When I hear or read the words Film Noir, Murder, My Sweet is always the first film which springs into my mind. Every single part of this flick screams Film Noir. There’s the moody and foreboding atmosphere, the voiceover, the cunning femme fatale, stunning cinematography(by Harry J. Wild) and lighting, intriguing characters and twisty story, and all of that fabulous Noir dialogue – “The joint looked like trouble, but that didn’t bother me. Nothing bothered me, the two twenties felt nice and snug against my appendix.” “A black pool opened up at my feet. I dived in. It had no bottom.”
For this Noir fan, Murder, My Sweet is the film which perfectly encapsulates what Film Noir is all about. Not only is it my favourite Noir film, but I consider it to be the ultimate Noir flick.
In this film we also get prime examples of the types of men and women who roam the dark alleys of Film Noir. There are the ruthless and the evil, the desperate and the damaged, the cynical and the hopeful, the victims and the victors. In the form of Dick Powell’s Philip Marlowe, the film also gives us one of the best depictions of the cynical and witty Noir veteran, someone who has seen and done it all and is no longer phased by the darker sides of humanity when they encounter them going through life.
Murder, My Sweet is directed by Edward Dmytryk and is based upon Raymond Chandler’s 1940 novel Farewell, My Lovely. This novel was the second book to feature the character of private detective Philip Marlowe. The first novel to feature Marlowe was The Big Sleep, but it was this second novel which would end up being the first to be adapted for the screen.
The rights to Chandler’s novel were bought by RKO Studios and it wouldn’t be long before the studio made a film adaptation of Chandler’s work. In 1942, the plot of Farewell, My Lovely formed the basis of the third film in the popular Falcon series, The Falcon Takes Over. While George Sander’s charming gentlemen sleuth, Gay Lawrence replaced Marlowe as the hero of that film, the rest of its story and characters are essentially the same as those found in Chandler’s novel.
Just a couple of years after making The Falcon Takes Over, RKO would go on to make this much more faithful screen adaptation of the story. The film title would be changed from Farewell, My Lovely, to Murder, My Sweet, in the hopes that audiences wouldn’t mistake it for one of the musicals leading man Dick Powell usually made.
For the role of the cynical and tough private detective Philip Marlowe, baby-faced screen crooner Dick Powell was cast. At this point in his career Dick Powell was best known as the screen partner of tap dancing sensation Ruby Keeler in a series of popular film musicals.
Dick however was getting tired of his current career and was trying to get more meaty roles.He had desperately wanted to play the role of Walter Neff in 1944’s other Noir classic, Double Indemnity. Charles Koerner, the head of RKO Studios, was the person ultimately responsible for Dick being able to go and create a new screen image for himself. Koerner made a screentest with Dick for the role of Marlowe and signed him for the role after seeing that test.
Dick’s performance in Murder, My Sweet more than proved what a good dramatic actor he could be. He went on to appear in many more Noir and dramatic roles after this. His casting in this film was a big gamble, but he turned out to be well worth the risk and is considered by many fans(myself included) to be the best screen Marlowe. I can’t get enough of Dick Powell in this film and in his other serious roles.I also love his anthology TV series The Dick Powell Show and Four Star Playhouse too.
I love how Dick manages to capture and convey the perfect balance between Marlowe’s toughness and cynicism, his humour/laid back attitude and his almost childlike curiosity and delight at some of the things he does and encounters.
Over the years many actors have played Marlowe on the big and small screen. Raymond Chandler preferred Humphrey Bogart’s performance as Marlowe, but I think Dick Powell is the best actor to have ever taken on this role. As much as I like Bogie as Marlowe, I feel that Dick Powell understood the character a bit better and captured both sides of his personality. I consider Dick’s Marlowe to be the character from the books, while Bogie’s Marlowe never feels like the complete guy to me.
The film begins with a blindfolded Philip Marlowe(Dick Powell)being interrogated by the police. In flashback we learn about the events which led him to come to be in this room. Murder, My Sweet tells a story filled with a great many twists and turns. Marlowe is hired by a tall ex-con by the name of Moose Malloy(Mike Mazurki), to try and find his missing girlfriend, Velma Valento.
When Marlowe and Malloy start looking for the missing dame it seems that nobody knows anything about her.
While working for Malloy, Marlowe is also hired by Lindsay Marriott to accompany him to a meeting to get back a stolen jade necklace. Marlowe goes with him to the meet, only for Marlowe to be knocked unconscious and Marriott to be killed.
Marlowe soon discovers the jade belongs to Mrs. Helen Grayle, the knockout and much younger wife of old Judge Grayle. Marlowe is intrigued by Helen and there is an instant attraction between the two. Marlowe is also quite taken by Helen’s feisty and angry stepdaughter, Ann(Anne Shirley in her final film role)who absolutely hates Helen. Gradually Marlowe’s two cases converge and he realises that all is not as it may seem.
The standout sequence in the film is Marlowe’s disturbing nightmare brought on by the drugs pumped into him by his captors. It’s a visually impressive, trippy and weird sequence. It captures the weirdness of nightmares and the horror of not being in control once drugs get hold of the poor sap whose system they’ve crept into. It’s an impressive and memorable sequence which must have blown audiences away back in 1944.
Dick Powell is superb as the much put upon Marlowe and delivers one of the best performances in the entire Noir genre. He makes us like him and root for him. He effortlessly delivers all of that hilarious and laid back dialogue. He also leaves us in no doubt that he can take care of himself and be tough. He is also someone who you can relax around and have a laugh with. Marlowe is an everyman. I also love that we see he doesn’t get much in return for risking his neck all the while. Marlowe lives in a small apartment and certainly doesn’t live the high life.
Marlowe is really put through the wringer in this film. What I dig most about Marlowe in this film is that he looks rough after his double dose of imprisonment and forced drug injections.This dude looks worn out, tired, ill and battered several times in this film, and that lends a great amount of realism to what we’re seeing. There’s no James Bond glamour or a quick dusting off and getting right back to it to be found here. Marlowe really suffers in this film. Dick more than convinces us of the pain and distress Marlowe is undergoing throughout this film. I also like that Marlowe doesn’t let his experiences change him into a hard and cold man. He may well be cynical and tough, but he always remains likeable and on the side of good in spite of what he himself has endured.
Claire Trevor is excellent as the bad to the bone Mrs. Grayle. While she soon realises her charms don’t work on Marlowe, she never the less doesn’t stop trying to get him under her thumb. Claire leaves us in no doubt that her character is a strong and controlling woman who won’t rest until she has what she wants.
Anne Shirley is fiery, gentle and innocent all at once as the heroine of the piece. Ann is a gentle girl driven to distraction by her poisonous stepmother but never loses her humanity or kindness. I think it’s a great shame Anne never made another film after this.
Mike Mazurki is tragic, funny and loveable all at once as the gentle giant, Moose Malloy. Moose is slow witted and ends up becoming the real victim of the film. Marlowe is his only genuine ally.
Esther Howard as Jessie. Screenshots by me.
Esther Howard nearly steals the show with her appearance as the booze riddled Jessie Florian. Jessie’s dead husband owned the bar where Velma used to work and Marlowe thinks she may be able to help him. Esther delivers one of the best drunk impressions in all of cinema. She cuts a funny and tragic figure too.
The rest of the cast are all solid and everyone, even those in small roles, get their chance to shine in this film. If I could only recommend one film to a Noir newbie to watch it would be this one. Murder, My Sweet is one of the best in the entire genre. It’s one I return to again and again and always enjoy. Close the blinds, turn out the lights, pour a bourbon and settle down to watch this Noir classic. You won’t regret the time spent in the company of Mr. Philip Marlowe.
What do you think of this film? Let me know in the comments below.
This is my first entry for the Noir blogathon I’m hosting later this month.