Episode 312: “Noir Alley”‘s Eddie Muller, Rumaan Alam, “Jeopardy!”

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Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck in a promotional still from the 1944 film, "Double Indemnity"44 film, "Double Indemnity
Promotional still from the 1944 film, “Double Indemnity” Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

The “Czar of Noir” Eddie Muller joins us for a hard-boiled conversation about film noir. Also, Rumaan Alam on his suspenseful and resonant novel, “Leave the World Behind.” And author Claire McNear on the smartest and most popular game show of all time — “Jeopardy!”

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  • TCM's Eddie Muller On Being 'The Czar Of Noir'

    The fact that Eddie Muller has become the ambassador of film noir shouldn’t surprise anyone. Muller was born in San Francisco — the location city to many seminal noir pictures — to a local sportswriter father, whose past life inspired in Muller a deep passion for history of the noir era.

    “I think it all had to do with my father, who was not a movie fan whatsoever, but I was born very late in his life. He was in his prime as a young man during what we now recognize as the original noir era,” Muller tells WPR’s “BETA.” “So because I grew up in the late ’60s and early ’70s, the world looked entirely different than it did only 20, 25 years earlier.”

    Then it shouldn’t be a surprise either that Muller’s first noir picture he can remember seeing and falling in love with is the 1949 Richard Conte film, “Thieves’ Highway” which was set in his hometown.

    “I like that one to be the first one because it is actually set in San Francisco,” Muller said. “It was a world that no longer existed when I saw the film. It was the old produce market down on the Embarcadero in San Francisco, which had long since been razed and condominiums put up. There was this whole other world that existed beneath the world that we live in now.”

    Film noir carved out its niche as a powerhouse film genre in the post-World War II ’40s and ’50s. Muller says this came out of a resistance to Hollywood films that always ended happily. He argues that in the wake of the war, many artists and audience members felt those rosy outcomes were more propaganda and not reflective of real life.

    Noir in many ways was a resistance movement by a lot of artists to say, ‘Well, life doesn’t actually work that way,’ and one of the ways they could do this was in genre pictures like crime movies in which they could show average people doing the wrong thing,” Muller said.

    The compromised protagonist became a standard motif of noir, but these films also shared hard-boiled language, criminal plots and twists, stylistic shadowy cinematography and femme fatales. All of which were packaged perfectly in what Muller considers the essential noir film, 1944’s “Double Indemnity” starring Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck.

    “It took two hugely popular stars, I mean, at that point, Barbara Stanwyck was the highest paid woman in the United States of America, and Fred MacMurray was pretty much known just as a comedic, a very light comedic actor. And it made them murderers,” Muller said. “People may not understand just how groundbreaking that film was to put two big stars in a movie where they are such wretched characters and to somehow make them charismatic and appealing.”

    In 1998, Muller released his book, “Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir,” a comprehensive guide to the silver screen characters and artists who were part of the noir era. He would also begin to program film fests of noir films. That was when he caught the eye of film historian and popular Turner Classic Movies (TCM) host, Robert Osborne.

    “I was personally invited by Robert Osborne to his own film festival in Athens, Georgia. He used to do this every year, and I was very gratified when Robert invited me to come and co-host some films,” Muller said. “I felt like I had gotten a benediction of sorts right off the bat.”

    A few years later, Muller would program and present a summer series for TCM called, “Summer of Darkness.” This would lay the groundwork for what would eventually become “Noir Alley” — TCM’s weekly presentation of noir films, hosted by Muller.

    The popularity of “Noir Alley” — and perhaps a recent resurgence of the global anxiety that hung over America after WWII — is contributing to a surge in noir fandom and demonstrating its legacy as a genre.

    “We now have this network of people all over the world who are looking for noir films and coming to the festivals and it’s been amazing,” Muller said. “I’m not going to say it’s a cult or anything, but it’s a wonderful fraternity of people.”

    “That period in American history was kind of the apex in terms of style,” he continued. “It was like everybody dressed so well. The cars were so fantastic. The nightclubs were the best ever. The music was fantastic. And there’s a sense of people wanting to retain that spirit through these movies.”

    Additionally, Muller founded The Film Noir Foundation which is about preservation, restoration and education of noir films. Muller believes film noir can be a gateway into classic cinema for younger generations.

    “I love to go into high schools because I’m not only trying to save movies, I’m trying to create a new audience. I’m trying to convince young people that they should watch these movies because there’s more going on in them than they might imagine, which is another reason why I say, ‘Noir has never lost its bite.’”

  • Rumaan Alam Aims To 'Destabilize' Readers In 'Leave The World Behind'

    Novelist Rumaan Alam will be the first to admit his horror and suspense novel “Leave The World Behind” is benefiting from the timing of its release.

    Conceived in early 2019 before “coronavirus” became part of our lexicon, Alam’s fascinating character study about being isolated from society is now landing in a post-pandemic world where almost everyone can relate to that experience.

    “I thought I had done something very clever, which is to find a metaphor in being trapped inside of a domestic space to describe the condition of being trapped on a planet that we are seemingly committed to destroying, or being trapped inside of a system of government that is clearly not functioning,” Alam told WPR’s “BETA.” “We are all starting to change a little bit and understanding our own homes as a trap as opposed to a refuge. It’s a strange resonance.”

    Pandemic or not, Alam has written a brisk and propulsive story that would’ve resonated in any climate, given its commentary on race, politics, the ennui of marriage and parenting, consumerism and our dependence on technology.

    “Leave The World Behind” follows the story of a white Brooklyn family, headed by executive Amanda and professor Clay, as they head out for a pragmatically priced vacation in a secluded Airbnb rental in Long Island.

    Already on the fringes of their cell phone’s data capability and any reliable GPS, the family loses access to the internet and TV during the second night of their stay. It is at this point that a strange knock on the door further destabilizes them. Amanda and Clay open the door to find a Black couple who claim to be the owners of the vacation home and are fleeing an enigmatic blackout in New York.

    “From that moment, the book shifts from being a book about a family of four on vacation to being about a book about six people inside of a house, trying to figure out what’s happening in the world outside,” explained Alam.

    This exploration on the dependence of technology is particularly jarring given our nearly complete online existence.

    “I think that we’ve all kind of had that weird experience of the frustration of not being able to check your email, or that particular irritation of you’re driving somewhere and you lose your GPS service, and then you’re like, ‘Well now I need to rely on logic or my own grasp of the geography of the world around me.’ And you can find that muscle a little atrophied,” said Alam.

    Alam extrapolates this in the novel, particularly in the character of Clay, into our own feeling of usefulness and our own primal resourcefulness.

    “I do think that Clay in the book wants to be the dad. He wants to be the hero. He wants to roll his sleeves up and solve the problem. And he has to confront the fact that he actually just can’t do that,” said Alam.

    “There is something I want the reader to experience going into this book — a feeling of being destabilized by what the book ends up doing,” said Alam.

    To familiarize himself with the horror aspects of the novel, Alam studied the conventions of Stephen King, “Pet Cemetery” specifically. Additionally, he was inspired by Iain Reid’s artful ability to use language to deliver the unexpected to the reader in his 2016 novel “I’m Thinking of Ending Things.”

    Unlike Reid’s unreliable narrator in “Ending Things,” Alam employs a perfectly executed omniscient narration throughout. He credits his editor for this stylistic approach and says the early drafts of the novel proved frustrating for the reader.

    “The book in subsequent drafts was revised to be told almost from the perspective of God, where the voice of the book is able to tell you what each character’s thinking. It’s able to tell you when the characters are lying and it’s able to do the thing that the characters can’t do, which is move outside the walls of the house,” said Alam.

    “So there’s a sense of mystery over the book. Has there been a blackout? Has a war begun? Is this an event like 9/11?” he continues. “The voice of the book declines to clarify that, because I think ultimately that’s not interesting. What’s interesting is not what this undetermined event is. What’s interesting is how these characters are responding to it.”

    This creates the intended impact of a haunting sense of dread for the characters in “Leave The World Behind” and a reflective experience for the reader.

    “Leave The World Behind” has been optioned for a film adaptation by Sam Esmail, the director of “Mr. Robot” and “Homecoming,” for Netflix, starring Julia Roberts, Ethan Hawke and Mahershala Ali.

    Alam said he was honored by the adaptation, and seemingly relieved the project is now in someone else’s hands.

    “(Esmail) has a very defined aesthetic interest, and I think that this material spoke to him means a great deal to me. And I’m really excited to see what he does with it,” said Alam.

    Leave The World Behind” is available now from Ecco.

    Editors note: This piece has been edited to update the finalized billing of the cast.

  • What Is A Conversation With Claire McNear, Author Of The Definitive Book On 'Jeopardy!'?

    It’s “America’s Favorite Game Show” and it has the trademark to prove it. We’re talking, of course, about “Jeopardy!” The show has been a television mainstay for decades but it’s going to look very different in the future. That’s because longtime host Alex Trebek died Nov. 8 after his battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 80.

    Claire McNear is the author of “Answers in the Form of Questions: A Definitive History and Insider’s Guide to Jeopardy!” She wrote a moving tribute to Trebek for The Ringer and she also shared the following on Twitter:

    McNear said Trebek has been described as a kind of modern-day Walter Cronkite, “and I think that’s true,” she told WPR’s “BETA.”

    “I think in so many ways ‘Jeopardy!’ is this last bit of television monoculture where everybody knows what ‘Jeopardy!’ is. Everybody has a ‘Jeopardy!’ story. Maybe you grew up watching it with your parents or a grandparent. Maybe you watch it with your own kids. Now, it’s such a universal thing,” McNear said. “And Alex Trebek, having hosted the show for more than 36 years, was just such a part of that. He’s ubiquitous in a way that just about nobody is anymore in pop culture, and also that he was so, so good at it. He worked so hard, which is what made ‘Jeopardy!’ so good.”

    In keeping with the spirit of “Jeopardy!”, we decided to pose some questions during our interview with McNear in the form of answers and she was gracious enough to play along.

    This “Jeopardy!” champion once told Claire McNear that this is the “Moneyball” era of “Jeopardy!”

    “You know, I actually think I’ve heard that from a couple of different contestants, but I think — Who is Ken Jennings?”

    Yes indeed.

    “So, he talked a bit about this kind of professionalization. He compared contestants nowadays to the fighter pilots, where they’re just getting hours and hours and hours and hours in the tank before they ever walk into the “Jeopardy!” studio,” McNear said. “Like in the old days, maybe you’d make a hundred flashcards. You know, you’d just get the presidents down. Maybe you’d flip through an almanac and you were like, ‘OK, I’m ready for “Jeopardy!”‘ Not so anymore.”

    The origin story of “Jeopardy!” can be traced back to the 1950s quiz show scandals. Columbia University professor Charles Van Doren appeared on the popular quiz show, “Twenty-One.” Van Doren won $120,000 in just fourteen weeks. But it turned out that Van Doren and some contestants on other quiz shows, such as “The $64,000 Question,” were being briefed on the material by the show producers before the taping of episodes, and in some cases, contestants were paid off to lose a match. After The New York Times revealed this scandal, a grand jury investigation followed and Van Doren admitted to a congressional subcommittee that he had received questions and answers in advance. Several other quiz-show contestants faced perjury charges.

    “And after that, Congress amended the Communications Act to effectively make cheating on a quiz show illegal,” McNear explained.

    “So in the years after that, Merv Griffin was speaking with his wife. And she had the idea of just flipping it around and doing exactly what was now verboten, what was now illegal — just give the answer to the contestants as a way to kind of like thumb their nose at this new law that had sort of made it so quiz shows didn’t happen anymore because everybody was so spooked.”

    The answer is an Audio Daily Double. Claire, you have $15,000 and you’re currently leading. How much would you like to wager?

    “You know what, in spite of knowing that the experts say to go big, I’m a more cautious person, so I’m going to say $5,000.”

    Okay, so not a true Daily Double but a sizeable amount — a third. Here we go: The man behind this parody of a popular song by The Greg Kihn Band may be the reason that “Jeopardy!” still exists today.

    “Oh, I know this one. Who is Weird Al Yankovic?”

    Absolutely. Well-done, Claire.

    McNear had heard rumors that Yankovic’s parody of “Jeopardy!” was connected to the return of “Jeopardy!” in the 1980s. The original version of the show aired on NBC from 1964 until 1975. Art Fleming was the host and Don Pardo was the show’s announcer. McNear interviewed Yankovic and learned that he was a huge fan of the original version of “Jeopardy!” as a child. He had no idea that Merv Griffin was in the process of trying to launch his own “Jeopardy!” reboot with Alex Trebek as the new host.

    “But it just so happened that his song came out and it was this sensation,” McNear said. “There was so much nostalgia around ‘Jeopardy!’ and it really took off; it was really high up on the charts. And it was just as the new ‘Jeopardy!’ staff was being hired and just before ‘Jeopardy!’ came back on the air with Alex Trebek. And I think that it is widely thought that the success of that song and the nostalgia that it kind of brought about had a lot to do with the new ‘Jeopardy!’ taking off. Game shows are not traditionally a very stable business. Obviously, there are these kind of cherished stalwarts. But Alex Trebek had been out of work for a year. He had worked for a series of game shows that had lasted I think the longest was maybe three seasons prior to ‘Jeopardy!’ And because Weird Al had created this song, it may have really been the key to “Jeopardy!’ immediately finding that audience.”

    And what did Alex Trebek think of Will Ferrell’s recurring impersonation of him on “Saturday Night Live”?

    “Yeah, this is one of the questions that Alex Trebek would always get asked,” McNear said. “People always wanted to know, ‘hey, are you offended by that? Isn’t that mean?’ And in a way, you would think that he would have been, because it is just this extremely uncharitable depiction of him really where he’s mean, he’s condescending, but in fact, he loved it. He loved, loved, loved the sketches. He so had a sense of humor about himself. You know, I think it was all in good fun. And he himself had some cameos on ‘SNL’ and brought Will Ferrell on to ‘Jeopardy!’ So they kind of had this back-and-forth interplay.”

Episode Credits

  • Doug Gordon Host
  • Adam Friedrich Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Technical Director
  • Rumaan Alam Guest
  • Claire McNear Guest
  • Eddie Muller Guest

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