Monday, February 15, 2010

"He died in 1940, in the middle of a glass of beer. His wife Jessie finished it for him."

Wave a gun in my face and ask me what my favorite genre is, and I’ll tell you its film noir, but only after I’ve managed to pick a few choice expletives expressing alarm and surprise. Its true though. More than Comedy, more than Science Fiction, even more than my beloved category of “Movies With Swords,” Film Noir scratches that storytelling itch like no other; where plot, characters and dialog get together and scheme some dirty business in a smoke filled room. Its also a genre so visually stylish that its always italicized. Now that’s classy. While the trench coat and fedora set is the accepted milieu, its not essential, just helps. What’s really important is the darker side of human nature, situations that get ugly and never wrap up neatly, and the gloomy grayscale presentation that’s devoid of all color.

One of the biggest names in the genre is Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler’s hard boiled private eye who’s more or less the guy who gets emulated the most in parodies and inferior rip-offs. Marlowe’s been put on the screen a bunch of times, and 1944’s Murder, My Sweet is a good place as any to start.

L.A. detective Philip Marlowe is hired by a petty crook just out of jail to find his old girlfriend. While that investigation begins, he also gets hired by a rich man to accompany him as protection on a midnight handoff of a good chunk of change in exchange for the return of some valuable jade. Marlowe gets socked with a blackjack and finds Mr. Fancy Pants dead in the car. The next day, he gets hired by the real owner of the jade to get it back discreetly, somehow. Then things get messy.

Philip Marlowe: Dick Powell, who was previously typecast as a nice guy crooner, plays against type here as the narrator and hard-boiled guy who’s trying to figure out what the hell’s going on. Marlowe’s a complex character; a tough talking, cynical guy who’d cuff you one for calling him an intellectual without denying it. He’s also famous for having an unbreakable code of honor that gets the tar kicked out of him more often than not, and Marlowe takes quite a beating in this picture. They don’t get much more badass than him.

Mr. Grayle: Miles Mander is an old rich man with a trophy wife. The missing jade was a gift from him to his wife, and he’s the one who calls in Marlowe to find the piece.

Mrs. Helen Grayle: Claire Trevor is a beautiful, wealthy woman who’s the owner of the missing jade. The dead guy was one of her lovers on the side, and she…encourages Marlowe to recover the jewelry. You could cut the tension between her and the detective with a fork.

Ann Grayle: Anne Shirley is Mr. Grayle’s daughter from a previous marriage, and she hates Helen. She’s got quite a bit of tension with Marlowe as well.

Jules Amthor: Otto Kruger (from Dracula’s Daughter) plays some kind of psychologist who’s got a mystique of some mystical woogie-woogie to help his clients, but he admits to Marlowe that he’s a quack running a pretty lucrative racket. He’s crooked and connected to Mrs. Grayle.

Moose Malloy: Mike Mazurki is the heavy that hires Marlowe in the first place to find his girl. Moose is a big brute of a guy who’s slow on the uptake and has something of a temper, but he’s more a figure of pity than a villain. That may be so, but he’s not the kind of guy that takes well to being hit.

Dr. Sonderborg: Ralf Harolde is an associate of Amthor’s, a crooked doctor who’s involved in some pretty bad stuff. Marlowe gets drugged and put into his “care” for a stretch of time. Guess how please our hero is about THAT situation.

Edward Dmytryk makes really good use of the standard film noir elements, but the film also goes for some more experimental shots. For instance, we cut to a nightclub, but the establishing shot is a spotlight cutting horizontally through a dark room and the camera pans down until it stops on a singer. There’s also a section where Marlowe gets drugged by some bad dudes and the movie goes into a really well done dream/hallucination sequence that uses a lot of camera and editing tricks. Then there’s my favorite scene where Marlowe’s waiting outside for someone and he’s standing next to a cherub statue, looks at it for a second, then lights a match on its ass.

Raymond Chandler wrote the novel “Farewell, My Lovely” and John Paxton wrote the screenplay, the story is chock full of that Raymond Chandler goodness. Double crosses, intrigue, femme fatales, whip-smart dialogue and at the center of it a good man in a dirty world trying to make something right.

Roy Webb did the score for it and the music works great for the mood and situation.

Raymond Chandler apparently called Dick Powell his favorite actor to play Marlowe, and I can see why. He’s outstanding in it, but so is the rest of the cast. Murder, My Sweet may not be the most famous film noir out there (we’ll get to some of those in a bit), but it gets major points for effort and experimentation. Totally recommended.

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