Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Someone Asked Me To Be An Expert In Something Part 3: Murder My Sweet

"There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen.”

-Raymond Chandler”

For the final film of The Film Noir Festival I was asked to co-curate I chose Murder My Sweet.

Noir and the hard boiled private eye fiction have an odd relationship. While this hardboiled style of fiction particularly Dashiel Hammet’s Contenental Op series, certainly influenced Noir filmmaking, Private Eyes are by the rules of the genre people who come out on top, Noir by its very definition about people who fail. The true precurser of Noir are the fatalistic books of James Cain, whose stories likewised showcased working class losers who where doomed to fail.

The exception to this rule is Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe who has always translated extraordinarily well to Film Noir. The reason might have something to do with something Scott Tobias noted in his review of tonight’s film, at The AV Club. “Mike Hammer gets information by beating it out of people; Marlowe, by contrast, gets information when crooks beat it into him.” This is why I chose to show tonight’s film starring Dick Powell, over some of the films in which Marlowe is more famously portrayed by the likes of Humphrey Bogart and Robert Mitchum. While there films are always enjoyable, there is something just not right about their characterization of Marlowe, something their iconic baggage that Powell doesn’t possess keeps them from playing, no matter how much trouble they’re in they are always fundamentally in control of the situation. What Powell understands about Marlowe is like all Noir heroes he is someone who is in fundamentally over his head.

This is perhaps why Marlowe as a character has endured so well. We look at the Mike Hammer’s and The Sam Spades with a sort of nostalgia, They could never survive being played by Elliot Gould or directed by Robert Altman. Marlowe is still very much with us. What’s The Big Lebowski but one long seriously weird Phillip Marlowe story?

Marlowe is of course the creation of Raymond Chandler, who said of his hero: “But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. My detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero; he is everything.”

Marlowe doesn’t go into the dark places of human nature, or pit himself against the dangerous because he’s some goody two shoes, he does it because he’s strong enough, unlike most Noir protagonists to look into that dark side and not be destroyed by it.

Farewell My Lovely is considered by many to be Chandlr’s finest novel. It was actually the first to be adapted to the screen in a version called The Falcon Takes Over back in nineteen forty two.

Murder My Sweet was made two years later. The change in title was necessitated by star Powell. Powell was best known as a song and dance man and the studio didn’t want anyone wandering in thinking it was a musical comedy. Powell’s lighter touch serves the character and the picture well. Like I said, we’re always relatively certain that Bogie and Mitchum will make it out unscathed, Powell not so much.

The film was Directed by Edward Dymtryk a Russian √©migr√© whose dark moody style fits the picture perfectly. Dymtryk was one of the most interesting filmmakers of the forties making films such as this and the dark noir Crossfire. Stylisitcally Murder My Sweet is years ahead of its time, with Marlowe’s “Trip” alone putting it ahead of the curve.

Dymtryk was subpoenaed before the HUAC committee and went jail for refusing to testify. After several months behind bars Dmytryk cooperated with HUAC, naming names. Though he would start making films again they would never have quite the same intense troubling mood.

Because for all the pleasures of Murder My Sweet, the effortless wit and sophistication of its style and dialogue it remains an intensely dark film. A movie about betrayal on a very personal and vulnerable level. Even though Marlowe merely surveys the damage rather then getting swept away by it, it still touches him. He still bares the scars. And Scars after all is what Film Noir is really about.


Troy Olson said...

You've written a great take on this film. I especially like your reasoning behind the film longevity of Marlowe over other private dicks. That's an astute observation.

I'll agree about the greatness of that hallucination scene. It stands to me as the best scene in all of film noir (or at least amongst what I have seen). Powell plays Marlowe with a style that it is hard to fully buy from Bogart, more fully looking the part of being downtrodden and down on his luck.

Evil Dead Junkie said...

Thanks for your comment. The Pants scene that follows it is amazing as well.

But yeah that's the thing Bogart's playing Bogart. Powell is playing Marlowe.

Some Guy said...

Powell is terrible as Marlowe.
Too light, too flippant, too small, too actory, too Dick Powell.
He should have stuck with song and dance.
Check out Robert Mitchum in the 1975 Farewell My Lovely. Not the best Chandler movie but a great Marlowe.