Murder, My Sweet(1944)

1944 was a seminal year for Film Noir with the release of some of the greatest films in the genre such as Double Indemnity,Phantom Lady, Laura, To Have And Have Not, The Woman In The Window,The Ministry Of Fear and Murder, My Sweet.

Whenever I hear or read the words Film Noir, Murder, My Sweet is always the first film which springs instantly into my mind. Every single frame of this screams Noir. There’s the moody and foreboding atmosphere, the stunning cinematography courtesy of Harry J. Wild,the voiceover, the cunning femme fatale, the lighting, intriguing characters and twisty story, and all of that fabulous Noir dialogue.

“The joint looked like trouble, but that didn’t bother me. Nothing bothered me, the two twenties felt nice and snug against my appendix.”

The film also introduced cinema-goers to the most iconic of the many cynical and tough Noir veterans, private detective Philip Marlowe. Marlowe is a man who has seen and done it all and is no longer really all that phased by the darker and stranger sides of humanity that he encounters in the course of his job. He’s seemingly quite laid back but he can get physically tough just fine when he has too, and he uses words and wit in the same way that hoodlums use fists and guns.

Dick Powell as Philip Marlowe.

Murder, My Sweet is directed by Edward Dmytryk and is based upon Raymond Chandler’s 1940 novel Farewell, My Lovely. The novel was the second book to feature the character of private detective Philip Marlowe. The first novel to feature Marlowe was The Big Sleep, but it was the second novel which would end up as the first to be adapted for the screen.

The rights to Chandler’s novel were bought by RKO Studios for $2,000, and it wouldn’t be very long before the studio decided to adapt Chandler’s work for the screen. In 1942, the plot of Farewell, My Lovely formed the basis of the third film in the popular Falcon series. In The Falcon Takes Over, charming gentlemen sleuth, Gay Lawrence(George Sanders), replaces Marlowe as the hero of the film, while the story and other characters are essentially the same as those found in Chandler’s novel. 

Just a couple of years after making The Falcon Takes Over, RKO would go on to make this much more faithful screen adaptation of the story. The film title would be changed from Farewell, My Lovely, to Murder, My Sweet, in the hopes that audiences wouldn’t mistake it for one of the musicals that the leading man usually made. Edward Dmytryk(Cornered, The End Of The Affair) was hired as director. For the role of the cynical and tough private detective Philip Marlowe, baby-faced screen crooner Dick Powell was cast. At this point in his career Dick Powell was best known as the screen partner of tap dancing sensation Ruby Keeler in a series of popular film musicals. 

Dick however had been getting tired of his musical career and was trying to get cast in non-musical roles.He had desperately wanted to play the role of Walter Neff in Double Indemnity and lobbied hard for the part, but he was turned down in favour of Fred MacMurray. The head of RKO Studios Charles Koerner was ultimately the person responsible for Dick finally being able to create a new screen image for himself. Koerner made a screentest with Dick for the role of Marlowe and signed him for the role after seeing that test. 

Marlowe and Marriott have a chat in Marlowe’s office.

The casting of Dick Powell was a big gamble but it turned out to be well worth the risk as he is now considered by many fans(myself included) to be the definitive screen Marlowe. I can’t get enough of him in this and many of his other dramatic screen roles.I also love his anthology TV series The Dick Powell Show and Four Star Playhouse too. Dick’s performance in Murder, My Sweet more than proved what a good dramatic actor he could be and he went on to appear in many more Noir and dramatic roles after this. I highly recommend checking out his work in the Western Noir Station West(1948) and the WW2 revenge thriller Cornered(1945). In 1945 he also became the first actor to play Marlowe on the radio, when he starred in Lux Radio Theater’s production of Murder, My Sweet.

Over the years many other actors have played Marlowe on both the big and small screen including Robert Mitchum, Powers Boothe(fantastic in the TV series Philip Marlowe, Private Eye) and Elliott Gould. Everybody has their favourite. Raymond Chandler initially objected to the casting of Dick Powell but quickly changed his mind after seeing his performance,however his personal favourite screen Marlowe was Humphrey Bogart. As far as I’m concerned I think Dick Powell is the best actor to have ever taken on this role. As much as I love Bogie, Boothe and Mitchum in the role, I feel that Dick Powell understood the character and fully captured his personality as written on the page. He manages to capture and convey the perfect balance between Marlowe’s toughness and cynicism, along with his humour, laid back attitude, and the almost childlike curiosity and delight he displays over some of the things he does and encounters.

The film begins with a blindfolded Philip Marlow(Dick Powell)being interrogated by the police. In flashback we learn about the events which led him to come to be in this room. Murder, My Sweet tells a story filled with a great many twists and turns. Marlowe is hired by a tall ex-con by the name of Moose Malloy(Mike Mazurki), to try and find his missing girlfriend, Velma Valento.

When Marlowe and Malloy start looking for the missing dame it seems that nobody knows anything about her.While working for Malloy, Marlowe is also hired by Lindsay Marriott(Douglas Walton) to accompany him to a meeting to get back a stolen jade necklace.  Marlowe goes with him to the meet, only to find himself being knocked unconscious and waking up to find Marriott has been killed.

Mrs. Grayle sets her sights on Marlowe.

Marlowe soon discovers the jade belongs to Mrs. Helen Grayle(Claire Trevor), the younger wife of the much older Judge Grayle. Marlowe is intrigued by Helen and there is an instant attraction between the two. Marlowe is also quite taken by Helen’s feisty and angry stepdaughter, Ann(Anne Shirley in her final film role)who absolutely hates Helen. Gradually Marlowe’s two cases converge and he realises that all is not as it may seem. 

“A black pool opened up at my feet. I dived in. It had no bottom.”

The standout sequence in the film is Marlowe’s disturbing nightmare brought on by some drugs which have been injected into him by his captors. It’s a visually impressive and very trippy sequence. It captures the weirdness of nightmares and the horror of not being in control once drugs get hold of the poor sap whose system they’ve seeped into. It must have blown audiences away back in 1944 and makes for disturbing viewing today.

Dick Powell is superb as the much put upon Marlowe and delivers one of the best performances in the entire Noir genre. He makes us like him and root for him. He effortlessly delivers all of that hilarious and laid back dialogue. He also leaves us in no doubt that he can take care of himself and be tough. He is also someone who you can relax around and have a laugh with. Marlowe is an everyman. I also love that we see he doesn’t get very much in return for risking his neck all the while. Marlowe lives a normal life in a small apartment and certainly isn’t out living the high life. 

Marlowe is really put through the wringer in this film. What I dig most about this film is how they show the aftermath of Marlowe’s drug experience. He looks so rough after his double dose of imprisonment and forced drug injections. He’s worn out and traumatised and it shows. He also looks tired, ill and battered on several other occasions too. There’s no James Bond glamour or a quick dusting off and going back to normal immediately to be found here. Marlowe really suffers in this film. Dick more than convinces us of the pain and distress Marlowe is undergoing. I also like that Marlowe doesn’t let his experiences change him into a hard and cold man. He may well be cynical and a tad standoffish, but he always remains likeable and on the side of good in spite of what he has endured. 

Claire Trevor as Mrs. Grayle.

Claire Trevor is excellent as the bad to the bone Mrs. Grayle. As soon as she realises that her oft employed charms and tricks don’t work on Marlowe, she doesn’t break off her pursuit and instead keeps right on trying to get him to roll under her thumb.

Claire leaves us in no doubt that her character is a strong and controlling woman who won’t rest until she has what she wants. She’s terrific in the role and if you like her here you need to check out one of her best performances as the drunk and abused girlfriend of Eddie G in Key Largo(1948).

Anne Shirley is fiery, gentle and innocent all at once as the heroine of the piece. Ann is a gentle girl driven to distraction by her poisonous stepmother, but despite this she never loses her humanity or kindness. I think it’s a great shame Anne never made another film after this. 

Mike Mazurki is intense, tragic, funny and loveable all at once as the gentle giant, Moose Malloy. Moose is slow witted and ends up becoming the real victim of the film. Marlowe is his only genuine ally. Mike was always a memorable presence on screen and this is the one he’ll always be remembered for. He was a professional wrestler turned actor who had once been a bodyguard for Mae West. He was discovered by director Joseph von Sternberg and began his film career after being cast by Sternberg in a small role in his film The Shanghai Gesture(1941).

Esther Howard almost steals the show as the booze-riddled Jessie Florian. Jessie’s dead husband owned the bar where Velma used to work and Marlowe thinks she may be able to help him. Esther delivers one of the best drunk performances in all of cinema. She cuts a funny and tragic figure too. 

If I could only recommend one film for a Noir newbie to watch it would be this one without any hesitation. Murder, My Sweet is one of the best in the entire genre and has become my all time favourite Film Noir. I even go so far as to consider it the best Noir ever made due to how well it presents and captures the atmosphere and varied elements of Noir. Go and close the blinds, turn out the lights, pour yourself a bourbon and settle down in front of the telly. You won’t regret your time spent in the company of Mr. Philip Marlowe. 

Any other fans of this one?


4 thoughts on “Murder, My Sweet(1944)

  1. Absolutely! I agree with you that Dick Powell is the definitive Marlowe – he also played him on TV in “The Long Goodbye” on the anthology “Climax,” making him the only actor to play Marlowe on television, radio, and in movies.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It is a great movie, cast, cinematography, script and direction all mesh perfectly. That said, I needed probably a second viewing to fully appreciate this. The things is I first came to the Marlowe character via Hawks and Bogart and to this day whenever I read Chandler I still read it with Bogart’s voice in my mind. But I do think Powell got closer to the author’s characterization and his line reading is hard to fault. I kind of wish he’d made Lady in the Lake rather than Robert Montgomery and that it had shot in a more traditional style. That book had a lot of potential as a movie had it been done right.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I happen to have just rewatched this over the weekend. I like it more every time I watch it, and I really want to see more serious roles from Dick Powell, so I will keep an eye out for the ones you mentioned!

    I always feel very sad for Moose Malloy. He’s rather sweet in a rough way. Poor guy.

    Raymond Chandler is my favorite author, and I think Powell really understood Marlowe very well. I like him just as well as Bogart in the role. I also really liked James Garner’s take in Marlowe (1969), though didn’t care much for the film overall. When I read the books, though, I read Marlowe’s lines in Alan Ladd’s voice 😉 He does so well with Chandler’s dialog in The Blue Dahlia and And Now Tomorrow that I can’t help myself.

    Liked by 1 person

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