One of the key characters in film noir is Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler’s cynical private eye. Many actors have played the role, including Humphrey Bogart, Robert Montgomery, Elliot Gould, Robert Mitchum, and James Garner. But the first to play the role was the most unlikely: Dick Powell, who starred as Marlowe in the 1944 film Murder, My Sweet.
The film was based on Chandler’s novel Farewell, My Lovely. Powell was known as a song and dance man, starring in light-hearted musicals. He wanted to stretch his range, and managed to get the part of Chandler’s tough talking gumshoe. He impressed Chandler greatly, though the great writer would end up saying Bogart was the definitive Marlowe. The title had to be changed, though, because the combo of Farewell, My Lovely and Dick Powell made it sound like yet another musical comedy.
The film is noir, by the book. We start with Marlowe being questioned by the police, his eyes bandaged. He tells the cops the story, which starts with a large, dimwitted man, Moose Malloy (Mike Mazurki) barging into his office. It seems Moose is just out of the stir, and is looking for his old flame, Velma. Marlowe tells him to beat it, but two twenties changes his mind, and he takes the case.
Later, a dandy named Lindsay Marriott (Douglas Walton) wants Marlowe to accompany him. He’s buying back stolen jewelry, and again, Marlowe takes the case because “my bank account was trying to crawl under a duck.” Marlowe and Marriott drive out to the middle of nowhere, Marlowe gets knocked out with a sap, and Marriott is murdered.
As is classic with mysteries, the two cases become intertwined. Marlowe stumbles upon a stolen jade necklace mystery, involving an old man and his gold-digging wife (Claire Trevor), and the man’s sweet daughter (Anne Shirley). Marlowe says of the daughter, “She’s got a face like a Sunday school picnic.” Marlowe will get in clinches with both women, but it’s Trevor who will be the femme fatale, eventually pointing a gun at him.
All the private eye tropes are here: Marlowe gets knocked out repeatedly, even drugged into a hallucinatory state: “‘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.’” He is presented with a choice of two women, one voluptuous and deadly, one innocent but not quite as exciting. The character of Moose, with diction right out of Damon Runyan, is a man mountain, and Marriott, along with quack psychologist Jules Amphor (Otto Kruger), represent the urbane, effeminate villain that Chandler frequently employed.
And then there’s all the great lines, most of them similes. After awakening from being unconscious: “I felt like an amputated leg.” Of a woman of a certain age: “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.” Of that creepy feeling of being watched: “I was a toad on a rock, and a snake was looking at the back of my neck.” Even the otherwise obtuse Moose has a few good similes, such as “she was cute as lace pants.”
Murder, My Sweet, directed with perfect style by Edward Dmytryk is classic noir, and stands the test of time. Of the Chandler adaptations, it’s not quite as good as The Big Sleep, but I count it a little better than the Farewell, My Lovely starring Robert Mitchum, but I need to see that one again.