Murder My Sweet: Dick Powell makes the definitive Philip Marlowe in this influential Noir classic

Murder, My Sweet(1944), was an adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s Farewell my Lovely, with Dick Powell starring as Philip Marlowe in what became the first of the film Noirs.

“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.’

Exactly the kind of hard-boiled, cryptic dialogue one expects to hear in a Film Noir, especially a Noir adapted from Raymond Chandler, and the character speaking these lines is his greatest creation, P.I. Marlowe. Like Dashiell Hammett who created the iconic P.I. Sam Spade, Chandler created P.I. Philip Marlowe, and when one thinks of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe (or Hammett’s Sam Spade), the image that comes immediately to mind is the tough, cool, hardboiled, insouciant and super-confident Humphrey Bogart from Howard Hawks’ classic The Big Sleep(1946); Bogie flirtatiously bantering with sexy maidens and toying with vicious gangsters and hoodlums in some of the best dialogues ever written for films, is an image forever etched in moviegoers conscious, hence to imagine a musical\romantic\comedy star like Dick Powell in that role is almost sacrilegious. But Dick Powell did play that role, even before Bogart, and most successfully, and by some accounts more truthfully than Bogart to Chandler’s vison of the character. Powell played the famous gumshoe in RKO’s 1944 Noir classic, “Murder, My Sweet” directed by Edward Dmytryk. “Murder, My Sweet” is based on Raymond Chandler’s classic detective novel “Farewell, My Lovely”. The book was later filmed in the 1970s under its original title starring Robert Mitchum. The Mitchum version is actually more faithful, but for some reason nowhere near as entertaining. Murder, My Sweet tones down some of the racial and sexual aspects of the original story (which are included in the 1970s remake); one couldn’t show a homosexual character or the explicit consumption of drugs back then. The films title had to be changed because the audience mistook this film to be another musical from the star of “42nd Street” and “Gold Diggers of 1933.” For 10 years, Powell has been languishing in these kind of musicals, before he got the opportunity to play a serious tough guy in this film. Powell’s background in romantic musicals gives him access to a far deeper emotional range, needed to play the complex, conflicted and a very vulnerable Marlowe; his cynicism, his humor, his loyalty to his code…it’s all there. Powell manages to give extra resonance to some of Chandler’s throw-away similes, thanks to his comedic talent, and he is particularly good at delivering those self-mocking, sardonic lines, and those lines are plenty in the film. No wonder he claimed this as his favorite role. Beyond that, this was a career-defining one, as after that, he will be known as the quintessential Noir hero, with further ventures into Noir territory, like the fantastic “Pitfall” and “Cornered”.

Murder, My Sweet is the first of the film noirs, though The Maltese Falcon(1941) is considered (officially) to be the first film noir, the visual and thematic sensibilities were not fully established till 1944, when this film, along with Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity and Otto Preminger’s Laura were released (all of them in 1944). Among these three, it’s Murder, My Sweet that fully adheres to the low-budget, and a little unrefined, hard-on-the-edges aesthetics of a classic film Noir; both Laura and Double Indemnity were big budget, highly sophisticated, big studio films made by A list directors with glossy production values. There is a reason why the film Noir mainly originated, and remained the mainstay of RKO studios. RKO Radio Pictures, which was a mighty studio during the 1930s producing spectacles like King Kong and the Astaire-Rogers musicals, had become a poverty row studio by the 1940s. After Orson Welles failed (commercially) spectacularly with Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons and It’s all True, the studio exiled Welles; turning its back on prestige filmmaking, it instead concentrated on making low-budget quickies based on hard-boiled pulp novels. And ironically, they were most helped in this endeavor by the cinematic aesthetic defined by Welles in his films , especially Citizen Kane; whose defining elements including expressionistic, shadowy chiaroscuro lighting, frequent first-person, descriptive, voice-over narration, innovative set design, and a flashback framing narrative, were ported lock, stock and barrel to these pulpy crime thrillers. They were a great help in cutting down costs – on sets and props, as well as containing the film within a limited number of scenes and locations – and making films that looked visually interesting on a very limited budget. Obviously, the thematic elements of the noir stemmed from the paranoia generated by WWII, and they always portrayed a tough, cynical world populated by the most immoral and unscrupulous characters. They dealt with themes of murder, corruption, blackmail, double-cross and double identity; with cynical, descriptive, terse and evocative voice-over narration, wisecracks, and highly-quotable one-liners. “Murder, My Sweet” ticks all the above boxes perfectly.

As it is usual with these kind of Detective\Noir films, there are at least 2 layers of mysteries present in the film; the first layer consists of a mystery which the gumshoe would be called upon to solve, and the second mystery will be the “real mystery” of the film, into which the gumshoe accidentally stumbles into without his knowledge. In this film, there are actually three; first: the search for a love-sick ex-con’s missing ex-lady friend, a show-girl; second: the mysterious business around the missing “Jade necklace” of a wealthy socialite; and third: the mystery regarding the true identity of a ruthless social-climber who ends up as a very wealthy man’s trophy wife, and who would go to any lengths to conceal her real identity. As opposed to other Noir mysteries, where the plot is peeled layer by layer, here it unfolds episodically, until all three mysteries converge in the film’s end. The plot is labyrinthine, with misdirection and red herrings all the way, thoroughly confounding the gumshoe, until he manages to solve the puzzle in the end. In the case of Dick Powell’s Philip Marlowe in “Murder, My Sweet”, the first mystery comes knocking on his door in the hulking figure of Moose Molloy (Mike Mazurki). Recently released from prison, Moose wants to find his former girlfriend, Velma, a brunette, who used to be a dancer at a nightspot called Florian’s, which no longer has entertainment under the new ownership. According to the widow of the Florian’s former owner (Esther Howard), Moose’s girl is dead, but Moose won’t take “no” for an answer. Child-like in his directness, but a giant in strength, Moose wouldn’t stop until he finds his Velma. It’s later revealed that Velma had set him up to be imprisoned and then given him the slip. Moose turns out to be a very difficult client for Marlowe, as he behaves more like an opponent than a client. Marlowe has his suspicions regarding “Velma’s death”: after his interaction with a drunken Mrs. Florian, he had spied her suddenly becoming all sober and calling someone on the telephone in a disturbed state; but he cannot do anything about it for the time being.

The second Mystery arrives the next morning in the form of Lindsay Marriott (Douglas Walton), who turns up at Marlowe’s office, offering $100 if Marlowe will act as his bodyguard when he acts as a go-between in a secluded canyon at midnight to pay a ransom for some stolen jewels. In the canyon, Marlowe is knocked unconscious. When Marlowe comes to his senses, he sees a young woman shine a flashlight on his face and then run away. The money is gone, and Marriott has been viciously killed by an amateur, with repeated blows from a blackjack. When Marlowe reports the murder, he finds Lt. Randall (Donald Douglas), threatening him with a variety of charges. The police ask him if he knows a Jules Amthor, and warn him not to interfere in the case.

 The second mystery leads to the third mystery, and it involves an elderly and wealthy recluse named Grayle (Miles Mander). His daughter Ann (Anne Shirley), who happens to be the girl that Marlowe saw in the canyon, try to get some information out of Marlowe about the “necklace murder” episode, but Marlowe refuses to bite. Soon, he runs into Grayle and his (blonde) promiscuous second wife, Helen (Claire Trevor),who is almost as young as his daughter. It is here we find out that the necklace that was stolen belongs to Helen; the valuable antique jade necklace was a gift from her husband, and the thieves were offering to sell it back to her. Marriott, who hired Marlowe, was one of her friends who was helping her to get back the necklace. Along with them, Marlowe also comes in contact with a society psychic, Jules Amthor (Otto Kruger), a mysterious figure who seems to have total control over Helen. Helen wants to hire Marlowe to find the missing necklace, while Ann bribes him to stay away from Helen.

Now that these three mystery episodes are fully established, the real mystery begins to unravel, which we soon realize has nothing to do with the “jade” necklace or Amthor or any such thing, but is directly connected to Moose’s quest for his missing girlfriend, something we thought was a minor issue in all this. The “Jade necklace” is merely a “McGuffin”, which everyone in the film seems to want, but in the end is pretty useless to the main story. In the course of further investigations, Marlowe gets kidnapped, beaten up and drugged into a stupor; in the midst of all this, his verbal wit and his will to keep going on never flags, which finally leads him to solve the puzzle. But in doing so, he has to forego his eyesight, at least temporarily, but he is rewarded at the end with the love and companionship of a very good woman.

Edward Dmytryk, who directed his film, was languishing in B movie hell, before he got this opportunity. He, in coordination with cinematographer Harry Wild, gives the film a tight economy ,yet deliver a glamorous sheen to the visuals, perhaps keeping in with the hollow, yet heavily made up femme fatale of the piece, Helen Grayle. Working on a tight budget, they manage to infuse the film with all the seedy, chaotic topography that would become the hallmark of these Noir thrillers, and will be duplicated in several subsequent films. Wild, who worked on Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons as an additional photographer with Orson Welles, brings pretty much all the tools employed by that master filmmaker in creating the dark, mysterious world of this film. One of the most striking images of the film is the introduction of Moose in Marlowe’s office; his towering figure is mirror-reflected in Marlowe’s office window-pane filled with flashing city lights; though Moose is standing behind him in darkness, it appears that he is standing in front of Marlowe, as some sort of gigantic other-worldly figure. This is a perfectly spooky beginning for the film, and the introduction of the character, who will set this macabre plot rolling. All of Moose’s appearances in the film will have this spooky effect repeated in one way or the other. Another extremely well done sequence is Marlowe’s “drug episode”, where he has hallucinations, and it is achieved admirably with whatever technology they had in their possession- double exposures, Dutch camera angles, baroque lighting etc.. Powell is in great form in this sequence, with his skills as a dancer helping him immensely in playing a person who is moving around under the influence of drugs.

Narrative-wise, the film employs the typical Noir narrative tool of a flashback, as well as, a first person Voice over narration, made even more foreboding since the protagonist, Detective, narrating the tale is blinded, bandaged and looks quite down-and-out, and he is facing an hostile police interrogation. This film also includes all the requisite Noir archetypes, like the hard-boiled detective, the femme fatale, the innocent girlfriend, the antagonistic cop at loggerheads with the detective, etc.. Except for the flashback structure, the filmmakers followed Chandler’s text religiously, but screenwriter John Paxton beefed up the dialogue. The dialogue in the film is pure “Noir poetry”- sardonic and cynical, the film has some great dialogue, and they are delivered with a musical rhythm by Powell. Sample this:

I caught the blackjack right behind my ear. A black pool opened up at my feet. I dived in. It had no bottom. I felt pretty good – like an amputated leg.”

“I don’t know which side anybody’s on. I don’t even know who’s playing today.”

“I’m a homing pigeon. I always come back to the stinking coop, no matter how late it is. I’d been out peeking under old Sunday sections for a barber named Dominick whose wife wanted him back – I forget why. Only reason I took the job was because my bank account was trying to crawl under a duck.”

” He wasn’t hurt much. He was just snapped… the way a pretty girl would snap a stalk of celery. Only, for this job, you’d have to be a big man – with a big pair of hands.”

Or the back and forth between the characters:

Lindsay Marriott: How would you like a swift punch on the nose? Philip Marlowe: I tremble at the thought of such violence.

Helen Grayle: I find men very attractive.
Philip Marlowe (looks her over): I imagine they meet you halfway.

Lindsay Marriott: I’m afraid I don’t like your manner.
Philip Marlowe: I keep getting complaints about it, but it keeps getting worse

Such smart, witty punchlines and banter will become part and parcel of the Noirs, it is specifically designed to offset, and make palatable, the dark themes these films were exploring. Dmytryk would go on to make more Noir classics like “Cornered” and “Crossfire.” But his career would hit a roadblock, when he was blacklisted and sent to prison as part of the HUAC investigations. He would later name names and get out of prison, and go on to make movies like “The Caine Mutiny”, which closely mirrored his experience with communism and HUAC. As for Powell, the film will revitalize his career, and he would go on to have a successful career playing tough guy roles. His interpretation of Marlowe is very different from Bogart’s; while Bogart is on top of a situation at all times, Powell is a mess, who bumbles in and out of situations beyond his control; the audience are way ahead of him in catching the culprit, and we have to wait as Marlowe somehow stumble past the finishing line. Chandler was happy when he so this portrayal of Marlowe, and considered this the perfect interpretation of the character, but he will change his mind later, when he saw Bogart’s version, but Dmytryk always insisted that Powell’s version was the closest to Chandler’s Marlowe, because Marlowe is not a savvy, super-sleuth like Sam Spade, which Bogart played very well; but Marlowe is more of an “eagle scout”, and that’s how Powell plays it. Then again, The Big Sleep was not exactly a Chandler movie; it was through and through a Howard Hawks movie, and Hawks always makes Hawks pictures, no matter what the genre and who the original author. Bogart was perfect for Hawks’ film, just as Powell is perfect for Dmytryk’s film; both of them give very different performances that are highly enjoyable in their own way.

3 thoughts on “Murder My Sweet: Dick Powell makes the definitive Philip Marlowe in this influential Noir classic

  1. Excellent review. But I much prefer Robert Mitchum to Dick Powell as Marlowe, and I much prefer “Farewell, My Lovely” to “Murder My Sweet.” When other actors played Phillip Marlowe, even Bogie, you could imagine them eventually moving up from their 25 buck a day gigs and getting the girl and settling down in the ‘burbs. This one even ends with Powell doing exactly that. Even Chandler’s Marlowe ended up married and retired in Poodle Springs! But Mitchum’s moral code is all that he has, and so you realize in his version that this burned-out, middle aged, barely-keeping-it-together private dick will never escape, and that this sad fatalism is all he has, which kind of epitomize the whole dark soul of film noir, if you think about it…

    Liked by 1 person

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