Murder, My Sweet
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In typical film noir fashion, Murder, My Sweet (1944) opens with a flashback as detective Philip Marlowe (Dick Powell) sits beneath a police station's hot lamp and recounts the convoluted story of two women, a jade necklace and multiple murders.
Based on Raymond Chandler's quintessential pulp novel, Murder My Sweet features an unlikely Marlowe, 1930s Warner Bros. musical star Dick Powell, who is surprisingly effective as the jaded gumshoe. At the opening of the film, Marlowe is hired by ex-con and thick-headed palooka Moose Malloy (wrestler Mike Mazurki) to find his vanished showgirl and lady friend Velma, who seems to have taken a permanent powder.
A typically dense, labyrinthine Chandler yarn in The Big Sleep tradition, the plot thickens and Marlowe becomes embroiled in a scheme involving a stolen jade necklace owned by a gorgeous and flirtatious blonde, Helen Grayle (Claire Trevor), wife of the very rich Mr. Grayle (Miles Mander). Ann Grayle (Ann Shirley), a girl with a face "like a Sunday School picnic," is the rich man's daughter, who has her own investment in this rapidly complicated scenario. As Marlowe's involvement in all these shady dealings escalates, so does the danger. Marlowe's path intersects with a group of thugs tied to the jewel theft, led by an aristocratic quack doctor, Amthor (Otto Kruger), who drugs and keeps Marlowe captive for days in one of Murder, My Sweet's more sordid and memorable moments.
The hard-boiled dialogue flies by at an impressive clip in director Edward Dmytryk's slick, entertaining adaptation of Chandler's story. And the grubby atmosphere is equally compelling in this superior noir populated with disreputable characters of every stripe, from brain-damaged ex-cons to gold-digging wives and dipsomaniac floozies. Early on in his search for Velma, Marlowe encounters a washed-up, drunken woman who receives him in her bathrobe, just one of the many L.A. lowlifes he encounters in the seedy backstreets of the city. In usual hard-as-nails fashion, Marlowe sizes her up thusly: "she was a gal who'd take a drink. She'd knock you down to get the bottle."
A landmark film for both Powell, who forever altered his choirboy image, and director Dmytryk, who crossed-over from B-programmers like Captive Wild Woman (1943) to become a respected director of film noirs like Cornered (1945) (which reunited Powell, producer Adrian Scott and screenwriter John Paxton) and Crossfire (1947). Dmytryk initially balked at the notion of casting Powell as a tough guy. "The idea of the man who had sung "Tiptoe Through the Tulips" playing a tough private eye was beyond our imaginations," he noted of Powell. At the time, Powell's career had hit a creative dead-end and he was locked into that overgrown songster image. Anxious to break out of that stale typecasting, Powell had even campaigned for the featured tough-guy insurance agent role in Double Indemnity (1944), a role, ironically enough, awarded to the equally unlikely comedic actor Fred MacMurray. RKO's chief Charles Koerner wanted Powell under contract to star in his studio's musicals, but the only way Powell would agree to sign a contract was if he could play the lead in Murder, My Sweet as the first picture.
Powell was not the only actor to resist typecasting in Murder, My Sweet. Anne Shirley and Claire Trevor both conspired to do a little acting-against-type of their own, and petitioned for the proverbial good girl Anne to play the scheming fatale and for Claire, used to playing molls and floozies, to play the "good and dull" (as Anne put it) nice girl. But to no avail: conventional typecasting was followed and the actresses delivered expected versions of their usual screen personas.
Murder, My Sweet was originally delivered to theaters as Farewell, My Lovely, the original title of Chandler's 1940 novel. But audiences in the areas of its original release (New England and Minneapolis) were put off by the title, mistook Farewell for another Powell musical and stayed away, leading RKO executives to rechristen the film Murder, My Sweet.
Farewell, My Lovely had been filmed once previously, as The Falcon Takes Over (1942) - and was remade in 1975 under Chandler's original title with Robert Mitchum as Marlowe. But Murder, My Sweet is still considered the penultimate version and is deeply indebted to Dmytryk's atmospheric lensing and improvisational touches. For example, the director had Powell walk in gutters or in his stocking feet in order to give the impression of Moose towering frighteningly over him (even though there was only a two-inch difference in Powell and Mazurki's actual heights). Powell's performance as the rumpled, unshaven and tough-talking Marlowe was equally crucial in establishing the dark and sinister tone of this unforgettably cynical film.
Director: Edward Dmytryk
Producer: Adrian Scott
Screenplay: John Paxton, based on novel Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler
Cinematography: Harry J. Wild
Production Design: Carroll Clark and Albert S. D'Agostino
Music: Roy Webb
Cast: Dick Powell (Philip Marlowe), Claire Trevor (Velma/Helen Grayle), Anne Shirley (Ann Grayle), Otto Kruger (Amthor), Mike Mazurki (Moose Malloy), Miles Mander (Mr. Grayle).
BW-96m. Closed captioning.
by Felicia Feaster