Monday, January 28, 2008

NOIR CITY 6—The Grand Inquisitor

Eddie Muller expressed a note of chagrin when I advised him that I had read his short story "The Grand Inquisitor" in Megan Abbott's anthology A Hell Of A Woman. He was concerned it would ruin the film version for me. Granted, the story's plot punch is somewhat anchored to the element of surprise; but, I had other reasons to look forward to Noir City's world premiere presentation of The Grand Inquisitor. Primarily, the return to the screen of Marsha Hunt after a nearly 30-year absence. As well as hometown pride in the film's local pedigree: produced by Anita Monga, directed by Eddie Muller, filmed by Jonathan Marlow, and edited by Hannah Eaves.

Muller's imaginative spin on San Francisco's notorious Zodiac killings is not only a riveting short story but an effective piece of film as well, especially because of Marsha Hunt's portrayal of Hazel Reedy, "a milky-eyed recluse with a past darker than she can bear." At 90 years old, Hunt's charisma is still commanding. You can't keep your eyes off her.

Admitting that "some clown abused his power as festival host" to sandwich The Grand Inquisitor between two topnotch Dalton Trumbo features, the world premiere was introduced by the "Queenpin of Noir" Megan Abbott. Abbott wanted a contribution from Eddie Muller for her anthology "not just because of his ravishing film noir books or his sublime glamour-drenched 1940s novels Shadow Boxer and The Distance; but, because in all his fiction he's always written wonderful virtuoso female characters."

After begging, cajoling, and asking several times for a contribution, Muller finally agreed and—though the son of a newspaper man and a newspaper man himself—he didn't bust deadline twice turning in his story. The wait was worth it, however, as "The Grand Inquisitor" is "an eerie, utterly seductive story of two women filled with dark secrets circling each other" that likewise reminded Abbott of "Little Red Riding Hood directed by Jacques Tourneur." A short month later Muller advised Abbott that "The Grand Inquisitor" was no longer just a short story; it had been adapted into a screenplay and production had started on the film.

After the film's enthusiastic Noir City reception, Marsha Hunt took the stage to accept her standing ovation. Once the applause subsided, she remarked, "I came back to life just to see this. And to see you again, this audience. This very night is the anniversary of our first meeting. A year ago tonight, I met most of you. You're a faithful audience; you keep coming. And what an audience you are! You must be bursting with pride for his very first motion picture; Eddie Muller's first!" Hunt then called for Muller to join her on stage.

Muller thanked Jonathan Marlow not only for his cinematography but because—after Marlow read the short story—he said to Eddie, "There's a movie. Let's just make it." Muller responded, "C'mon, where are we going to get somebody to play Hazel Reedy?" Marlow rallied, "Call Marsha! Ask her!"

Marsha agreed and flew up to Alameda to film her sequence over four days. Muller said there was only one anecdote he really wanted to share about how professional an actress Marsha Hunt is. After reading the script she asked him, "Do I really have to smoke that much?" He thought, "Wow, either Marsha has never smoked or she quit a long habit; one or the other." It ended up being the latter and Muller apologized but told her she would indeed have to smoke that much because it was part of her character. They went to great pains to secure herbal cigarettes "that everyone smokes in the movies now"; but, Marsha Hunt—after trying the herbal cigarettes the day before they started shooting—insisted on smoking Pall Malls when she arrived on set for the first day's shoot. "Her reason for it was not what you might think," Muller explained. With complete professionalism, Hunt warned Muller that the herbal cigarettes would burn too quickly and he would have a hell of a time with continuity.

"I do want to compliment the members of the crew who are here," Hunt specified. "We worked in—as you saw—very close quarters. There were no dressing rooms. There were no usual conveniences handy. But we all worked with—I don't know—a kind of joy. This is what was so baffling, that a story as noir as a story could get would be such a pleasure to make. I hadn't worked for—what?—25-30 years and it was in a film by Dalton Trumbo." Muller identified that film as Johnny Got His Gun from 1971; a film that Dalton Trumbo not only wrote but the only film Trumbo ever directed.

Marsha Hunt expanded: "Johnny Got His Gun was a bestselling book in the wake of World War I. It was the definitive war-is-hell book. It was so shattering for people to read about what war could do to such a lovely, live young man and it haunted the nation for many years. It haunted Dalton, who so wanted it filmed. He couldn't get it done until, finally, he did it himself. It won first prize at the Cannes festival."

Marsha then invited her co-actress Leah Dashe to the stage. I was familiar with Leah's work, having seen her in Eddie Muller's adaptation of the Grand Guignol classic Orgy in the Lighthouse presented by Thrillpeddlers last Valentines Day.

"Marsha was amazing to work with," Leah effused, "as I'm sure you can all imagine. My first film ever with Marsha Hunt who's done 63 films. …As Marsha told me the first day that I met her when we came into the room and all the crew members were there—they stood up and gave her a standing ovation the minute they saw her—I stepped aside and Marsha took my hand and she said, 'No. No, we don't do that. We bow.' " She and Marsha then bowed to their cheering audience.

Cross-published on Twitch.

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