Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger knows better, but he'll talk anyway: Murder, My Sweet has the goods.
Our review of Shadows, Lies, And Private Eyes: The Film Noir Collection, published July 5th, 2004, is also available.
"'Okay Marlowe,' I said to myself. 'You're a tough guy. You've been sapped twice, choked, beaten silly with a gun, shot in the arm until you're crazy as a couple of waltzing mice. Now let's see you do something really tough—like putting your pants on.'"—Philip Marlowe
If you're talking Film Noir, and you're looking for the iconic noir detective, odds are you'll end up with Philip Marlowe. And if you're looking for Marlowe, you'll find him in Murder, My Sweet.
Facts of the Case
Private Investigator Philip Marlowe (Dick Powell) doesn't have it all figured out, but he knows enough: when a dumb ox like Moose Malloy (Mike Mazurki) shows up in your office there's going to be trouble. When a high-class broad with a two-bit attitude like Helen Grayle (Claire Trevor) follows, there's going to be more. But nobody ever got anywhere by sitting on a stool watching the action go by.
It was rotten from the start. A jade necklace worth more cash than you'd see in a lifetime goes missing, and people start dying over it. Moose is too dumb to put it together, so who is the brains? Is it Jules Amthor (Otto Kruger), the quack doctor with a nasty attitude? It couldn't be Grayle's stepdaughter Ann (Anne Shirley)…that sweet kid is up to her neck in trouble. Philip knows something, though: someone wants him out of the picture, and quick. Which is reason enough to see it through.
If you stick around film circles long enough, you'll hear several titles touted as the definitive film noir: The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep, Double Indemnity, The Killers, perhaps. Sooner or later, you'll hear Murder, My Sweet crowned as the "definitive noir."
It isn't much of a stretch to place the noir crown on Murder, My Sweet's oft-bludgeoned head. Only one adjective adequately describes this film and its characters: hard boiled. The fatigue of living oozes from the characters, the grime of corruption blackens their nails. Rumpled detective Philip Marlowe may be the iconic film noir hero. He is never too far from a woman, a whiskey, or a weapon.
He's never too far from a wisecrack either. The dialogue in Murder, My Sweet is dense and electrifying. It should be: it comes from the pen of Raymond Chandler, a cornerstone of the private eye genre. Chandler's words crackle and dance, amusing us while instilling a sense of impending doom:
Marlowe: Have you got a key to the beach house?
Marlowe hardly pauses during the course of the film, throwing out jibes, inquiries, and come ons with equal sharpness. As you listen to the patter, you are enveloped in a linguistic blanket, soothed and entertained. Though not as piercing or driving as Polonsky and Wolfert's dialogue in Force of Evil, the conversations have the same compelling vibe.
How you feel about Powell's Marlowe dictates how you feel about Murder, My Sweet, because there's a lot of Marlowe. As a character, Marlowe's shoulders are broad enough and chipped enough to carry the film. Does Powell have the cynicism, the careworn patina, to carry off one of pulp fiction's most loved characters?
Before I answer that question, ponder Dick Powell's pre-Murder, My Sweet career. He'd firmly established himself as a sunny crooner in musicals or romps like The Singing Marine, Broadway Gondolier, and Sirens. As Alain Silver points out in his commentary, Powell's casting was dramatically against type, so much so that they had to change the name of the picture so people wouldn't confuse it with a musical. Singing marine to hard boiled detective is quite a leap, and many people simply can't get past their strong association of Powell with musicals.
I have the advantage of complete unfamiliarity with Powell's singing days, and I say he nailed it. Powell is oft mentioned as Chandler's favorite incarnation of Marlowe, praise that is rightfully earned. Powell's Marlowe is both jaded and optimistic, world-weary yet open to life. He delivers certain lines with cutting self-deprecation, others with calculated softness. His Marlowe is always pushing buttons, probing people for weakness, wresting control of the situation. Though he isn't physically imposing (something about his face is too gentle to completely intimidate) his confident delivery and compromised sense of values sell his dangerous side.
Powell's subtlety sufficiently sells the character. At one point, femme fatale Helen "confesses" to Marlowe about her role in the caper. Her face is buried in his shoulder and her features are in shadow. Though she is speaking, Marlowe is in the spotlight. His flashes of annoyance and the slight roll of his eyes say that he isn't buying a word of it. Nonetheless, he falls easily enough into her arms, for amusement or to keep up appearances. Helen Gayle may be one of the weakest femme fatales on record, because she never fully ensnares Marlowe. It is Powell's incorrigible surety that prevents Marlowe from being fully swallowed into the depths of this noir.
Powell is solid, but the cinematography makes him all the better. Dmytryk and veteran cinematographer Harry J. Wild create a brooding environment where shadow threatens to overwhelm the characters. In the commentary, Silver reminds us that Wild and other crew members were RKO regulars who created the stunning visuals for Citizen Kane. Here we see the same deep focus, the same dramatic shading and composition. Dmytryk even throws in a drug trip which is oddly convincing. In terms of pure cinematography, Murder, My Sweet is unmistakably noir, superbly handled noir at that. My favorite scene in that regard is one of the earliest, when Marlowe is "relaxing" in his office under the repetitive glare of a flashing neon sign. This bit has been parodied since, but it works well here.
The music fits equally well. Composer Roy Webb has an absolutely staggering body of work: he had a career's worth both before and after Murder, My Sweet (including Out of the Past, another film in this boxed set). Much of his work inhabits the shadows of film noir. On one hand, some of his compositions are effective but not entirely groundbreaking. Webb produces tension in the opening interrogation scene by repeating a toneless bass riff with tinkling counterpoints. It has been done time and again, but it works. Recent soundtracks I've heard that use the same trick somehow lack Webb's panache. Other moments of music truly set the tone, putting us on edge almost imperceptibly.
With a great lead performance, snappy dialogue, a decently complex plot, great music, and captivating visuals, it is easy to see why Murder, My Sweet ranks so highly on people's list of top film noirs. When you throw in the cache of pulp literature's greatest P.I., Murder, My Sweet cements its reputation.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
On the other hand, how many times have you felt like cheering in film noir? Giddy enthusiasm is a rare bird indeed in the oppressive noir canon. When Marlowe triumphs, when the pieces all fit together and his flirtatious cleverness pays off, we want to cheer for his success. Film Noir is not about cheering, my friend. It is serious business.
That's just it. In spite of its brooding tone and dark dealings, Murder, My Sweet never takes itself too seriously. You may get wrapped up in the tale, but you never fear for your own emotional well-being. This isn't the kind of story where you hide your hands behind your eyes to keep from viewing traumatic carnage, nor the sort of tale where you cover your ears to protect yourself from scathing and hurtful words. Murder, My Sweet has violence, and it has scornful exchanges, but they are handled with a measure of abstract decorum that allows us to relax. We open ourselves to the words and the actions, straining to catch every nuance.
Murder, My Sweet is thereby one of the most accessible film noirs ever made. If you love film noir you will probably like Murder, My Sweet; if you don't like film noir you might like it anyway. But is film noir supposed to be that accessible? If you embrace film noir because it is one of the few genres that don't shy away from brutal themes of human darkness, if you appreciate the pain, sorrow, and futility inherent in the genre, then Murder, My Sweet may skirt too far into camp to please you. If so, can we in good conscience call it "definitive" film noir? On these grounds, you could practically make a case for booting Murder, My Sweet out of the noir canon altogether.
Simple characterizations don't help the cause. The men, Marlowe excepted of course, are rather one dimensional. Moose is a brute, Lindsay Marriott a fop. In fact, I created some extra tension for myself by failing to take the characters at face value. "Sure, Lindsay appears helpless," I told myself, "but what angle is he really playing?" Eventually I realized that people in Murder, My Sweet are pretty much who they appear to be. Oh, there are twists and turns in the plot and shifting alliances, but frogs don't turn into princes.
The women are particularly underwritten. Anne Shirley is the biggest victim, because Ann Grayle isn't given much to do. She is there to hand out keys and information, to cushion Philip's brow with her soft shoulder. Otherwise, she has no sense of past or future. To her credit, Shirley infuses Anne with warmth and grace, causing us to instinctively like her and root for her, but the script had nothing to do with it.
On paper, Helen Grayle is a more complex character. She undergoes more twists and has multidimensional involvement with the other characters. Unfortunately, it isn't difficult to size Helen up from the get-go. It isn't that later surprises are ruined, it's that her scenes feel like they go through the motions of giving us information we already know. This should not be construed as a poor reflection of Claire Trevor's abilities. She had a firmly established career before Murder, My Sweet and a healthy body of work afterward. In each scene she has just the right look, the right slink in her walk and deceitful glint in her eye. It is the see-through plot and uncertain direction that sell her character short. In fact, most of the actors in Murder, My Sweet deliver B-movie goodness. Mike Mazurki is a moose, no stretch there. He is menacing, dumb, and completely unconvincing in a delicious way. The other men in this film also fall prey to melodrama, tweaking up the camp factor while retaining a sense of gloom and malice.
Like every film in this collection, Murder, My Sweet is influenced by
the HUAC witch hunts. Director Edward Dmytryk is one of the Hollywood 10, film
makers who went to jail rather than discuss their activities with the committee.
Something about film noir seems to go hand in hand with this dark period of
America's history. When Dmytryk got out of the joint, Silver tells us, his work
on Murder, My Sweet propelled him to the A-list. Murder, My Sweet
undoubtedly benefits from sound directorial choices, particularly in the
technical aspects. Where Dmytryk falls short is in creating a sense of taboo in
his alluring female leads. Marlowe's interactions with the ladies have some
spark, but not nearly enough to make their scenes catch fire.
One thing that was definitely clearer to 1944 audiences is the picture quality. Where Gun Crazy's restoration blew me away, this one is less impressive. The film is riddled with dirt, nicks, scratches, and cloudiness. The quality is not low enough to make you leap out of your seat in disgust, but it isn't going to make you ooh and ahh either. It feels like an old school day at the movies, flaws and all. I actually prefer letting the film look like film over the soullessness of digital manipulation. But transfer purists should be aware that the cleanup of Murder, My Sweet is not overly detailed.
I've mentioned Alain Silver's commentary a few times. He truly grasps the details of film noir…after all, he has written several books on the subject. His insights are worthwhile and authoritative. Yet Alain falls into the same trap that snares many noir analysts. Why is it that such a colorful, exciting, and subversive genre/style gets such coldly analytical treatment? The dialogue is so rich, and the characters so engrossing, that when Alain was speaking I strained to hear Marlowe's wisecracks in the background. Silver is not alone in this approach. In fact, most of the essays I have read on the subject are so clinical that I wonder whether the authors understand that noir is supposed to be exciting. Perhaps this is an unfair criticism; after all, Raymond Chandler is a difficult act to follow.
Does Murder, My Sweet border on hokey? Sure. Is it as serious and dark as other noirs? No. Is it one of the most iconic and accessible noirs of all time? You betcha.
We got the call around 1:00 AM. Sure enough, it was Marlowe again, neck-deep
in trouble as usual. We let him go with a warning and gave him a nickel for a
cup of coffee. He took the nickel, shrugged us off, and walked down the street
into the night.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Theatrical Trailer
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