of wild interpretations of the character and the film. I’ve heard some theories about Marlowe as a Christ figure, which I don’t really see, but I can honestly say this is the first I’ve heard it applied to Barton Keyes. Interesting. I’m going to think about that.
SMW: Would you describe the roles of women in most examples of film noir as “femme fatales,” plucky wives/girlfriends, heartless barflies, or reformed criminals?
EM: Okay, you hit my hot button. If I have one goal left to achieve in my role as “Czar of Noir,” it’s to correct this notion that women in noir are one-dimensional cartoons — either the evil “femme fatale” or the saintly (and boring) “good girl.”
The most subversive thing in the noir movement may have been its depiction of women, specifically competent, professional, self-reliant working women, as not only the salvation of men, but of society as a whole. It’s astounding to see how many of these women are in noir films.
SMW: Women of character, in other words.
EM: Yes, very much. They’ve just been overshadowed by their no-good sisters who don’t want to work for a living, who’d rather manipulate men into doing the heavy lifting for them.
SMW: Who would you say exemplifies this role best?
EM: Watch any movie of the noir era starring Ella Raines — “Phantom Lady,” “Uncle Harry,” “The Suspect,” “The Web,” “Impact” “— she is the embodiment of the smart, resourceful, self-possessed modern woman. Watch any movie produced by Joan Harrison, Alfred Hitchcock’s protégé, — especially “They Won’t Believe Me,” — and you’ll see well-written roles for women — real women, not caricatures.
SMW: A priest being involved in crime of any sort would be big news in the noir era. “I Confess” (1953) is a favorite of several priests I know. In “Dark City,” you describe it in terms of being a Hitchcock oddity but don’t you think it has influenced later films?
EM: I give “I Confess” more attention than many writers focusing specifically on Hitchcock. My angle on the director was that he tended to belittle his own work when it revealed too much of his personal quandaries where faith was concerned. He’d retreat into the guise of a prankster, which worked well for him professionally. But you see a different Hitchcock in “I Confess” and “The Wrong Man (1956),” which, not coincidentally, are the among the most “noir” of his films.
SMW: In as beautifully realized a book as “Dark City,” it seems that you might have included a chapter called “The Church Around the Corner.” Religion, specifically Christianity, meant a great deal to people in the U.S. during the noir era. Think you might add such a chapter to the book in a possible future revision?
EM: It’s an intriguing thought, though to be honest it would be such a lightning rod that people might only focus on that chapter. Sadly, “with us/against us” reactions seem to dominate any discourse on religion these days.
Instead, I wove my thoughts on the subject into the “Blind Alley” chapter, considering the notions of fate/faith/belief as they applied mainly to the works of Cornell Woolrich and Hitchcock. It’s in there, I just didn’t opt to make it a stand-alone chapter; I don’t think there were enough noir films specifically rooted in religion to fill out a chapter. Still, there are thematic threads in that regard that run throughout the book. Honestly, the Church was a predominant factor in the film noir movement because so many artists were struggling against the constraint of the Production Code, which was largely an extension of the Catholic Legion of Decency.
SMW: Don’t forget there were many local censorship boards. We don’t hear that something was “banned in Boston” any more. But what do you think of including Hitchcock’s “The Wrong Man” and “Detective Story” (1951) in such a chapter on religious themes? The main characters are greatly influenced by their Catholic backgrounds: Henry Fonda seeks comfort by reciting the rosary; William Bendix intones the Act of Contrition over the dying Kirk Douglas, devastated by news of his wife’s abortion and his struggle to forgive her.
EM: As I noted, “The Wrong Man” is an essential Hitchcock film, and I do discuss it in some detail how it fits, uneasily, into the director’s oeuvre. I think it’s much more of a film noir than most critics give it credit for. For me, these films fit snugly into my thematic chapters “Blind Alley” and “The Precinct.”
SMW: You describe Kirk Douglas’ character in “Detective Story” as committing suicide by subduing the crazed psycho played by Joseph Wiseman before he killed innocent bystanders. Might this be better considered a selfless act, an example of what Jesus described in John 15:13 — “Greater love than this no man has, that he lay down his life for a friend”?
EM: I’m sure some people perceive it that way. For me, the theme of “Detective Story” is the danger of the “serve and protect” mentality veering into self-righteous fury. McLeod had so little forgiveness in his heart. I tend to see this last heroic act as something instinctive and reactionary, more than an act of selflessness.
(Sean M. Wright, MA, an Emmy-nominated TV writer, is a Master Catechist for the archdiocese of Los Angeles and a member of the RCIA team at his parish, Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Santa Clarita, CA. He responds to comments sent him at Locksley69@aol.com.)