Marlowe at the Movies Pt 1: MURDER, MY SWEET (RKO 1944)

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The first film to depict Raymond Chandler’s iconic private eye Phillip Marlowe was 1944’s MURDER, MY SWEET. Forty year old Dick Powell had spent the past decade playing romantic leads in musicals, and felt the time was right to change his screen image. Powell did just that as the cynical, wisecracking Marlowe, under the direction of a young up-and-comer named Edward Dmytryk.  Together they made one of the best Chandler adaptations ever, closely adhering to the complicated plot of the novel “Farewell, My Lovely”.

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When we first meet Marlowe, he’s wearing a blindfold and being grilled by the cops for a murder rap. The sleuth states he’s gonna give the lowdown on what really occurred, and the LA bulls are all ears as Marlowe relates the tale through flashback. The gumshoe was sitting in his office, minding his own business, when big Moose Malloy walks in and asks Marlowe to “find someone’, a red-headed dame named Velma who Moose had a thing with eight years ago before getting sent up the river. The big lug’s pretty persuasive, so Marlowe accompanies Moose to Florian’s, a gin joint where Velma was once employed as a singer. No one in the dump recalls Velma, so Marlowe tracks down Mrs. Florian, the widow of the late owner. The booze soaked old broad tells him Velma’s dead, but Marlowe isn’t quite so sure. Next day a dandy named Marriott shows at Marlowe’s place and hires him as a bodyguard. Seems there was a stick-up involving a woman Marriott’s been seeing, and her jewels are being held for ransom. That night Marlowe and his new employer take a ride to a desolate location, and the detective gets knocked on the noggin by a blackjack.

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“A black pool opened at my feet. It had no bottom”. When Marlowe wakes, he finds Marriott dead in the backseat. Things get pretty thick from here, with beautiful dames, a phony psychic, and a rich old man all involved in the chaos, Moose Malloy lurking around, and the coppers always looking to play pin the tail on Marlowe. Marlowe gets beaten, shot at, deceived,  and drugged as he puts all the pieces together and solves the mystery, getting the girl in the end as a bonus for his troubles. A Raymond Chandler plot is always pretty dense, and I won’t spoil all the twists and turns along the way. The film’s never boring and you may figure it out before the sleuth, but you’ll sure have fun doing it.

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Dick Powell’s great as Marlowe, quick with a quip but hard when he needs to be. After years as the fair-haired boy in musicals like 42ND STREET, GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933, ON THE AVENUE, and IN THE NAVY, this movie gave him a new lease on life as a noir antihero. Films like JOHNNY O’CLOCK, PITFLL, and RIGHT CROSS put Powell back on top. He branched out into television, forming Four Star Productions with pals David Niven, Charles Boyer, and Ida Lupino in 1952. Powell himself was host of two successful anthology series, ZANE GREY THEATER and THE DICK POWELL SHOW. He also became a film director, with some hits (the submarine drama THE ENEMY BELOW starring Robert Mitchum) and misses (THE CONQUEROR, with John Wayne as Genghis Khan!).

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Sultry Claire Trevor nearly melts the screen with her smoldering sexiness as Helen Grayle, who’s not all she seems to be. “Queen of Noir” Trevor’s been discussed here before (BORN TO KILL, STAGECOACH), and she’s never been better than in MURDER, MY SWEET. Lovely young Anne Shirley (Anne) started as silent child star Dawn O’Day, changing her screen name after playing the title role in 1934’s ANNE OF GREEN GABLES. She was Oscar nominated for STELLA DALLAS, and this was her last movie role. Suave Otto Kruger (Anthor) did his villainous thing in Hitchcock’s SABOTUER, director Dmytryk’s HITLER’S CHILDREN, the noir 711 OCEAN DRIVE, and Universal’s JUNGLE CAPTIVE. He had a rare hero role in 1936’s DRACULA’S DAUGHTER. The Grand Old Dame of Noir Esther Howard (Mrs. Florian) is on hand, as she was in DETOUR, CHAMPION, and the previously mentioned BORN TO KILL. Miles Mander (Grayle) was a character actor noted for THE THREE MUSKETEERS, WUTHERING HEIGHTS, and HOUSE OF SEVEN GABLES.

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We’ve discussed Mike Mazurki’s background before here, so let me just give him a round of applause for his Moose Malloy. It’s his biggest role, and probably his best work on film. The massive, dim-witted Moose has a one-track mind, and that’s to find his Velma. Moose looms large both physically and figuratively in MURDER, MY SWEET, and Mazurki gives his all. Don’t let the man’s size and blank expression fool you, Mike Mazurki could act when given the opportunity, and he shines here like a rough diamond. Hats off to the former professional wrestling giant!

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Edward Dmytryk worked his way from the editing room to directing B features with sleuths Boston Blackie and the Lone Wolf, and horror flicks with Boris Karloff (THE DEVIL COMMANDS) and John Carradine (CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN). MURDER, MY SWEET was his big break, followed by hits like BACK TO BATAAN and CROSSFIRE. Dmytryk was blacklisted and did prison time as one of the Hollywood Ten during the House Un-American Activities “Red Menace” hearings, and it seemed his career was over. But in 1951, he named names, and was soon back in Hollywood’s good graces. Ironically, he directed the court-martial drama THE CAINE MUTINY, which had some parellells to the HUAC investigations. Dmytryk’s other later films included THE YOUNG LIONS, Harold Robbins’ soapy Hollywood story THE CARPETBAGGERS, and the Richard Burton black comedy BLUEBEARD.

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Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely filmed once before, in a 1942 adaptation THE FALCON TAKES OVER, with George Sanders’ sophisticated sleuth standing in for Marlowe. The story was remade in 1975 as an homage to noirs past, with icon Robert Mitchum stepping into Marlowe’s gumshoes. I haven’t seen the Sanders/Falcon take on it, but I’ve watched both the Powell and Mitchum versions. I couldn’t say which I liked better, because they’re both worth watching. MURDER, MY SWEET was the first Philip Marlowe flick though, and that alone is reason to watch it. The performances are all good, there’s plenty of hard-boiled dialogue to savor, and the RKO noir magic is on display. There’s only one thing better than a Philip Marlowe movie: read the books!       

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