Sunday, February 3, 2013

Murder, My Sweet (1944)

'Murder, My Sweet' is a 1944 adaptation of the Raymond Chandler novel 'Farewell, My Lovely' from 1940, and is the first movie with iconic private detective Philip Marlowe as the main character. It wasn't the first time the novel had been made into a movie however. The first version was called 'The Falcon Takes Over', but it took elements from the novel and the Marlowe character was replaced with a different one, the at the time popular 'Falcon' character. This movie however stuck closer to the novel, and as mentioned was the first time Philip Marlowe appeared on the white screen. Edward Dmytryk ('Cornered', 'Obsession', 'Crossfire', and who directed another 'Falcon' movie a few years prior actually) directed this movie and Harry Wild ('Pitfall', 'Cornered') did the cinematography. In 1975 the novel would be made into a movie once again, called 'Farewell, My Lovely', starring film noir icon Robert Mitchum.

This version however stars Dick Powell, who was primarily known for light-hearted song and dance type movies at the time, and wanted a change of character (apparently he signed to RKO with that wish as a stipulation). He sure managed it with this movie! He would star in a number of film noirs afterwards ('Cornered', 'Pitfall', 'Johnny O'Clock') as well as other less light-hearted movies. He was also the reason the movie was renamed from 'Farewell, My Lovely' to 'Murder, My Sweet', as the original title in combination with Dick Powell's name and reputation might lead casual viewers into believing they were going to see a typical Powell movie.

On to the story... In typical Raymond Chandler fashion, the plot of this movie is complex, convoluted and might leave the viewer with some questions about events that are never answered. Chandler didn't worry too much about tieing up loose ends, creating atmosphere and interesting characters was his main goal. The movie starts with Marlowe (Dick Powell) being interrogated by cops while being blindfolded. It isn't clear right until the very end of the movie why he's blindfolded. The rest of the movie is a long flashback sequence as Marlowe tells the entire story, in narration ofcourse, of how he got involved in 2 cases which were linked in more ways than one. The first case happened when a big guy called Moose Malloy (Mike Mazurki) hires Marlowe to find his old sweetheart, Velma Valento, whom he hasn't seen since he went to jail 8 years before. Marlowe doesn't have much to go on, as Malloy cannot even supply him with a pic of Velma. But Marlowe obtains a pic of Velma when he visits the wife of the former owner of a nightclub Velma was working at last time Malloy saw her. So that would be good start... But the next day, a well-off man named Lindsay Marriott (Douglas Walton) hires Marlowe to do a quick and easy job for him. He wants Marlowe to accompany him to a drop-off where Marriott is supposed to pay off some robbers to buy back a jade necklace that was stolen from a friend of his. Marlowe doesn't trust it, but figures that as long as he gets paid, it's an easy way to earn some money, and he can get right back to looking for Velma the next day. Unfortunately, it doesn't quite go that way, as Marlowe gets knocked over on the head at the drop-off. 'A black pool opened up at my feet. I dived right in. It had no bottom.' When he wakes up, a young woman asks him if he's all right, and then runs off. And to top it off, Marriott is dead. Marlowe explains everything to the cops, at least what he knows, who let him off, for now. The next day, Ann Grayle (Anne Shirley) is sitting in his office, who turns out to be the woman at the drop-off, but Marlowe doesn't realize this until much later. It was her father's jade necklace that Marriott wanted to buy back. Marlowe and Grayle go to her father's mansion, where Marlowe meets the father (Miles Mander) and his much younger wife Helen (Claire Trevor), who implicates a doctor, or a quack as Mr. Grayle calls him, called Jules Amthor (Otto Kruger). Marlowe is then hired by Mr. Grayle to find the jade necklace, and he gets dragged deeper into its murky waters, and the search for Velma seems unimportant. But eventually it becomes clear that the two cases are linked together tighter than hairs in a hairball.

The movie moves at a fairly rapid pace courtesy of the convoluted plot and tight screenplay, and especially in the second half of this 90+ min movie the amount of twists and doublecrosses that occur are enough to fill 3 feature-length movies. It can become quite dizzying, I have to say. Let's just say that in good film noir fashion, almost everybody gets doublecrossed and/or doublecrosses somebody else several times in this movie. Gotta love it.

Dick Powell does a pretty good job at playing Marlowe, although his Marlowe isn't as hardboiled as one would imagine. Maybe it's Powell's past as an actor, but at times his hardboiled one-liners seem more comical and out of place, solely because it's Powell reciting them. Overall tho, great job, and judging by the movies he did afterwards, people seemed to be into Powell's change of character, so good on him. There is a drug-induced, nightmare-ish dream sequence where Powell does over-act a bit, as well as in the following scene where he confronts the doctor who kept him drugged. The dream sequence is pretty decent however and has a few interesting effects. But the change between Marlowe the cool detective and Marlowe the delirious, emotional patient is a bit too much really.

Anne Shirley and Claire Trevor as the two leading women do great jobs. It is pretty clear that Shirley/Ann Grayle, is more on the up-and-up than Trevor/Helen Grayle who is the femme fatale here, but there are a few curveballs here and there as to who Helen really is and what her intentions are. Solid performances, and the same can be said for Mike Mazurki as the not so clever, but humungous, Moose Malloy who gets used by Amthor to do his dirty work for him.

In terms of directing and cinematography, the movie's done in a clean and effective manner. It's definitely noir in look, feel and lighting. But it doesn't stand out in this respect. The scenes at the beach house are definitely the ones which stand out the most here for their lighting and cinematography as there's a good use of light and especially darkness to create a tense atmosphere. But it also felt at times that Dmytryk, or maybe it was RKO, wanted to show glimpses of Powell's light-hearted past to keep his old fans entertained, for instance when he jumps around on the floor of the entry hall (or mausoleum as he calls it) of Grayle's mansion.

Overall, I enjoyed the movie, it's got pretty much everything you'd expect to find in a film noir. Powell did a great job at shaking off his stereotypical type of role and entering a new phase in his career. Make no mistake tho, he's no Humphrey Bogart or Alan Ladd in terms of being a tough hardboiled character actor, at least not yet. But I'm definitely going to check out the film noirs he did later on to see how he evolved.

Here's the trailer for it. Notice how it mentions the 'amazing new type of role' for Dick Powell.

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