Murder, My Sweet (1944, Edward Dmytryk)
Cinematic translations of Raymond Chandler’s famous mystery novels featuring Philip Marlowe produce the most unlikely, oddball and satisfying results. In the first Forgotten Film Noir series, the Robert Montgomery directed Lady in the Lake was discussed. That film, which also starred the aforementioned director, opted to take the most literal way of bringing a book to the screen by having the viewer privy to Marlowe’s first person point of view, complete with very personal narration as the character thought to himself as the adventure evolved. What he thought, the viewer heard, where he went, the viewer went. No such avant-garde, first person point of view technique is utilised in the film under review today, Murder, My Sweet, yet the filmmakers still remain true to the spirit of bringing the story of a novel to the silver screen.
Philip Marlowe’s (Dick Powell) latest, over-complicated case begins the evening a recently freed crook, titanic in physical stature but small in brains, arrives at his office in desperate need of help. The man’s name is Moose (Mike Mazurki), talks like a big dope, and is determined to find his long lost girl named Velma. She used to be a singer in a lounge not too far away, but he has not seen her in some years (his prison stint arguably played a huge role in that). Marlowe may be fatigued after a long day of work, smoking and drinking, but when cold hard cash is offered straight up, why not acquiesce? The search for Velma is a brief one, concluding with some information that the girl is, in all likelihood, dead. Before Marlowe can contact Moose again to share what information has come to light, two more cases land on his lap, the first involving a money handling deal which goes terribly wrong, the second concerning the disappearance of a valuable jade necklace, owned by the plenty sexyful Helen Grayle (Claire Trevor), the very young wife of a rather old but incredibly wealthy man. Contacts are made with people who may be involved with the theft of the necklace, some of which are very powerful, some of which seem quite innocent at first, such as Helen’s daughter in law, the equally attractive Ann Grayle (Anne Shirley). Marlowe begins to connect all these strange dots when non-other than Moose is hired as a heavy by one of the suspects. Where exactly is the highly coveted jade necklace and just who might be the disappearing Velma?
Telling stories in linear fashion is one thing, and when the practice is well executed, the results are of course nothing but satisfying. In the case of Murder, My Sweet, director Edward Dmytryk and his crew make honest attempts to up the ante a little bit by paying respects to the original source material in some clever ways. For one, the film opens with Marlowe sitting in a police interrogation room, his eyes blindfolded with medical bandages, answering a series of accusatory questions. The cops evidently believe Marlowe to be the perpetrator behind the murder of a handful of people all involved in the very messy case of the jade necklace. With the viewer privy to Marlowe’s whereabouts, the film proceeds to visualize the narration Marlowe provides the police as he cooperates with the interrogation. Hence, the soundtrack is dominated by a very personalized, character-driven narration, thus adding a delicious flavour to the overall narrative thread of the piece. Who better than the tired, annoyed, world weary yet continuously determined Philip Marlowe to reveal the story to the audience? Other smaller flourishes punctuate instances that could only ever emerge from the page of a book. One thinks for instance about when Marlowe falls out of consciousness. The narration describes a black pool surrounding his vision and thoughts just as the film frame is overcome with what looks like an oil leakage. These small touches might not make the greatest impression on a viewer who simply wants a solid story told to them, but for the cinefiles, they are delightful. Other impressive flashes thrown into the pan by director Dmytryk bear fruit when Marlowe’s adventure grows ever stranger to the point where he is captured and drugged. An incredible hallucinatory nightmare sequence thus commences. It feels at odds with what has come before but is simultaneously welcomed for its inventiveness and audacity. There was no way of knowing that things would get this quirky and crazy, and such moments tend to be among the film’s strongest, not when characters sit down to talk about who might have stolen what and when. Moose, interpreted perfectly by the massive Mike Mazurki, is a fine example of this.
The actual story to Murder, My Sweet produces mixed responses. On the one hand, the details of the case Marlowe works on are not what one would consider to be screenwriting gold. Much like in Lady in the Lake, the intricate details of who took what, when and why easily get muddled in much gibberish uttered by the characters. Names of characters one does not necessarily remember right off hand are tossed around because they had some part to play in the overarching criminal act, accusations of perjury, theft, and hidden identities are declared left and right. Detective stories are tremendously amusing, with much of the entertainment resulting from joining a detective as he unravels the clues, clues that the audience readily remembers of identifies, to ultimately solve the mystery. The only thing that became clear after a certain period was the true identity of the missing Velma. Other than that, several of the character motivations lost focus by the end.
All that being said, there are significant positives to the plot, the most important being the built connections between characters the likes of Philip Marlowe with those as vastly different as Moose, Helen Grayle, her aging husband and Ann Grayle. The movie played like a sociological study concerned with the relationships between people of small economic stature and those living in the upper crust of society. In fact, if one delves a bit deeper, the film also appears to be saying something about the relationships between people of similar, near identical economic status, like Marlowe and Moose. The film never actively comments on these realities, but they can be pinpointed in the movie’s subtext. It seemed quite fascinating that what Moose, a small time crook with perhaps not too much money (or brains) to his name, wanted was to rekindle his affair with Velma. Love mattered most, or whatever his version of love was. On the other hand, Marlowe is dragged into the lives of the rich and pompous for the purposes of finding a necklace. Yes, a very valuable and beautiful necklace, but a necklace nonetheless. By most standards, Moose’s desires are more important those of the Grayle’s, yet it is clearly the search for the necklace that takes precedence over the search for a women who is sorely missed by a man. Marlowe, played brilliantly by Dick Powell (in the eyes of this reviewer, his Marlowe is superior to that of Robert Montgomery’s, although not by much) , finds himself in the middle of all the hoopla, not exactly thrilled to be investigating the disappearance of an oaf’s lost love, nor particularly fascinated by the wealth and tribulations of the complicated Grayle family. At the end of the day however, money talks and therefore Marlowe shall respond.
Murder, My Sweet, often considered to be of one of the great films of its era, delivers on many accounts, although not all. The facts of the case regarding the stolen necklace come off as mostly uninspired, yet that story angle provides for some noteworthy character relations. Marlowe himself is always a fun protagonist to tag along with, which in of itself can make up for any film’s deficiencies. Batman is not the only Dark Knight around, you know.