Monday, December 31, 2007

Murder, My Sweet (1944)

1944 was a big year for film noir. Early film noirs Double Indemnity, Laura and Murder, My Sweet were all released near the end of '44 and all were box office hits. Murder, My Sweet helped Dick Powell - known as a song and dance man in film up to this point - change his screen persona to a tough-talking film noir hero in many movies and television shows afterward. The film also features Claire Trevor as a convincing “black widow” and Mike Mazurki in his most memorable role as Moose Malloy.

The star of the film however is the tough-talk dialog taken directly from Raymond Chandler's novel. The book Farewell, My Lovely,written in a first-person perspective, was actually filmed for the first time a few years before. The Falcon Takes Over from 1941 looks nothing like the Chandler novel - certainly the hero Gay Lawrence (George Sanders) was nothing like the L.A. Private detective Chandler wrote about. A few years after The Falcon's release studio heads at RKO realized that they could make the story again but this time in the style of the 1941 hit The Maltese Falcon.

The plot of the book is almost impossible to explain and it must have been nearly impossible to create into a screenplay. Actually the novel was a combination of three early Chandler short stories weaved together by the writer into full-length book. This is one of those films where the trip is much more satisfying than the destination because the story is very muddled - at least in my head- even after multiple viewings. Credit goes to screenwriter John Paxton (Cornered, Crossfire) and director Edward Dmytryk for cleverly translating the cynical book and for retooling the ending at the beach house to make it more satisfying than the novel. Chandler never liked when his stories were rewritten for film - despite the fact that he did just that to James M. Cain's book Double Indemnity a few years earlier. In this case the shootout at the beach house concludes much of the mystery while in the book the villain slips from Marlowe. The classic Hollywood ending that follows the beach house scene is a disappointment but not unexpected for the time.


The makers of Murder, My Sweet - without Chandler's help - were determined to make a movie that captured the feel the book. Surprisingly the movie star hired to play Philip Marlowe for the first time was Dick Powell. The almost forty-year-old Powell (who previously tried to land the lead in Double Indemnity in his attempt at becoming a dramatic actor) had star power and his hiring actually helped the film makers get a bigger budget for the movie. Although Powell does a convincing job in the role he, in my opinion, never really nails the role like Bogart would a few years later in The Big Sleep. When Marlowe is kidnapped and drugged halfway through the film Powell begins acting over the top. Movie-maker tricks- like a clever (and now classic film noir) montage and “spider webs” superimposed over the screen - makes me think that the film makers were trying to distract audiences from Powell's acting. Practice does make perfect, however. In 1948 Powell - after a number of film noir roles - gives one of the best performances in a noir when he plays Lizabeth Scott's sucker in the fantastic Pitfall. In Murder, My Sweet Powell does fit the character of “eagle scout” Philip Marlowe well but age has not been kind to his performance and today I suspect that viewers unfamiliar with his other films will probably not buy him as the private dick.

Powell does, however, use Chandler's voice-over observations and wise-guy cracks to distance himself from all that are out to get him in the film. It must be pretty hard to be a smart ass when you're getting lied to, conked over the head, strangled, smacked in the face with a roscoe, blinded, burned and even drugged.

Supporting Powell is a slew of seasoned veterans. Esther Howard's one scene as Jessie Florian is just perfect. Many would tell you that Sylvia Miles - who received an Oscar nomination for her version of the character in the 1970's Farewell, My Lovely - was better. I disagree. I find Howard's performance of the lonely drunk funny and spot on. Character actor Mazurki is amusing as the giant lug Moose (the only other role that compares to Moose is Mazurki's role as a not-too-bright wrestler in Night and the City). Boxer John Indrisano teams with Mazurki making it a sure thing that Powell will take his share of beatings in the film. Otto Kruger could always be counted on to play the charming but slippery villain.

Claire Trevor stands out playing a difficult part. She has to play a woman constantly lying and acting a role. Femme fatale Trevor - decked out in glamorous gowns - is convincing as a tramp that marries into high society but in her heart will always be a cheap and manipulating. Her cold and calculating ways at first seems to turn Marlowe into a killer but, unlike Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, she never is successful at turning him. (If she only had Lawrence Tierney- her partner in Born to Kill - to help her she would have gotten away with it.)

Right before the release of the film the title would have to be changed from Farewell, My Lovely to Murder, My Sweet so that film goers would never mistake a movie with “Murder” in the title as a Powell musical comedy.

The film was directed by Edward Dmytryk for RKO. RKO was a perfect fit for B-budget film noir. Producer Val Lewton concocted a winning formula for making financial and critical hits when he made his early 1940's series of horror films there. He used shadows, darkness, strange camera angles and even unexpected noises to help tell his dark tales. It was out of necessity - RKO couldn't afford big sets, special effects or even big stars that the old Universal horror films used. Dmytryk, a former film editor, used many of the behind-the-scenes talent from these films (many also worked on the big-budget but similarly shadowy Citizen Kane) to make what turned out to be one of the most successful filming of a Raymond Chandler novel. RKO went on to be one of the biggest producers of film noir. Surprisingly, in 1944 Chandler didn't get a dime for the second filming of his book since RKO already owned the rights.

Murder, My Sweet is a wonderfully dark cynical look at Los Angeles and paved the way for other great film noir. Philip Marlowe is the most filmed detective in movie history and Murder, My Sweet is one of the best of them.

Written by Steve-O


Jen said...

Steve-O - Thanks for stopping by my site and pointing me in the direction of this post ... I love your blog and now have it linked from my site :)

Ginger Ingenue said...

"Although Powell does a convincing job in the role he, in my opinion, never really nails the role like Bogart would a few years later"

Yeah, Bogart's was a million times better, but there's something so sweet and charming about Dick Powell's Marlowe.

"The classic Hollywood ending that follows the beach house scene is a disappointment"

I agree.

Anonymous said...

"Philip Marlowe is the most filmed detective in movie history..."

I can't let this unqualified statement pass without comment.

Like it or not, that title is always going to belong to Sherlock Holmes.

Anonymous said...

I love film noir, there's just something about about a damsel in distress. :) Powell plays the hard boiled detective better than i thought he would. I think the jokes come off better with Powell saying them, they seem real genuine.

Anonymous said...

Chandler said that he preferred Powell's interpretation, that it was closer to what he envisioned (and wrote) Marlowe to be. Although The Big Sleep is more of a favorite than Murder, My Sweeet, I don't think it is primarily because of Bogey's interpretation of Marlowe, but rather due to the racy scenes between him and Bacall (as well as the outstanding supporting cast, and the convoluted storyline).

-Lee B.

Anonymous said...

I like this movie. But doesn't anyone else feel like the only “real” filming of the novel was the next one; 1975’s "Farewell My Lovely” The screenplay in this later version was tighter and clarified and streamlined the spinning dark labyrinth that, like it or not, passes for a plot in the book. And in this film, all of the noir clichés are trotted out. Yet, astonishingly, some apparently think this loving fidelity is to the detriment of the movie. Huh? If a person enjoys this genre, why penalize a film within that genre for playing by that categories particular rules? Lastly, the ’75 version has Robert Mitchum -- whom film noir was apparently invented for. Hearing Mitchum tiredly reading Chandler’s dialogue, while watching him move through Chandler’s mean streets, well, it doesn’t get much better than that. So, when are you gonna give THIS film the praise it deserves, anyway?

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