Spinning Platters Interview: Eddie Muller, founder of the upcoming Noir City Film Festival

by Becka Robbins on January 17, 2018

Eddie Muller is the founder and president of the Film Noir Foundation and the man known internationally as the “Czar of Noir.” SFFILM this month named Muller to its pantheon of “Essential SF” cinema figures. Earlier this year, Muller debuted as the host of the new Turner Classic Movies franchise Noir Alley, providing him with a national platform to introduce a fresh audience to film noir and to the work of the Film Noir Foundation.

NOIR CITY 16 takes audiences back in time with a program of 12 genuine “A” and “B” double bills, spanning the breadth of the original film noir era, 1941 to 1953.  

The most popular film noir festival in the world returns to San Francisco’s majestic Castro Theatre for its 16th edition, January 26-February 4, 2018. “Film Noir from A to B” presents 24 classic noirs as they were experienced on their original release, pairing a top-tier studio “A” with a shorter, low-budget second feature, or “B” film. All but one of the films will be presented in glorious 35mm.

You can view the program here.

I’ve been going to Noir City for most of the past 15 years, and was delighted to have the chance to interview Eddie about this year’s festival, how film noir continues to be relevant, and why these old movies still resonate today.

Eddie Muller: Good afternoon.

Spinning Platters: Hi! Is this Eddie?

EM: This is Eddie. Is this Becka?

SP: Yeah, this is Becka. Thank you so much for your time. I’m super excited about the festival this year, and congratulations on year 15!

EM: It’s actually year 16!

SP: That’s amazing.

EM: (Laughs) I agree.

SP: It’s really great. I’ve always really loved these old movies; I’ve been into vintage aesthetic since I knew what it was. I grew up in L.A., so this all feels very familiar to me. One of the things I would really love to hear you talk about is why people who aren’t film nerds, or who aren’t tied to vintage American culture, should be interested in film noir?

EM: That’s a good question. Well, I’ve always found that film noir is the gateway drug to classic cinema. When you ask me that question, I don’t know if you’re imagining why younger people should be interested in these movies, but that is exactly why- honestly I think it’s exactly why Turner Classic Movies put me on to this noir show now, because it is important, for these films to survive, that a new audience be developed, an audience that appreciates these older films. Otherwise they may just fall out of favor and disappear from public consciousness, you know? I think it’s sort of been proven that film noir, for a variety of reasons, is the type of film from mid-century that still captures people’s imaginations. And I think it has everything to do with the style of the films, the fact that the people are so genuinely cool in these movies, that the dialogue is so smart, and the movies aren’t naive, you know? They’re not corny in the way I think a lot of people feel, oh that’s corny, you know, the comedy style doesn’t ring right for young audiences in older movies, but noir still works for them. At least that’s the impression that I get. I don’t know, do you feel that way?

SP: I’m very biased. I’ve seen Sunset Boulevard ten times, I think Some Like it Hot is still the funniest movie I’ve ever seen, so I think it holds up beautifully. I didn’t mean to throw a tough question at you at all; I just really want people to understand why these movies are so magical.

EM: It’s an important question, because it does speak directly to what my dedication is. I completely understand that when I started doing this, the idea was, “Oh I really love these movies,” and people responded to them and we made money, and then I said, well we can use this money to restore the films, and preserve the films. But now, after 16 years, I’ve come to realize that you have to preserve the audience for the films as much as the films themselves. It’s not automatic that there’s always going to be people who are interested in this stuff. You have to generate the interest, and you have to be able to express to them why the films are still valid. I do that; that’s my role. I try to provide context for the films, so that people will understand what was happening in the country, and in the business at the time these movies were made. They weren’t just silly entertainment. There was a reason these films took on a darker tone, there was something behind the people who wrote them, there was history behind the people that directed them, there was a lot going on with the performers who created these iconic characters. In relating all that stuff, it’s my way of trying to tell people without lecturing them that this is a valid art form; there’s something to this. You can’t just say, “Oh it’s old and it’s corny, and it’s in black-and-white, so what’s the value of it? It doesn’t pertain to me anymore.” Well, I think people will be very surprised when they see how the pertinence of these movies has only increased in the last couple years, because of what’s going on in the country politically. Now the climate in this country is even more like the climate in which these films were originally made. So when I talk about the black list or I talk about people whose livelihoods were taken away from them, I’m not now talking about ancient history, I’m talking about something that may in fact be primed to repeat itself, if the culture isn’t careful. That’s a long-winded answer to your question, Becka, I hope I’m not off the subject.

SP: That’s a great answer, I think noir is so compelling because- you know, you’re right, there’s a lot of great classic cinema that does read as a little hokey, like the early 60’s- nobody has ever been as wholesome as some of the people in those movies-

EM: Yeah, but in the same way- in those films, there’s a reason for that, a reason why the films were played that way, at that time. I like those movies as well, but without the context, without understanding what was happening at the time, and why the audience’s taste was accepting of that, it can be easy to dismiss this stuff. You know I want to just say something really quickly. This example came to mind, along the way in the course of these years I’ve been doing this — I have had the opportunity to present films and talk to younger people in classroom situations, or art schools, universities, high school classes and things. The instructors like me to come in and- just what you asked- explain to the kids why this is still valid, right? And I find that it’s really interesting, because I’ll show a clip from Double Indemnity, and the best clip, invariably, is the scene where Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray meet in Double Indemnity, when they’re having that very intense flirtation in the house, and I say to the kids, what do you think this scene is about? And they almost embarrassingly will say- in very crude, modern ways- “He wants to — her,” right? And it’s like, yes! That’s exactly what that scene is about. It’s like, see! You totally get it. But isn’t it interesting that they couldn’t just come out and say that, right? And then they’re fascinated to learn about the production code, and all of this stuff that you couldn’t just say in America at one time, you had to be clever about it, you had to be creative about it. And I find that kids are fascinated when they learned that. Like, oh you mean people actually thought these things, but they weren’t allowed to express them openly in the movies, and that’s why the movies are the way they are back then. Not that your grandparents didn’t actually do it! They did! That’s why you’re here today, you know! And they wanted to! And they plotted how to do it- there was just as much sex going on in the real world, there just wasn’t as much going on on-screen, they had to find clever ways to get that point across. I find that film noir is full of that, and that’s one of the ways that I get kids today to relate to it- you know, these films are about the very same things that movies are about today. It’s just they had to be made in a very discreet way back then.   

SP: Do you think that Hollywood code- I mean it must have driven so much of what makes film noir so beautiful, so much of the camera work, and the lighting is very elegant. It’s also very high contrast, very stylized look. It just jumps out. Do you think that that code, and those restrictions drove the high artistic value that we see, that stylized feel?

EM: Yes. I believe that the production code- it depended on the artist. I think there were artists who loved the challenge of dealing with the code. Like, we’re going to find a way to get this point across, and it only inflamed their creativity, right? We’re gonna make this happen, nobody’s gonna miss it, it’s gonna be really really sexy, but we’re going to be within the constraints of the code. That is true.

SP: What comes to my mind there is Gilda.

EM: Well yeah. Gilda– I think a lot of people at the time knew what it was about, but I don’t think the average movie-goer at that time knew what it was about. I don’t know if you’ve heard my interview on the blu-ray of Gilda, but- people for years, I would show that movie, and I would talk about the subtext of the film, and just how unusual the sexuality was in that movie. And a lot of people would get up in my face after a screening, and say things like, “That’s just a modern take on it; that wasn’t happening back then.” And then of course I’m in a position to actually research that stuff, and a lot of people don’t want to actually do the research. I was fortunate to meet people who were alive then, who worked on the film, I was good friends with Evelyn Keys, who was married to the director, Charles Beadle. I watched the film with her, and she would say, “oh now, you see- this is Charles’s symbol for oral sex. He always would do this when I wanted to suggest oral sex.” And I’m like, really?! And she goes, “Oh god, yes.” She’d look at me and say, “What, do you think we didn’t do this?” And so- that was a major moment for me, when I realized- wow, this actually was going on. There’s all kinds of examples of this in the movies, and yes, it was going on. When I do my shows on TCM I still get people, when I say, this character’s gay, or something- I will get people who write to me and say I’m being ridiculous. They’ll say, “Why are you being politically correct, or putting a modern spin on it? There weren’t gay people in Hollywood then.” (laughs) I mean, wow! I can’t believe this! If only they knew; if only they knew. Some people, they don’t want to think about it, they don’t want to hear about it, they use movies as an escape into some fantasy world. And, to another point you just made, the gloriousness of all this stuff, how beautiful the movies looked and everything- that’s not just film noir. That’s the whole classic Hollywood experience; that’s what they believed the public deserved. It was magic. They were going out to the movies, and they would go to a movie palace to watch a film, and what was on the screen had to be worthy of the movie palace in which they were watching these films, right? It had to be the most gorgeous, luminous thing you could ever imagine. And if they weren’t getting color, because they hadn’t figured that one out yet, how to do it economically –they were gonna make sure that black-and-white looked so lustrous and so fantastic –that it was the greatest magic trick ever. And they did it; they pulled it off, you know?

SP: You’re making me feel so wistful.  

EM: We’re trying to re-create that a little bit with Noir City.

SP: And you do. It is majestic. I really like your pithy quote on the TCM website-

EM: I’ve done a lot of them over the years, the shortest one was, “Suffering with style.”

SP: This is great. “The men and women of this sinister cinematic world are driven by greed, lust, jealousy, and revenge- which leads inexorably to existential torment, soul-crushing despair, and a few last gasping breaths in a rain-soaked gutter.”

EM: Yeah, I did say that; that was me.

SP: (Laughing) It just gives me life. “I’ll be damned if these lost souls don’t look sensational riding the Hades Express.” I relate to this a lot, by the way. So can you talk a little bit more about what film noir is- I think, for whatever it’s worth, I have nothing like your experience in this business. I’m just a pop-culture and movie junkie. It’s like punk rock, for all of its edgy-ness, is one of the most enduring musical styles –it just keeps hanging out at the front of music, and I think noir is a little bit like that; it’s very sticky. Why do you think that is?

EM: Yeah, I mean, there’s two things going on here. One, is the style of film noir, which obviously you relate to that. It represents to me at least, the zenith of American style. Mid-twentieth century America is when we hit top end. Everything was just super stylish, the clothes, the cars, the architecture, everything. I think a lot of what you’re seeing now, this revival of cocktail culture, swing culture, all that stuff. There’s an understanding on the part of a lot of people that that’s as good as it’s gonna get, style-wise. Now there’s something else entirely, I don’t want to say a deeper artistic vantage point- but, speaking as a writer, I was always drawn to these films because they flipped the Hollywood myth on its head. Nope, it’s not going to end happily ever after. That’s kind of a story you’re being sold to pacify you. The world does not work that way. And I’ve always found that the noir stories felt much more truthful, and they accomplished something that art, I think, is supposed to do. It reveals the worst aspects of our life as warnings, as cautionary tales. Far from saying, well here, we’ll show you an example of how you’re supposed to behave, this is an example of how you’re not supposed to behave. But it’s irresistible, damnit. And I just think that’s an amazing combination, and it really keeps it fresh. And the other thing you can not underestimate is that these stories are about compromised protagonists. And that’s the most important thing that film noir did, from a cultural perspective. It allowed the stars of the story, the protagonists of the story, to not be heroes. They represented people doing the wrong thing. And that was a major shift for Hollywood. I think only can you do that after you essentially save the world.

SP: Fascinating. Oh wow. This is great.

EM: Right? We kept the evil at bay, and then the reward for that artistically, now we don’t have to keep up this facade, now we can actually do some stories of- we’re not perfect, we’re not great. We’ve got these other issues now to deal with. And I do believe that that’s one of the things that keeps noir vital, and why I think the original films retain a vitality, and I think those films have served as inspiration to a lot of artists, whether they are filmmakers, or painters, or writers, or musicians. I could argue that the greatest influence noir has had is on musicians, more than on filmmakers. I know so many musicians who are total noir-heads, guys and women who have tried to somehow find a sonic interpretation of what they experienced in film noir. I just think its influence, artistically, has been greater than any other film movement, ever.

SP: What you said about people being able to be flawed resonated with me; that’s a very American view, right? This idea of a normal person as a protagonist in a story — that’s the American dream right there.

EM: Well, yes. But it’s funny- traditionally Hollywood always told the story of- any man could be great. It’s a rags-to-riches story. But noir is, any man could also go to prison for murdering people, and robbing banks, you know? Which is something Hollywood really shied away from;they did not want that on screen. And, finally, it just reached critical mass, where the writers and directors- and the actors, you cannot overestimate the importance of the actors buying in, and saying, “I want to play a bad guy- I want to challenge myself as an actor, I don’t care that I played a hero in twenty movies, making a ton of money. I want to play the bad guy for a change.” That was important, you know? That’s why when you look at someone like Humphrey Bogart, even though he started out as a bad guy, then he became a big star. He became a big start playing these weird, ambivalent characters in High Sierra, Maltese Falcon. He’s a private eye in The Maltese Falcon. That doesn’t mean he’s a good guy, you know? He has questionable ethics in that movie, but, in the end, he does the right thing. Not because he’s upholding the law, but because he doesn’t like being played for a sucker by a rich woman. That’s why he turns her in, not because she broke the law- he could care less if she broke the law. It’s that she screwed him over, so it’s like, sorry I won’t play the sad woman for you, that was a major moment in film history. This year, at Noir City, we’re showing Conflict with Bogart, and he plays a villain. He plays a guy who murders his wife. And this was after Casablanca. That- all this stuff is very significant in changing the public’s attitude about movies. Like, wow, Bogart, look at that- that’s the guy from Casablanca. Wow. He can be bad too.

SP: It resonates a lot right now with the conversations we’re having, like oh wow, we could end up being led by a total sociopath, and also anyone you know could end being-

EM: What- we could end up being led by a total sociopath, we are being led by a sociopath.

SP: Exactly, and that was unthinkable twenty years ago.

EM: Well. I gotta tell you, it was unthinkable twenty months ago. Honestly.

SP: Yeah I went through some intense grieving there; I was right there with the rest of the nation going, “What did we just do?”

EM: We stopped taking this kind of stuff seriously. Quite a long time ago. I’m 59 years old- I’ve been around long enough to have seen a lot of this stuff ebb and flow. It’s always been a cyclical thing of Democrats and Republicans, all this stuff. The problem is, and largely it’s because of the media in this country, the cycles keep going forward, and it keeps edging closer to this weird cliff. And it’s like, if we don’t start taking this stuff seriously, we will fall off the end of the cliff. I really feel like we’re there.

SP: Which brings us back to film noir.

EM: Yeah, exactly. It’s funny that you say that, because you will see when you get the program for this year’s festival- my introduction speaks directly to this. I’ve been doing this almost twenty years now, and I had felt like- you know when you talk about noir, you’re talking about the same period over and over again, you know? I was doing a film introduction in Detroit and I was talking about the witch hunt, and all of this stuff. And it just flashed in my mind, does anybody really care? Does anybody in this audience even know, or have a feeling about what I’m doing? And it came and went rather quickly. Then at intermission, I met this guy who came up to me and said, “You know, that was really fascinating, your introduction. I have no idea what you are talking about. What is the witch hunt? There was a time in this country when people went to jail for making movies? What? What are you talking about?!” And I felt like, wow- he was like 25- years-old. He had no idea, and then, of course, that was September. By November, it was like, I can’t stop talking about this stuff now. Because there’s a guy in office who would happily go right back to that — shut down the free press. You know, I don’t want to be so trite as to say those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it-

SP: It’s okay. It’s okay to be trite sometimes. I think it’s appropriate. So, talk to me, if you will, a little about what you’re showing this year. It’s a very different festival, I think, from years past. You’re going sequentially, by year, starting with the first year of noir, right?

EM: Well, it’s arguable, the first year of noir. But you see the point that I’m trying to make here. I really did want to take people through the movement, because that’s how I describe it. I describe film noir as a movement. People argue all the time- is it a genre; what is it? My answer to that is that it’s a movement, because in Hollywood, that’s what it was. It’s a movement driven by the artists themselves. That’s what distinguishes it from everything else.The producers were not saying, “What we need is more pictures like this,” you know? It was really the writers saying, I like this movie, I want to write that — and getting the buy-in of all these artists.These are the movies that these directors are really good at — Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak, Otto Preminger — this is what they were excellent at doing, and the writers wrote for them, and the directors sought out certain writers, and then they sought out certain camera men. And then the actors wanted to get in on it, and it was a very grassroots thing. I wanted to do a festival that showed this movement chronologically, so you would really get a sense of, wow, this is the first time something like this appeared on screen. And, simultaneously, I wanted to do a festival that replicated the actual movie-going experience of that era, by having the double-bills be true double-bills from that era. So there would be a genuine “A” film leading off the era, followed by a true “B” movie. Not a “B” movie in the pejorative sense — like, that wasn’t very good; that was kind of cheesy — not that kind of “B” film. A “B” film that was made by the “B” unit at a studio, and had a very circumscribed running time; it’s gonna be 60-70 minutes, it’s gonna be shot on a super low budget. I think by pairing these “A” and “B” films, and doing them chronologically, in ten days you will get a real sense of what this movement was all about, and what it probably felt like to the audiences at the time.That’s the strategy behind it.

SP: That sounds amazing. In defense of cheesy, one of my favorite movies that I’ve seen at Noir City — and I don’t remember the title — was the cheesiest noir movie I have ever seen, and I still talk about it. It had a bubblegum-popping blonde, who came in on a bus, and worked as a waitress.

EM: Oh, I’m showing that! I’m showing that again!

SP: Are you serious?? I love that movie so much!

EM: That’s Wicked Woman. No, I have nothing truly against cheesiness, or cheesy movies; it’s just that I don’t like it when people refer to “B” movies as cheesy. Movies can be cheesy; that doesn’t mean they’re a “B” movie. Wicked Woman was probably not really meant to be a “B” movie, but I’m using it in that capacity, pairing it with The Big Heat, which is a full-on “A” picture, you know? Big stars, the studio behind it, and a lot of money spent on it, as opposed to Wicked Woman, which takes place in two sets, I think. The entire movie is like the rooming house, and the bar. That’s it.

Beverly Michaels in Wicked Woman, a 1953 film featured at this years Noir City

SP: Right, right. I howled with laughter at that movie; that was incredible.

EM: Yeah, it’s pretty hard not to crack up at that film.

SP: It’s wonderful; it really is. We haven’t talked about the femme fatale, which is arguably one of the greatest things in the film noir legacy, in my totally (not really) neutral opinion. Can you talk a little about these bad bitches?

EM: I know what you mean, some people- I’ll show movies, and they’ll say, Eddie, that wasn’t even a film noir; where was the femme fatale? It’s like they don’t accept that it’s noir if there isn’t the bad bitch in it. Which — I don’t subscribe to that, but yes, as I like to say, not every film noir needs a femme fatale — just the best ones.

SP: (laughing) Co-sign.

EM: I’m gonna look at this cheat sheet really quick, of all the movies we’re showing, and I’ll tell you how many true femme fatales are in these movies, you ready? Night Editor, Janice Carter. Pure femme fatale — oh my God. Man Who Cheated Himself, the picture we restored, pure femme fatale, and it’s on a double billing with Road Block — pure femme fatale. And then of course I’ll leave it up to you to decide if Beverly Michaels in Wicked Woman is a femme fatale, or whether she’s just a woman trying to get along, and these guys just won’t leave her alone. I mean, that happens a lot in these movies. Like Gilda is a classic example. I just kind of bristle when people are like, oh Rita Hayworth play a classic femme fatale in Gilda, and it’s like, no she’s not. She’s just a woman trying to get by, and these guys just will not let her be; they will not leave her alone. I find that is more common than people realize in these movies.

Lee J.Cobb and Jane Wyatt in a still from The Man Who Cheated Himself, from a time when men had the style and skill needed to rock a fedora.

SP: So who are the great, iconic femme fatales in noir? I mean, Norma Desmond, from Sunset Boulevard comes to mind.

EM:(laughs) I’m glad you think so. I’ve always thought that Norma was a femme fatale, but people say, “oh no, she’s too old!” I hate that. Well, I mean, Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity is obviously one, and Rita Hayworth in The Lady from Shanghai;Ava Gardner in The Killers —  those are all femme fatales. But I’m very cautious now of describing a sexy woman in these movies as a femme fatale, because it’s not necessarily the case. Another one would be Claire Trevor in Murder My Sweet — you know, she’s a femme fatale. But like, Gloria Graham, didn’t really play femme fatales that often.And certainly, Lauren Bacall, who a lot of people, because of her husky voice, and haircut, and how slinky and gorgeous she is, they’re like, oh, Lauren Bacall, femme fatale– never! Not once did Lauren Bacall play a femme fatale in a movie. She was the prize for Humphrey Bogart, and for the guy, you know? The femme fatale is the woman you think you want to meet, and it turns out to be the last person you should ever be with — that’s the femme fatale. That’s why Gloria Grant is great in The Big Heat —  I mean, she’s the hero. Gloria Grant ends up being the hero of the movie. But just because she’s sexy, and provocative and all that, doesn’t mean she’s evil. It’s something I’m very cautious about with these movies.

SP: Sure — that makes sense.

EM: And you know, on the subject of women in these films, I do want to point out- this is something I was very conscious of, with the programming for this year, is I very much want to point out to people this idea that film noir is very male-centric is kind of a misnomer. I think that a lot of that comes from generally accepted scholarship on film noir that has been very male-centric.This list of films, when you look through this, there are so many women on screen in these movies, showing that it’s not a purely male domain. And there’s also a lot of women involved in the creation of these movies, especially as writers. Showing that they played a much larger role in Hollywood at that period than anybody had given them credit for, and that’s exactly the way I express that.They played a larger role than anyone has given them credit for. They’re there. They are working in Hollywood, they are making an impact, but they were not getting the credit for it. You can make of that whatever you will. There just weren’t going to be women directors at that time, you know, beyond Ida Lupino, and Dorothy Arzner; it just wasn’t going to be standard because they couldn’t imagine a woman walking onto a set and commanding a crew back then.They just couldn’t see that happening, right? And, happily, times have changed, but that doesn’t mean women weren’t right there, writing stories, writing the screenplays —  the stories these movies are based on, you know? Working in production all the time.This is something I really wanted to point out, whether it’s something like Address Unknown, which is written by Kressmann Taylor — that’s a woman. Katherine Taylor, but she wrote under the name Kressman Taylor, because she figured she had a better chance of getting published as a man than as a woman. Same is true of the movie we’re showing the next Saturday, The Underworld Story, which is written by Craig Rice, who’s a woman. I don’t know if you’re aware of that, but Craig Rice is a woman, and was the first mystery writer to ever be put on the cover of Time magazine.. She was fantastic. She was a very successful, very prominent writer of the time, and here’s what’s odd about that — is that people at the time knew Craig Rice was a woman, but then as time passed, the people who wrote about these things didn’t realize that it was a woman; they just assumed that Craig Rice was a man. I can’t tell you how many books I’ve read where they will say, you know, “Story by Craig Rice- his screenplay-” like, uh, no. Craig Rice is a woman.

SP: Interesting; interesting. I actually met you one time.I met you after a gory short play series that the Thrillpeddlers did.) And you actually offered to officiate our wedding and do a noir theme-

EM: (Laughing)

SP: I’m still sorry I didn’t take you up on that. I think my mother would have actually died.

EM: Well, okay. Thank you for mentioning that, I have actually officiated three weddings in my life, and I always laugh. I say, I have no idea why you would want me to do that, since I’m always writing about husbands and wives murdering each other, in these movies, right? Why you would think it would be good luck for me to officiate your wedding? But I’ll have you know that two of the three are still together.

SP: (Laughing) All right, and hopefully nobody’s poisoning anybody else — you never know.

EM: Hope not; let’s hope not.

SP: What would be in your noir starter kit, for someone who’s never seen anything?

EM: I guess I would say — that’s tough — I guess I would say The Big Heat — but that’s too tough!

SP: Well I’m very impressed by everything you do, and I’m very grateful for it. I’ll be sure to stop in and say hello when I see you at the Festival.

EM: Please do! I really appreciate your enthusiasm and your taking the time to do this. I greatly appreciate it.

SP: I live for getting people to do cooler stuff.

EM: I’m very grateful. I’m very fortunate and grateful I’m able to do this —  it’s good. I don’t plan to stop any time soon.

SP: Please don’t.Thank you so much; we’ll be in touch.

 

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Eddie Muller January 23, 2018 at 10:49 am

Becka, for the record, the director of GILDA is Charles Vidor, not Charles Beadle. Don’t trust transcription services.

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