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Murder, My Sweet
The only thing really against this vision of Raymond Chandler is the fact that every parody of hardboiled private eyes uses it as a model. The hero has a smart rejoinder for every line and is constantly expressing his deadpan amusement at the corruption around him. Women are drawn to Philip Marlowe like a magnet. Almost every contact with the underworld results in him being clobbered into unconsciousness. And the majority of scenes play out in a night netherworld where normal life seems to have been suspended in favor of conspiracies and sordid crimes.
Murder, My Sweet was remarkably faithful to its book source, even if the title had to be beefed up so as not to sound like a soap opera. Crooner Dick Powell (he of the rosy cheeks in old Busby Berkeley musicals) reinvented himself ably as the timeless gumshoe Philip Marlowe. And the craft talents at the underrated RKO gave the film a tough-guy shine that couldn't have been bettered by other, more glamorous studios.
This is Raymond Chandler country all right, and if you've read The Big Sleep or The Little Sister John Paxton's adapted screenplay is going to seem like Philip Marlowe's greatest hits. All the known suspects are there - clients that disguise their true intentions, a misunderstood good girl, an easily understood femme fatale, her elderly husband, various bar-crawling lowlifes and shady doctors. Along with them comes a voiceover narration that drips with aloof, take-one-step-back observations on everybody and everything. Marlowe's has a sarcastic attitude that adjusts for most every situation. Always alert, he acts like he doesn't care; often blind-sided, he behaves as if every unpredictable incident was business as usual.
Using a lot of effects and matte paintings, Los Angeles becomes a nighttime town inhabited by various kinds of predators. Jules Anthor exudes the cultured menace that Chandler favored in villains. Linday Marriott is a perfumed lounge lizard, standing in for the author's bias against gays. 1 Almost for comedy relief, the massive Mike Mazurki hulks through scenes like a combo Lennie and Baby Huey, demanding that Marlowe find his "Velda." Blonde, leggy Helen is a transparent black widow, flaunting her sex appeal. She can twist a husband and a crook around her fingers, and have room left for Marlowe as well.
Dick Powell's straight interpretation of Philip Marlowe has become over-familiar from countless imitations and parodies. Most of his dialogue and especially his voiceover musings are smart-aleck remarks indicating boredom, disillusion and soured romanticism. Since we (the "we" of 1944 audiences) know Powell as the grinning ingenue of 42nd Street and Dames, he seems like a survivor of more carefree times making his way in a hard world with only his ideals intact. It's as if the love of his life was the girl who fell out of the skyscraper in Golddiggers of 1935, and he hasn't been quite the same guy since. In fact, in the excellent scene where Marlowe threatens the quack who doped him up, he looks ready for a nervous breakdown.
Marlowe's laid-back narration continues even when is slugged or drugged into unconscious nightmares. As an animated inky blot fills the screen his voice tells us dispassionately, "A big black hole appeared at my feet. I fell in." An extension of the abstract psycho-theatrical scenes in The Cat People, these drug dreams are filled with hypodermic needles, vertiginous falls and smoke that represents Marlowe's impaired senses. They're luridly effective.
Edward Dmytryk's facility with the camera was very impressive in these early RKO years. He uses subtle devices to make us identify with Philip Marlowe's relative defenselessness. In one particularly effective bit his eyes are burned by the muzzle flash of a gun fired too close to his face. He therefore starts the movie with a protective blindfold over his eyes. He's supposed to be the know-it-all detective, but in the movie's present tense, he figuratively sees nothing. Instead of being helpless he's like the blindfolded Justice on the courthouse steps, an unbiased observer of humanity who sticks his nose into things only when his code of honor is violated.
Although there were plenty of antecedents, I believe Double Indemnity started the real wave of self-consciously hardboiled noir films. Murder, My Sweet was the first to feature one of Chandler's originals. Powell's Marlowe was soon usurped by Humphrey Bogart as a variation on his Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, it a reinterpretation of Dashiell Hammet's much different detective hero. Others would follow until any attempt to revive Philip Marlowe couldn't avoid an air of nostalgia and parody. Murder, My Sweet remains the purest version of Chandler on film, even if it all seems far too familiar now.
Warners' DVD of Murder, My Sweet is a good transfer and encoding of a film we've mostly seen in murky and dirty 16mm prints. There's still plenty of surface marks but the picture is sharp and the detail in the nighttime landscapes is excellent. The sound is also punchy, with an unusually effective mix of source music and sound effects during the weird dream scenes.
The extra is a commentary from one of the prime published authorities on films noir, Alain Silver. He certainly knows all the details about the film itself and augments that with a keen knowledge of Raymond Chandler. Silver's production background also shows in his comments about how certain scenes were likely shot. His perspective on the noir style allows him to point out when the cameraman seems to be overdoing things, as when four successive shots in a row throw exaggerated shadows on the walls of an interrogation room.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Murder, My Sweet rates:
Video: Very Good
Supplements: Commentary by author Alain Silver
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 25, 2004
1. Writer Chandler often used mincing homosexual characters as objects of scorn. More than once he pegged a villain as effeminate (and therefore to be distrusted) just by describing the "flowery Ecuadorian shirt" he was wearing, thus completely misinterpreting the masculine guayabera.