|THE BIG CHAT|
||Interview with: Lee Server|
|June 4th, 2002|
Lee Server is the author of the successful biography on Robert Mitchum, 'BABY I DON'T CARE'. He has been busy for the last decade, cranking out some of the most challenging works in print including among others: 'SAM FULLER: FILM IS A BATTLEGROUND: A Critical Study, With Interviews, a Filmography and a Bibliography', 'DANGER IS MY BUSINESS: An Illustrated History of the Fabulous Pulp Magazines/1896-1953', as well as editing 'THE BIG BOOK OF NOIR' a collection of articles on film noir by several contributors.
This session was led by film reviewer and writer Alan 'A.K.' Rode. After a short interview Alan opened up the board for a question and answer session with the guest. This event is presented here in it's entirety.
I would like to welcome author Lee Server to DFD tonight.
As noted by Marc's banner, Lee's body of work on American cinema over
the past decade is unsurpassed in both content and quality. Lee, welcome
to Dark Film Discussions.
LEE: Thanks, Alan, Marc and fellow noirheads. I appreciate the opportunity you have offered to converse with this very learned and amusing group. Let me just adjust the Venetian blinds so the flashing neon is aimed at the keyboard and we can get started.
ALAN: To start off, here are some questions for Lee before opening the board for general questions. Baby, I Don't Care, your superbly crafted biography on Robert Mitchum, has been enjoyed by many habitués of this board and the general public as well. The wide appeal of Mitchum as both an actor and personality reminds me when Bogart became and stayed hip to a new generation starting in the late 60's. Do you think Robert Mitchum is a similar, compelling figure who is not subject to a generational shelf life and won't ever fade from the public consciousness?
LEE: Mitchum was never BIG box office like a John Wayne or . . . arggh . . . Harrison Ford or Stallone. He was never at the right studio, never got the "good" parts or the obvious prestige jobs. To people who know old movies only from catching one of those network "AFI Presents Tom Hanks Presents the Fifty Greatest Crying Scenes" specials he's a minor figure perhaps. But he has always had a strong and rather rabid following--and a diverse following, I mean from intellectuals to tough blue collar guys (and gals)--and there are folks who have found things in Mitchum as an artist and to an extent as a person, found someone who speaks to them, or for them--his persona, his style, his outlook on life. Of course all the great iconic stars offer some sort of instructional appeal but Mitchum I think is more complex, more poetic. You asked if I think his appeal will continue to last and grow. I think so very much. And my publisher and creditors hope so too.
ALAN: The Mitchum book presents an extremely paradoxical man. It appears that he was talented, charming, intellectual and well liked while conversely being a serial philanderer, alcoholic, crude, and occasionally cruel. Did your research and writing lead you to form any conclusions about Bob Mitchum, the man or do the facts simply speak for themselves?
LEE: Mitchum's life was an ongoing tussle--sometimes a bloody brawl--between these conflicting sides of his nature, the sensitivity, the poetry, the gracious, laxy [sic], live-and-let-live side of him and the darkness, the violence, the compulsion to piss, figuratively and--as readers of the book will know--literally, on everything. He was self-destructive and often just plain destructive. Often his behavior, his decisions and comments were inexplicable. People who knew him for decades, people who knew him well for his entire life, confessed they could not understand all that made him tick. I lay out all the various and possible motives for his behavior but I let the reader ponder the riddle of Mitchum without pretending I hold the solution. I wanted, in fact, this unresolvedness, this mystery, to hang over the reader at the end. Don't know if it worked, but I tried.
ALAN: Your biography on Samuel Fuller, another Hollywood iconoclast, is a fascinating study. Film noir aficionados are familiar with some of Fuller's films such as Pickup on South Street and Underworld U.S.A as well as his war movies. You spent some time interviewing Fuller in Paris. What was that "up close and personal" experience with Samuel Fuller like?
LEE: Hope this isn't too painfully slow . . .Yes, when I did my marathon interview with Sam he was living in Paris in a large, peeling apartment. He had been in the wilderness for some years in the '70s, then managed to get The Big Red One made. The producers and various people screwed that up. It's still a very original, interesting, even at times great movie. But Fuller had a masterpiece ready to go and they re-edited it, cut it down, put on that narration. Read the paperback book he wrote from his original full script and you'll see what a fabulous, nihilistic movie it could have been. So then he made White Dog. Labeled racist by some rabble-rousers. It wasn't. But so be it. Fuller moved to Paris where he was lionized and actually got to make a couple more movies. He was a wild, colorful character. There were two influences on his creative life--tabloid journalism and war. He was a crime reporter for the lowest, scummiest of the 1920s-30s tabloids--The Graphic--covered murders, race riots, gangsters. In World War II he was a combat soldier, hit the beaches on D-Day, etc., etc. This was the sort of experience that informed his explosive work. Anyway, he didn't speak a word of French. Just enough to get laid and drunk, as they say. What was supposed to be an hour-long interview turned into all day all night, dinner, drinks. He had enormous energy and answered questions like he was Captain Ahab screaming at God. He was quite a guy.
ALAN: Your first book was Screenwriter: Words Become Pictures, an interview anthology with twelve noted screenwriters. Your subjects ran the gamut from Nat Perrin, who wrote for the Marx Brothers to A.I. Bezzerides, who penned the screenplays for Thieves Highway (1949) and Kiss Me Deadly (1955). What made you decide to write about movie screenwriters? How did the writing and interview process evolve? And which screenwriter impressed you the most? LEE: I had spent a number of years doing the most inconsequential writing. What would be equated with pulp writing in the 1980s. I was beachcombing and drifting around Europe and Asia and Mexico, came back to the states, did some more junk and finally decided to try and do something on a subject that interested me. I wanted to do something about golden age Hollywood, to talk to some survivors of that era, and I was infatuated with writers and thought the screenwriters hadn't gotten much attention. I also figured that since there weren't many books on the subject publishers would be pleased to see something so original. I would come to learn that publishers in fact are much happier to see something that has been done before many, many times over and over. I found these great, interesting characters: ex truck drivers, British playwrights, refugees from Hitler, ex-bootleggers, all the colorful characters who gave Hollywood movies in the 30s and '40s their richness and variety and idiosyncrasy. Impressed me the most? I was very taken with Buzz Bezzerides who wrote On Dangerous Ground and Kiss Me Deadly, a Greek Armenian wild man, and John Bright, the guy who wrote Public Enemy and several other early Cagney pictures and was as hardboiled and cool as any character he ever created.
ALAN: Danger is my Business is a beautifully illustrated volume about the real pulp fiction magazines and writers. How would you assess the pulps' impact on classic film noir, circa 1940-1958?
LEE: I think in this book you will find more evidence of the creative continuum that existed in popular culture in that era. Since we're supposed to be talking about film noir let me narrow it to that--the text of film noir comes very directly out of the pulps--Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, first published in issues of Black Mask, out of Cornell Woolrich, whose pulp stories and subsequent novels about paranoia and amnesia and haunted men were filmed over and over in the '40s and '50s, Raymond Chandler and lesser known names like Steve Fisher and Horace McCoy and Jonathan Latimer and Frank Gruber . . . most of these guys followed the same migration from the pulps in New York to the Hollywood studios and they supplied most of the stories and wrote a high percentage of the scripts that became the corpus we now know and love as film noir.
ALAN: As I close to open up the board for other questions, how and when did film noir capture your interest and what project are you currently working on?
LEE: I have been watching these movies from infancy. Next to seeing it on a big screen in an ancient movie theatre the best way to see an old noir is at the age of ten, on a black-and-white television screen, on the floor of a living room, at 3:30 a.m.
MIKE: YOU said it, Mon.
ALAN: Mike, definitely a shared cultural rite of passage for all noirheads nailed neatly by Lee. I can still remember watching D.O.A. for the first time late one night on our grainy Philco. Straight, no chaser and hooked for life.
mac: Good evening, Mr. Server, and welcome to the forum! I've just begun reading your top-notch bio on Robert Mitchum and am immensely enjoying it. I am curious about Mitchum family photos, to wit, the lack thereof. I also have a 1972 paperback edition of The Robert Mitchum Story: "It Sure Beats Working," which does have pictures of Mitchum as a child and in bathing trunks as a strapping sixteen-year-old with brother John. Did you have a difficulty in getting Mitchum family photos? I was curious to see what Mitchum's sister, father, and mother looked like. I presume that you interviewed John Mitchum who recently passed away. I know that he wrote a memoir, but I've never read it. If you did meet him, what was he like? Thank you for, what is so far, a compelling and entertaining book!
LEE: After writing 270,000 words, frankly my interest in gathering pictures was not strong, one of the book's faults, I imagine. I had some conversations with John Mitchum. Robert's wife apparently asked him not to talk to me but he graciously did answer a few things. mac: I'll ask an obvious, simple question. Because you wrote a book on screenwriters, have you ever had the ambition to become one yourself? If so, after interviewing the subjects of your book, did your enthusiasm wax or wane? LEE: I started out from college to get into the movie business, took a right turn, and everything since then is a blur. I have had some jobs in that line, an option sold along the way and there have been some rumblings about making a movie derived from the Mitchum book. Screenwriting as everybody knows is remunerative but can be very deadening to the creative soul.
DARK MARC: Hi Lee: Thanks for coming on the board, and I'm not butt kissing, but your interview is the most interesting yet for me of all the guests that we have had here so far. My question is regarding Sam Fuller, known as an independent or a non-studio lackey director. In your research or discussion with him do you feel that this was by Fuller's design or was it that the major studios didn't give him the break and an extended contract?
LEE: Hi Marc. Thanks for the kind words. Fuller was the kind of filmmaker who could make a picture for 100 grand in five days or could spend millions on location and put every dollar on the screen. He was enormously creative and could churn out a script to fit whatever was the budget--and he was not afraid, as with Park Row, to actually pay for the whole film himself. He's thought of as a B guy and small scale kind of moviemaker; but I urge you to see a wide screen version of House of Bamboo, his American gangsters in Japan noir, or Merrill's Marauders--a WWII adventure--and see just how much dazzling spectacle and color he could put into a film when they did give him the money. The studios eventually shied away from him because they thought he was just too idiosyncratic or wacky, not conventional or safe enough.
mac: Which currently living writers of noir/pulp/crime fiction do you read, admire, recommend? Likewise, which recently produced "neo-noir" movies (e.g., The Man Who Wasn't There, Mulholland Drive) have appealed to you?
LEE: I heartily recommend Richard Stark (who is Donald Westlake under his hard-boiled pseudonym), Marc Behm, Charles Willeford, the Ripley books by Patricia Highsmith (the last two died but not that long ago), and my pal Ed Gorman. Films: Sexy Beast, Violent Cop, and Boiling Point (Japanese by Takeshi Kitano), can't think of any others at the moment.
MIKE: Hi Lee. Thanks for joining us. A couple of Fuller questions: Pickup on South Street is great classic noir and even Underworld, U.S.A., and Crimson Kimono are not hard to like. Shock Corridor and Naked Kiss leave me cold and have a very sterile feeling about them. They seem, in fact, more like early videotape than film with an artificial quality, like suspended time. Do you have any insight as to why Fuller chose to do them this way? The premise of Shock Corridor, aside from being perhaps a popular nightmare of being trapped in the loony bin and unable to get out, has been echoed only recently in scientific literature. Where did Fuller the idea for this? Thanks.
LEE: Thanks, Mike. I have to agree with you. Although Naked Kiss and Shock Corridor are great faves among Fuller fans, and there are striking things in [them], Naked Kiss never worked for me. Shock Corridor I like much more, though the intensity and . . . what . . . blatantness of it all is often ludicrous, there's an over-the-top cartoonishness to it that is hard to take. Where did he get the idea? Actually, the gimmick of a reporter going undercover in an insane asylum was legendary among old reporters. In fact, I think it was a famous female reporter from early in the last century--Nellie Bly?--who did this and wrote about the conditions. Fuller married this premise to his idea of making a madhouse a metaphor for an explosive angry America. My favorites of his are those more conventional but still wild and distinctive Fullers like Pickup, Bamboo, Forty Guns, Run of the Arrow, Fixed Bayonets, Merrill's. Many people thought his last film Street of No Return was no good but I loved it.
MIKE: I "ran all the way" to get to computer this eve--glad I did. LEE: Thank you, Mike. It's been fun.
TERRY NOONAN: Two questions Lee: 1. Are any one of the works in the Big Book a favorite of yours? 2. Which male & female actor from the Classic Noir period do you feel best personifies film noir?
1. Are any one of the works in the Big Book a favorite of yours?
LEE: 1. I want to say my own interview with Marc Lawrence, the eternal Hollywood gangster, or my chapter on Peter Gunn and Johnny Staccato, but this would be wrong of me. I loved "The Last Days of Cornell Woolrich," the article on Phil Karlson, Ed on Gold Medal paperbacks . . . a lot of good stuff in there I think.
2. Which male & female actor from the Classic Noir period do you feel best personifies film noir?
2. This will surprise you. Male: Robert Mitchum. Runner-ups: Robert Ryan, Dana Andrews, Sterling Hayden, Jack Palance (who I met when I was a kid and he was very nice to me). Female: I really do think Jane Greer found immortality in that one role, plus Ava Gardner, Barbara Stanwyck, Gene Tierney.
ALAN: This anthology is one terrific read--my copy is becoming dog-eared. How did Server, Gorman, and Greenberg collaborate and put out this collection of interviews, essays, and vignettes on noir?
LEE: Alan, we did it slowly and then all of a sudden. Ed wrote some pieces and gathered some new and some old ones. I did the same. We each found material for all the sections, film and literature, etc. The hardest part was actually finding some of the people who had written something for some obscure magazine thirty years or more before. It was a labor of love I guess. The check is apparently still in the mail or the dog ate it or somethin' .
GEORGE: Mr. Server, as has happened to me after reading other Hollywood biographies (Monty Clift, for example), I find myself "liking" Robert Mitchum as a person less than I did before the book. This is not a criticism of your work . . . and Mitch will always be the ultra-cool Jeff Bailey in Out of the Past to me . . . but my question is after the research and writing was finished, how did/do you feel about him personally, "warts and all?" Did anything turn up in your research that surprised you (like the late firing of his assistant)? Masterfully done book . . . how long did you spend on research and writing? Thank you for joining us tonight.
LEE: George, thanks for your comments and for reading the book. I empathize with your feelings. This is a recurring problem for anyone who responds strongly to an artist's work, whether it's Picasso or Frank Sinatra, or Mitchum. There were times in working on the book that I was repulsed by the man's behavior. Television is great at doing these 50-minute biographies where nobody tells anything bad or questionable about anybody . . . anyway, I didn't feel I was doing a book like that. I put in the good, bad, and ugly, to coin a phrase; but I don't think anybody could say I did a Kitty Kelley--that is, the kind of book that is determined to expose or savage the subject and twist everything towards some ulterior message. Obviously I am sympathetic to the man as an artist and toward much about him--his outlook, his wit, his wild, larger than life style, etc. He was a man of contradictions, of recurrent darkness and trouble and also of great humor and fun and charisma and all I can say in the end is that here was something original and fascinating and we won't see his like again.
MIKE: Our friend Laura had two questions up that got zapped?!?! Who would you pick to play Mitch in a biopic of your book? (She hopes it's not Billy Baldwin) Who's up for next bio? (Not exact but essentially her questions.) LEE: Names have been mentioned like Russell Crowe and Benicio del Toro and Michael Madsen and some others. These things are often better done with some newcomer. As to the subject of the next bio, I hate to be coy but I can't mention it for a while longer. I'll try and pop back with the answer later.
LAURA: Thanks, Mike. Actually, I think Lee said the subject of his next book was a secret but my question echoed George's. Mr. Server, also, although I have not seen too many Sam Fuller films I noticed that two of his films, Crimson Kimono and The House of Bamboo, dealt with Japanese motifs and tackled the then taboo subject of inner-racial relationships. Did anything influence Fuller to be ahead of his time in these ways? Thank you so much for joining us tonight and I think your book on Mitchum is just fabulous! Robert Mitchum is absolutely my favorite male star and my question is after immersing yourself in such an enigmatic and larger-than-life presence, did you find it hard to move on after the writing process? And also, in delving into real-life, well-known celebrities--Fuller, Mitchum, and the unnamed next biography--do you find yourself gaining great admiration or disappointment after the process is over? Thanks again for your time here tonight!
LEE: Thanks again for the questions and your interest. Yes, the immersion as you describe it is fairly overwhelming by the time you get to the end of a project like the Mitchum bio. Talking about it is a little bit like explaining how sausage is made . . . but I will say that by the time I had to write about Mitchum getting ill and dying and his last moments it was very, very difficult being at the typewriter.
LAURA: Thanks, Lee! It's been great having you here!
LEE: Thanks, Laura!
ALAN: Every account, interview and article about Hollywood during the late 40's and 1950's somehow ends up dealing with the blacklist, for example, your interview with Marc Lawrence where he states that the pain of that period would, "never go away." Kazan's recent special Oscar indicated that feelings still run high. Did you find that the blacklist forced people into two camps for life: those who gave names and those who dummied up and/or went to the can with no hope of any reconciliation between these two groups?
LEE: Alan, you put your finger on it. I've met a number of people affected by the blacklist from one end or the other, two of the Hollywood Ten, and many others. One aspect of my screenwriter interviews is the way it shows the politics of the time--the unionization, the political battles, and finally the final storm of the blacklist and its aftermath. But yes, when I met some of these people, Ring Lardner, Edward Dmytryk, Marc, they were in their 70s, 80s even 90s, and the blacklist period was always very close to the surface with them. It was probably on Dmytryk's mind every day of his life. Abe Polonsky, the same, from the side of a guy who didn't cooperate with anybody.
ALAN: Lee, you've been a prince! Here is a question of personal interest to me. What preparations do you typically make for an interview? Thanks.
LEE: Alan, it does depend on who is being interviewed--if it's a major figure, or crucial to your subject you want to be well prepared. If it is a minor figure, peripheral to the subject you might be inclined to wing it. In either case you have to be ready to pursue the unexpected revelation or train of thought. Beyond that there is an art to it. You have to know when to flatter, when to play dumb, when to artfully pursue the controversial element. I hear about these writers, biographers who have interns and assistants doing many of their interviews. If the authors are any good I think they probably lose a lot of good stuff.
Lee Server's interview was copied
and archived by mac. A.K. Rode led the interview before the board was
opened to a question and answer session. June 4th, 2002.
A.K. Rode's reviews can be found at FilmMonthly.com
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