Exclusive Interview: Eddie Muller on True Crime

On Monday night, January 9, 2023, TCM programming focuses on True Crime. TCM host Eddie Muller will be joined by journalist and newscaster Paula Zahn for the special prime-time programming.

Paula Zahn brings to the discussion her work on On the Case With Paula Zahn an American documentary and news program broadcast on Investigation Discovery since October 18, 2009. The program, now in its 25th season, explores in-depth stories of crime mysteries and interviews with involved individuals, closest to the cases and includes expert analysis. Find where to watch On the Case With Paula Zahn here. Eddie Muller brings to the discussion his expertise as an author, move historian, film restorer, film festival programmer and founder of the Film Noir Foundation, which is dedicated to preserving America’s film noir heritage.

Muller and Zahn will discuss two true crime films, filmed a decade apart.
 8:00 PM   I Want to Live! (1958)
10:15 PM  The Boston Strangler (1968)

Classic Couple asked Eddie Muller some questions about the programming and films. Our exclusive interview follows.

TCM Host Eddie Muller

Q1:  Paula Zahn, investigative journalist and host of On the Case With Paula Zahn, co-hosts with you. What can TCM viewers expect from your two perspectives in this evening of true crime programming?

Paula comes at all true crime stories from the perspective of the victims, which I certainly appreciate. And which is, of course, very different from film noir, my area of expertise, where the stories are typically about what motivates someone to commit a crime. But we’re both deeply interested in how the crimes are solved, and the differences in investigative techniques from the 1950s up to today. None of the films we’re showing have computer databases or DNA evidence.

Q2: Susan Hayward won an Academy Award for her portrayal of death row inmate Barbara Graham in I Want to Live! (1958). Many movie pundits have referred to her performance in I Want to Live! as the “greatest Hollywood acting performance ever, of any actress, of all time.” What is your take?

Hayward is terrific and her Oscar was well-deserved, but I tend to steer clear of declaring anything “the greatest.” There is no doubt in my mind, however, that the prospect of winning an Academy Award was definitely a factor in her taking the role. So…mission accomplished.

Q3:  Susan Hayward is best known for roles portraying real women, based on true stories. What sets her apart as an actress, particularly in film noir?

Hayward always excelled at playing tough cookies, even when she was still a sweet-faced teenager. And she was tough. It’s hard to imagine anybody else playing Barbara Graham, and Hayward did it at precisely the right time; she was in her early forties, still sexy and attractive but with the harder edge that twenty years in the business had given her.

Q4:  Your father was a journalist and you met Edward S. ‘Ed’ Montgomery. What did you learn about truth-seeking growing up surrounded by reporters?

Ed Montgomery, who’s played by Simon Oakland in I Want to Live!, was a friend and colleague of my dad’s. That’s how I first learned about Barbara Graham, before I’d ever seen the movie. I think I learned more about how the press shapes public opinion than I learned about “truth-seeking.” There were plenty of people who thought Montgomery was conned by Graham, that she used him to get public sympathy. But he insisted there was insufficient evidence to convict her of being an accessory to murder. Paula and I agreed that Graham’s case would never have been adjudicated today as it was in the early 1950s.

 Q5:  The Boston Strangler is a highly fictionalized telling of real events. Your thoughts on fictionalized true crime as movie material and not necessarily presenting the truth as it happened?

Storytelling license will almost always be taken when filmmakers are trying to funnel months of dogged detective work into a two-hour narrative. I’m more concerned about actual people, their character and motivations, being misrepresented. I’ll be curious to see how the new Boston Strangler movie approaches the story. The ’67 film completely ignored the work of reporters Loretta McLaughlin and Jean Cole, who not only broke the story but tagged the killer, “The Boston Strangler.” In the 2023 version, they’ll be the lead characters.  

Q6:  The Boston Strangler cast boasts Tony Curtis and Henry Fonda in lead roles. Curtis played his role to critical acclaim. Henry Fonda played his role in the same year he made appearances in four other films including Yours, Mine and Ours and Once Upon a Time in the West. Thoughts on the choice of this film for these two stars?

Fonda’s casting makes perfect sense to me, since few actors were better at exuding quiet authority atop inner turmoil. I have no idea why Curtis was eager to play the part of the killer. He doesn’t even appear until forty or so minutes in, and he’s a noticeably lumpier version of himself, devoid of his trademark humor and charm. I guess that’s why he did it—to stretch out as an actor.

Q7:  Both films depict real-life people in Barbara Graham and Albert DeSalvo where there is still doubt regarding their guilt. How does doubt serve true crime as a genre vs. a biopic?

Doubt and uncertainty play a huge part in people’s fascination with true crime. People crave these stories because they want to see justice served, they want the perpetrator to be apprehended and punished. And as soon as that happens, the natural human tendency is to then ask, “What if they got the wrong guy?”