Oct 5, 2015
In Murder, My Sweet, Dick Powell Takes a Beating on Blu-ray (1944)
Murder, My Sweet will never sparkle on the screen. It's made of muck and sleaze, and it'll stay that way, but it is darkly grand in a sharp new Blu-ray release from Warner Archive.
This quintessential film noir was crooner Dick Powell's stab at another screen life. He knew he was getting too loose in the jowls to keep playing a boyish musical star--and frankly, he was tired of the unrelenting cheer of those roles. So he made a deal with RKO: he'd make the struggling studio a series of musicals if he got to make a crime picture first.
Under the title, Farewell, My Lovely, that of the original Raymond Chandler novel, audiences figured Powell was singing up sunshine again and stayed away. With the title change came success, and the actor never did make those musicals. He found a new career as one of noir's most weary leading men and found he was even better in darker roles. Even Chandler approved of him as his famous private detective Phillip Marlowe.
Powell's Marlowe is a wary guy, more observant than tough. He's always got his eyes open for danger, which makes sense. He wouldn't last long if he were just a fighter. To stay alive in these grimy surroundings, you've got to be smart.
Still, Marlowe takes his share of black jacks to the head, involuntary druggings, beatings and threats as he attempts to solve the mystery of a missing singer, a mysterious murder and the disappearance of a valuable piece of jade jewelry. He may be a survivor, but he's not invincible.
Murder, My Sweet lets you feel Marlowe's pain, the edges of the screen oozing into a black abyss as he loses consciousness, a hazy web of misty clouds across the picture indicating the detective's druggy stupor. While these gimmicks should date the film, they're only slightly corny, because they force you to feel how vulnerable he is in this dark world. They make you afraid for him.
And if it isn't an attack that threatens him, it's a dangerous woman. Claire Trevor sets the template for film femme fatales, with a slippery, insouciant performance where she manages to seduce even though she is clearly up to no good. When Marlowe first sees her, with that shapely leg seemly casually presented, you know she's going to cause trouble. Her appearance over his shoulder in a mirror, shot full length, dressed in evening black, would be as horrifying as a scare in a slasher flick if she didn't look so scrumptious.
With her haughty, sensual cadence, Trevor is the birth of dangerous noir women. Every time you hear a dame in a noir parody, she sounds like the actress in this role. Every syllable promises sex, throwing up a smoke screen around the danger within her words.
In her last role, Anne Shirley is the only character who doesn't end up grimy. She should probably stay away from Powell, but a damaged man who needs affection can have the same appeal as a shapely leg. The actress had a fresh, and unusually unsentimental appeal for a performer who specialized in good girl roles, it's a shame she decided to retire at twenty-six.
Like some of the best noirs, the plot is not worth much worry, but the dialogue is and the narration even more so. People don't speak this way; they don't think this way. You need movies so that you can hear phrases like: "My throat felt sore, but the fingers feeling it didn't feel anything. They were just a bunch of bananas that looked like fingers" or "Remarks want you to make them. They got their tongues hanging out waiting to be said". These are lines you can see; they flap in your face, demanding to be noticed.
Of all the great noirs, this one has always been essential. It got everything right and set a template that continues to be followed.
Special features include a commentary by author and film noir specialist Alain Silver.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the Blu-ray for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.