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'Noir Alley' host celebrates cinema's double crosses and doomed characters

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. I'm going to start today's show with a scene from the 1944 classic film noir "Double Indemnity."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DOUBLE INDEMNITY")

FRED MACMURRAY: (As Walter Neff) Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money and for a woman. I didn't get the money, and I didn't get the woman.

GROSS: Yeah, that's how a lot of men in film noir end up. They don't get the money, and they don't get the woman. What they do often get is double crossed and killed. "Double Indemnity" is one of the films we're going to talk about today with Eddie Muller, who you may know as the host of the Turner Classic Movies show "Noir Alley," where each Saturday night, he screens a film noir. Even if you don't have time to watch the film, his intros are worth tuning in for.

Muller has impeccable noir credentials. His book "Dark City: The Lost World Of Film Noir," was just published in a new expanded edition. He's the author of a book about the women who starred in these films. He's the founder and president of the Film Noir Foundation, which has restored and preserved more than 30 nearly lost classics in partnership with the UCLA Film and Television Archive.

Some of the great film noirs were set in the world of boxing, a world Muller was well acquainted with through his father, also named Eddie Muller, who was considered the West Coast dean of boxing writers and covered boxing for the San Francisco Examiner for over 50 years. He covered his first prize fight in 1926. I interviewed Eddie Muller once before today's Eddie Muller, not his father. And that was in 1996, after the publication of his book "Grindhouse: The Forbidden World Of 'Adults Only' Cinema."

Eddie Muller, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It is such a treat to have you back on the show.

EDDIE MULLER: I am so happy to be here, Terry.

GROSS: So let's talk about what you mean when you say film noir.

MULLER: Well, yes, this is - one of the reasons it remains so fresh is because it's debatable. Everybody gets to argue about what it is, which really isn't the case with Westerns or musicals or anything. So that's a big part of the appeal, I think. But for me, when I refer to film noir, I'm talking about an organic artistic movement that took place mostly in Hollywood in the mid-20th century. And there's a lot of factors that go into making something a film noir. They're generally crime stories, and they present a very dark vision of existence, let's say.

GROSS: How dark? More, please.

MULLER: I also consider film noir to be sort of the anti-myth. If what Hollywood was always selling was that everything's going to be all right and we're all going to live happily ever after, film noir was the flip side of that coin, saying, you really can't trust anybody. The system does not really work for you particularly. You may have to steal to get what you want, just like Fred MacMurray says at the top. You know, he wanted that woman, and he's going to get the money, and he's going to do it through devious means. And these things rarely work out. But man, it sure is fun watching people fail.

GROSS: And as you've pointed out, most film noir combines, like, the sinister and the sensual.

MULLER: Absolutely. Yeah, I think that's one of the reasons the films remain so popular - is because they're very sexy in a way that films aren't sexy today because they were made, you know, during the existence of the production code. And that required a certain amount of restraint by the artists making these films, which is, I think, one of the great pleasures of the movies - is how the artists worked around the code and could be suggestive and therefore very sensual when they're making these pictures.

GROSS: Well, let's hear another clip. And this one also is from "Double Indemnity." So just to set it up, Walter Neff, played by Fred MacMurray, is an insurance salesman who goes to, like, a wealthy man's home to remind the man to renew his insurance. The maid lets him in. The man's not home, but Barbara Stanwyck appears at the top of the stairs in a bath towel. And that's it for Walter Neff. Like, he's done.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So she puts on some clothes, comes downstairs, and then they talk. Barbara Stanwyck starts first.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DOUBLE INDEMNITY")

BARBARA STANWYCK: (As Phyllis Dietrichson) Mr. Neff, why don't you drop by tomorrow evening around 8:30? He'll be in then.

MACMURRAY: (As Walter Neff) Who?

STANWYCK: (As Phyllis Dietrichson) My husband. You were anxious to talk to him, weren't you?

MACMURRAY: (As Walter Neff) Yeah, I was. But I'm sort of getting over the idea, if you know what I mean.

STANWYCK: (As Phyllis Dietrichson) There's a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff, 45 miles an hour.

MACMURRAY: (As Walter Neff) How fast was I going, Officer?

STANWYCK: (As Phyllis Dietrichson) I'd say around 90.

MACMURRAY: (As Walter Neff) Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket.

STANWYCK: (As Phyllis Dietrichson) Suppose I let you off with a warning this time.

MACMURRAY: (As Walter Neff) Suppose it doesn't take.

STANWYCK: (As Phyllis Dietrichson) Suppose I have to whack you over the knuckles.

MACMURRAY: (As Walter Neff) Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder.

STANWYCK: (As Phyllis Dietrichson) Suppose you try putting it on my husband's shoulder.

MACMURRAY: (As Walter Neff) That tears it.

GROSS: Aw.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Another hallmark of film noir is, like, great dialogue.

MULLER: Yes, you can't do much better than that, and that's Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler working together to to write that. That is a passage that is not in the book by James M. Cain, "Double Indemnity." That one was just for the film. And it's a perfect example of what makes these films so special because you can't really show anything, but you can certainly sling the double entendres as fast and furiously (laughter) as you can.

GROSS: You write that "Double Indemnity" was the first time a Hollywood film explicitly explored the means, motives and opportunity of committing murder. Can you elaborate on that?

MULLER: Sure. In the books that these films were based on - were largely written in the 1930s and were part of a whole renaissance of of hard-boiled crime writing that grew up in the pulp magazines and, you know, Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain and Chandler and others. And the transition to the movie screen didn't really happen for another 10 years or so. And it was very difficult because of the production code to make movies in which the protagonists were the villains of the piece. And that's really what "Double Indemnity" did that kicked off the film noir movement.

There were other films that you can call film noir before "Double Indemnity," but its popularity and being nominated for Oscars and the fact that Barbara Stanwyck, who at that point was the highest-paid woman in America, starred in this film gave it, you know, this imprimatur, if you will, that it's OK now to do this kind of stuff.

And Stanwyck was a bit afraid, honestly. She thought that, you know, she'd established herself as this great dramatic actress and a comedian and that this film might kind of ruin her career, ruin her image. And Billy Wilder said, you know, oh, that's funny. I thought you were an actress. And that was all she had to hear. And she came right on board and gave it her all

GROSS: Film noir gave great roles to women in the sense that, you know, there were beautiful, but they were as tough-talking as the men, and they often led the men into crimes that would, of course, backfire. And that's the whole idea of the femme fatale. Like, the woman is, like, seducing the man, leading him into the world of crime, and the man is probably going to get double crossed by the woman or by somebody else. And there's a scene from the film "Criss Cross" that you describe as the femme fatale manifesto. This is a 1949 film directed by Robert Siodmak. Set up the scene for us.

MULLER: Well, the premise of this movie is that Burt Lancaster has had his heart broken by Yvonne de Carlo. And he has left, and we are meant to imagine that he's like, traveled around the world. But, of course, he can't get her out of his system, so he returns to Los Angeles. She's now in thrall to this shady character played by Dan Duryea. And then to win her back, there's - you know, there's a whole crime plot and the robbery of an armored car and all this. But you're never quite sure to believe her or not when she says that, yeah, I'm in with you. When it's all said and done, I'll go away with you. You don't really know. And it all leads to this fateful scene where they're to reunite at this beach house. And I find this scene so compelling because, for once, the woman really gets to express what she thinks about the whole setup. And that's what Yvonne De Carlo does so beautifully in this scene.

GROSS: So just to set up the scene, Burt Lancaster was just basically taken out of the hospital against his will by one of the henchmen of the guys who double-crossed him. But Lancaster pays off this guy to just take him to the beach house so he could reunite with Yvonne De Carlo. And then as we enter the scene, Yvonne De Carlo is packing up the money, getting ready to leave without him because he's very vulnerable, having just come out of the hospital.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CRISS CROSS")

BURT LANCASTER: (As Steve) You're going away? You're going to leave me - here?

YVONNE DE CARLO: (As Anna) How far could I get with you? What kind of a chance would we have? You can't move. You couldn't last a day. Don't you understand you need help, doctors? You could never make it. What do you want me to do? Let him get us both? Would that make you feel happier? Does that make sense to you?

LANCASTER: (As Steve) No, that'd be more.

DE CARLO: (As Anna) Why did you have to come here in the first place? Why? Why? It was all working out. Everything was fine. Papers said you'd be in the hospital for weeks.

LANCASTER: (As Steve) All those things you said to me, you weren't lying. You meant it. I know you meant it. You loved me.

DE CARLO: (As Anna) Love, love - you have to watch out for yourself. That's the way it is. I'm sorry. What do you want me to do, throw away all this money? You always have to do what's best for yourself. That's the trouble with you. It always was from the beginning. You just don't know what kind of a world it is.

GROSS: OK. Take that (laughter). So what makes that the manifesto?

MULLER: I always say in film noir, men and women were equal. They were equally tempted, equally compromised and equally guilty (laughter). It may not be the way you want to be equal, but in that world, that's kind of how it worked out. And so I've always loved that scene because, really, you can look at these films from different perspectives, and although so many people think that she's being horrible to him, she's really stuck between these two men who are trying to completely dominate her, and she sees her own way out by taking the money that they plotted to steal and then just running away and getting away from the both of them.

GROSS: One of the things that Turner did recently was a series called "Reframed" in which you and several other of the Turner hosts revisited some classic films and re-examined them, acknowledging how racism and sexism in the films make them problematic, but instead of canceling the films, creating a dialogue around them so we could still watch the films, appreciate what's good about them and talk about what, like, is really not good (laughter). So what was that series like for you, and did it force you to, like, rethink things about certain films? Or had you already gone through that process?

MULLER: It was good. It was good, I think, for all the hosts to go through that. It was a very interesting exercise. I certainly got a lot out of it because it's important to revisit these things and think of them in a slightly different way. I'm the oldest host at TCM, and so a lot of these films, you know, I grew up with. I mean, I remember seeing "The Searchers" when I was, you know, like, 14 years old or something. And I certainly didn't see the things in it that I see in it now. And to me, that's completely fascinating. Like, yeah, the world changes. And if movies are going to remain a big part of the cultural discourse, we need to find a way to keep them relevant. So I was really excited about that series, and it certainly got a conversation going on social media.

GROSS: One of the films I think you talked about was "The Searchers." So what did you point out in that film that you hadn't noticed when you first saw it - when you were about 14, did you say?

MULLER: Yes. When you're 14 years old and it's 19-whatever, '74 or something - when I saw that, or 1972, when I saw that movie, you know, it's a cowboy and Indians movie. And now you're really - you don't really want to say that, right? And a lot of people that I know loved that character of Ethan Edwards and have named their sons Ethan in honor of that character. And I think you really have to look twice and say, you know, it's a study of a character like that who has to overcome his ingrained racism, which is not really the way I think a lot of people saw that movie back in the day. I don't know that they thought that was the point of the movie. And now I watch the movie and I realize that, you know, the door closes on Ethan at the end of the movie. And he's left out of the family unit because, you know, he's the mercenary that has to be used to accomplish the mission, but he doesn't get to be really part of the community at the end. That's a heavy concept, you know, and I don't know how many people were getting that, you know, back in the '60s and '70s.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Eddie Muller. He hosts the Turner Classic Movies show called "Noir Alley," which is on Saturdays, usually around midnight or shortly after. It's rebroadcast Sunday mornings. He's also the author of the book "Dark City: The Lost World Of Film Noir," which has just been published in a new expanded edition. We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCOTT W. HALLGREN"S "FILM NOIR")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Eddie Muller, host of the Turner Classic Movies show "Noir Alley." His book "Dark City: The Lost World Of Film Noir" has been published in a new and expanded edition.

How old were you when you started becoming really absorbed in film noir?

MULLER: I think I was probably in my early teens, I would say.

GROSS: Do you think you gravitated to these films 'cause you already had a dark sensibility, or do you think you have a dark sensibility because of these films? I'm guessing you already had a dark sensibility.

MULLER: I will say this about why I think I was drawn to that world. I do think it had a lot to do with my father, who was a wonderful, wonderful person. And I learned so much about his ability to navigate the treachery of the business he was in because, you know, he was around boxing. And he was around gangsters and all of this stuff, you know? I got a real insider's view of that. And he never let it color him as a person or, especially, as a father. He was a really kind, generous person. But I do believe I was drawn to the movies because they felt like his world. And I was born pretty late in his life. And, you know, I was a child of the '60s. And I was drawn to that '40s world. And I do believe it's because I never really saw my father in his prime, you know? He was a little past his prime when I was of age. And so it was really something to watch these movies and say, oh, that's the world that he thrived in. And that's exactly what it felt like to me.

GROSS: Did you watch classic boxing noirs like "The Harder They Fall" or "Body And Soul" with your father?

MULLER: It was very, very difficult because seeing as my father was a boxing expert, he mercilessly picked apart the boxing itself in the films. And as you know, in movies, everything has to be exaggerated for the effect so that people who do not really understand boxing to begin with feel the drama, you know? Like in "Raging Bull," any one of the punches thrown in "Raging Bull" would kill a normal human being.

(LAUGHTER)

MULLER: But there's just dozens and dozens of them, you know, and an avalanche of them in that film. And that would always bother my dad. I remember seeing "Raging Bull" with him. And he literally out loud in the theater said, for God's sake, stop the fight.

(LAUGHTER)

MULLER: And I'm thinking of these things, you know, my nascent cinephile being, you know? And I'm, like, thinking of how they told the story and why they did this or that. And then I'd hear my dad in the other room on the phone with some crony of his just complaining about how fraudulent the boxing scenes were. And, oh, my God, Joe, you should've seen it. The first punch the guy threw would've killed him, you know?

GROSS: (Laughter).

MULLER: And it's like, oh, my God (laughter).

GROSS: In most of these boxing movies, there's corruption. And I'm wondering if your father told you stories about corruption in the real boxing world?

MULLER: You know, it's interesting, he really didn't. I sort of had to suss a lot of that out on my own. And a lot of that came after my dad died because then - I've written a novel, "The Distance," in which my father is basically the central character. And in researching that book, I did interview and talk to a lot of his cronies. And honestly, when my dad died, I so missed these guys and they missed him that I was sort of accepted into the fraternity as his substitute. Like, hey, it's Eddie's kid, you know? Eddie's kid, you know? And I learned a lot more that way. And at that point, I was old enough to ask tough questions that I wouldn't have asked when I was a teenager or something, you know? And a lot of guys were very defensive about it, you know, like, who was paid to throw a fight or if somebody was actually owned by a gangster or something. You know, I learned that. It's all there. Then I found my dad's stash of, you know, the - all the transcripts from the congressional hearings into organized crime's influence on boxing, volumes of which I still have on my bookshelf (laughter) today. So...

GROSS: I didn't even know there were such hearings.

MULLER: Oh, my goodness, yes. You know, the early 1950s, there was everything. There were congressional hearings into the communist influence, you know, congressional hearings into the influence of comic books on the juvenile delinquency of America, organized crime's influence on boxing. It was - a lot of it was grandstanding by politicians. (Laughter) So much has changed, Terry.

GROSS: (Laughter) Who ever heard of that? Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

MULLER: But it was good TV, too. That was a big part of it. It was like early television. And so it was very exciting for the networks to put this stuff on TV because it was America's first chance to see what actual gangsters looked like, you know, Frankie Carbo and Frank Costello. And these guys were, like, on camera. They were names that people did not know about back then.

GROSS: OK. Well, we need to take another break here, but then we'll be right back. If you're just joining us, my guest is Eddie Muller. And he hosts the Turner Classic Movies show "Noir Alley," in which he shows a film noir and talks about it, too. And what he has to say is always interesting. And his book "Dark City: The Lost World Of Film Noir" has been published in a new and expanded edition. We'll be right back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Let's get back to my interview with Eddie Muller, host of the show "Noir Alley" on Turner Classic Movies. It's shown around midnight or shortly after, in that space between Saturday night and Sunday morning. And it's on again Sunday mornings. His book, "Dark City: The Lost World Of Film Noir," has been published in a new and expanded edition. He's also written crime novels set in the world of boxing. And his father was considered the dean of West Coast boxing writers. He covered his first prize fight in 1926 and covered boxing for the San Francisco Examiner for over 50 years.

How old were you when you saw your first boxing match in an arena? And what was that like for you?

MULLER: I was 16 years old. And it was a rite of passage in the family. I have two older brothers. And at a certain point, you know, our father would take us to the fights. And it was a revelatory experience.

My father, suddenly - we walked into that arena, and my father was a totally different person than I'd ever seen before. It was an amazing lesson to learn, like, how all these people were deferential to him. And he spoke differently. He used some very colorful language that I had never heard (laughter) come out of his mouth before. And it was really something. It made me admire him tremendously.

And it was an important lesson to me to learn, like, how to navigate, you know? You deal with different people in different situations in a different way. And it's a little bit of play acting. And at the end of the evening, when we were going home - and my dad didn't drive a car, so we were taking a streetcar home - he just put his arm around me as we left the arena, and he said, you don't have to tell your mother about any of this.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So I want to ask you about a secret that I don't know if you'll tell us or not. But you you've written about this in your novel "The Distance," which is set in the boxing world and is based on the lives of your parents - probably loosely based on them. But there's a secret that you learned I think when you were in your 20s about your mother that is kind of worked into the book. Could you talk about what that was?

MULLER: There was a family secret that was kept secret from all of the children in the family. And, you know - I don't know. My oldest brother is not really my oldest brother. That's - I'll just put it that way, OK?

GROSS: OK.

MULLER: But it was interesting because I wrote that, and I felt like it was necessary to do it. And I made it into a work of fiction. And then I said to myself, OK, so here's the deal. If this book gets published, my mother's never going to speak to me again. And if it doesn't get published, I guess, well, then that just - there you go. You know, then life just goes on as normal.

And then the most amazing thing happened, was that the book got published. And my mother read the book. And one day we're driving in the car, and she just looks at me and says, you know, you told my story in that book. And I really thought this was, like, the end of my relationship with my mother. And she said, yeah, you got it pretty right - pretty right.

And then after that, she just went on and, like, handed copies of the book out to her friends. She was so proud that I was a writer and that I was following in my dad's footsteps that she didn't really care. And I had carried that burden (laughter) around for quite a while. And in the end, it really didn't matter.

GROSS: Let's talk some more about film noir. Film noir flourishes after World War II. Why then? I mean, because after World War II, it's like, the soldiers are home. The war is over. Times - you know, the economy improves. Things get better for a lot of people - not everybody. But why was that a time, do you think, that these classic, really dark films were made?

MULLER: Because I think the artists were dealing with a lot of unfinished business. You have Hollywood pre-1934, which is when the production code was reinforced in Hollywood. And I'm sure you know all about pre-code movies and how they dealt with a lot of the themes that were sort of shelved until the film noir movement came around. And then in the Depression, Hollywood was sort of called upon to boost the nation's morale to get us through this hardship. And then immediately, when the Depression ended, World War II began. And it was - again, Hollywood had to do its patriotic duty.

Well, by the time World War II ended, one of the ironic spoils of winning that war was that artists could - were now free to tell the stories that they wanted to tell. And a lot of those stories were leftover things from what caused the Depression. Are we inherently avaricious and greedy? It was just a chance to let all this out finally because we - they were no longer under any constraints.

Artists are also contrarians by nature. And if you tell them it has to have a happy ending (laughter), a certain percentage of the artists are going to say, no, it's - I wanted to end this way. This is my story, and I want to tell it this way. And I just think that's - all of these factors came to bear.

There were political factors, economic factors, artistic factors, cultural factors that all made noir happen right when it did. And I think that's really fascinating. And I always say that that mid-century period, from the end of World War II to sort of the middle of the 1950s, was in many ways sort of where America lost its innocence. You know, we don't - we tried to whitewash it in the '50s with all the TV sitcoms and everything. And everything's back to normal.

But the genie had been let out of the bottle, so to speak. And film noir was a big part of that. And I think that's why it retains so much of its bite today, is because it reflects all of that. And whether people are completely conscious of it or not, I think that's what they're absorbing from the films.

GROSS: You know, the production code - the Hays Code that you were referring to - is a code of morals that movies had to follow. I mean, married couples weren't even allowed to sleep in the same bed in movies. And crime was not allowed to pay. Like, if you were a bad guy, you would be killed or sent to prison. It had to be punished. So how did film noir get around that? Like, give us one of your favorite examples.

MULLER: It's interesting. They didn't always get around it. And it's a debate I often have with people where they say, well, that can't be film noir; it has a happy ending. And I say, well, the happy ending is less than one minute that was (laughter) tacked on at the end of...

GROSS: (Laughter).

MULLER: ...The film by the studio head. I'm kind of agreeing with what the artist was presenting in the previous 89 minutes, right?

GROSS: (Laughter).

MULLER: And you sometimes have these enforced endings. But, you know, a film that we were talking about on the show, "Criss Cross," certainly had a downer ending. It's Shakespearean, you know? Nobody lives at the end of that film. And it's interesting because when the villains are the protagonists and they get their comeuppance, that's completely OK by the code.

The thing that's tricky is that the code can't adjudicate (laughter) whether or not the audience is going to empathize with that villain. That's the real tricky part. And that's what made noir so special, right? I mean, you can't help yourself. This is especially true in heist movies, where they're committing a crime, and they're not going to get away with it. They don't get away with it in "The Asphalt Jungle." They don't get away with it in "The Killing." They never get away with it. But the audience is always rooting for them to get away with it, which is very much in defiance of the spirit of the code. But there's nothing you can do about it.

In "Double Indemnity," they're plotting a murder. And yet when they commit the crime and they're in the car and the car won't start and it seems like they're not going to get away, the whole audience is like, start, start. They want them to get away with it. And that's sort of - to me, the point of the whole noir movement was that it allowed the audience to empathize with people who were doing the wrong thing. It's not encouraging the audience to do the wrong thing. It's just saying, here. You want to know what it's like when you cross that line? This is what happens.

GROSS: Let's take another short break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Eddie Muller. He's the host of the show "Noir Alley" on Turner Classic Movies. And his book "Dark City: The Lost World Of Film Noir" has been published in a new and expanded edition. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF HENRY MANCINI'S "THE BOSS")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Eddie Muller, host of the show "Noir Alley" on Turner Classic Movies. His book "Dark City: The Lost World Of Film Noir" has been published in a new and expanded edition.

You know, in your book you write about how gangsters in the film world were not unlike what was happening in Hollywood itself. So I want you to tell us about the union the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees and its connection to organized crime 'cause, apparently, like, they basically shook down some of the studio heads.

MULLER: Yes, (laughter) very true. Of course, it's a little touchy right now because IATSE is going through a whole thing right now with - the rank and file are going to strike. And, you know, so I want everybody who's listening to understand that this is - I'm talking about history now. I'm not talking about current events.

But, yeah, when Hollywood was in its earliest days, you know, the Chicago mob saw great potential there for moving in on the craft unions to basically control labor in Hollywood. And there were two men - George Browne (ph) and Willie Bioff. And you couldn't ask for a better name for a gangster than Willie Bioff.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Oh, my God. I just spit out the whole sip of water I just take, and I hope I didn't ruin the microphone.

(LAUGHTER)

MULLER: And so, yeah, they finagled their way into power in these, you know, the early days of the unions. And they were basically playing both ends against the middle. They would shakedown the studio heads to say, if you pay us, we guarantee you the workers will never go on strike. And then they were taking exorbitant dues from the workers to say, we're going to guarantee you work, and, you know, we're going to represent you to the studios. And, you know, I think as Willie Bioff said at one point, you know, we had it - Hollywood was dancing to our tune until we got all loused up (laughter).

And there were - it was actually Robert Montgomery, the actor, who played a huge role in spending his own money on private investigators who ended up kind of cracking the combination on this and sending these guys to jail.

GROSS: Another thing about film noir is that several of the key people in it were emigres from Germany who left during World War II or just before during the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. So what are some of the stylistic things in film noir that you think came out of German expressionism through the people who fled Germany?

MULLER: Mostly, I think what the Europeans who came to Hollywood brought with them was, well, as you said, expressionistic sense of art direction and cinematography. And for people who may not be familiar with the term, expressionism, when it's used cinematically, is just a way that - what the environment that you see in the movie - the sets, the interiors, all this - are designed in a way that they actually manifest the internal lives of the characters. So it's a complete artificial way of doing it. There's nothing natural about it at all. But it is extremely effective as a theatrical device. And I think that that is something that directors like Otto Preminger and Billy Wilder and Robert Siodmak and Fritz Lang - that they definitely brought to Hollywood.

And when that mixed with the American vernacular speech and the style of crime writing that had sort of been perfected in America, I think that's what really created film noir. Because as much as people talk about the visual style, there's a language. And that's what so many people love about these movies. You know, that scene with Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck or any of those scenes in "The Asphalt Jungle," there's a particular language of noir that people love just as much as the visual look.

GROSS: Well, I'd like to close with some music 'cause the music is such a great part of film noir. Some of the scores are just terrific. And, like, Miklos Rozsa did some really great ones, including "Double Indemnity." And this is a score I particularly like because it has that kind of - the drum is like a pounding heartbeat - like, somewhere between a pounding, anxious heartbeat and a death march. And it's like the musical version of dread and doom. Do you want to say a few words about, like, the music in film noir and its importance?

MULLER: Well, I'm very glad that you're singling out Miklos Rozsa because he is, to me, the best composer of noir. He - you know, "Double Indemnity," "The Killers," "Criss Cross" - all - they're fabulous scores. I think what's interesting about people's impressions of noir is they have - a lot of people have developed a mistaken idea that the scores of these films are jazzy, that there's a lot of brass to them, which is actually something that didn't come in until the 1950s. And it was mostly on television and television theme songs, like Count Basie's theme for "M Squad" and, you know, the - Henry Mancini's "Peter Gunn" theme and all that.

But in the '40s, they were orchestral scores and very, very European-influenced - you know, Max Steiner and Franz Waxman and Miklos Rozsa, as you say. And yeah, they're fabulous. I confess, I didn't appreciate them as much when I was younger as I do today. Having heard so much of it now, it's like music I'll just play (laughter).

GROSS: OK. So we're going to close with the music from the Miklos Rozsa score for "Double Indemnity." And Eddie Muller, it's been so much fun to have you back on the show. Thank you so much for coming.

MULLER: An absolute pleasure, Terry. Thank you so much for inviting me. And let's not wait another 25 years.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Absolutely.

(SOUNNDBITE OF MIKLOS ROZSA'S "PRELUDE [FROM 'DOUBLE INDEMNITY']")

GROSS: That's music from Miklos Rozsa from his score for the film "Criss Cross" (ph).

Eddie Muller's show, "Noir Alley," is on Turner Classic Movies Saturday nights with a rebroadcast Sunday mornings. His book "Dark City: The Lost World Of Film Noir" was just published in a new expanded edition. If you want to hear our 1996 interview about his book "Grindhouse: The Forbidden World Of 'Adults Only' Cinema," go to our archive website. That's freshairarchive.org - freshairarchive.org. After we take a short break, our jazz critic Kevin Whitehead will review a new box set of trumpeter Lee Morgan's complete recordings from his three nights at the Lighthouse jazz club in 1970. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLES MINGUS' "SELF-PORTRAIT IN THREE COLORS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.