It’s dark. Too dark to see without assistance from a handy flashlight to confirm the time on his watch. Private dick Philip Marlowe is scouting out the meeting place in a densely wooded area, just off the road. He walks cautiously as dense, smoky fog crawls along the ground, in his tipped fedora and buttoned up trench coat. He hears the snap of a twig underfoot, close range, and turns abruptly only to see a deer.
He heads back to his parked car. Leaning against the large, open top convertible and without looking down, he tells the man hiding in the back of his car- the same man who just hired him to go into those dark woods to help him buy back a stolen jade necklace- that they’re likely being watched and tested for obedience, for this mysterious exchange. Unexpectantly, Marlowe is suddenly struck from behind on the head. Hard.
As he slumps to the ground we hear him narrate in a raspy-smooth voice, “I caught the blackjack right behind my ear. A black pool opened up at my feet and I dived in. It had no bottom. I felt pretty good… like an amputated leg.” Visually we see black edges closing in on his unconsciousness body until total darkness fills the screen.
This is just one scene from Edward Dmytryk’s MURDER, MY SWEET (1944) which perfectly evokes the many hallmarks of a signature film noir. Even before I completed the TCM/Ball State University course in Film Noir last summer, I had seen this film prior and knew this was what film noir is supposed to be.
All the beautiful shades of shadows and light are glowing on the screen. Dick Powell as Philip Marlowe drops bitter and sarcastic cynacism in descriptive lingo that his profession as a hard-nosed private investigator affords. From time to time, he narrates to us. Often with uniquely descriptive metaphors. He’s no hero charging in wearing a ten gallon white hat, but he’s not exactly the villainous anti-hero either. Ultimately he does the right thing, but not out of conformity to society rules. He’s in business for himself.
He fully appreciates a pretty dame- good or bad. And speaking of bad dames, a good film noir isn’t complete without a beautiful and cunning femme fatale. Enter Claire Trevor. He doesn’t fool easily, although he sometimes likes to lead on as though he does. And a typical film noir is based on a crime drama. The crime is presented via a missing girlfriend and jade necklace. But were they ever missing/stolen or merely borrowed? And why are so many people interested in hiring Marlowe to find- or bury -the truth? Time will reveal all as Marlowe finds himself a very popular dick for hire.
And what about those black pools? Another calling card of a film noir is a dream sequence. The more trippier, the better. Marlowe swims in that black pool more than once and it gets saturated wet in trippy.
Now that we’ve laid out all the evidence why MURDER, MY SWEET (1944) qualifies as a definitive film noir, let’s discuss why it’s also one of my favorites of this genre (and perhaps should be yours too):
Dick Powell. Dick Powell has always been one of my favorites of the silver screen. But like so many, we were introduced to him through Pre-Codes. In the thirties, he shined as the upbeat, charming crooner of those terrific Busby Berkley musicals and other classics. He was usually the guy singing and smiling his way into the hearts of the sweet girl next door or sassy sidekick (like cuties Ruby Keeler and Joan Blondell). But for the first time in his career, MURDER, MY SWEET took a dramatic turn of character for Powell. His role as Philip Marlowe was a major risk that paid off successfully and launched him into the noir world and other dramatic roles. Not all actors can boast such a successful breaking of typecasting and transition so effectively into the changing times of the big screen. He would transition again post-noir as a producer and director.
Because of his prior roles in the thirties and his natural skills in comedy, I’ll admit there were times in viewing this film for the first time that I expected him to go more campy. Especially considering the dialogue, one could easily play it as dark humor and break character. But he delivers with a five o’clock shave, a heavy-smoky voice and candidly acerbic tone that a gumshoe Marlowe demands.
Claire Trevor. This role came right between her big roles as Dallas, a woman of ill-repute and good intentions, in STAGECOACH (1939) and Gaye Dawn, the complex mess of a lush in KEY LARGO (1948). The deeper I look into these roles, the more I’m convinced Claire Trevor is a highly underappreciated actor. The variety and nuances across these three roles are a testiment to her range. Here in MURDER, MY SWEET she plays the femme fatale very well, with sophisticated beauty masking her street-wise naughtiness as Helen Grayle.
Anne Shirley is another underrated actor. Her portrayal as Ann Grayle keeps you guessing sometimes to see if she plays the sinner or the saint, but the good girl emerges ultimately to give great contrast to Trevor. The role is not quite as meaty as it could be, so Trevor tends to steal the scenes.
The love/hate dynamic between Marlowe and Moose Malloy. Mike Mazurki appealingly plays the big thug with a broken heart who possesses more brawn than brains. Malloy is more than a typical hired heavy. He’s an unexpected romantic yet also like a big, dumb animal that can’t figure out if he wants to play with his food. Unfortunately for Marlowe, he’s often on the dinner menu. But I like the way that, no matter how many times he gets hurt, there’s a part of Marlowe that looks upon Moose like a big puppy that somehow just doesn’t know any better.
Dialogue. Oh the writing in this film is priceless!
In introducing Marlowe, he narrates, setting up a scene with visual artistry and coarse flair, as the camera cuts a path through images of the city at night with all the neon flashing landscape:
“It was seven o’clock. Anyway it was dark. I’m a homing pigeon. I always come back to the stinking coop no matter how late it is. I’d been out peeking under Sunday sections looking for an old barber named Dominic, whose wife wanted him back. I forget why. Only reason I took the job is because my bank account was trying to crawl under a duck. And I never found him. I just found out all over just how big this city is. My feet hurt and my mind felt like a plumber’s handkerchief. The office bottle hadn’t sparked me up, so I’d taken out my little black book and decided to go grouse hunting. Nothing like soft shoulders to improve my morale. The soft shoulders had a date, thought she could do something about, was going to check right back. There’s something about the dead silence of an office building at night. Not quite real. The traffic down below was something that didn’t have anything to do with me.”
What a fascinating way to introduce a character. It’s so quintessentially noir. Thanks to the stylistic writings of Raymond Chandler (novel) and John Paxton (screenplay), it strongly influenced an entire genre and style of film. Here are some more lines that make me smile…
“She was cute as lace pants.” (Moose Mallory)
“She was a charming middle-aged lady with a face like a bucket of mud. I gave her a drink. She was a gal who’d take a drink, if she had to knock you down to get the bottle.”
On love and such romantic notions:
“I tried to picture him in love with somebody, but it didn’t work.” (Marlowe on Malloy)
“He’s in love and in a big hurry. He’ll get over that.”
Helen Grayle: “I find men *very* attractive.”
Philip Marlowe: “I imagine they meet you halfway.”
On being roughed up or drugged up:
“My throat felt sore, but the fingers feeling it didn’t feel anything. They were just a bunch of bananas that looked like fingers.”
“‘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.'”
And these lines gave me a chuckle:
“He died in the middle of a glass of beer. His wife Jessie finished it for him.”
“It was a nice little front yard. Cozy, okay for the average family. Only you’d need a compass to go to the mailbox. The house was all right, too, but it wasn’t as big as Buckingham Palace.”
This post was my contribution to the Film Noir Blogathon, hosted by Quiggy of The Midnite Drive-In, Aug. 12-14. And kudos to Connie of Silver Scenes for the fabulous banners. With a tremendous list of participants, I encourage you to read these noir knock-outs.