Sunday, June 8, 2014

Murder, My Sweet (1944)

Director: Edward Dmytryk                              Writer: John Paxton
Film Score: Roy Webb                                  Cinematography: Harry J. Wilde
Starring: Dick Powell, Claire Trevor, Anne Shirley and Otto Kruger

A friend recently pointed out to me that, as incongruous as song and dance man Dick Powell might be as a private detective in noir films, he is actually closer to Raymond Chandler’s conception of Philip Marlowe than most of the tough guys who played the role later. Chandler’s private eye is not a physical force in his novels, but a sarcastic intellectual who winds up on the receiving end of a sap more often than not. Nevertheless, Murder, My Sweet was the title the studio came up with for the adaptation of Chandler’s novel Farewell, My Lovely, lest anyone confuse the picture for a musical since the star was Powell. The bold move was casting Powell in the first place and, to this day, reviews are mixed. For me, since I saw his noir films long before the musicals, he is certainly no worse than any other actor who has taken on the role.

The opening credits roll over a table in an interrogation room. Dick Powell is bandaged across both eyes and the cops want him to confess to murder, but he waits for a detective he knows, Donald Douglas, before he spills it. He was at his office one night when Mike Mazurki shows up and wants him to find an old girlfriend. Powell doesn’t want the case, that is until the money hits the top of the desk, then off the two go. At the club where she used to work the owner says he doesn’t know where she is, and the former owner’s widow says she’s dead. The next day Douglas Walton hires Powell to hold his hand while he buys back some ransomed jewels at a deserted canyon that night. Powell is sapped, and when he comes to he sees a woman running away, and Walton dead in the car. Back at the police station Douglas is finding the story hard to swallow. The next day Anne Shirley comes to see him and tells him her father owned the jewels so he goes over to their house and meets his wife, Claire Trevor, who asked Walton to get the jewels back, and Otto Kruger, a friend of Walton’s the police told him to stay away from.

Kruger makes the first move, kidnapping Powell and all but admitting that he was in on the theft with Walton when he tries to get the jewels from him. When he wakes up from another clubbing he has an impressive dream/hallucination sequence that turns out to be a drug-induced nightmare in which Kruger’s henchmen--one of which is Mazurki--try to get the location of the jewels from him. Things begin to come together quickly when Trevor begins making romantic overtures to Powell and he recognizes Shirley as the woman who was at the murder of Walton. One of the things that makes the film so great is the willingness to use voiceover for Powell’s character, telling the story in flashback, which imparts more of the flavor of the novel than is usually possible. John Paxton was a new writer at the time and did a good job with the adaptation, using a lot of Chandler’s sarcasm in the screenplay. The other distinctive aspect to the film is the direction by Dmytryk and the lighting by cinematographer Harry J. Wilde.

The crisp shadows and chiaroscuro lighting were an RKO specialty and made the studio one of the finest purveyors of noir films in Hollywood. Edward Dmytryk certainly participated in making that reputation. Wilde had been a cameraman on numerous westerns before he made this film and sort of transitioned into the noir films with perfect ease. His lighting work is tremendous, and the special effects in the dream sequence is equally impressive. In addition to Powell, Claire Trevor turns in another of her solid performances as a noir femme fatale, but the real surprise is just how good former child actress Anne Shirley is in her final screen performance. Normally a nice girl in films, she has an edge here that works tremendously well. The great Otto Kruger doesn’t disappoint either, a terrific villain ever since his role in Hitchcock’s Saboteur two years earlier he was a nice bit of casting. Murder, My Sweet is classic film noir, and classic Raymond Chandler, one of the few times Hollywood got a great detective novel right.

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