Directed by: Edward Dmytryk.
Written by: John Paxton based on the novel by Raymond Chandler.
Starring: Dick Powell (Philip Marlowe), Claire Trevor (Mrs. Helen Grayle), Anne Shirley (Ann Grayle), Otto Kruger (Jules Amthor), Mike Mazurki (Moose Malloy), Miles Mander (Mr. Grayle), Douglas Walton (Lindsay Marriott), Donald Douglas (Police Lieutenant Randall), Ralf Harolde (Dr. Sonderborg), Esther Howard (Jessie Florian).
In many ways, Edward Dmytryk’s Murder, My Sweet is a prototypical film noir, even if it never quite becomes a great one. It has all the elements of noir, some fine performances, excellent camera work and twisty story that takes several unexpected plot twists. The final scene is a little too lightweight and happy for my taste in noir – which runs darker – and really for any movie based on a Raymond Chandler Marlowe novel – whose endings were always bleaker than this (as it was in the novel, Farewell My Lovely that is the basis for this movie). It’s a fine film noir – and a reasonably good adaptation of Chandler. But it never quite reaches the level of greatness.
I like Roger Ebert’s description of the plot of The Long Goodbye – another Chandler novel turned into a movie in that the “plot can summarized in one sentence or endlessly” – and that’s true of all of Chandler’s novels, where the plots were hugely complex, involved many different characters, and yet somehow all comes together in the end (or at least we think they do – even if Chandler had to admit he didn’t always know what happened). Here, the basic plot involves Moose Malloy (Mike Mazurki) who comes to find Marlowe after spending a few years in jail. Before he got sent up, we was in love with a girl named Verna – and he wants Marlowe to find her for him. He’s been back to the club she used to work for, and they say they don’t know her. Marlowe isn’t quite so sure they’re telling the truth, so he starts digging deeper. He’s also hired by Lindsay Marriott to be his bodyguard on what he thinks will be a simple task – he’s to head out and buy back some jewels that belong to a friend of his that were stolen. Things don’t go as planned. As in many film noirs, there are two girls – a potential femme fatale in Mrs. Helen Grayle (Claire Trevor) – the younger wife of a rich man, whose jewels were the ones stolen, and the so-called “good girl” Ann Grayle (Anne Shirley) – Helen’s step daughter – who doesn’t trust her stepmother. There’s an assortment of other lowlifes, and cops, and everyone else you’d expect to find in a noir.
Marlowe is played by Dick Powell – who is the screen’s first official Marlowe (two other adaptations of Chandler’s novels, including a 1942 film based on the same novel were made, but both change the character’s name). His Marlowe isn’t quite as good as the best screen Marlowe’s – Bogart in The Big Sleep (1946), Gould in The Long Goodbye (1973) or Mitchum in Farewell, My Lovely (1975) – but it’s pretty good. It’s more of a surface performance, with Powell relishing the clever dialogue he is given to deliver – and also having fun being smarter than everyone else in the movie. Powell has a bemused grin – he’s not taking this too seriously – accept in the bookending scenes (unnecessary in my opinion) as he recounts for the police everything that happened.
Powell’s performance could describe the movie itself – it’s full of surface charm, without much in the way of substance beneath it. The best film noirs, of course, had style to spare – and Dmytryk’s direction certainly has that in this film – but get deeper into the darkness of wartime, and post wartime, America. Chandler’s novels often tapped into this darkness as well. This film just skims the surface of that darkness. Most film noir isn’t fun – but Murder, My Sweet is quite fun.
There are things to like about the movie – Claire Trevor would do far better work in noirs over the next decade, but she’s in fine form here, honing her craft. The screenplay is clever, and Powell is fun to watch. The “love story” between him and Ann doesn’t fit in with the rest of the movie – in particular in the final scene, which rings false.
Overall though, Murder, My Sweet is fine, if somewhat lightweight, film noir. It’s one of the films that helped establish many of the archetypes of film noir – which better, deeper films would use in the coming years in one of the best genres in film history.