Tuesday, March 23, 2010

#33: Murder, My Sweet (Edward Dmytryk, 1944)

Released: December 18, 1944

Director: Edward Dmytryk; Screenplay: John Paxton based on the novel “Farwell My Lovely” by Raymond Chandler; Cinematography: Harry J. Wild; Music: Roy Webb; Producer: Adrian Scott; Studio: RKO

Cast: Dick Powell (Philip Marlowe), Claire Trevor (Helen Grayle), Anne Shirley (Ann Grayle), Otto Kruger (Jules Amthor), Mike Mazurki (Moose Malloy), Miles Mander (Mr. Grayle), Douglas Walton (Lindsay Marriott), Don Douglas (Police Lt. Randall), Ralf Harolde (Dr. Sonderborg), Esther Howard (Jessie Florian), Paul Phillips ( Detective Nulty)

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

Humphrey Bogart may always be identified as the Hollywood personification of Raymond Chandler’s private eye Philip Marlowe, but Dick Powell can make a strong case for turning in an equally exciting performance. Murder, My Sweet may not be as great a movie as the Bogart-led The Big Sleep, but it’s much closer than the general consensus seems to recognize. Powell is a major reason why. His take on Marlowe – which was actually made the same year as The Big Sleep, even though that film was not released until two years later – is distinctive from that of Bogart. With Powell, Marlowe is even wittier, even more cynical in his observations (yes, that is possible). Dick Powell sells it all perfectly, delivering the sharp one-liners with a deadpan expression that is both laugh-out-loud funny and knowingly tough.

In this chapter in the cases of Philip Marlowe, the PI is hired by a recently paroled ex-con named Moose Malloy (Mike Mazurki) to find his former girlfriend Velma. Marlowe comes up empty despite some interesting leads, particularly after he is sidetracked after being hired by the regal Lindsay Marriott (Douglas Walton). Marriott offers Marlowe $100 to accompany him on a late-night mission to buy back some stolen jewelry. Instead of the transaction going smoothly, Marlowe is knocked unconscious and Marriott is murdered. Realizing that somebody is likely trying to pin a murder on him, Marlowe makes his way to the home of the jewels' owner, Helen Grayle (Claire Trevor), to tell her what happened. Grayle, wanting to recover the necklace before her much older and wealthy husband learns it is missing, decides to hire Marlowe herself. The deeper that Marlowe digs into the case, the more that he uncovers and realizes that the various cases that he is working are tied together. He eventually begins working not just to recover stolen jewelry, but to keep himself from either being killed or framed for a murder.

Not having read Farewell My Lovely, I can’t specifically comment on which parts of the screenplay are pure Chandler and which should be credited to screenwriter John Paxton. My guess is that the caustic humor found throughout the movie can in some way be traced back to Chandler, as everything I’ve read from him oozes such cynicism. Still, Paxton has to be credited for taking the source material and its inherently convoluted plot, and creating an impressive script. Even if the great Marlowe zingers come entirely from the pen of Raymond Chandler, then I’ll at least credit Paxton with selecting the choicest of them to include in the screenplay. The traditional flashback structure also flows very well here, with the story being told by Marlowe in a police interrogation room, immediately making clear that Marlowe finds himself in a hell of a predicament.

The direction by Edward Dmytryk is superlative. I still think that the first few minutes of this film are archetypal noir. An opening in a police station, with Marlowe’s face in bandages and anxious police officers imploring the private eye to tell them the whole story. Reluctantly, Marlowe agrees and as he begins telling the tale, the camera swings toward the streetlights shining in through an open window. As Marlowe continues talking, the camera pulls back to show the P.I. peering down through a window, staring at the same streetlights, and kicking off the flashback story. Slowly, with flashing lights glaring off the window, the shadow of a large man (Moose Malloy) is seen standing behind Marlowe in his darkened office. There are other memorable scenes – the drug induced hallucination is well remembered – but it’s this early sequence that sticks with me most. It’s also interesting to note the connections of this movie and the future trouble that Dmytryk would have with the House Un-American Activities Committee. As is well-known, Dmytryk was called before HUAC twice. The first time, he refused to cooperate with the committee and was jailed for contempt. In 1951, he was called back to the committee and decided to name names, answering questions concerning his own membership in the Communist party and various Hollywood figures that he claimed were trying to influence him to including communist propaganda in his films. One of the names that he listed was Adrian Scott, the producer of Murder, My Sweet. The result of Dmytryk’s testimony was disastrous for Scott, as he was blacklisted and unable to find work in Hollywood.

But I’m not here to judge Dmytryk’s legal maneuvering, I just want to celebrate this great film that he created. It is a cornerstone of any noir collection and Dick Powell turns in the best performance that I’ve ever seen from him.


  1. Yes, Dave, this is absolutely a cornerstone of any noir collection, and it's one that has few if any detractors. Dmytryk is a formidable talent, and of course the work is based on Chandler, with Powell spectacular here as Marlowe. It's been a while since I saw this, but I would fully expect to see this high up on any noir compilation. Roy Webb's score is excellent too.

    Exceptionally penned essay!

  2. Dave, I kind of prefer Powell to Bogart in the Marlowe role because I can presume I'm getting Marlowe rather than Bogart -- nothing against Bogart, of course. For Powell it was one of the great pieces of persona transformation in cinema history. After all, one reason why RKO thought people would assume "Farewell My Lovely" was a musical was because Powell was in it. He gives a great performance, but Mike Mazurski steals every scene he appears in.

  3. This is a great film and fine acting all around. I have read some reviews on the internet that consider this too light to be quintessential noir. I don't see it. When a movie is made with such style and great directing I find it hard to knock. Powell is wonderful as Marlowe. He is just as good as Bogart but in a different way. I love both performances and can't choose one over the other. I second Samuel's praise of Mazurki who is also brilliant in Night And The City. This picture has a special place in my heart when it comes to noir. It wasn't the first film noir I had ever seen but it was the first one where I knowingly was watching something from this great genre/style.......M.Roca

  4. Unlike Mr. Wilson here, I prefer Bogart as Philip Marlowe, but I agree that Dick Powell gave a very good performance in this movie, which is definitely a superior noir. And Claire Trevor is absolutely amazing.

    Kinda OT, but I watched the Dick Powell-helmed movie "The Enemy Below" (1957) the other day, and it was an amazing film all around.

  5. Sam - Thanks. I think your right, you never really hear a negative word about this one. Some obviously like it more than others, but everyone seems to enjoy it to some degree.

    Samuel - Can't disagree with any of this. For me, it's a toss up between the two and I think each Marlowe can be appreciated for different reasons.

    M.Roca - "It wasn't the first film noir I had ever seen but it was the first one where I knowingly was watching something from this great genre/style" Interesting, love hearing anecdotes like these... I have a similar feeling toward The Asphalt Jungle, which will be popping up as this countdown continues.

    Quirky Character - I haven't seen The Enemy Below, but I will check it out.

  6. I don't think I'll ever be sure what a plumber's handkerchief really feels like, but it's a very good movie, and Chandler's favorite, I believe.

  7. Not only Chandler's fave but mine as well. Of all the Marlowe movies this one has always stood out for me. Maybe because of the way you describe Powell's characterization or maybe because of Claire Trevor's role. (God I love her. She is also incredible in 'Born To Kill'!) Also the direction by Edward Dmytryk is perfect. I can't think of anyplace this movie is weak. All in all a perfect noir.
    BTW thanks for doing this I am really enjoying it.

  8. Great list. I'm curious to see what the top 30 are going to be as I would probably put this one in the top 10. I think Dmytryk's directing puts this one over the top. There are more stylistic noir moments in this one than say The Big Sleep, and Dick Powell is a damn good Marlowe.

  9. Doniphon - Great stuff, that is certainly a classic line!

    Moremiles - No problem, thank you for joining in on the discussions... that's what makes it fun for me. I agree that this one easily could have been moved up the list, but it's getting harder and harder to separate them.

    Tom - Thanks for stopping by! The Top 30 should be interesting, as I think it has an interesting mix of the classics and personal favorites.

    1. 3 suggestions:

      1) "The Crooked Way" (1949, dir. Robert Florey; cin. John Alton; starring John Payne).
      2) "The Breaking Point" (1950, dir. Michael Curtiz; cin. Ted McCord; starring John Garfield - a remake of Hemingway's "To Have and Have Not" source material).
      3) "The Sound of Fury" (1950, dir. Cy Endfield; cin. Guy Roe; starring Frank Lovejoy and a slick, feral Lloyd Bridges).

  10. Cool movie, my mother loves this one, I dont know why, I think it remind her some part of her life.

  11. I'm not sure Dick Powell is the best Philip Marlowe ever on the big and small screen. But he certainly has his champions and I wouldn't want to take sides in that debate. He's just very very good.

  12. I haven't seen this one yet, I read some good reviews, I think I'm going to rented this weekend.