While there were two options for participating in this year’s TCM Virtual Film Festival – by watching TCM or subscribing to HBO Max – there was only one way to ensure you could catch the new restoration of They Won’t Believe Me (1947) when it premiered May 8th on TCM. If you’ve seen the film on the channel before that was the 80-minute version. The 95-minute version has been much harder to screen, but luckily that’s about to change and no one could be happier about it than TCM host, Eddie Muller. Fortunately, Muller agreed to answer some of our questions about the movie over e-mail and even answered our question about what’s coming up on Noir Alley later this year.
Diabolique: One of the films scheduled to premiere as part of TCM’s Virtual Film Festival this year is the restored version of Irving Pichel’s They Won’t Believe Me, starring Robert Young and Susan Hayward. For fans trying to whittle down their schedules for this year’s fest, why is They Won’t Believe Me a noir they shouldn’t miss?
Eddie Muller: Not only is it a great film, it’s something unique for a film noir. The protagonist is a homme fatal, a twist of the femme fatale so common in these films. It’s a man (played by Robert Young) fouling up the lives of three women, all of whom are fully developed characters in their own right. It feels like a story told by a woman, and it was—producer Joan Harrison was Alfred Hitchcock’s protégé, and I think this is her best film. But this will be the first time many people have been able to see her original cut of the film, which is fifteen minutes longer than the version most people have seen for the last forty years or so.
Diabolique: When did the restoration process on this film begin and was it delayed or impacted in any way by the pandemic?
EM: That’s a more complicated question than you might realize. For me, the process began with the rejuvenation of the film’s reputation. Several cinephiles—me among them—have been spotlighting Harrison’s significance to the noir movement. The original version was not “lost,” it’s just that its owner, Warner Bros., did not have it prioritized as an essential project. And, no, I don’t believe the pandemic effected the process in any way. All the credit goes to George Feltenstein, the former curator of the Warner Archive Collection—he’s the one who made sure this restoration happened.
Diabolique: What was your involvement with this project and had you seen They Won’t Believe Me before talk of restoring it began (and, if so, was your first experience the original cut or the shortened version)?
EM: My involvement was nothing more than continually bugging George about it, year after year. I’d seen the film and admired it, but I’d only seen the full cut in a 16mm print at the Belgrade Film Archive! We knew the original negative was in the Warner film vaults and that the project was possible. It just needed to be seen as financially viable. So maybe my becoming part of TCM, and the success of Noir Alley—where I’ve shown the shorter 80-minute cut twice already—had something to do with proving the restoration was worthwhile. Also, Christina Lane’s excellent biography of Joan Harrison, Phantom Lady, just won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America, so there is clearly a bit of a renaissance happening for Harrison. There’s no doubt the Blu-ray will sell many more copies than it would have five years ago.
Diabolique: Why was the film cut in the first place and how was the 95-minute version rediscovered?
EM: It was trimmed in the 1950s, without Harrison’s knowledge, when RKO reissued the film on the bottom half of double bills. Ninety-five minutes was too long for a second feature, so it was cut—and not indiscriminately, mind you. The cuts were very savvy and thoughtful, in some cases I’d even say artful. The film still works at 80 minutes, but it’s a richer film at its original length.
Diabolique: Getting to see a film the way it was intended to be seen is always a victory but, in your opinion, is there a difference in quality between the 80-minute and the 95-minute version? Without getting into the content of the scenes, were a lot of the cuts small or are we about to see some big scenes for the first time?
EM: It’s both, really. As I say, there are some very subtle cuts within scenes, like the opening in the courtroom, and there are some scenes that were truncated in the reissue, and then there are a couple of things that were just left out altogether. It all adds up to 15 minutes. But I feel the characters played by Susan Hayward and Jane Greer both benefit from things being put back in.
Diabolique: Usually with trial movies you get to hear from the defense and the prosecution. With They Won’t Believe Me, the entire film is told from Larry’s point of view, as he gives testimony at his murder trial. How do you feel about this framing choice on screenwriter, Jonathan Latimer’s, part, and do you think Larry is a reliable narrator?
EM: This was really Joan Harrison’s idea, not Latimer’s. She was fascinated by the idea of the unreliable narrator. Think about it—Larry Ballatine is telling the stories of two women who are dead, unable to tell their own versions of their relationship with him. I think the film resonates today for that reason. It’s sort of a “He said, She said” story—except he’s telling both sides. It’s up to the audience to decide if he’s telling the truth—that’s what Harrison was hoping to achieve, putting the viewer in the jury box. And the title plays directly into the end of the film, to what Larry experiences after this testimony.
Diabolique: One of the things I enjoyed most about the movie, and didn’t realize until after I’d seen it, is how much it’s split between Hayward, Jane Greer, and Rita Johnson, in terms of its female leads. I’d only seen the film poster Warner Archive is using for their upcoming Blu-Ray release and was wondering if that was how the movie was marketed overall, with an emphasis on Hayward?
EM: Hayward was red-hot at the time the film was made. The studio was clearly going to feature her in the promotion. And you’ll notice the poster shows Young brandishing a gun, which is completely misleading! But you’re right, the three actresses all get equal time—especially in the 95-minute version—and they are all great characters, extremely well-played: the suffering wife and two “other women.” But they are all sympathetic. Also, this is the movie that really made Jane Greer. Harrison treated her incredibly well, even putting her name above the title for the first time. Jane was extremely fond of Joan, who had a habit of going out of her way to advance the careers of other women.
Diabolique: This year’s festival lineup is stacked with so many great features. Are there any other films, besides They Won’t Believe Me, you’d like to recommend? In that same vein, are there any upcoming restorations you’re able to talk about, or films you’re excited about coming up soon on Noir Alley?
EM: My “can’t miss picks” for the festival are Harlan County USA, The Mortal Storm, The Taking of Pelham 123, Ball of Fire, and Black Narcissus. But you really can’t go wrong with anything. And I’m excited that I’ll be showing two restoration done by my Film Noir Foundation on Noir Alley this year: Los tallos amargos (The Bitter Stems, 1956) and La bestia debe morir (The Beast Must Die, 1952), both brilliant noirs from Argentina that I am proud to have resurrected. These truly are resurrections, more than restorations—they would have been lost forever if we hadn’t been able to rescue them in time.