Thursday, September 22, 2011

Murder, My Sweet (1944)

In 1942 RKO had filmed Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely as one of their Falcon B-movies, with Philip Marlowe replaced by the Falcon, Gay Lawrence (played by George Sanders). Two years later they decided on a more straightforward adaptation, and with Edward Dmytryk directing Murder, My Sweet was the result.

With Dick Powell cast as Philip Marlowe RKO recognised they had a problem. Powell was still known almost exclusively as a lightweight star of musicals and there was a danger that audiences would assume that Farewell, My Lovely was a musical. Hence the name change, to make it clear that this was a murder mystery thriller.

Powell was keen to change his image and this movie accomplished that purpose fairly successfully. He went on to make quite a few notable movies in the film noir canon.

John Paxton wrote the screenplay, making some changes to the plot but keeping much of Chandler’s dazzling hardboiled dialogue. Marlowe is hired by Moose Molloy (Mike Mazurki) to find his girlfriend Velma. Moose has been in the penitentiary for eight years and it’s been six years since he had a letter from her. She used to be a dancer at a joint called Florian’s but the bar has changed hands and no-one knows anything of her. Most guys in Moose’s position would have figured out that Velma probably doesn’t want him to find her, but once Moose gets an idea in his head it’s pointless trying to reason with him. This is obvious to Marlowe, but Moose’s money is as good as anyone else’s.

Then Marlowe gets another client, who offers him a large amount of money to accompany him to a rendezvous where he is to buy back a jade necklace stolen from a lady friend. It sounds like easy money but the client ends up dead and Marlowe finds himself drawn into an increasingly complicated web as it becomes obvious that the two cases are linked.

Chandler hated crime stories with genius detectives who know the identity of the murderer almost from the moment they take on a case. He liked to have his detective stumble about in the dark making all kinds of wrong assumptions, often with disastrous consequences, before finally putting all the pieces together. Paxton’s screenplay preserves this approach. A slight weakness of the script is the ending which is a little too upbeat to be truly Chandlerian. It’s not a fatal flaw though.

Claire Trevor is the femme fatale, a type of role she played fairly often and usually pretty well. Anne Shirley is the good girl, in her final film role. There are strong performances from the support cast with Miles Mander and Otto Kruger being particularly good.

But for my money Mike Mazurki steals the picture as Moose Molloy. The former professional wrestler started his film career in the early 40s and was still working into the late 80s. He made countless films playing minor roles as heavies but this was one of the rare occasions when he got a substantial and rewarding part that suited his talents and he certainly made the most of it. He was one of those actors with a very limited range who was extremely effective indeed within that range.

Then there’s Dick Powell, and he has always been the most problematical feature of this movie. The first time I saw this film I felt that he was entirely miscast. On a second viewing his performance was a lot more impressive. He’s not really convincing as a tough guy, but then Philip Marlowe was never really as a tough guy either. That’s part of the essential character of Marlowe. He’s not a Sam Spade. Sam Spade was a real tough guy, and a cynical amoral opportunist. Marlowe on the other hand always comes across as being more like an actor trying to impersonate a tough guy. Sometimes he convinces people. Sometime he convinces himself.

The truth is that Marlowe is too sensitive to enjoy violence and has too active a conscience to be totally cynical. That’s why Bogart was so good as Sam Spade, and (in my opinion) not quite right as Marlowe. And that’s why Dick Powell’s performance does in fact work. The times when his performance falters a little actually work in his favour, making Marlowe vulnerable. The odd thing is that Chandler preferred Bogart in the role, which possibly shows that an author isn’t necessarily the person to listen to when you’re adapting a book. I’m still not sure that Dick Powell was the ideal actor to play Marlowe but he is definitely closer to the Marlowe of the books than most actors who’ve attempted the role. I still think Robert Mitchum in the 1975 Farewell, My Lovely is the definitive Marlowe even if he was a least a decade too old at the time, and I still think it’s a tragedy that Mitchum didn’t get to play this role in the 1940s.

Edward Dmytryk goes all out for atmosphere in this adaptation. Like Howard Hawks with The Big Sleep Dmytryk understands that with Chandler you don’t worry too much about the plot, you worry about getting the feel right. Dmytryk and his director of photography Harry Wild go for shadows in a big way. And fog. Wild would go on to photograph lots more film noir.

The Warner Home Video DVD came out in 2004 but is still available in the first of their film noir boxed sets. It’s a beautiful transfer and includes a commentary track by Alain Silver.

This is one of the movies that defined the film noir visual style, and one of the movies that post-war French critics pinpointed as representing a dramatic new approach to the American crime film when they invented the concept of film noir. As such it’s essential viewing.

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