RKO Radio Pictures, 95m 25s
At the time of this writing, I have evaluated over 50 film noirs in this blog. That I only now am getting to the very influential MURDER, MY SWEET seems like an oversight of some kind, since director Edward Dmytryk's intriguing film is so evocative of the noir cycle that flourished in the mid-to-late 1940s. It is based on the Raymond Chandler novel FAREWELL, MY LOVELY (1940), the second of his works to feature Philip Marlowe. The widespread urban corruption that informed Chandler's novel would become a given as the film noir movement of the 1940s developed, with MURDER, MY SWEET having served as a major catalyst.
The sometimes downright perplexing storyline requires close attention to follow, but the driving force behind the narrative is simple enough. Fresh from an 8-year prison term, Moose Malloy (Mike Mazurki) seeks his old flame Velma Valento, a cute, leggy showgirl. More brawn than brains, the intense personality Malloy appears in the LA-based office of Philip Marlowe (Dick Powell), a cynical PI and former cop who was fired by the DA for incessant backtalk. Somewhat reluctant but in need of the work, Marlowe agrees to accompany Malloy to an establishment that once employed Velma. However, the place is under new ownership and nobody present knows anything about Velma. Without the violently impatient presence of the abrasive lug Malloy, Marlowe visits the nightclub’s previous owner Jessie Florian (Esther Howard), who at first denies knowing Velma, only to later claim Velma is dead. The following day, Marlowe accepts money, again with some hesitance, from the effeminate Lindsay Marriott (Douglas Walton), who wants the private detective to accompany him to a nighttime location where payment is to be made to recover some stolen jewelry. Marlowe gets knocked out for his trouble, and delivers one of film noir's most emblematic lines of dialog:
"I caught the blackjack right behind my ear. A black pool opened up at my feet. I dived in. It had no bottom."
Marlowe awakens to learn Marriott has been iced. The remaining plot is as challenging for the viewer to navigate as it is for our main protagonist ("I don't know which side anybody's on. I don't even know who's playing today."). At the exposition, Marlowe's ordeal is expressed tellingly in a police interrogation setting. Our guide through the noir universe has bandages that cover his eyes when we first meet him. In other words, our voice of guidance will be that of a blind man. The narrative structure is dominated by flashbacks, with only the beginning and end of the film set in the present. MURDER, MY SWEET is layered with surreal visuals that imply ambiguity, along with low camera angles that convey character entrapment. The mid-1940s noir movement would become noted for this approach, as well as the persistent narration that complements the mostly nocturnal environments. Marlowe is knocked cold repeatedly as he makes his way through this nightmare in black and white. After a meeting with mysterious intellectual Jules Amthor (Otto Kruger), the resourceful Marlowe must prove his toughness during an uncomfortable spell when he is under the disorienting influence of narcotics. His hallucinatory spider webs take over the frame and effectively immerse the viewer into the featured protagonist's regrettable situation, which recalls the torture of Ed Beaumont (Alan Ladd) in THE GLASS KEY (1942). The expressionistic dream sequence was captured by cinematographer Harry J. Wild, a man who would lens a staggering amount of subsequent noir films, i.e. NOCTURNE (1946), PITFALL (1948), THE THREAT (1949) and the very impressive but seldom referenced WALK SOFTLY, STRANGER (1950).
|Story of a blind man|
|A manifestation of an urban wasteland appears|
|Real-life chess match?|
Very much in the spirit of THE MALTESE FALCON (1941), MURDER, MY SWEET employs a MacGuffin that proves far less important than the truth about an enigmatic woman. Despite the alleged monetary value of a rare jade necklace, the clue to what is of primary interest comes by way of the surname Grayle, an obvious homophone for grail, which speaks volumes about the nature of the search for Velma Valento. The most striking theme at work in MURDER, MY SWEET is that of female duplicity and the male's struggle to perceive it. Women like Velma always change, while men like Moose Malloy are incapable of change. A surrogate for the returning war veteran who appears in numerous film noirs, the ex-con Malloy pensively acknowledges the world has changed over the past eight years, but is slow to warm up to the idea that his beloved Velma may be something far different from the image conveyed in her idealized glamour photo. She is the grail of Malloy's doomed quest.
"Dames lie about anything—just for practice."
—Detective-lieutenant Nulty, FAREWELL, MY LOVELY
As often holds true with Chandler material, a woman is at fault for everything that goes wrong in MURDER, MY SWEET. The search for a woman who proves more complex than she first appears sets the stage for the film's recurrent motif: women frequently change; sometimes in the short-term, sometimes for the long-term, and quite often for the worse. The notion of a woman who is one thing who mutates into another is introduced when Jessie Florian flip-flops over questions about Velma. Florian also goes from being drunk to collectedly sober in an instant. Later Ann Grayle (Anne Shirley) introduces herself as a reporter to Marlowe, who quickly sees through that lie, but does not realize when he first met her because of the altered state of mind he was in at the time. Helen Grayle (Claire Trevor) is first glimpsed by body part (leg, of course). The former redhead has metamorphosed into a "big league blonde," married to the prosperous but much older Leuwen Grayle (Miles Mander), a 65-year-old man of limited energy level who tolerates the constant infidelities of his second wife. "...I've gone out with other men. I find men very attractive," she admits freely. A spider woman beyond redemption, Mrs. Grayle enjoys a high standard of living thanks entirely to her impressive physical attributes and womanly wiles. The film may conclude with a less denigrating take on female sexuality, but the upbeat ending hardly neutralizes the darkly noir buildup of feminine duplicity.
Raymond Chandler's source novel FAREWELL, MY LOVELY was an amalgamation of the author's prior short stories "Try the Girl," "Mandarin's Jade" and "The Man Who Liked Dogs." This filmed adaptation devised by screenwriter John Paxton stays true to the general structure of Chandler's material, though there are some major divergences and omissions. For instance, the Anne Riordan character of the novel is of no relation to the Grayles. The section that transpires around a gambling boat is omitted from the film, and Marlowe seems to have a much more serious affection for alcohol in the book (Chandler himself was a famously heavy drinker).
Reputedly Chandler's favorite adaptation of his fiction, MURDER, MY SWEET originally screened in December of 1944 appropriately entitled FAREWELL, MY LOVELY, but studio executives decided to re-title it so the tough-guy detective film would not be confused with the comedies and musicals lead actor Richard Ewing "Dick" Powell was known for at the time. The title change did not seem to harm the film from a commercial perspective; MURDER, MY SWEET would register a healthy $597,000 profit for RKO. The source novel had been brought to the screen previously as THE FALCON TAKES OVER (1942), though Philip Marlowe was not a character. Powell and Trevor assumed their original roles when MURDER, MY SWEET was condensed to an hour-long radio play on the June 11th, 1945 broadcast of Lux Radio Theater. Hollywood Startime presented another radio version in 1948, which this time teamed Powell with Mary Astor. Dmytryk, Paxton, Wild, and Powell would work together again for the following year's CORNERED (1945), another fine noir film from RKO. Dmytryk and producer Robert Adrian Scott were among the "Hollywood Ten" who refused to name names before the House Un-American Activities Committee in October of 1947. MURDER, MY SWEET would be the final film to feature Anne Shirley, who retired from acting at the age of 26.
The Chandler novel was adapted again as FAREWELL, MY LOVELY (1975), with Robert Mitchum cast in the role as an aging Philip Marlowe obsessed with Joe DiMaggio's hitting streak. That historical footnote sets the narrative in July of 1941, which makes this Marlowe outing something of a nostalgia trip, though a contemporary society stung by the Watergate scandal and the Vietnam War is very much evident.
Directed by Dick Richards and adapted for the screen by David Zelag Goodman, FAREWELL, MY LOVELY restores some elements of the novel that were absent from the 1944 film: the club once owned by the Florians is now a black-only place in the heart of the black community, the strangulation tactics of Moose Malloy (Jack O'Halloran) are more true to the original story, and Laird Brunette (Anthony Zerbe) and his gambling boat are along for the ride in this version. Some of the differences from the source material are dramatic, none more so than the transformation of the Amthor character, and what that says about the background of Helen Grayle (Charlotte Rampling). Other situations directly recall the 1944 film, especially the drug-fuelled dream sequence. Like MURDER, MY SWEET, the conclusion of FAREWELL, MY LOVELY differs radically from that of the novel, which at least suggested the possibility of a shred of goodness hiding somewhere within Mrs. Grayle. But when it comes to femme fatales, film noirs seldom make room for such gray areas. By 1975, the Marlowe character had less interest in money than he did in 1944, and there is no Ann character for Marlowe, or any other romantic interest. Marlowe's gesture in the remake’s final moments, however, confirms his strong moral code, and challenges the element of racism threaded throughout the Chandler novel. Mitchum would portray Marlowe once again in director Michael Winner's THE BIG SLEEP (1978).
To view FAREWELL, MY LOVELY today is to be reminded of its heavy influence on THE NAKED GUN: FROM THE FILES OF POLICE SQUAD! (1988). Like it or not, one cannot listen to Robert Mitchum's narration as Marlowe without immediately thinking of Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen). As if to erase any doubt about the connection between the two films, the introduction of Jane Spencer (Priscilla Presley) in THE NAKED GUN is almost a shot-for-shot remake of the reveal of Helen Grayle in FAREWELL, MY LOVELY.
Film noir selections available thus far from the Warner Archive have set an undeniably high standard. The 1080P dual-layered Blu-ray edition of MURDER, MY SWEET boasts an impressive interpretation of the B&W film, framed at the original theatrical scope of 1.37:1. Compared to the approximately 1.35:1 Warner DVD released in 2004, the Blu-ray version offers enhanced detail and more information within the frame. There is one glitchy moment around 17m 21s when Marlowe surveys a secluded area, but the rest of the presentation looks tremendous (the DVD version has trouble at the same juncture). In a more pleasant instance of duplication, noted film noir historian Alain Silver's audio commentary track was ported from the DVD. The co-author of RAYMOND CHANDLER'S LOS ANGELES (1987) reminds us that only about a dozen film noirs actually featured a private investigator in a central role, and about half of those were based on Chandler's Marlowe character. He describes Chandler as a "curmudgeon" who hated what Hollywood did to his work.
The only other extra is a theatrical trailer (2m 9s) of abhorrent quality.