Thursday, August 8, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: MURDER, MY SWEET (1944)

Several actors have played Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled detective, Philip Marlowe, in memorable films: Humphrey Bogart took on the role in The Big Sleep (1946), Robert Montgomery tried it in Lady in the Lake (1947), and Elliott Gould offered a neo-noir version in The Long Goodbye (1973). George Montgomery, Robert Mitchum, and James Garner have all donned Marlowe’s mantle, as well, but the most surprising actor to appear as the noir icon might be former crooner Dick Powell, who stars as the first big screen Marlowe in Edward Dmytryk’s highly regarded Murder, My Sweet (1944). Joining Powell for this wild, dark ride are Claire Trevor and Anne Shirley as members of a murderously dysfunctional family who pull the detective into a series of deadly encounters. With its fatal females, sardonic voiceover, and tangled passions, Murder, My Sweet has all the hallmarks we associate with classic noir style, although it also offers surreal thrills thanks to Marlowe’s psychotropic adventures.

Powell’s Marlowe is first drawn into his latest case by newly paroled muscle man, Moose (Mike Mazurki), who wants the detective to track down an old flame. Before he can do much with that job, Marlowe finds himself drawn into another mystery when he plays bodyguard to a man who ends up being killed on Marlowe’s watch. The murderer’s trail leads Marlowe to the wealthy Grayle family, where trophy wife Helen (Claire Trevor) is trying to recover a stolen jade necklace given to her by her elderly husband (Miles Mander). Helen’s stepdaughter Ann (Anne Shirley) dislikes Marlowe but wants to protect her father from whatever trouble Helen has caused. Marlowe, however, isn’t sure whether he can trust any of the Grayles, especially since his two cases seem to be strangely entwined.

The story is told in flashback, and in the opening we meet Powell sitting in a police interrogation room with bandaged eyes and a crowd of unfriendly cops, so we know Marlowe’s adventure isn’t going to be any walk in the park. In fact, Marlowe really takes a beating; he gets hit over the head, strangled, drugged, shot at, locked up, and hounded by the police throughout the picture. Murder, My Sweet ventures into really bizarre territory when Marlowe is shot full of mind-altering drugs and experiences hallucinations worthy of a Twilight Zone episode, but the segment works with the unlucky detective’s repeated trips to the “black pool” of unconsciousness. For a guy who’s supposed to be thinking fast, Marlowe spends a lot of time in the dark, an irony not lost on the picture’s attitude toward its dazed protagonist and convoluted plot.

Powell originally gained fame as a musical star in Busby Berkeley productions like 42nd Street (1933), but he plays cat and mouse with Claire Trevor just as well as he had sung to Ruby Keeler. He has a perfect voice for Marlowe's narration and throws his wry lines around with a jaded, casual cool. Powell’s cast mates give him plenty to work with, especially Claire Trevor as the sexy, secretive wife and Mike Mazurki as the tough mug with a one-track mind. Otto Kruger is ominously urbane as Jules Amthor, a crooked psychiatrist who abuses his relationship with his clients in a lucrative, if grossly unethical, manner, although Mazurki is so interesting as both a physical presence and a character that his henchman really overshadows the more intellectual boss.

Murder, My Sweet is required viewing for classic noir fans; try a double bill with one of the other Marlowe pictures for different takes on Chandler's streetwise detective. Catch the lighter side of Dick Powell in Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), Footlight Parade (1933), and Dames (1934). Claire Trevor won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in Key Largo (1948); she also has memorable roles in Dead End (1937), Stagecoach (1939), and Raw Deal (1948). Anne Shirley earned her own Best Supporting Actress nomination for Stella Dallas (1937), which put her in direct competition with Trevor that year, although both lost to Alice Brady for In Old Chicago (1937). Look for Mike Mazurki's distinctive face in many films from the 1940s and 50s, including The Canterville Ghost (1944), Nightmare Alley (1947), and Some Like It Hot (1959). Edward Dmytryk also directed Back to Bataan (1945), The Caine Mutiny (1954), and Raintree County (1957).