Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Murder, My Sweet (1944)

Directed by: Edward Dmytryk
Written by: John Paxton, based on the novel Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler
Starring: Dick Powell, Claire Trevor, Anne Shirley

Black & White, 95 Minutes

Grade: B

Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe is one of those characters that never get old. He's the ultimate antihero, the quintessential hardass. He's tough, sarcastic, greedy, conniving, but he always to try and do the right thing. He has been played by just about everyone, from Humphrey Bogart to James Garner to Elliot Gould to Robert Mitchum, and many, many lesser actors. Chandler's favorite screen Marlowe, however, was Dick Powell in Edward Dmytryk's Murder, My Sweet. Powell, a star of musicals, found freedom in Marlowe. Freedom to take on more dramatic roles, and while he didn't necessarily find super-stardom, he did get the opportunity to spread his wings in films like Vincent Minnelli's excellent The Bad and The Beautiful. Nonetheless, his performance as Marlowe is quite good, even if he would be overshadowed two years later when Bogart played the character for keeps in Howard Hawks' adaptation of The Big Sleep.

After a bravura opening in which we see Marlowe, seated and blindfolded, being interrogated by the police on an accusation of murder, we are told the story through one long flashback. A man named Moose Malloy (Mike Mazurki) commissions Marlowe to find his old girlfriend Velma, whom he hasn't seen in eight years. Marlowe goes on the prowl, liquoring up old women to get the answers to his questions. Unfortunately, no one has ever heard of Velma, let alone seen her in the last eight years. While back at the office, our hero gets a visit from a man named Lindsay Marriott (Douglas Walton), who says he will give Marlowe $100 to accompany him in handing over an $8,000 ransom for a very valuable jade necklace. At the rendezvous point, Marlowe begins to snoop around and is suddenly blindsided by a spade to the back of his head. Hours later, he awakes to find Marriott dead. The next day he is approached by Ann Grayle (Anne Shirley), a young woman who lets it slip that her stepmother Helen (Claire Trevor) is the owner of the stolen necklace that got Marriott killed. Marlowe's interest is piqued and he begins inquiring as to the whereabouts of the necklace, meeting various shady characters, and escaping death numerous times in the process.

Chandler is known for his head spinning, convoluted plot, and this one is a real doozy. We get violence that seemingly comes out of nowhere, wild drug induced hallucinations, and a stepmother and daughter both vying for the affections of Marlowe. All the usual noir trademarks are here, flashbacks, voice-over narration, chiaroscuro lighting, sassy, hard boiled dialogue, and of course, the femme fatale, courtesy of the wickedly enticing Trevor. Director Dmytryk revels in this material, and he does what he can to make us forget the less than large budget that he had to work with. It's screenwriter John Paxton, however, that deserves the most credit, he is able to cut down the various plot points, find a mainline, and wrap it all up very nicely while always staying true to Chandler's tone and vision. It's a smart screenplay, and it does exactly what it should: it takes us on a roller coaster ride that surprises us at every turn, yet takes just enough time to let us catch our breath, without letting us think about the inconsistencies in the plot.

It's in the acting that film falters the most. Powell is good, not remarkable in any way, but good. He's a little goofy, he fumbles around a bit too much, he doesn't really know how to convincingly handle a gun, but he can take a beating in style. He always looks a little bewildered, but it's convincing when he comes out with the upper hand. He's a fun Marlowe, and it's a nice juxtaposition to what Bogart would accomplish. He may not carry the film as convincingly as better actors would in years later, but it's a kick to watch him try. The problem comes mostly in the supporting performances, Trevor, as mentioned earlier, is believable, but she has too little screen time. Shirley is cute enough for her role, but she has no dramatic weight whatsoever, and she falls flat in nearly every scene. Everyone else in the film is just a broad caricature, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, and it's quite common in noir, but you usually have a smoother, tougher hero to stand behind. Powell has his strengths, but making us root for him is not one of them.

Farewell, My Lovely was Chandler's second novel, but the first one adapted for the screen. Murder, My Sweet, the title was changed so audiences wouldn't think it was another Powell musical, was actually the second cinematic version, after 1942's cheapie The Falcon Takes Over. Of all the multiple film versions of Chandler's work, Sweet is generally considered to be the most faithful. This may be true, but that doesn't mean it's a great film. It serves more as a very interesting curio than a great cinematic work. It's not any one person's fault, it's just that not too many people can stand shoulder to shoulder with Bogart. I can't honestly say that Murder, My Sweet is worth a peek, but it is safe to say that Chandler/Marlowe fans may find something more valuable at work here. Personally speaking, though, the film is already fading from memory. Admirable effort to be sure and probably more so in its time, but you've seen it all done before, and done far better.

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