Edward Dmytryk, 1944
Starring: Dick Powell, Claire Trevor, Anne Shirley
A man with bandages over his eyes — Philip Marlowe, a private detective — is being interrogated while temporarily blind. He explains how it came to be: he was hired by a recently released convict, Moose Malloy, to find Malloy’s ex-girlfriend Velma who he hasn’t seen in eight years. First, Marlowe visits the widow of Velma’s former employer, the alcoholic Jessie Florian. She claims not to remember Velma, but hides a picture of a dark-haired dancer with Velma’s name on it.
Later, well-dressed, preening Lindsay Marriott arrives at Marlowe’s office, hoping the detective will escort him that evening. A friend had a valuable jade necklace stolen, and Marriott is acting as the go-between to buy back the jewels. That night, Marlowe is knocked out and Marriott is killed. He comes to be involved with the Grayle family — a rich older man, his young, beautiful wife named Helen, and Grayle’s adult daughter from his first wife. The necklace belonged to Mrs. Grayle and she hires Marlowe to get it back. But things are not as they seem and soon Marlowe has Moose Malloy, a dangerous psychic, and the cops on his trail.
This is the second of three adaptations of Raymond Chandler’s novel Farewell, My Lovely. The first, The Falcon Takes Over (1942) with George Sanders, was only loosely inspired by the novel and is more part of The Falcon series than anything resembling a Chandler story. Murder, My Sweet remains the most famous and successful adaptation and was followed several decades later by Farewell, My Lovely (1975) starring Robert Mitchum.
Murder, My Sweet came out in what was the first important year for noir — 1944 — which also saw the release of Double Indemnity and Laura. The film is surprisingly faithful to the book and uses a majority of Chandler’s excellent dialogue. While noir fans are divided over whether Powell is a great Marlowe or a miss because he’s too comic, there’s little argument about the casting and portrayal of the side characters, all of whom are excellent. Director Edward Dymytryk’s regular collaborator John Paxton (Cornered and Crossfire) penned this script.
Dmytryk made some excellent noir films, including Cornered, Crossfire, The Hidden Room, and The Sniper. He was also responsible for some B-films, such as The Falcon Strikes Back and Universal horror Captive Wild Woman. His career was put on hold when he refused to cooperate with HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee). He was jailed and eventually complied, producing a list of known communists and sympathizers in Hollywood. Here his direction is masterful and benefits from some stylish black and white cinematography from Harry J. Wild (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) and a moody, thoughtful score from noir and horror regular Roy Webb (Out of the Past, Notorious, The Spiral Staircase).
The film is very close to the novel, though there are some significant changes — Anne Riordan is an ex-police chief’s daughter in the book and she just happens to encounter Marlowe in a spot of trouble. In the film, this character is turned into Anne Grayle, Grayle’s adult daughter from his previous marriage. There is also the annoying cliche of numerous people turning up to Marlowe’s office, when in the novel there are numerous settings.
The plot is a little confusing, but there is quite a lot of plot in the novel. Chandler’s novels generally follow the same formula. A first mystery is introduced, but Marlowe is unable to solve it. In the meantime, he stumbles across a second crime or mystery. By the end of the novel, the two wind up being connected and are resolved at the same time. Farewell, My Lovely also follows this rough outline, entwining the case of a missing person — Moose’s girlfriend Velma — with the story of a stolen jade necklace, blackmail, and murder. It’s a dark and cynical world full of paranoia, alcoholics, double crossers, murderers, thieves, and criminals. This story (both in the novel and film) is particularly rough on Marlowe and he is repeatedly beaten and knocked unconscious, shot up with dope, imprisoned for several days, blinded, and interrogated.
There’s a wonderful sense of noir style. In addition to the stylized, eerie, and unnatural shadows that pervade the film, the soundscape is equally moody and disturbing. There are some nice surreal moments that aren’t quite the equal of the excellent noir set pieces, but are welcome additions. Los Angeles is particularly sinister in this film and the majority of the shots take place at night or inside dark rooms with several sweeping shots of the glittering and cruel urban landscape.
With contemporary noir fans, there will always be the debate of Humphrey Bogart vs Dick Powell. Bogart is one of my favorite actors of all time and while I love his portrayals of both Marlowe and Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, I think it’s impossible to compare the two. Powell started his career as a leading man in romantic comedies and musicals, but reinvented himself at age 40 by scoring the lead in Murder, My Sweet. He went on to star in other noir films — Cornered, Crossfire, etc. The title of the film was changed from Farewell, My Lovely to Murder, My Sweet so that audiences wouldn’t convince it with one of Powell’s musicals. I think he does an excellent job here — he has some of the self-deprecating humor that is one of Marlowe’s trademarks in the novels, but is also able to exude a sense of bitterness and pessimism that’s so essential to Chandler’s hardboiled universe.
Claire Trevor (Key Largo, Stagecoach) is excellent as the femme fatale Helen Grayle and she nearly blows Powell out of the water. My only complaint is that Trevor simply isn’t able to compete with other noir beauties like Lizabeth Scott or Barbara Stanwyck, which makes her slightly physically unbelievable in the role. But once she gets going, the distraction melts away. There are some excellent side actors, including Otto Kruger (Dracula’s Daughter, Saboteur) as a sinister psychic, Miles Mander (Wuthering Heights, To Be Or Not To Be) as the frail Mr. Grayle, and Esther Howard (Detour) in a memorable cameo as the drunk Jessie Florian. Mike Mazurki (It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World) is unforgettable as Moose Malloy, the big thug desperately trying to find his ex-girlfriend. The adorable Anne Shirley (Anne of Green Gables, Stella Dallas) is likable as Helen Grayle’s stepdaughter and nemesis, though this would be her last role; she retired from acting in her mid 20s.
Murder, My Sweet is out on DVD both as a solo release and in an excellent noir box set alongside The Asphalt Jungle, Gun Crazy, Out of the Past, and The Set-Up. All include commentary tracks and special features. I highly recommended the box set, particularly for noir newbies and Murder, My Sweet comes with a very high recommendation for noir fans and Chandler aficionados.