Friday 28 September 2012

Movie Review: Murder, My Sweet (1944)

A film noir with a detective hard boiled to dry humour and a femme fatale curved to kill, Murder, My Sweet is a classic and classy example of the genre. The adaptation of Raymond Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely maintains a sharp briskness and enough of a grip on coherence to allow style and structure to register a comprehensive triumph.

Private detective Philip Marlowe (Dick Powell) is hired by the gigantic but slow Moose Malloy (Mike Mazurki) to find a long lost girlfriend named Velma Valento, a former performer at a low class dance joint. Although Velma's trail has long since gone cold, Marlowe uncovers unusual attempts to protect her identity. Marlowe is then immediately hired by a distinguished gentleman named Lindsay Marriott for a seemingly unrelated case: helping to pay a ransom for the return of an expensive necklace belonging to rich socialite Helen Grayle (Claire Trevor), the wife of a wealthy - and much older - collector of precious jade.

Marlowe (narrating): It was a nice little front yard. Cozy, okay for the average family. Only you'd need a compass to go to the mailbox. The house was all right, too, but it wasn't as big as Buckingham Palace.

Soon a murder is committed, Marlowe is implicated, and the mysterious Jules Amthor (Otto Kruger) teams up with Moose -- still looking for Velma -- and they both go after Marlowe and the necklace. With the police closing in and Marlowe drugged and pumped for information, the only grounded person in the case appears to be Helen's stepdaughter Ann (Anne Shirley), although even she is not beyond strange antics to grill Marlowe for her own purposes.

Marlowe: Now this is beginning to make sense, in a screwy sort of a way. I get dragged in and get money shoved at me. I get pushed out and get money shoved at me. Everybody pushes me in, everybody pushes me out. Nobody wants me to DO anything. Okay, put a check in the mail. I cost a lot not to do anything. I get restless. Throw in a trip to Mexico. 

Dick Powell is no Humphrey Bogart, but his version of Philip Marlowe is just as good. While Bogart is more bullish, Powell adds a curly sarcasm that invites more vulnerability, humanizing Marlowe in a world full of steely eyed criminals and blundering cops. The plot of Murder, My Sweet requires Marlowe to be repeatedly knocked around and blacked out, not a situation that Bogart would have been good at. Powell plays along, bouncing back up after every bump on the head to further antagonize the humourless perpetrators.

Marriott: How would you like a swift punch on the nose? 
Marlowe: I tremble at the thought of such violence.

Claire Trevor oozes deadly charm and surplus sexuality, tying men into tight knots and flicking them off with emotionless ease. Helen's elderly husband and two almost equally elderly lovers clearly see nothing past her allure, leaving her free to race up the ladder to a life far away from her humble origins. Marlowe of course sees right through her, but that does not mean he doesn't keep her guessing whether his lust or brains will win the battle for control.

Helen: I find men *very* attractive. 
Marlowe: I imagine they meet you halfway.

Anne Shirley is the requisite innocent girl trapped in a world run by sleaze merchants, and her Ann provides Marlowe with a simple lighthouse of morality around which he can navigate. Equally easy to understand is Moose, and professional wrestler Mike Mazurki gives him a perfectly lumbering and slow-witted presence, a man whose fists can almost solve any problem that his limited intellect cannot fathom.

Edward Dmytryk floods Murder, My Sweet with the colours of black and white, with headlights, lamp lights, fog, shadows, mirrors, glass reflections, and doorways tactically deployed to confound the layered mystery. Moose's entry scene, reflected and magnified to epic proportions in the dark window behind a startled Marlowe, is exquisitely chilling.

Blackmail, sex, lust, illicit affairs, drugs, evil doctors, a missing woman, and a gigantic knucklehead. And of course, Murder, My Sweet. All in a day's work for Philip Marlowe.

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