Murder, My Sweet (1944)

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As planned, I knocked off Saturday night by 11:00 to hunker down with TCM’s weekly Noir Alley feature, hosted by ‘The Czar Of Noir’ Eddie Muller, for RKO’s 1944 Murder, My Sweet. Not unlike Warner Brothers’ 1941 classic The Maltese Falcon, many consider Murder, My Sweet a kind of ‘proto-noir’, exhibiting all the style, queues and characteristics we associate with film noir, even though it was made before the post-WWII period some scholarly types prefer to pinpoint as the noir era.

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Directed by noir-maestro Edward Dmytryk, the film’s a pretty faithful adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s 1940 novel Farewell, My Lovely, which had already been done without the Phillip Marlowe character as part of the Falcon film series in 1942’s The Flacon Takes Over. A few things are changed, some plot points downplayed or eliminated due to production code limitations, such as the key character’s obvious homosexuality (which remains hinted at none too subtly), and a narcotics operation. Early on when private eye Marlowe reluctantly starts his search for missing nightclub songbird Velma Valento, the bar is no longer a segregated African American club. Even Los Angeles’ infamous offshore gambling boat scene is discarded, not due to any censorship, but only because the studio didn’t want to offend the real-life gangsters in charge or the bigwigs who patronized them.

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The title change makes sense in hindsight. This film would re-launch actor Dick Powell’s career, and following an initial Minneapolis test screening under the novel’s Farewell, My Lovely title, it was decided that audiences would rightly expect a lightweight musical or romantic comedy with Powell’s name on the marquee. Powell (real name, born 1904) had been a very successful pretty boy singer/dancer throughout the 1930’s, but at age 40, it was time to reinvent his image. He’d actively campaigned for – and lost – the Fred MacMurray role in Double Indemnity. This was his big chance to start a whole new phase, and he acquitted himself well here, going on to star in a number of high-profile film noir classics and 1950’s crime melodramas, as well as taking over in the director’s chair.

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Murder, My Sweet was also intended to reinvigorate Claire Trevor’s stalled career. Trevor (born Claire Wemlinger in 1910) had recently been relegated to B-movies and westerns, and not always in the lead. But her performance here as the lusty trophy wife of a quirky but wealthy old codger pretty much steams up the screen. Even so, some say she was upstaged by former child star Anne Shirley (born Dawn Evelyeen Paria in 1918) as Trevor’s spoiled but feisty stepdaughter. Shirley sizzles in this film, which sadly was her last, choosing to retire at a young 26. But what a way to bow out.

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Dymtryk, later one of the infamous Hollywood Ten in the Red Scare era, is the brilliant director of films like Crossfire, The Caine Mutiny and Walk On The Wild Side. Here he deploys a bag of B-movie tricks to squeeze out every ounce of irony, sass and stunning visuals from the locations, sets and each actor’s performance. There are just so many memorable shots and sequences in this film, my own favorite coming early on when flashing neon sign lights make hulking thug Moose Malloy’s threatening reflection appear and disappear in the private eye Phillip Marlowe’s office window.

Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely was made again in 1975 with the real title, this time starring a world-weary Robert Mitchum as Phillip Marlowe, along with Charlotte Rampling and Sylvia Miles, and even a young pre-Rocky Sylvester Stallone in a small part as a lovesick brothel thug.

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