Murder, My Sweet (1945)

An impressive low-budget adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s 1940 novel, Farewell, My Lovely, offering the unlikely casting of film comedy mainstay and romantic musical crooner Dick Powell as the hardboiled tough guy Philip Marlowe, and the fading star Claire Trevor, at that time a bit player in B-grade Westerns, as the femme fatale, Helen Grayle.

Chandler’s script had already been adapted for film in The Falcon Takes Over (1942).  Not a bad film in its niche, but squeezing Chandler’s story into the Falcon film franchise didn’t do the Chandler story much justice.  The character of Philip Marlowe disappears entirely in the persona of Gay Laurence, gentlemen detective, played by the debonaire, very English George Sanders.

Nevertheless, Powell gave a convincing performance as the smart-talking, edgy Marlowe in this impressively atmospheric, low-budget screen adaptation of the Chandler story.  The American Film Institute notes that RKO changed the title Farewell, My Lovely to Murder, My Sweet, after market research from preview screenings late in 1944 suggested the original title, and Dick Powell’s name, made audiences think it might be musical romance or comedy.

Marlowe first meets Malloy as a ghostly reflection in his grimy office window.

The entire Chandler plot-line of Marlowe infiltrating gangster-operated gambling ships off the California coast to get in touch with Moose Malloy, was missing in the film.  Possibly because Chandler based it on the exploits of the very real bootlegger and gambling operator, Anthony Cornero Stralla, whose wealthy clientele probably didn’t want attention drawn to their patronage of a gangster’s business.  Buried, too, is the Chandler theme of a corrupt Bay City police department, as distinct from the LA police, who are antagonistic and tough on Marlowe, but fair.

Even so, the film’s 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.  Pure Chandler style, successfully embedded by the inexperienced screenwriter John Paxton, a studio PR flack who went on to script Cornered (1945) and Crossfire (1947), as well as contributing to the screenplay of The Wild One (1953).

Marlowe is hired by the heavyweight-sized Moose Malloy (played marvellously by former wrestler Mike Mazurk), 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 sentence 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.

Claire Trevor as femme fatale Helen Grayle.

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 the enigmatic Jules Amthor, whom Marlowe is warned not to bother.  We never quite get Chandler’s line that Marriott is gay, and Amthor a supplier of drugs to the wealthy, but it doesn’t hurt the storyline, and might not have made it past the censors.

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 to an elderly, frail, but wealthy opal collector.  Chandler’s Ann is a deceased policeman’s daughter, making her a more likely romantic interest for Marlowe than either of the Grayle women.

Hired to retrieve the stolen necklace, Marlowe is lured to a rendezvous by Helen Grayle, only to meet Ann there, and be shanghaied by Malloy, who takes him to see Amthor, presented as a kind of psychoanalyst, with an interest in the necklace and the belief Marlowe knows where it can be found.

There is a rather impressive, stylized hallucination sequence while Marlowe is drugged and tortured to reveal the whereabouts of the necklace. 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; and that Amthor is her therapist, knows of her past, and is blackmailing her, demanding the necklace in exchange for his silence. She throws herself at Marlowe to help her kill Amthor, but the street-smart private eye knows it’s a set-up and organizes his own.

Clever camera work and montages make for an impressive, highly atmospheric hallucination sequence.

The denouement isn’t quite what either Marlowe or Grayle had anticipated, but leaves Leuwen and Helen Grayle, as well as Malloy, dead, and Marlowe temporarily blinded by gunpowder burns to his eyes, yet 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 scènes with sinister shadows and distorted perspectives, particularly in the hallucination sequence.

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.

The film tells its story in flashbacks, and we first see Marlowe at the end, with a bandage around his eyes in a police interview room, obviously under suspicion for some crime, creating audience interest in finding out how he got there.  This is followed almost immediately by a flashback of him consulting his ‘little black book’ on a lonely night, looking for a date. Clearly, he is a man of questionable moral character and shady habits.

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 down his client, Marriott. He is revealed in this way as honourable, even if not in the traditional form. Through that characterization, Murder, My Sweet emerges as classic film noir, and Powell as capable of playing the mandatory noir hard-boiled detective.

L-R: Director Edward Dmytryk, producer Adrian Scott, author Raymond Chandler.

Powell’s credentials notwithstanding, I wasn’t burdened with knowledge of Powell as a singer or comedy actor, but for my tastes he was slightly too pug-faced and wide-eyed to match the seriously brooding charisma of other actors to portray Philip Marlowe – Humphrey Bogart and Robert Mitchum, who were more lastingly impressive noir leading men.

Claire Trevor as the gold-digger was passable in her portrayal of the irredeemable, duplicitous manipulator of the men in her life. Maybe it’s the distance of time and milieu, but I found her performance a little too campy.  In my imagination, someone who manipulated everyone quite so successfully, and then makes a series of fatal mistakes, seems more incongruous than smart and sophisticated.

The characterization of Jules Amthor is a bit of an enigma. 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 counsellor akin to a psychiatrist to her. In presenting him, and his collaborator, 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.

L-R: Miles Mander as Leuwen Grayle, Claire Trevor as Helen Grayle, Anne Shirley as Ann Grayle, and Dick Powell as Philip Marlowe.

As an aside, while production of the film must have taken place in the anxious months leading up to, and following the Normandy invasion, in the most devastating war of the century, not a hint of it made it into Murder, My Sweet, though both Amthor and his henchman, Dr Sonderborg, were portrayed as distinctly continental European types.

This film doesn’t take pride of place in most contemporary evaluations of the cinema of the day, the way that The Maltese Falcon (1941) or The Big Sleep (1946) do, but I imagine that this had rather more to do with the hard-to-equal presence of Bogart in the rôle of hardboiled pulp fiction detectives, and, perhaps also with the 1947 Hollywood anti-communist witch-hunts that saw both Dmytryk and Paxton black-listed, making their work ‘suspect’ by association for many years.

1940s black and white magazine advertisement.

If there are any subversive, communist messages in the film, they are hard to find.  The exposition was quite open about the opulence of the Grayle estate, and the family’s obviously generous means, but did not point to its origins in any socialist analysis about taking from the poor to give to the rich.  Marlowe is no proletarian hero.  Wealth doesn’t bother him in any resentful, envious way, as he demonstrates when he refuses the $100,000 necklace, offered to him by the police as lost property without a legitimate owner.  Instead his character is established as a ‘working stiff’, cynical about people in general, but with no aspirations to privileged wealth, nor to being a working-class hero.

The film was more ‘thrilling’ entertainment than serious message, and more charisma and atmosphere than ideology. It accepts circumstances for what they are, does not propose ideals, and restricts itself to moralizing only about the wages of greed, deceit, and murder.

All these matters aside, Murder, My Sweet is worth watching for historical reasons alone, but remains also a much better way to spend an hour and a half than watching contemporary prime time television or ‘blockbuster’ dross.

Credits

RKO Radio Pictures,1945 (often dated 1944, but the copyright notice in the film credits reads MCMXLV, and its official release did not take place until January 1945), 95 minutes, black and white.

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 Leuwen Grayle, Douglas Walton as Lindsay Marriott, Don(ald) Douglas as Police Lieutenant Randall, Ralf Harolde as Dr Sonderborg, Esther Howard as Jessie Florian.

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