Thursday, April 23, 2009

Murder, My Sweet

"Murder, My Sweet" (Edward Dmytryk, 1944) A neat trick, this. Although the third Chandler adaptation to make it to the screen—the first being "The Falcon Takes Over" (taken from the same source novel as this—"Farewell, My Lovely") co-opted as a story-line in the George Sanders "Falcon" movie series, and the second "Time To Kill" (based on "The High Window") featuring Lloyd Nolan's Michael Shayne character, it is the first to feature Raymond Chandler's slumming angel, Philip Marlowe*

Dmytryk and writer John Paxton do a fair job of keeping the first-person narration intact (Marlowe is being grilled by the usual suspicious police and he's giving his side of it), and although they didn't use Chandler's exact phraseology, they do a nicely watered down, tightened-up version of it for cinema audiences for whom thinking too much of the cleverness of a metaphor as it passes might slow down a film's momentum. Call it "Chandler Lite."

It works, especially for the speed of this film. For Marlowe, an odd choice:
Dick Powell, an A-lister in musicals. He's got a lived-in face, like a hound's, not a matinee idol's, slightly doughey (as is his body-type, depite being told he's "in good shape"—that's Marlowe to a wife-beater "T."), and you believe that Powell would be a reflexive weisenheimer—something about the hoofer background.

And Dmytryck has the noir feeling down, being as he was one of the architects of the style. Begin your movie in transition so the audience has a lot of questions it has to answer, go heavy on the atmosphere and always exit the scene with a sardonic quip. You already know you're in the hands of a master with
the sequence that introduces "Moose" Malloy (Mike Mazurki) who just suddenly appears. It's as disconcerting...well, as disconcerting as a tarantula on an angel food cake, thank you very much! Dmytryck also has fun dancing around the brim of the Hayes Code in the two knock-out sequences of Marlowe being knocked out—always a hallmark of Marlowe stories and fans of inky pools of blackness, Long Goodbyes and Big Sleeps (or "Big Lebowski's," if you'd rather, later).

Indispensible in the mix is a high concentration of sass which is provided by that queen of the form, Claire Trevor, whose performance as an evil step-monster is almost too much of a good thing. "Murder, My Sweet" would have been a rich enough story without her. Her presence and its tilting of the sexual equation slams this one deep onto the classic shelf. Powell would play Marlowe again on television, but this initial outing made him definitive...until Bogart came along.

* "The Big Sleep" with Bogart as Marlowe was made the same year, but not released until two years later.

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