In its time the film boasted an unlikely leading man, Dick Powell, better known as a crooner in musical romances than as the hard-boiled tough guy Phillip Marlowe, so much so that the title of the film had to be changed from Farewell, My Lovely, that also being the name of a musical Powell had fronted prior to his contract with RKO.
Nevertheless, Powell gave a convincing performance as the smart-talking, slightly edgy Marlowe in this impressively atmospheric, low-budget screen adaptation of the Chandler story.
The plot is labyrinthine, leading audiences on a wild goose chase after clues that aren’t there right up to the final minutes of the narrative.
Marlowe is hired by the heavyweight-sized Moose Malloy, a recently released convict who’s more brawn than brains, to find his old flame, Velma, whom he’d lost track of while serving a stretch for an ill defined crime. Tracking her down annoys the wrong people and sees Marlowe set up for the murder of a new client, the effete Lindsay Marriott, while babysitting him on a pay-off rendezvous to retrieve a stolen opal necklace worth $100,000.
During a none-too-kindly questioning by the police about Marriott’s death, Marlowe is made aware that Marriott was slightly shady and associated with a Jules Amthor that Marlowe is warned to stay away from for unspecified reasons.
A new client, Ann Grayle, poses as a reporter to find out what Marlowe knows about the necklace, but ends up giving herself away and leading him to the necklace owner, her stepmother Helen Grayle, presented as a blond bomb-shell, married rather incongruously to an elderly, frail but wealthy opal collector.
Hired to retrieve the stolen necklace, Marlowe is lured to a rendezvous by the femme fatale of the piece, Helen Grayle, only to meet Ann there and be picked up by Malloy, who takes him to see Amthor, presented as a kind of psychoanalyst, who has an interest in the necklace and believes Marlowe knows where it is.
There is a rather impressive, impressionistic and highly stylised hallucination sequence while Marlowe is drugged and tortured to reveal the whereabouts of the necklace, of which he knows absolutely nothing. He manages to escape and, with the help of Ann, tracks down Helen to the Grayle beach house, formerly rented by Marriott. Helen confesses her sordid past, including the fact that she is the Velma that Malloy has been looking for, that she engineered Marriott’s hiring of Marlowe, quite possibly to see him killed to prevent that part of her past catching up with her, that Amthor is her therapist, knows of her past, and is blackmailing her, demanding the necklace in exchange for his silence about her indiscretions. She throws herself at Marlowe to help her kill Amthor, but the street-smart private eye knows it’s a set-up and organises his own.
The denouement isn’t quite what either Marlowe or Grayle had anticipated, but leaves Mr and Mrs Grayle, as well as Malloy, dead and Marlowe blinded by powder burns to his eyes, but free and clear to pursue a romance with Ann Grayle, by now a wealthy heiress.
It is a difficult plot to take in, and far too much of the story is revealed far too late in the film to make it an easy ride, but to their credit, Dmytryk and Paxton manage to keep the action running fast enough for the audience not to tire of the narrative, with cinematographer Wild doing some impressive work with cheap sets — creating atmospheric night-time mise en scenes with brooding shadows and sinister angles, particularly in the hallucination sequence, which offered up some pretty effective ‘special effects’ with overlays and film fades.
Almost the entire story is told at night, and most of it indoors, offering fairly precise control over the sets, which was exercised with a good eye for detail, such as the rubbish strewn on the floor of the office building where Marlowe hangs his shingle — an indicator that he is slightly down-at-heel.
Our introduction to Marlowe is quite definite about his character: we see him first with a bandage around his eyes in a police interview room, obviously under suspicion for some crime, followed immediately by him consulting his ‘little black book’ on a lonely night. Clearly he is a man of questionable moral character and activities. The voice-over narrative presents him as a street-smart, cynical opportunist with mercenary instincts sharpened by being broke. He nevertheless quickly emerges as a man of some character and tenacity in pursuing a case to its bitter end because he feels he let his client, Marriott, down. He is revealed in this way as a man of honour, even if not in the traditional form. Through the storyline and characterisation, Murder, My Sweet might be seen as the archetypal film noir, featuring the archetypal hard-boiled detective.
For my tastes, however, Powell was slightly too pug-faced and wide-eyed to match the seriously brooding charisma of Humphrey Bogart, Alan Ladd or Robert Mitchum, who in their own ways were more lastingly impressive noir leading men.
Claire Trevor as the Blond gold-digger didn’t much impress me either with her femme fatale credentials or with her portrayal of the irredeemable, duplicitous manipulator of the men in her life. But neither did she strike me as an indictment of all women as morally suspect; she was a mercenary character looking after her own self-interest just as viciously as the much more subtly menacing Amthor.
The characterisation of Jules Amthor is a little bit of an enigma in itself. He refers to himself in the film rather deprecatingly as a ‘quack’, not as a psychologist, psychotherapist or psychiatrist, nor is he accorded the title doctor. Yet Helen Grayle reveals that he was a counselor akin to a psychiatrist to her. In presenting him, and his collaborator in drugging Marlowe, Dr Sonderborg, as sinister, ruthless scoundrels, did Paxton and Dmytryk pass judgement on the fledgling science of psychology? Such a judgement would be oddly ironic in a story that revolves around the psychopathologies of its characters.
As an aside, while production of the film must have taken place in the final months of the most devastating war of the century, not a hint of it or its circumstances made it into Murder, My Sweet, though it should be noted that that both Amthor and his henchman, Dr Sonderborg, were portrayed as distinctly continental European types.
Even though this film doesn’t take pride of place in most modern accounts of the cinema of the day the way that The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep do, I would think that this had rather more to do with the hard-to-equal presence of Bogart in the rôle of Marlowe just a year later, and, perhaps also with the 1947 Hollywood anti-communist witch-hunts that saw both Dmytryk and Paxton black-listed.
It is, however, difficult to manufacture any hidden, ideologically-driven message into a reading of the film. It was fairly open about the opulence of the Grayle estate and the family’s money, but did not indicate its origin and passed no particular judgement about it, except to contrast it with Marlowe’s more humble means. Still, Marlowe is no working class hero. The wealthy don’t bother him and his gesture of refusing the $100,000 necklace even when it is offered to him by the police establishes him as happy to be a ‘working stiff’ with no aspirations to privileged wealth.
The film was more ‘thrilling’ entertainment than serious message, and more charisma and looks than philosophy of action. It accepts circumstances for what they are, does not propose ideals, and restricts itself to moralising only about the wages of greed, deceit and murder.
That aside, it was a more entertaining way to spend an hour and a half than watching prime time TV.
1945, 95 minutes, RKO Radio Pictures, black and white.
Sometimes dated 1944, but the copyright notice in the film credits reads MCMXLV.
Directed by Edward Dmytryk, Produced by Adrian Scott. Screenplay by John Paxton, based on the novel Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler. Cinematography by Harry J Wild (as Director of Photography). Music by Roy Webb.
With Dick Powell as Philip Marlowe, Claire Trevor as Helen Grayle, Anne Shirley as Ann Grayle, Otto Kruger as Jules Amthor, Mike Mazurki as Moose Malloy, Miles Mander as Mr. Grayle, Douglas Walton as Lindsay Marriott, Don(ald) Douglas as Police Lieutenant Randall, Ralf Harolde as Dr Sonderborg, Esther Howard as Jessie Florian.