Any way you look at it, 1944 was a great year for fans of Raymond Chandler and film noir. Two movies were made that year featuring Chandler's private eye, Philip Marlowe, one from Warner Brothers, "The Big Sleep," with Humphrey Bogart in the title role (released in 1946), and this one from RKO, "Murder, My Sweet," with Dick Powell as the investigator. While "The Big Sleep" has become a classic, people tend to forget how very good "Murder, My Sweet" is. Maybe having it available on DVD will help remedy the situation.
Of course, Dick Powell is not exactly the actor that most people think of as a cynical, hard-boiled, disillusioned gumshoe. The guy had spent most of the 1930s playing song-and-dance men--"42nd Street," "Footlight Parade," "Gold Diggers of 1935," "The Singing Marine," that sort of thing. But starting with "Murder, My Sweet," Powell decided to change his image, and from then on it was films like "Johnny O'Clock," "Cry Danger," and "Rogue's Regiment" for him. Whether or not he made a successful transition is up to the individual viewer, of course, but in "Murder, My Sweet" his portrayal of the outwardly tough but ultimately softhearted Marlowe is mostly successful.
"Murder, My Sweet" is the second of three film adaptations of Chandler's 1940 detective novel, "Farewell, My Lovely." The first time it was brought to the screen, it was as a vehicle for the popular "Falcon" character in a movie titled "The Falcon Takes Over" (1942), with George Sanders. Poor Marlowe didn't even get his own name. For "Murder, My Sweet" the title was changed to ensure that audiences wouldn't confuse it with any of Powell's earlier musicals. I guess "Farewell, My Lovely" had too light or romantic a ring to it. Then, for me the most definitive screen adaptation was made in 1975 with Robert Mitchum in the lead, a role he was born to play, and it was the only movie of the three to finally use the novel's original title.
So we've got three very different interpretations of the same book, the first two more than respectable, the third the jackpot. All three define the term "film noir," or "dark film," but the first two had the advantage of being made at the time the genre was first becoming known. Interestingly, though, the term "film noir" was not actually coined until the mid forties. (American critic Lloyd Shearer wrote about "dark film" for the "New York Times" in 1945, but French critic Nino Frank is credited with first using the term "film noir" in a 1946 essay, along with fellow critic Jean-Pierre Chartier.) However, the expression was still not too well known until the fifties and later when French filmmakers began employing it to describe their own movies that depicted a dark or despairing atmosphere, where paranoia abounded. Hollywood noir films like "Murder, My Sweet" from the early-to-mid forties onward reflected a downbeat, post-World War II pessimism and were usually crime, gangster, or detective thrillers set in a big-city milieu of smoke, fog, night, and shadows. They are said to have been influenced by a combination of German expressionism and Italian neorealism. In any case, the lone hero was almost always set against an obscure world of death, deceit, and corruption, where a femme fatale would lure a man into danger and anything could, and usually would, happen. "Murder, My Sweet" has all of this.
Dick Powell as Marlowe may be one's only hesitation with the film. Marlowe, probably represented in the cinema as well as any fictional character short of Sherlock Holmes, has been played by a variety of fine actors--Bogart, Robert Montgomery, George Montgomery, Philip Carey, Elliott Gould, James Garner, Robert Mitchum, Powers Boothe, and James Caan, among others. But is Dick Powell really Marlowe? Well, he has all the right moves. He just doesn't have the right appearance. He's too neat, too clean-cut, too much the boy next door for my taste. He never looks world-weary enough, yet he brings off the part with a sort of dogged persistence. He's beaten, battered, choked, and drugged, but he keeps coming back for more.
And Powell is able to pull off some of Marlowe's celebrated quips and patter as well as anyone: "The only reason I took the job was because my bank account was trying to crawl under a duck." "My feet hurt, and my mind felt like a plumber's handkerchief." Describing one of his leads, Marlowe tells us she was "a charming, middle-aged lady with a face like a bucket of mud." Or, "The window was open but the smoke didn't move. It was a gray web woven by a thousand spiders. I wondered how they got them to work together." In other words, Powell is fine. He's a little lightweight, but maybe he's more vulnerable that way.
The plot of "Murder, My Sweet" is as convoluted as any of Chandler's stories, with characters coming and going, people getting bumped off right and left, and lots and lots of talk. I love this stuff because it means the characters are the best part of the show. Not the action. Not the special effects. Just the colorful characters.
Early one evening, Marlowe is visited in his office by a huge, inarticulate, dim-witted lug named Moose Malloy, who hires the detective to find his old girlfriend. Malloy has been in the pen for eight years pining for her, and now that he's finally out, she's disappeared, and he wants to find her again. Malloy is played by big Mike Mazurki, a 6'5" actor with a face only a mother could love. Mazurki played heavies in Hollywood for almost fifty years, and Malloy is one of his best roles. He's reminiscent of Lon Chaney, Jr. playing Lennie in "Of Mice and Men." Mazurki talks with vacant eyes, as though the heart works but the brain is disconnected. A wonderful part.
Claire Trevor and Anne Shirley play a pair of beauties who show up in the picture just moments later. They are the Grayles: Helen Grayle, the beautiful, new wife of an old millionaire (Miles Mander) and Ann Grayle, the fellow's beautiful, young daughter. "She had a face like a Sunday School picnic," Marlowe says of the younger woman. Needless to say, there is no love lost between the new wife and her stepdaughter. Indeed, they hate one another.
How do the Grayles play into the story? The old man is a collector of jade, and he's paying off thieves to get a stolen jade necklace back. Grayle uses a friend, Lindsay Marriott (Douglas Walton), to make the transaction, and Marriott hires Marlowe to go with him in the event something happens. But Marriott winds up dead and Marlowe knocked unconscious.
Enter next in rapid succession a "psychic consultant," in reality a con man and big-time blackmailer named Jules Amthor (Otto Kruger); a quack doctor named Sonderborg (Ralf Harolde); an alcoholic floozy named Jessie Florian (Esther Howard); a police Lieutenant named Randall (Don Douglas); a police detective named Nulty (Paul Phillips); plus a whole lot of others, and you get a pretty spirited supporting cast. Eventually, the Moose Malloy case and the Grayle case merge, but you've got to wait for it.
The movie is narrated in proper, subjective private-eye fashion in a voice-over by Marlowe, which tends to emulate the spirit of the novel. Moreover, the movie provides a wealth of dark shadows, and because it was filmed at the RKO studio just a couple of years after Welles had made "Citizen Kane" there and popularized the use of deep-focus photography, the studio filmmakers were quite comfortable using the same techniques with "Murder, My Sweet," getting a good deal of contrast between light and shadow while at the same time capturing plenty of detail in every shot from foreground to background.
Incidentally, you're probably wondering if there is ever a happy ending to the mystery? Hah! Does Bond ever die? I can't wait to see who plays Marlowe next.
The picture quality in this Academy-standard, 1.37:1 ratio presentation (rendered here at 1.33:1) ranges from acceptable to excellent. Some few parts of it are exceedingly grainy, others parts are not. The grain is particularly noticeable in the opening scenes, but it is no doubt attributable to the original print, as are the occasional age flecks and light flickers. Most of the film comes across well, however, hardly showing its age. The black-and-white contrasts are especially noteworthy, with very deep blacks and brightly lit whites. My guess is the video is better than almost anyone has ever seen it before.
The sound is furnished via an ordinary monaural of the day, but the Dolby Digital remastering has undoubtedly clarified it extensively. The midrange is extremely clear, helping dialogue to be easily understood, and in a film where dialogue is paramount, that's all that's important. There is not much in the way of frequency response or dynamic range, but there doesn't need to be. Any background noise that must have accompanied the original soundtrack has been considerably tamed and is, for all intents, negligible.
There's not much in the way of bonuses on the disc beyond an informative audio commentary by author and film-noir specialist Alain Silver. He provides a wealth of detail on the noir movement in general as well as an astute analysis of the movie itself, but his presentation is fairly straightforward and may not appeal to everyone but fans of the genre. Beyond that, there is a well-worn theatrical trailer and twenty-five scene selections. English is the only spoken language offered, but subtitles come in English, French, and Spanish.
"Murder, My Sweet" is one of five film-noir classics that Warner Brothers have made available individually or in a five-disc box set. The other films are the definitive film-noir classic, "Out of the Past," plus "The Asphalt Jungle," "The Set Up," and "Gun Crazy." All of them are worth pursuing, but I have a special affection for detective movies, so "Murder, My Sweet" is a natural for me. Fact is, there aren't all that many private-eye movies out there, making "Murder, My Sweet" among the select few.