Tuesday, November 3

Good 40s Films: Murder, My Sweet

1944 Film Noir
From RKO Pictures
Directed by Edward Dmytryk

Dick Powell
Claire Trevor
Anne Shirley
Otto Kruger
Mike Mazurki

If there is a list around that names the 10 best film noirs of all time (and boy, would that be difficult), Murder, My Sweet should be on it.  It is one of the finest with two lead actors who made the most out of the genre.  The title conjures up all sorts of sordid ideas that are peculiar to noirs.

Like all good noirs, done in black and white, it is an engaging mystery containing an abundance of night scenes, some with the requisite fog, down-on-their-luck characters, hard-bitten cops, an embittered private detective, a bad girl and a not always coherent storyline.  One needs an ax to penetrate the moodiness.  I love the tough, smart-assed dialogue, the bitterness, desperation and the dames in their 1940s drag... those shoulder pads, open-toed shoes, elaborate up-do hairstyles festooned with jewelry and a gardenia behind an ear.  It all enhances the treachery.

Mystery writer Raymond Chandler wrote eight novels featuring his hard-drinking, tough-talking, cynical private detective, Philip Marlowe.  This film gave us Dick Powell as the first successful Marlowe.  Over the years the character would be played on the big screen by Humphrey Bogart, Robert Montgomery, George Montgomery, James Garner, Elliott Gould and twice by Robert Mitchum.  Farewell, My Lovely was Chandler's title for this story and when it was remade in 1975 it retained the original title. 

The story, as is often the case with film noir, is told via flashback.  We see Marlowe being grilled under the hot lights at a police precinct.  It may be he'll be charged with murder.  He has bandages on his eyes.  We can tell he has a belligerent attitude.  The story unfolds.

A big, dumb, disagreeable bruiser, aptly named Moose (Mike Mazurki), visits Marlowe at his shabby office.  He wants Marlowe to find his girlfriend, Velma.  She seems to have disappeared over the eight years Moose spent in prison.  Marlowe does his best but no Velma.  Moose insists he keeps looking.

In the meantime, a man named Marriott visits Marlowe and within seconds they are snarling at one another.  I don't think I like your manner, hisses Marriott.  Yeah, I've had some complaints about it, Marlowe says, but it keeps getting worse.  Marriott hires a reluctant Marlowe to accompany him to a desolate L.A. canyon for an arranged rendezvous to retrieve some stolen jewels.  Not only do they not get the jewels, but Marriott is murdered and Marlowe gets clubbed over the head.  (I think in all Marlowe movies, he got whacked on the head.) 

The next day a pretty young woman, Ann Grayle (Anne Shirley), comes to his office, posing as a reporter.  She says she is investigating the missing jewels which she claims is actually a $100,000 jade necklace.  Well, here, have a look at the scene...

Ann takes Marlowe to meet her wealthy family.  He is immediately entranced by the seductive Helen (Claire Trevor) and rightly sizes her up as bad news.  Also present is Jules Amthor (Otto Kruger), a psychic healer, he says, and we detect more murkiness.

Moose reappears a day or so later to tell Marlowe that Moose's boss wants to chat with him.  Marlowe declines but is swiftly persuaded.  The boss turns out to be Amthor, who reveals a more sinister side.  Amthor wants Marlowe to butt out of the entire affair and Marlowe tells him he suspects Amthor and Marriott were in cahoots to steal Helen's necklace.  Amthor has Marlow beaten up and keeps him prisoner and in a drugged state for three days.  The drugging sequence is done in an imaginative montage that helps make this such a good 40s film.

While all this skullduggery is unfolding, Marlowe and Ann, each trusting the other more and more, appear to have developed fond feelings for one another.  Helen is exposed as the contemptuous thing she is, including trying several unsuccessful attempts to put the make on Marlowe.  And you know I loved the scenes where the two women show their displeasure with one another. And of course there's all that bitchy noir dialogue that crackles like fat in a fire.

It all comes together (or as much as noir stories do) at a beach house.  Marlowe has Moose wait outside, telling him that he will shortly produce his long-lost Velma.  Inside Helen, full of artifice, is hiding from the police who are looking for her for killing Marriott in that canyon.  She reveals that she has had the necklace all along and that it was all a plot to get ransom out of her husband.  She drew Marlowe into her web because she heard that he was looking for her.  You see, she is, in fact, Velma, and didn't want to be found.

When Marlowe won't go off into the sunset with her, she pulls a gun on him.  Before she can kill him, her husband enters the room and shoots her instead.  When Moose hears the gunshots, he comes barreling inside and discovers his Velma... dead.  He and the husband shoot one another and as the husband shoots, gunpowder gets in Marlowe's eyes, temporarily blinding him.

We return to the police station and realize that Ann is sitting in the back quietly, listening to Marlowe's story.  He won't be charged with murder but he is getting a charge from Ann when he realizes they will become a duo.

And another film noir comes to an end.

When I think of the great actors from this genre, it doesn't take long to include Dick Powell.  For his entire career he had been in those Warner Bros backstage musicals and a few silly comedies.  He was looking to make a leap of faith and try something entirely different.  Murder, My Sweet started him on a second career.  He went from perennially smiling in all those WB films to never smiling in noir and he made several.  I was impressed with how well and rather scarily he expressed anger.  If that was pure acting only, he must be among the best.

Claire Trevor, too, was a noir icon.  A sweet lady in real life, she was nothing like the louche, scabrous dames she played in the genre.  But damn, she was good... utterly believable. 

This was lovely Anne Shirley's final movie.  At 26 she was saying goodbye to acting.  She had been a child performer since the 1920s.  Divorcing actor John Payne the year before, she found her life unsettling.  She wound up marrying the screenwriter of this film, Adrian Scott, who would one day be one of the Hollywood Ten during the Communist witch hunt.

Physically impressive character actor Mike Mazurki (at 6'5") more than likely considered the role of Moose as the best of his career, especially with respect to screen time.   His scenes with Powell were tense and exciting.

The film was directed by the great Edward Dmytryk and came at the beginning of some of his best work.  Two more of his films will be the focus of this 1940s segment.  You may recall my posting on him.


Next posting:
One of my favorite actresses

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