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(Photo: nyyankee/Flickr)

The Man Who’s Trying to Save the History of American Movies

• August 06, 2014 • 6:00 AM

(Photo: nyyankee/Flickr)

Exploding movie theaters, things being dumped into the Pacific, byzantine corporate bureaucracy—all part of Eddie Muller’s efforts to preserve the film noir era.

Ring, ring. Ring, ring.

The phone sputtered into the black. Eddie was on the other end, 3,000 miles away, sweating it out. The deal was supposed to go down today.

Ring, ring. Ring, ring.

Years ago, a black market seller tipped Eddie off that he’d sold a nitrate print to a private collector. The catch: The seller wouldn’t give a name.

See, nitrate was illegal. Too flammable to trust the public with. When the big picture boom happened in the ’20s, theaters needed help playing movies. In walked dopes and fools and nitwits. Idiots were given shiny keys to the bomb locker. The fires started. First the booths, then the house, then the whole goddamn palace. Any flesh and bone in the way went too. Forty-eight dead in Ireland. Seventy-seven in Montreal. Sixty-nine in Scotland. Only way to keep everyone safe was for the studios to back up their fleet of Caddys to the end of the pier, pour them in. Swim out hundred yards in Santa Monica today, and the floor’s nothing but reels. So say the rumors, anyway.

But they didn’t get rid of ‘em all. Can’t kill every cockroach. Into the homes of private collectors they went. Deals made in whispers under the cover of darkness. Loading up basements with enough TNT to crater in a suburb. Maybe your neighbor. Maybe not.

Real hush-hush stuff, which is why the seller couldn’t tell Eddie the name and hope to remain in business for long. To the grave, the name went. Until, all of a sudden, the seller wanted to get out of the business—too hot for him, he said—so to Eddie’s ears the name went: Bill.

“A projectionist, works in Baltimore,” the seller said. “You can figure the rest.”

Eddie tracked him to a vintage joint on York. The Senator. Eddie got the number to the booth.

Ring, ring. Ring, ring.

“Hello,” said a voice.

“This Bill?” asked Eddie.

Silence was affirmation.

“I understand you have a print of Too Late for Tears….”

Again, the phone went thick with silence.

“Yeah,” said Bill.

From there, it was easy. Cat was out of the bag. Arrangements. Loan agreements. Enough paperwork to choke the state bar, signed and dated and given the once-over by men in suits. Everything was squared away, except the actual thing being in his hands. Two years into this mess, all Eddie needed was the print.

Ring, ring. Ring, ring.

Where was he?

Ring, ring. Ring, ring.

The other end picked up.

“Bill?” he asked.

“Bill’s dead,” said the voice.

Click.

A FEW BRIEF MOMENTS of artistic license aside, that’s essentially the story of Eddie Muller’s attempt to restore the 1949 film noir classic Too Late for Tears.

Muller is the president and founder of the Film Noir Foundation, a non-profit working to locate and repair films from the classic era. His work has led to 12 years of film festivals in San Francisco’s Castro Theater, the rescue of six films, and a badass nickname from legendary noir novelist James Ellroy: “The Czar of Noir.”

“You have these deals on paper, but they don’t have the slightest idea where the movies actually are.”

But when it came to restoring Too Late for Tears, The Czar was nearly crying tears of his own.

“It was by far the toughest,” he says.

While Internet streaming may make it seem as if we can watch anything whenever we want, that’s just not the case. Every migration to a new medium relegates a portion of films to the dustbin of history. There’s a triage that occurs when 16mm leads to VHS, to DVD, to Blu-ray. Conversion takes time and money, two resources that movie studios aren’t going to waste on titles that don’t generate sales.

“It’s a funnel,” Muller says. “It may seem like there are more titles than ever before, but I guarantee you this is an illusion.”

Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation estimates that half of all American films made before 1950, along with over 90 percent made before 1929, are gone for good. While there are high-profile “Holy Grail” lost films that collectors have been obsessing over for years—Erich von Stroheim’s nine-hour director’s cut of Greed, which only 12 people ever saw; Lon Chaney’s detective/horror movie London After Midnight, the last print reportedly burned in the tragic MGM vault fire of 1967—there are crates more on nobody’s radar.

The hardest to locate, by far, are “orphans”: independently produced films seemingly not owned by any studio. One such example is the noir Cry Danger.

Shot over 22 days in Los Angeles, the 1951 film follows Rocky Mulloy, recently sprung from jail and on the hunt for the person who put him there. It contains all of the elements of classic noir: Double-crossing dames, piles of dirty loot, even some Russian Roulette. But until Muller’s Foundation put themselves on the case, it was collecting dust in the vaults at Warner Brothers. The problem wasn’t that Muller couldn’t find the film. It was that they had to talk the studio into letting them take it.

Cry Danger was produced by its star Dick Powell through a company called Olympic Pictures. “It’s the only movie Olympic ever made,” Muller explains. After completion, Powell made a distribution deal with RKO Pictures, giving them first-run rights. Once those ended, Powell made a second deal with Republic Pictures, a contract that lasted quite a bit longer.

“Republic knew movies were going to end up on TV,” Muller says. “So they included TV rights in the package.”

After a theatrical run, Cry Danger became property of Republic’s TV division, which sold the film to stations around the country. When Republic went out of business in 1959, they sold their library to National Telefilm Associates, which subsequently went belly-up in 1985. After enough mergers and acquisitions to give Gordon Gekko a headache, the film ended up owned by Paramount. But while the rights may change hands, the actual films don’t always follow.

“You have these deals on paper,” Muller says, “but they don’t have the slightest idea where the movies actually are.”

But by following Cry Danger‘s paper trail, Muller could make a deal with Warner Bros., who had a copy in their vault due to a late ’70s acquisition of RKO’s library. (An “angel” working the W.B. vault tipped Muller off to this.) Since the rights belonged to Paramount, Warner Bros. couldn’t do anything with the print. And Paramount couldn’t do anything with the rights because they didn’t have the print. (As Muller points out, “possession is nine-tenths of the law.”) So Eddie called up Warner Bros. and essentially told them, What you’re storing is worthless, is it cool if I grab it?

“This is basically a knucklehead telling a major entertainment conglomerate, give up the movie.”

Luckily, Muller’s relationship with the University of California-Los Angeles’ respected Film & Television Archive made the process easier. Warner Bros. turned over the negative, Paramount carved out a deal for restoration rights, and on March 24, 2011, the Film Noir Foundation premiered the restoration of Cry Danger in Los Angeles.

THAT’S THE EASY ROUTE when it comes to restoration. Where things get tricky is when a film falls into the sphere of public domain. When that happens, fly-by-night outfits take the existing 16mm prints of the film—in the collector’s marketplace ever since studios began selling off their archives in the ’60s following the conversion to tape—make a crappy DVD transfer for $2.99 at Walgreen’s, and throw out the original canisters. That was the murky world that Muller’s latest obsession, Too Late for Tears, fell into.

The first move for Muller during any restoration is to ask the community for any and all elements they have. This means 35mm prints, 16mm, good digital transfers. Anything but circulation prints—prints that have been sent out to theaters—which have wear-and-tear that makes a restoration nearly impossible. The prize is an original negative or duplication that’s been created for the sake of protection, but those are nearly impossible to come by.

Eddie’s calls for Too Late for Tears elements netted him a few nibbles. One was a 35mm print from a private collector, the quality of which was uncertain. Another was a 35mm print that somehow ended up in the Jones Film Archive at Southern Methodist University. (“You can fall down a rabbit hole when you start investigating this stuff.”) UCLA also had a print after a French collector dumped loads of canisters on them. (“Luckily, their print didn’t have subtitles.”) But the question at hand was whether or not Muller wanted to pour his limited funds into a restoration using this unproven trio or  hunting the rumors of a Baltimore projectionist’s pristine nitrate print.

“It’s like a poker table,” Muller says. “How do we not know the nitrate was a better source?”

Unfortunately, the projectionist’s death and subsequent difficulties with his estate made the decision moot. After two years hunting the nitrate, Muller cashed in his chips on the trio. Under the watchful eye of UCLA restoration manager Scott MacQueen, the best parts of the three prints were spliced into one. Finally, on January 25, 2014, Muller premiered the restoration of Too Late for Tears at the 12th-annual Film Noir Fest in San Francisco to rapturous applause.

And everyone lived happily after.

BUT THAT SEEMS TOO tidy of a bow to place on a noir story. So instead, let’s fade out of that ovation and into a moonlit shot of Santa Monica pier stretching deep into the sea. And into a shot looking off the end of that wooden plank into the murky depths below. Because while Muller and the rest of the restoration community are working to preserve history, another film massacre is only a single bad decision away.

“If the wrong person gets in charge of a studio,” Muller says, “they could easily junk their archive. That’s a very real possibility.”

Close with a shot of those legendary nitrate canisters, kelp, and unrolled film woven like strands of DNA, swaying together at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Music and credits and black.

Rick Paulas
Rick Paulas has written plenty of things, some of them serious, many of them not, scattered over the vast expanses of the Internet. He lives in Oakland and is a White Sox fan.

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