Murder, My Sweet (MMS) forever changed the career of its star Dick Powell (not to be confused with William Powell from my recent After the Thin Man post). Arkansas native Powell began his career as a singer with Charlie Davis’s orchestra before Hollywood grabbed him, eventually steering Powell’s career path from juvenile crooners in such musicals as 42nd Street, Dames, Gold Diggers of 1933, and Flirtation Walk (read Classic Filmboy’s post about it here!) to hard-boiled detectives, ex-cons trying to resume their lives only to find themselves in deeper trouble, and other noble tough guys in such suspense thrillers as Cornered (1945), Johnny O’Clock (1947), Cry Danger, and The Tall Target (both 1951). (Dick Powell did some nifty comedies, too, but that’s a blog post for another time.)
Although Howard Hawks’ film version of The Big Sleep (1946) is still my favorite adaptation of author Raymond Chandler’s novels about the tough yet noble L.A. private detective Philip Marlowe, MMS is a darn close second. How close? Thisclose! I like Powell’s portrayal of Marlowe as a noble and essentially decent man, insouciant yet soulful, and nobody’s fool. In certain ways, it seems to me that in Humphrey Bogart’s portrayal of Marlowe in The Big Sleep, he has a better shot at getting the best of the bad guys, as well as getting the girls (especially in a Hawks film!), though his heart eventually belonged to Lauren Bacall’s Vivian Rutledge. In MMS, by contrast, Powell’s Marlowe comes across to me as a likable, determined underdog who keeps on pitching without losing his wry sense of humor.
|Dick Powell witnesses film history as Claire Trevor|
performs film noir's first facepalm!
Despite the doubts voiced by Powell’s fiancée June Allyson, he was determined to go out for hard-boiled roles. No doubt Powell also realized that at the age of 40, he was a tad long in the tooth to play a juvenile anything. But Powell jumped right in, looking for the right role. For starters, he seemed to be the only leading man in Hollywood eager to tackle the role of antihero Walter Neff in Double Indemnity, bless him! But Double Indemnity was a Paramount production, and Powell was under contract to RKO, so Powell had to wait until MMS to repurpose himself as a big-screen tough guy. It was well worth the wait, as Powell turned out to be one of the finest actors to play Philip Marlowe. Even June Allyson approved of the finished product! (Powell and Allyson wed and had a long, happy marriage until his death in 1963 from complications of the cancer the entire cast eventually suffered after filming The Conquerer. But that, too, is a story for another time.) For more about the fascinating life and times of Dick Powell, click this link to Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings and her awesome birthday salute from last November!
|Marlowe goes “grouse-hunting,”|
and finds out it’s Moose season!
|Guilt’s written all over Lindsay Marriott’s face—and coat!|
“I caught the blackjack right behind my ear. A black pool opened up at my feet. I dived in. It had no bottom. I felt pretty good—like an amputated leg.”
Our man Marlowe wakes up to find Marriott beaten to death in the car, and a young woman shining a flashlight in his face, asking if he’s all right. Clearly the pretty young interrogator was expecting someone else, because she hightails it outta there but quick! Marlowe wants to get to the bottom of this: “I’d like to know who, besides me, might have killed Marriott. He gave me one hundred dollars to take care of him and I didn’t. I’m just a small businessman in a very messy business, but I like to follow through on a sale.” Soon Marlowe is up to his eyeballs in violence and suspense, wrapped in a case involving:
- A missing jade necklace valuable enough to kill for;
- Kidnapping Marlowe, including drugging him to keep him quiet or make him talk, as needed;
- Lewin Lockridge Grayle (Miles Mander in a poignant performance), the rich, elderly jade expert who really owns the missing jade necklace;
- Jules Amthor (Otto Kruger), a distinguished-looking gent who airily admits, “I am in a very sensitive profession, Mr. Marlowe. I am a quack. Which is to say, I’m ahead of my time in the field of psychic treatment.”
- Romance with two very different women: the wholesomely lovely Ann Grayle (Anne Shirley), and Helen Grayle (Claire Trevor), the hot “big league blonde” stepmother who Ann loathes and Grayle loves practically to the point of obsession.
|The coaster is clear!|
In their TCM Web site articles, Frank Miller & Felicia Feaster noted that Powell wasn’t the only actor to chafe against typecasting in MMS: “Anne Shirley and Claire Trevor both conspired to do a little acting-against-type of their own, and petitioned for the proverbial good girl Anne to play the scheming fatale and for Claire, used to playing molls and floozies, to play the ‘good and dull’ (as Anne put it) nice girl. But to no avail: conventional typecasting was followed and the actresses delivered expected versions of their usual screen personas…As a consolation prize, Shirley demanded that her heiress character at least get to wear a mink coat, a bit of glamour missing from her usual run of working-class characters.” Personally, I thought Shirley and Trevor were perfect in their roles—a classic case of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” What’s wrong with playing to your strengths?
The great supporting cast includes Otto Kruger (Saboteur, Hitler’s Children, Wonder Man) as smooth, sinister quack Jules Amthor, who also has a racket in which pretty boys like the late Mr. Marriott take pretty women like Helen Grayle dancing and driving only to become hold-up victims, not taking lives. But Marriott’s death changes things, as our man Marlowe later explains to Police Lieutenant Randall (Don Douglas):
“Amthor’s a tough cookie. He works some kind of complicated (psychological) routine on gals with broken-down libidos. I think Marriott was his contact man…The jewelry Marriott was supposed to be buying back was a jade necklace belonging to one of Amthor’s patients, worth about one hundred thousand dollars. Marriott might have been crossing up Amthor, I don’t know. Anyway, he fumbled the ball…Amthor figured I must’ve picked it up. He figured wrong; I disappointed him. I didn’t have the jewelry, and I didn’t talk. But he has a little rest home where you learn to talk. It’s operated by a guy who calls himself Dr. Sonderborg. He’s a whiz with a hypo. He’s at 23rd and Descanso.”
|I bet Marlowe wishes he was in that romantic Spellbound door-opening scene instead of |
Dr. Sonderborg's House of Horrors! Where’s Ingrid Bergman when you need her?
At Florian’s, they don’t care what Semisonic sings;
it ain’t closing time until Moose says so!
This particular Chandler tale was filmed three times over the years, and its first version wasn’t even a Philip Marlowe movie! The novel was first adapted into an entry in the Falcon series in 1942, namely The Falcon Takes Over, starring Suave Hall of Famer George Sanders. They plugged the plot of Farewell... into one of Michael Arlen’s Falcon adventures, packing as many of the characters as possible into its 65-minute running time. Heck of a cast, too: Ward Bond as Moose Malloy; Team B. fave Hans Conreid as Lindsay Marriott; and Turhan Bey as Jules Amthor! I’ve only seen it in bits and pieces, and I’d love to catch up with the whole film sometime. MMS was the next version of Chandler’s story. I also loved the third version, Dick Richards’ 1975 remake of Farewell, My Lovely with the great Robert Mitchum at his world-weary, sleepy-eyed best, and Sylvia Miles was deservedly nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance as Jessie Florian. (I saw it in our local bijou when I was 12; I forget whether I saw it with my mom or my older brother Peter, but to this day I’ve never forgotten the film itself!) Maybe I need to do another blog post sometime comparing all the different versions of the film!
|I dress up, I dress down...|
Many of Powell’s noir films were written and/or produced by New Jersey native Adrian Scott, including the Oscar-nominated drama Crossfire; the aforementioned Cornered; Mr. Lucky; The Boy with Green Hair; and Deadline at Dawn. For a while, it was something of a family affair when Scott married MMS co-star Anne Shirley shortly before MMS was released. Unfortunately, both Scott and Dmytryk were blacklisted as two of the Hollywood 10, which didn’t do the marriage any good. Indeed, Shirley eventually left Scott with a “Dear John” letter. That said, Shirley ended up having a long, happy marriage to screenwriter Charles Lederer, whose many scripts included The Thing from Another World (1951) and Kiss of Death. Although Scott’s blacklisting kept him from working under his own name in Hollywood at that time, he still wrote as a front for the British television series The Adventures of Robin Hood with his second wife, Joan LaCour.
|I'll show RKO I can too play slinky film noir dames!|
|Moose thinks the price of cab rides is un-fare!|
TCM Web site, MMS came out even before The Big Sleep, and it’s considered to be the most faithful to both the plot and the spirit of Chandler’s original novel. I wouldn’t be surprised if the success of MMS got my man Howard Hawks thinking “Hey, we could totally do a flick like that!” or words to that effect.
|Aw, so romantic! Does that mean love really is blind?|