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!       

Dark Carnival: NIGHTMARE ALLEY (20th Century Fox, 1947)

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Swashbuckling matinee idol Tyrone Power was cast against type as a self-centered con artist who gets his comeuppance in  1947’s offbeat noir NIGHTMARE ALLEY. Power and director Edmund Goulding teamed the previous year for the hit THE RAZOR’S EDGE, and the star desperately wanted his next movie to be based on the dark novel by William Lindsay Gresham. Studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck didn’t like the idea, but since Power was 20th Century-Fox’s biggest star, he agreed to greenlight the film. Turned out Zanuck’s instincts were right: audiences rejected the handsome Power in the role of a heel, and although he received good reviews for his performance, NIGHTMARE ALLEY bombed at the box office. Today it’s regarded as one of the genre’s best, its unique backdrop and theme setting it apart from other noirs of the era.

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Stan Carlisle (Power), the type of guy who could talk a cat off a fish wagon (as my grandmother used to say) loves everything about the carny life. He’s particularly fascinated by ‘The Geek’, who bites the heads off chickens and drinks their blood. Stan  works as the barker for Mlle. Zeena’s mindreading act. Zeena and husband  Pete used to work the big time until she did him wrong and Pete hit the bottle hard. Stan’s got a thing going on with Zeena, and also has the hots for Molly, who does an electric-woman act. Strongman Bruno sees through the slick-talking Stan, and is protective of the young girl.

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Zeena and Pete had a secret code they used to use in their act, but Pete’s too drunk now to be able to pull it off. She’s been weaning Pete off the booze slowly so she can send him for ‘the cure’. Stan sees Pete with a bad case of the shakes, and gives him a bottle of moonshine. But he’s mixed up the bottles, and gives the old lush wood alcohol, causing Pete’s death. Stan uses the opportunity to get Zeena to teach him the code, assisted by Molly. Stan finally seduces Molly, and when the carny folks find out, they force the two to get married. But now that he has both Molly and the code, he leaves the carny for the bright lights of Chicago and bigger and better things.

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The couple begin appearing at a swanky nightclub as mentalist ‘The Great Stanton’, using the code to wow audiences and  become toasts of the town. Psychologist Lilith Ritter catches the act and tries to trip him up, but Stan sees through her ruse  and turns the tables. Lilith is as big a phony as Stan, recording her patient’s sessions without their knowledge. Stan and Lilith use that knowledge to their advantage when Stan reinvents himself as a spiritual medium, bilking rich folks who long to hear from their dear departed dead ones. They set their sights on wealthy Ezra Grindle, coercing Molly into playing his dead love. Molly refuses to go along with the charade at first, telling Stan, “You’re going against God…just laughing your head off at these chumps”. Stan talks her into it, but Molly, upon seeing the elderly Grindle on his knees praying at the sight of her, blows Stan’s cover and runs. Stan knocks Grindle down and, back at their hotel, tells Molly to meet him at the train station.

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Stan goes to Lilith to get his $150,000 and flee town. But the devious psychologist rips him off (giving him a suitcase with bundles of ones), and the master con discovers he’s been conned himself. Returning to Lilith’s abode through the window, she stalls for time while the maid calls the cops. When Lilith threatens to tell the police he’s an unstable patient with wild delusions, Stan realizes he’s beat, and has to take it on the lam. He tells Molly to go back to the carny, while he hits the booze and lives in fleabitten hotels and hobo jungles. Destitute and desperate, Stan becomes a shell of his former self. Stumbling on a carny, he tries to get work, but the boss says there’s no openings for magicians or fortune tellers. There is one position available however, and alcohol soaked Stan becomes what he dreads…the carnival Geek! (“Mister, I was made for it!”‘)

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This being Hollywood, the ending finds Molly at the same carny, and there’s hope for Stan. The book version is apparently much darker, with Stan resigned to his lowly fate. The Geek looms large throughout the film, as we hear his wailing and see him only in longshot, making The Geek all the more enigmatic. Edmund Goulding and DP Lee Garmes create a dark carnival indeed, and the movie reminded me a lot of Tod Browning’s FREAKS in its depiction of carny life. Goulding doesn’t get much recognition as a filmmaker, though he’s responsible for gems like LOVE (1927), GRAND HOTEL (1932), THE DAWN PATROL (1938), and DARK VICTORY (1939), as well as the aforementioned RAZOR’S EDGE. Screenwriter Jules Furthman began in the silent era, and some of his best contributions to cinema were the scripts for two Marlene Dietrich vehicles (SHANGHAI EXPRESS and BLONDE VENUS, both 1932), MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY (1935), Howard Hughes’s then-controversial THE OUTLAW (1943), and the Bogie & Bacall starrers TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT (1944) and THE BIG SLEEP (1946). His last was the John Wayne/Howard Hawks Western RIO BRAVO (1959).

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Tyrone Power shows he’s more than just a pretty face as Stanton Carlisle. Whether he’s telling tales of his early life at an orphanage or pouring on the charm to his latest female conquest, we’re never sure if Stan’s telling the truth or not. Power took a big risk in taking this role, and shows great range as an actor. Coleen Gray never quite made the leap from ingénue to major star, but she’s good in the sympathetic role of Molly. Her credits include KISS OF DEATH, RED RIVER, KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL (which is on my review list), Stanley Kubrick’s THE KILLING, and the underrated horror film THE LEECH WOMAN. Joan Blondell (Zeena) needs no introduction to movie fans, having been a star at Warners since the early 30’s. Blondell was one of the screen’s finest character actresses. Helen Walker (Lilith) had a promising career going when a car accident, in which a serviceman was killed, led to her being accused of drunk driving. Her films after that were few and far between. Ian Keith (Pete) is one of those actors you know but can’t quite name, usually in villainous supporting roles. Mike Mazurki (Bruno) however is well known for his long film career. The ex-wrestler played in everything from noirs (MURDER MY SWEET, NIGHT AND THE CITY) to comedies (SOME LIKE IT HOT, It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World), to episodes of THE MUNSTERS, GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, and THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES, to Rod Stewart’s 1984 video “Infatuation”. NIGHTMARE ALLEY gives us a gritty look at the fringes of showbiz, where grifters and carny cons ply their trade, looking to make a quick buck off the rubes. It’s unlike any other noir, there’s no private eyes or femme fatales here, and it’s well worth your time.

Now, just for the hell of it, here’s Rod Stweart’s 1984 dance hit “Infatuation”, featuring Mike Mazurki, the beautiful Kay Lenz, and Jeff Beck on guitar, from the days when MTV actually played MUSIC!: