Murder, My Sweet
August 14, 2017
1 Hr., 35 Mins.
One of the things I like best about Edward Dmytryk’s Murder, My Sweet (1944), itself an adaptation of the classic Farewell, My Lovely (1940) by Raymond Chandler, is how much the casting of Dick Powell works. A decade earlier, it might not have. Powell was consistently cast as a cherubic, always-beaming protagonist in musicals aplenty. But in the 1944 in which the film is set, the casting is apt. Porcelain perfection has slightly been ousted by wrinkles and frown lines; a youthful happy-go-luckiness has washed away, the maturity that comes with being 40 more evident.
So as wearied private detective Philip Marlowe, a role memorably brought to life two years later by Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep, Powell fits the bill. We’re presented with a cynical cool guy with a weakness for the bottle, but over and over again do we juxtapose that image with the image of who Powell used to be. We consequently develop our own arc for Marlowe as a result — that he used to be a saucer-eyed kid excited for what the world had to offer him, but has, in his years of sleuthing, become engulfed by his thick skin.
Behind The Big Sleep, which, besides being the ultimate film noir, is among the greatest films ever made, Murder, My Sweet is the arguably the best Chandler adaptation. The film, unlike so many detective noirs, finds the reverie in the genre. Here, sly private eyes, cartoonish thugs, snarky femme fatales, and secretive millionaires are analogous to the highfalutin characters found in a swashbuckler movie. And the crispness of Chandler's original dialogue, adapted here by John Paxton, is intact, with Dmytryk’s inspired use of imagery (a gorgeous mix of surrealism and pulp shadows), aided by Harry J. Wild’s bloomy cinematography, intoxicating additions.
To boot, Murder, My Sweet also has the sharp, twisty storyline that satisfies in a movie of its kind. As Murder, My Sweet opens, Powell’s Marlowe is sitting in a dimly lit police station, his eyes covered in bandages. There, he’s being questioned by way of aiding an investigation, clearly one in which he was involved. Sitting among his fellow cops, he tells a story so labyrinthine we’d be sure he were making it all up if it weren’t so painstakingly detailed.
The story begins with Marlowe’s being approached by Moose Malloy (a terrific Mike Mazurki), an oafish bodyguard type willing to pay the detective a hefty sum to find his old girlfriend, Velma. Malloy has just been released from prison, see, and his lady love cannot be found in any of their old hangout spots. Though it’s been eight years and it’s likely that the girl, who was as involved in seedy business transactions as her boyfriend, might even be dead, Malloy is seeking reunion. And he figures Marlowe is his best bet to achieve it. Marlowe looks at the guy as little more than an intimidating but easy way to make some extra cash. But when he interrogates his first lead, an alcoholic, middle-aged woman (Esther Howard) whom has a face he compares to a smattering of mud, he can tell that the situation is much more complex than meets the eye. And the more he delves into the case, the more his suspicions turn out to be true: Malloy has a connection to millionaire Mr. Grayle (Miles Grander), whose sultry wife (Claire Trevor) recently had her priceless jade necklace stolen. Nothing, of course, is as it seems.
In contrast to The Big Sleep, in which the plot was virtually indecipherable and therefore unimportant when compared to the moody aesthetic, the storyline of Murder, My Sweet is crucial. And, fortunately, followable. The story populated by an abundance of intriguing characters, from Trevor’s memorable femme fatale Helen Grayle to mysterious psychic healer Jules Amthor (Otto Kruger), we watch as all the dots are cleverly connected, as the school of quirky exchanges come to blend into an intelligent, enthralling storyline.
But most winning about Murder, My Sweet is Powell’s performance, which surprisingly (when considering his musical-heavy background) gets everything right about Marlowe. The latter’s capacity to hurl one-liners with whiplash quickness, his quieted down vulnerabilities, his world-weariness, his subtle idealism, are realized to their fullest. One would like to think Powell is a supplement in an ultimately engaging film. But because other Chandler adaptations, like Lady in the Lake and The Brasher Doubloon (both released in 1947), usually competently adapt the source material but fail to completely rivet due to subpar performances, one can wonder.
Audiences of 1944 were just as smitten. Though the title was changed from Farewell, My Lovely to Murder, My Sweet in a paranoid attempt by studios to dissuade audiences from thinking the feature would be yet another Powell-starring lark, the public took to what Powell and company had to offer. It earned a hefty profit at the box office, impressed critics, and was a wonder at the 1946 Edgar Awards, winning five prizes (including one for Powell’s performance and Paxton’s screenplay). To paraphrase Bosley Crowther, this is pulse-quickening entertainment. And not just because it’s a thriller. B+