Thursday 7 November 2013

Murder, My Sweet (1944)

Farvel, Min Elskede
Everybody knows the private detective Philip Marlowe. If not by name (there are people more ignorant than me) then as a concept: Trenchcoat, hat, voice-over, dark streets, complex murder mysteries. That character is an institution. What I did not know was how funny and entertaining that character can be.

“Murder, My Sweet” is thoroughly entertaining to a degree that I have to say I am not sure I had this good a time since I saw “The Awful Truth”. Everything in this film works out but condensed into one name that would be Dick Powell. Last time I saw him he was the romantic guy in a series of Busby Berkeley musicals. For “Murder, My Sweet” he has gone through a transformation and is reinvented as the tough, smart and cocky boyish detective. He is fantastic, like a 1940’ies Axel Foley with tons of charm, witty lines and a deadpan attitude and I wonder, is this really the same guy? I love this fellow. This is a crime story, but the comedy is bubbling underneath and only by keeping a straight face throughout does it stay a crime story. With a character like Powell’s Philip Marlowe this could have become really silly or a spoof on itself, but by taking itself serious throughout the film pulls it off. But man, it is funny.

The plot of the film is so complex that it is almost absurd. I will not even try explaining it. It is convoluted with people showing up out of the blue and being connected in unexpected and improbable ways. Attempts to follow the deductions Marlowe makes in his running commentary is bound to make you dizzy and more than once I was not a little confused. Instead of being annoying I actually felt it worked very well because Marlowe is just as confused. Often his “sharp” analysis is just a bluff, a shot, and he admits it willingly, but it often triggers a new avalanche of unexpected information, adding to the general confusion.

There are a plethora of characters, all of them with secrets, none of them what they appear to be, friend or foe? We keep getting surprises. My favorite is the half-wit, double-size ex-con Moose Malloy (Mike Mazurki). He is like a bulldozer without a driver, with an agenda he hardly knows himself. And then of course the girls: Pretty, innocent (?) Ann Grayle (Anne Shirley) and the blonde vamp Helen Grayle (Claire Trevor), women with more secrets and agendas than is good for them and both with a hungry eye for Marlowe.

“Murder, My Sweet” can be described as a mix between “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Thin Man”. The complex crime mystery and noir elements are straight off the Falcon while the approach with a sharp witted sarcastic, but charming (and thirsty) detective harks back to the non-stop party of “The Thin Man”. Combining these two elements into something this dark and threatening and so hilariously funny was a stroke of genius. In this incarnation it is not cliché, partly because it is so well done, partly because it was new, but the format has become a favorite for imitations, good or bad. Think “Naked Gun” or “Bladerunner” and countless in between.

The comparison with “The Maltese Falcon is quite appropriate. The theme of a detective becoming the focus of the plotting of a host of dodgy types is obviously a noir favorite and these two do that to perfection. The main difference is Bogart versus Powell. Bogart is the tough nail who keeps his head cool and navigates those murky waters with a rare skill. He calls the shots and is quick at turning the situation if he is on the defense. Powell on the other hand is almost the antihero. He gets beaten up, drugged, dragged around and pulled by his nose and yet he keeps getting back on his feet. His lines are not so much cool as they are sarcastic and a bit smart-ass or even jack-ass. It fits him. Powell is a great antihero. If Bogart is a real man then Powell is a real boy.  

This one could so easily have tipped and become silly. If the Grayle girls had started telling jokes, if Moose had started laughing or if Marlowe had shifted his balance from the slightly bitter ironic amusement to not taking the case and his predicament seriously this would have become a farce. This film walks a tightrope and only by keeping the straight face and taking itself serious does it work. We have to believe the story as unlikely as it is. If we realize how absurd it is or even worse, if the characters start thinking this is absurd then we get thrown off and this would be neither funny nor suspenseful.

But because the balance is exactly right this film works perfectly. I highly recommend it.


  1. I wasn't particularly excited about this film when I watched it because I wasn't sure I would buy Dick Powell as a noir detective. Man, was I wrong. I loved this one and it was a complete shock.

  2. Yes, that is a surprise. such a huge difference from the crooner in the Busby Berkeley musicals to the detective Philip Marlowe. And it does not look contrived either, he was made for this role.

  3. Like you and Steve, this movie rather bowled me over. Having endured all those silly Busby Berkeley musicals with Dick Powell, the idea of him starring in a hard-boiled detective noir seemed ridiculous, BUT HOLY CRAP IT WORKS. He is SO much better in this than those stupid early musicals. He's awesome, the film's awesome around him, everyone's on their game.... yeah, this is a great, fun movie. AGREED!

    1. Good to have you back, Siobhan.
      The book did prepare me for Dick Powell, but he took me with surprise as well. He is way way better here than in the musicals. Had he started here he would have been typecast as the mischievous private eye.