Humphrey Bogart played Sam Spade in the Maltese Falcon in 1941, and then played Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep in 1946, but in between these two, we find Dick Powell playing Marlowe in Murder My Sweet (1944, director Edward Dmytryk) — an adaptation of Farewell My Lovely. History has been kinder to Humphrey Bogart, but most would argue that while Bogart may have been a definitive Sam Spade, Dick Powell does well to capture the charm and cynicism of Marlowe. In fact, he’s probably proved better at it than anybody else.
Whether it’s Bogart or Powell who win out at playing Marlowe, Edward Dmytryk managed to nail just about everything in terms of the noir concept in Murder My Sweet, creating a visual style that became hallmark noir, adding to the bag a sense of disorientation, out of focus shots, a blindfolded Marlowe, and drug induced scenes of surreal confusion. On top of this, the narration of Murder, My Sweet is smart but also frank in terms of how it describes Marlowe’s own competence, and basically generates an ironic difference between himself and the world.
Further, the trail of the action filmed entirely at night, it appears. The social strata of Los Angeles is pretty terrifying, from its low bars to mansions and beach houses, and Moose Molloy is probably one of the greatest grotesques in American fiction.
Noir is the place where psychoneurotic storytelling became the norm. Psychoanalysis began its compelling march to international fame in America after the First World War, a course likely aided by post-war neurosis. By the 1940s a popularised version of psychoanalysis was featuring in more than just a pocketful of movies, and one of the places it began to pop up the most was in noir — boosted by another exacerbating clutch of post-war complexes. This was plumbed by noir, and intensified. War is at least simple insofar as society has one goal throughout — victory. Post-war, aims and directions can be confused, and ideology begins to lose its credibility.
Murder My Sweet benefits from being closer to its source material than many Raymond Chandler adaptations. The plot is disjointed and aimless, but this is an illusion as there is a real structure from which hangs this trove of some of the grandest guignols in modern fiction.
The cliché of the client turning up in the detective’s office is at its most excessive — first Moose Molloy, the lovelorn gangster, who appears as an enormous reflection in the window of Marlowe’s downtown office — then Lindsay Marriott, who introduces the second plotline about a stolen jade necklace — and then the broad — the femme fatale — call her what you will. In Farewell My Lovely, it’s Anne Riordan.
It’s this succession of exaggerated adventurers, criminals and losers that flavour the story, pointing Marlowe to ever darker and nastier layers of the underworld. Finding the plot is difficult, but if you consider the story as the total result of Velma’s rise to become Mrs Grayle, an astonishing structure is revealed.
Plot implications far outwith the norm materialise as Chandler works back from this point, and at the same time, the entire fiction is still based on the action of the first page — a missing person case, prompted by Moose Molloy.
Although the title of Raymond Chandler’s novel ‘Farwell, My Lovely’ was changed to Murder, My Sweet — supposedly because distributors were concerned that potential viewers would think the film was a musical, especially given the presence of Dick Powell — it boasts more noir excess than many other films in the great noir cycle.
Hallucinatory distortions are the norm in fact, and unlike Sam Spade who is in control throughout The Maltese Falcon, Dick Powell as Christopher Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet is beaten, drugged, thumped, blinded and imprisoned, and it’s this hero’s loss of control gives a great feeling of paranoia.
As a movie, Murder My Sweet adds considerably to Farwell My Lovely, even metaphorically. To be sure, the film is framed as the story of a blind man, which opens up the possibilities of flashback structure as well as the voice over narration which allows quoting from Chandler, or at least an imitation of the Chandler style.
Even better are the montage sequences which must have been inspired by surreal cinema, which capture those moments in the novel when Marlowe is mugged and also describe the experiences he has on drugs — always probably better seen on film than described in prose.
All in, Murder My Sweet reveals an entire raft of noir hallmarks — violence, crime, eroticism, powerlessness and the gallery of the grotesque.
The quotes are sensational, of course:
Ann Grayle: You know, I think you're nuts. You go barging around without a very clear idea of what you're doing. Everybody bats you down, smacks you over the head, fills you full of stuff... and you keep right on hitting between tackle and end. I don't think you even know which SIDE you're on.
Philip Marlowe: I don't know which side anybody's on. I don't even know who's playing today.
In the 1940s, noir excelled because of the balance between the scandalous nature of the material, and the requirements of the Production Code. In fact, the Code seems to have created this genre by proxy, replete with illicit relationships, criminal adventures and psychological revolt.
The best thing about Murder, My Sweet, which ranks it high in the canon, is that it not only features all of this, but destabilises it also, almost creating noir singlehandedly.