Edward Dmytryk's Murder, My Sweet was one of the clutch of American movies finally released in France after World War II that led Nino Frank to coin the phrase "film noir." (And the world hasn't been quite the same ever since.) The term was in startled reaction to the darkened, fatalistic look and sensibility that had crept into America's perpetually sunny cinema. And while less than a perfect recension of Raymond Chandler's more discursive and ruminative novel Farewell, My Lovely, (which had been filmed if butchered the year before, as The Falcon Takes Over), the movie remains, at more than 60 years, a hellishly entertaining thriller and one of the more emblematic titles of the noir cycle which it helped to inaugurate.
Picking up where the (just) pre-war The Maltese Falcon left off, Murder, My Sweet takes us down those mean streets of Los Angeles that were to become, immortally, Chandler's milieu. As opposed to Dashiell Hammett's cynical, hard-as-asphalt gumshoe Sam Spade (the role, along with his Mad Dog Earle in High Sierra of the same year, that made Humphrey Bogart a big star), Chandler's Philip Marlowe was a more sullen, complicated and emotionally involved private eye; while Hammett told Spade's adventures in the third person, Chandler let Marlowe's unfurl, tellingly, in the first he's plainly the major character in his stories. And in Dick Powell, reborn from '30s light leading man into rough-stubbled tough guy, Marlowe finds an ideal embodiment: Testy, reluctant and often befuddled, Powell intuitively gauges and portrays Marlowe's range and personality more convincingly than his rivals Bogart (in The Big Sleep) or the various Montgomerys (Robert and George, in The Lady in the Lake or The Brasher Doubloon, respectively) came close to doing.
Murder, My Sweet gets narrated almost entirely in flashback. We open in a police station where Marlowe, his eyes bandaged owing to gunpowder burns, undergoes a grilling about a bloodbath. But soon we're back in Marlowe's office at the beginning, where his creep-in client Moose Malloy (Mike Mazurki) looms up spectrally, reflected in a night-darkened window (the responsive photography is by Harry Wild, whose work would dignify many fine films from The Magnificent Ambersons to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes).
Next, we travel out the window through a neon-lit nightscape to the faded allure of Florian's Bar, in pursuit of Malloy's old squeeze Velma Valento, who has seemingly vanished from the crust of the earth while he spent eight years in stir. A lot changes in eight years, including Florian's, no longer a night spot with a stage but a hard-hat bar. Nobody there claims to have heard of this Velma, but Mazurki trashes the joint anyway.
With the help of a phone book, which obliging lists (as "wid Mike") the former proprietor's wife, Marlowe pays a visit, bottle of top-shelf booze in hand, to Jesse Florian, a blowsy old streel played to the hilt by Esther Howard (whose face looks like "a bucket of mud"). Ostensibly (and habitually) drunk, she has enough wits about her to steer Marlowe wrong about the whereabouts of the elusive Velma and to place an ominous phone-call at his parting.
With the introduction of what seems to be a sub-plot, Murder, My Sweet pays belated homage to its predecessor. A dandified client (Douglas Walton) plays the Joel Cairo role from The Maltese Falcon ("He smells real...nice," the elevator boy tips off Marlowe). It's a story about a rendezvous to score back some stolen jade, and he wants Marlowe to serve as bodyguard; Marlowe ends up sapped, and his client ends up dead.
Feeling he's failed however doubtful a client, Marlowe follows the trail of the purloined jade. His quest leads him to monied Brentwood and the many-acred manse of Judge Grayle, an old eminence equipped with a wife decades his junior (Claire Trevor). When His Honor, in need of an emergency nap, departs, his wife continues to entertain Marlowe ("Let's dispense with the polite drinking, shall we?" It's less a question than an invitation).
From then on, it's a trip up and down the many interlocking strata of Los Angeles society, from Grayle's daughter (and Trevor's stepdaughter) Anne Shirley (in her last role), to quack psychic Otto Kreuger, who operates a sinister sanitarium on non-existent Descanso Street. It's a trip into a shadow world where furtive connections, made or broken years ago, come unwillingly into the light. But, as a man true to his chivalric code, Marlowe persists, even when it leads him, at least three times, into the "dark pool" of unconsciousness (the phantasmagorical sequences owe a debt to the "guilty" nightmare in Boris Ingster's Stranger on the Third Floor). Ultimately, his persistence leads him to lock horns, if not quite lips, with the most unregenerate of femmes fatales....
Murder, My Sweet's a bit too short to do full justice to Chandler's rich web of duplicity and dead ends. But it stays closer to the author's vision, and his protagonist's code, than the most popular version of his work, The Big Sleep, where Bogart played the most Hollywoodized of the Marlowes. Here, Powell hews close to Marlowe's ambivalence, even squeamishness, about the messes he's paid to clean up. And Chandler's almost puritanical distaste for the matters he chose to write about surfaces, most notably in Shirley's tirade near the end (she had started out talking about why she hates men, but expertly shifts gears): "I hate their women, too. Especially their big-league blondes, beautiful, expensive babes who know what they've got...but inside, blue steel cold." At least one of those blondes started out as a redhead, singing at Nick Florian's bar....
Murder, My Sweet revivified the careers of its two stars, Powell and Trevor. And it helped prime the stalled pump of the noir cycle, which would roll along for another 15 years or so. And, as one of its best achievements, it ages well, even into a new millennium.
9 out of 12 found this helpful.
Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.