Murder, My Sweet was directed by Edward Dmytryk for RKO and is based on Raymond Chandler’s novel Farewell, My Lovely.
1944 was a watershed year for Film Noir. It saw the release of such classics as Double Indemnity, Laura, The Woman in the Window and To Have and Have Not. Noir became a box office draw.
Dick Powell’s career had come to a stall by 1944. Powell had been a huge success as crooner and hoofer in 1930s Busby Berkeley musicals, rosy-cheeked and lysol-scrubbed to squeaky-cleanness. By the 1940s many considered him little more than an aging lightweight who had overstayed his welcome. Powell himself was sick of this perception. “I’m not a kid anymore but I’m still playing boy scouts.” He was over 40 now and knew something had to change if he didn’t want his career to tank permanently.
He had previously auditioned for the lead role in Double Indemnity in his attempt to make the transition to dramatic roles. Wilder - in one of his very rare miscalculations - declined as he thought audiences would never buy into Powell as hard-boiled PI.
Dmytryk took the chance and his gamble paid off handsomely. Murder was a success though Powell’s casting took many by surprise. It gave Powell’s waining career an enormous boost and prolonged his shelf life considerably. He proved to be a natural at Noir.
A pre-screening of Murder wasn't particularly successful. It had been shown under its original title Farewell, My Lovely and the audience turned up expecting to see another Powell musical. So the title of the film was changed from the original to Murder, My Sweet, to make it absolutely clear that Powell the crooner had been permanently retired. It worked.
Raymond Chandler’s plots were always cheerfully incoherent and famously labyrinthine. Forget about a lucid storyline. If readers wanted to judge Chandler purely on plausibility of plot, he never would have got the well-deserved reputation he has. As the man himself once said, a good mystery is the kind where you don’t have to read the end to be satisfied. Chandler wasn’t interested in creating intricate cerebral puzzles. In fact his essay The Simple Art of Murder was a blistering attack on the Golden Age British crime novel of the “the butler did it” school with its home-in-time-for-tea resolution.
Chandler wanted to create a realistic portrait of a city - in this case LA - where corruption and lawlessness reigned, greasing palms solved virtually any problem, ideals were a rare commodity and trust was for gullible suckers. The picture captures the essence and atmosphere of the book, even it it took liberties with the plot, including the ending. No one is an angel in the City of Angels.
The snappy dialogue makes the movie and much of it is lifted directly from the novel. Marlowe constantly throws us some loopy little nuggets of wisdom right out of left field: “My mind felt like a plumber's handkerchief” and “Only reason I took the job was because my bank account was trying to crawl under a duck”. What?
I won’t even try to unravel the convoluted storyline. The direction is deliberately fast-paced so we don’t dwell too much on the plot and its corresponding holes.
The movie is told in flashbacks by a blind-folded Marlowe. A gun fired too close to his eyes has blinded him. Now he’s a PI who’s in the dark - literally and figuratively - and the cops are grilling him about his involvement in several murders.
Philip Marlowe is hired by Moose Malloy (Mike Mazurki), ex-boxer and crook just out of prison after a seven year stretch, to find his former girlfriend, Velma, who he hasn’t seen for the last six years. Back in the day Velma worked as a showgirl (make of that what you will) at a low-class joint. At the same time - in a seemingly unrelated case - Marlowe is hired by swishy Lindsay Marriott (playing the Joel Cairo role) to accompany him to a clandestine midnight meeting out in the boonies to buy back stolen jewelry. Marlowe is knocked out, Marriott is killed. Later Marlowe discovers that the necklace belonged to Helen Grayle (Claire Trevor), bombshell wife of old geezer Judge Grayle. Grayle also has a daughter, Ann (Anne Shirley), who would love nothing better than to stick little pins into her step-mother.
It looks like Moose opened a can of worms, and his Velma simply doesn’t want to be found…
Dick Powell makes for a very good Marlowe. Chandler maintained that Powell was closest to his vision of Marlowe. Chandler’s Marlowe was on the surface a world-weary tough-talking cynic who’s seen it all. But underneath the wisecracking, hard-drinking tough act was a man who was quietly contemplative and philosophical. Marlowe likes chess and poetry. He has a sense of moral chivalry and somehow it's easy to believe he would still have a few rusty boy-scout medals stashed away in a dusty attic. Corruption around him amuses him but doesn’t touch him. He can’t be bought with sex, though he might take a dame up on an offer. Marlowe was a latter-day knight-errant, a crumpled knight in dirty armor. Of all the hard-boiled PIs, he’s the most soft-boiled.
For many people Powell didn’t cut it in the role. They prefer Bogart. In a way I can see why. Bogart is iconic. But people who favor Bogart don’t realize that he was a much better fit for Sam Spade, the meaner, colder and more sadistic evil twin of Marlowe. There wasn’t any sentimentality or vulnerability in him. Bogart played his Marlowe the way he played Spade.
There is a bit more of the lovable loser about Powell. Poor Marlowe is having a rough time in the movie. He gets worked over a lot, mostly by Moose Malloy. Either the goons are all over him like a rash or the cops give him the third degree. The man’s far from being a superman. He is Noir’s everyman, not too good-looking, not too tall, not too tough, not too sexy. He gets lied to, slugged into unconsciousness, strangled, beaten, blinded and drugged. But for him it’s all in a day’s work. Even in a tight spot his observations drip with deadpan self-deprecation.
“Okay Marlowe,' I said to myself. 'You're a tough guy. You've been sapped twice, choked, beaten silly with a gun, shot in the arm until you're crazy as a couple of waltzing mice. Now let's see you do something really tough - like putting your pants on.”
He’s often bushwhacked and frankly half the time he does a lousy job at detecting. But he has one thing going for him. He doesn’t know how to quit. He’s like a little rubber ball that always bounces back.
I have a hard time seeing Bogart being pushed around by Moose the way he did to Powell. It was usually Bogart who did the pushing.
Claire Trevor is good as high-voltage double-crossing doxy. She’s bad, she knows it and she loves it. Always decked out in glamorous gowns, she’s a lot like Brigid O’Shaughnessy, constantly lying and acting a role. She’s burdened with a husband of great antiquity who nevertheless has one indisputable advantage: he’s rich. Helen is an expensive plaything. Judge Grayle knows exactly his wife is playing around, but accepts it as part of the deal. He’s ga-ga about her.
She tries to get Marlowe to do a little spot of killing for her, but like Brigid, she is never successful at corrupting him. Marlowe is no sucker.
It’s a strong point of the movie that it has a lovely little rogue’s gallery of (minor) characters.
There’s lovesick and psychotic Moose Malloy, a bulldozer of a man who doesn’t play with a full deck. He knows what he wants though...his Velma. And he can be incredibly persuasive…with his fists. To his credit Mazurki gives Moose unexpected depth. He doesn’t just play him for comic relief, Moose is a tragic and touching figure underneath all his blustering. A dim bulb who’s being taken for a ride by almost everyone in the film. He doesn’t have the brains to see through it. Despite his imposing frame, he’s a patsy who doesn’t stand a chance.
Another standout is Esther Howard's performance as lonely boozehound Jessie Florian, a blowsy old broad who pickles herself in whiskey every night. She just has one scene but it is perfect. Funny, sad and poignant at the same time.
Anne Shirley - looking at lot like Olivia de Havilland - is lovely in a good girl role that could easily have ended up boring.
Much of the movie’s success is owed to cinematographer Harry Wild who creates a beautiful dreamy nighttime LA. One of the first scenes is quintessential Noir. Philip Marlowe is sitting in his office at night, smoking and looking out the window with neon signs flashing outside, when new client Moose Malloy appears right behind him like an apparition, reflected in the glass.
Then there is spaced-out Marlowe’s drug-induced surrealistic nightmare sequence, filled with hypodermic needles, swirling vortexes and smoke. It’ seriously trippy.
Murder, My Sweet is Noir alright, but not yet self-consciously so as later movies would be. It is more light-hearted than others. There is the tough-talking PI, the femme fatale, blackmail, murder and a tangled web of lies and deceit, but no existential dread, inescapable fate and uncompromising pessimism yet. The movie is breezy. Marlowe’s bone-dry wise-cracking observations keep it from becoming too bleak. The final scene is almost comedy and may feel tacked on, but it’s OK. It’s in keeping with the narrative tone of the rest of the movie.