The Black Pools of Noir in MURDER, MY SWEET 1944

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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):

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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…

On women:

“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.”


FilmNoirBlogathon-Double

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.

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Ford & Duke Bromance: STAGECOACH (1939)

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Hollywood is known for many storied collaborations. Duos that worked together so well that the results are of cinematic legends. Such is the case of director John Ford and actor John Wayne aka Marion Robert Morrison aka ‘the Duke.’ Theirs was a rugged bromance, often contentious and many would say dysfunctional; but hardly like those BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN boys.

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The two experienced a lifelong partnership that began with filming STAGECOACH (1939). Prior to this filming partnership, John Wayne had made eighty films yet was not even a big name. Up to that point, he only starred in various small roles and dozens of B level westerns. When David O Selznick was originally offered producer role, he wanted Gary Cooper (producer Walter Wanger’s pick) as the Ringo Kid and Marlene Dietrich as Dallas. Both Errol Flynn and Joel McCrea were considered for Ringo and Katherine Hepburn as Dallas. But Ford insisted on Wayne as soon as he felt the actor was ready. This was Ford’s first sound western. It was STAGECOACH (1939) that made John Wayne a household name.

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The story is a dramatic ride across the high desert, forcing a diverse group of strangers to get to know each other better, as they fight off their own prejudices, naive assumptions, the harsh terrain and waring Apache. This majestic western takes eight passengers on the Overland stage from Tonto to Lordsburg, New Mexico. Our diverse and fascinating travelers are: “Doc” Boone, a doctor with a drinking problem; Major Hatfield, a professional gambler and Southern gentleman; Dallas, a lady of ill repute forced out of Tonto by the gossiping spinster hens of town; a pregnant Mrs. Mallory, enroute to find her Army officer husband; Mr. Gatewood, a grouchy and absconding banker; Mr. Peacock, a feeble business man from Kansas City; Marshal Wilcox; his prisoner, the Ringo Kid, and Buck the driver.

  • Claire Trevor ~ Dallas
  • John Wayne ~ Ringo Kid
  • Andy Devine ~ Buck
  • John Carradine ~ Hatfield
  • Thomas Mitchell ~ “Doc” Josiah Boone
  • Louise Platt ~ Mrs. Lucy Mallory
  • George Bancroft ~ Marshal Curley Wilcox
  • Donald Meek ~ Mr. Samuel Peacock

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A critical character in this film not mentioned above is Monument Valley. Just like STAGECOACH (1939) marks the first collaboration of the Wayne-Ford partnership, it’s also the first of many historic Ford films on location in the spectacular Monument Valley in Arizona. As a matter of fact, there were no paved roads leading into Monument Valley prior to making this film. The visions of sagebrush, panoramic array of buttes, and the most stunning clouds billowing across the horizon defies the art of a Van Gogh. Its beauty is so striking it often distracts, taking center stage in every scene possible.

What works well in this film besides the dramatic plot points and thundering action is the breaks of comedic moments mingled amongst the colorful cast of characters. The contrast and tension between the characters is as palatable as it is charming. A stand out pairing contrasts John Wayne as the Ringo Kid and Claire Trevor as Dallas.

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Sometimes the social outcasts are the most well-mannered and hardest-working in the bunch

She’s been kicked out of town for her ‘whorish ways’ as is the doctor for his drinking and unconventional style. It’s fugitive the Ringo Kid, picked up along the way, who acts more humanely and well-mannered to Dallas than the others. He only sees her kindness, strength and beauty while the others shun her. He chooses to view her as a lady and naively never realizes she’s a prostitute. Based on her behavior on the ride, she deserves his admiration. Ringo Kid is treated with greater esteem, ironic for being a man who just escaped prison, attempting seek revenge against the men who killed his family. But based on his behavior on this journey, he earns his respect. Ultimately, despite all the contrasting personaes, tight quarters and shared life-altering experiences, it brings each a slightly more enlightened understanding. And Ford more Oscars to come, and Wayne a launch to mega stardom.

Part of what made these two- Ford and Wayne- click was a mutual admiration and some commonalities. Both were no-nonsense fellas that leaned into the bigger-than-life imagery they enjoyed projecting on-screen. The fact that they were both Americans proud of their Irish heritage later resulted in their legendary collaboration, ensembled in an Irish dream team, for THE QUIET MAN. John Wayne’s Irish ancestry can be traced to his great-great-grandfather, Robert Morrison; who was born in County Antrim, Northern Ireland in 1782. His grandmother Maggie Brown was an Irish Catholic born in County Cork in 1848.

Ford was even more enthusiastic about his Irish roots. According to the Irish American Heritage Month site:

John Ford was born John Martin Feeney in Cape Elizabeth Maine on February 1, 1894. His parents were Gaelic speaking immigrants; Ford’s father, a saloonkeeper and a Democratic Party Ward boss, was born in Spiddal County Galway, his mother from the isle of Inishmore in the Aran Islands. Despite being one of eleven children, several of his siblings not surviving childhood, Ford grew up in reasonably comfortable surroundings. However, the slights and offenses that he and his family endured as Irish Americans in Yankee dominated New England forged a pugnacity that would mark his later life. In an era when all Americans were expected to assimilate, Ford took a defiant pride in his heritage and culture. As actor and fellow director, Orson Welles would observe, “(Ford) had chips on his shoulder like epaulets.”

Ford was a tough director and a tough man. He knew how to push actors’ buttons in order to get the results he desired on screen. It generally didn’t win him any popularity contests, especially from his female cast members as he was known to be notably harshest on them. (Maureen O’Hara being the rare exception because Ford knew she was as tough as the boys and the mutual respect was there, although neither were likely to admit it.) But for those who knew how to handle his gruff and bullying ways, those were the actors who remained loyal and could be seen repeatedly in his films for they knew he was one of the most skilled directors in Hollywood. This resulted in some of the most beautiful and iconic films ever made. John Wayne became synonymous as the face of these Ford classics.

Ford on the Duke:

“Duke is the best actor in Hollywood.”

Ford kept baiting Wayne during filming STAGECOACH, yelling at one point: “Don’t you know how to walk? You’re as clumsy as a hippo. And stop slurring your dialogue and show some expression. You look like a poached egg.” Privately Ford said of Wayne at the time: “He’ll be the biggest star ever”.

According to imdb on their relationship on this set, Ford called him a “big oaf” and a “dumb bastard” and continually criticized his line delivery and manner of walking, even how he washed his face on camera. However, at least part of this was to provoke the actor into giving a stronger performance; Claire Trevor recalls how Ford grabbed Duke by the chin and shook him. “Why are you moving your mouth so much?” he said. “Don’t you know you don’t act with your mouth in pictures? You act with your eyes.” Wayne tolerated the rough treatment and rose to the challenge, reaching a new plateau as an actor. Ford helped cement the impression that Wayne makes in the film by giving him plenty of expressive reaction shots throughout the picture.

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His behavior on set angered Wayne, who said of the director “I was so f–king mad I wanted to kill him.”

“I don’t think John Ford had any kind of respect for me as an actor until I made “Red River” for Howard Hawks. I was never quite sure what he did think of me as an actor. I know now, though. Because when I finally won an Oscar for my role as Rooster Cogburn in “True Grit”, Ford shook my hand and said the award was long overdue me as far as he was concerned. Right then, I knew he’d respected me as an actor since “STAGECOACH”, even though he hadn’t let me know it. He later told me his praise earlier, might have gone to my head and made me conceited, and that was why he’d never said anything to me, until the right time.”

“John Ford was like a father to me, like a big brother. I got word that he wanted to see me at his home in Palm Springs, and when I got there, he said, “Hi Duke, down for the deathwatch?” “Hell no,” I said, “you’ll bury us all.” But he looked so weak. We used to be a triumvirate – Ford and me and a guy named Ward Bond. The day I went to Palm Springs, Ford said, “Duke, do you ever think of Ward?” “All the time,” I said. “Well, let’s have a drink to Ward,” he said. So I got out the brandy, gave him a sip and took one for myself. “All right, Duke,” he said finally, “I think I’ll rest for a while.” I went home, and that was Pappy Ford’s last day.”

Obviously their love/hate relationship was one only they fully understood. Or perhaps they didn’t. Perhaps they were just a couple of good drinking buddies that knew how to bring out the best in each other, even if in dysfunctional ways; to make memorable movie magic. To sum up the symbiotic collaboration of the John Ford/John Wayne filmography, all you really have to do is watch all of their mutual films. The results speak loud and clear up on that silver screen.

*Tandem Tumbleweed Thought to Consider~ Quentin Tarantino’s recent HATEFUL EIGHT features eight characters who are mostly strangers to each other, all thrown together as traveling companions along in an Overland stagecoach who make a pitstop and face extreme danger which forces them to learn more about each other. Sound familiar? It’s a surprisingly similar parallel to the basic story structure in STAGECOACH. While the social dynamics in HATEFUL EIGHT are much more ‘hateful’ and bloody, it makes me wonder if QT is a fan of Ford’s STAGECOACH, in addition to his spaghetti western love, and found some inspiration here.

**This was my contribution to CINEMAVEN’S ESSAYS FROM THE COUCH, Symbiotic Collaborations Blogathon, Jan 23-24, 2016. Explore all the fun and creative contributions on Theresa’s site this weekend.

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