Friday, March 27, 2009

Murder, My Sweet (1944)

Serendipity happens sometimes. Last night I re-watched MURDER, MY SWEET, based on the novel "Farewell, My Lovely" by Raymond Chandler, and DOUBLE INDEMNITY, based on a James M. Cain novel, with a screenplay by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler. All on the 50th anniversary of Chandler's death.

MURDER, MY SWEET was not the first time a Philip Marlowe novel was brought to the screen, but it was the first time Philip Marlowe was brought to the screen. In 1942, both "Farewell, My Lovely" and "The High Window" were used as source material for screenplays in existing silver screen mystery series. "Farewell, My Lovely" turned into THE FALCON TAKES OVER, third in the "Falcon" series with George Sanders, and "The High Window" became TIME TO KILL, seventh in the "Michael Shayne" series with Lloyd Nolan. But this was definitely the closest to the spirit of the Chandler novel.

Dick Powell, a musical star, fought for the role and proved himself the equal of this new tough-guy persona. Marlowe, bored and broke, agrees to help "Moose" Malloy (the great Mike Mazurki, but more about him later), recently released from prison, find his old girlfriend. He starts his search, but is waylaid by another job, as security for a jewel-heist payoff. The payoff goes wrong, Marlowe is knocked unconscious, and wakes up next to a dead body. Things go downhill from there.

This film, like LAURA, has a voice-over and is told in flashback, giving it the same dream-like quality of memory. But this film expands on that imagery by drugging Marlowe and showing us his deluded nightmares, of giant hypodermics, doors that lead to more doors, and the relentless pursuit by an emotionless doctor (thanks to double exposure) that makes it both dream-like and strange. The imagery is also boosted by the most extensive use of the german-influenced low-key lighting so far in the series. Its purpose may not always be clear, but is certainly striking and adds to the mood, from shadows lurking behind characters shoulders, to window lettering shadowed onto the chest of a prospective client, to the image of Claire Trevor, prone on a couch in total darkness, puffs of smoke reaching to the light each time she exhales.

There is also the erotic about this film, in the form of Claire Trevor who, according to my count, romances at least five men in the film. She is countered by the virginal Anne Shirley, a scrappy young red-headed girl next door, folded into the mystery for the sake of her father. The violence and cruelty are heightened from LAURA's levels. Malloy physically threatens Marlowe on many occasions, several people are shot, eyes are scorched, and there is a fairly graphic metaphor in lieu of a description of a corpse.

In short, this may be the most classically noir of the series yet. And in so doing, it may be the least accessible to modern audiences. The voice-over and dialogue represent the detached cynicism of the time, but they also provided rich fodder for subsequent parodies and send-ups. Without context, it can sound jokey. I saw this film with an audience in January and I was disappointed to hear them laugh through most of it. But this is not a new phenomenon. Borde and Chaumeton tell of a 1953 screening, just 7 years after it had been released in France, that also produced laughter in the audience. Film noir was already beginning to reflect itself.

Next time: Double Indemnity

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