While not as famous as The Maltese "first film noir ever" Falcon or that other outing with fictional detective Philip Marlowe, The Big Sleep, Murder My Sweetis just as every bit as delicious a noir. Dick Powell's Marlowe faces tough cops, rough villains and a super-smooth femme fatale as he tries to solve two cases.
Director Edward Dmytryk's genius is established in the opening shot and directly after. The film begins with a blindfolded man sitting under a bright light, surrounded by hostile cops whose dark suits make them blend into the shadowy room. Accused of murder, Marlowe, the blinded man, begins to tell his story in flashback. His injuries cast a sense of doom over the rest of the film. So do the lighting and photography of this scene, visually and symbolically representing the great odds against him.
In flashback, Marlowe recounts sitting in his office in the dark, looking outside at the city with its blinking neon lights. One moment Marlowe's looking at the view of the city, the next the blinking neon light is off and he's staring at the reflection of a stranger who's snuck up behind him. It's a brilliant shot, personifying the dangerousness of the dark city in the form of Marlowe's new client, Moose Malloy.
Moose, newly released from prison, hires Marlowe to find his long-gone girlfriend, Velma. While given the run-around by Velma's ex-employer, Marlowe picks up another case, providing protection to gigolo Marriott as Marriott attempts to buy back stolen jewels for a woman friend, Mrs. Grayle. The buy-back goes wrong; Marlowe is beaten unconscious and Marriott is killed. Here Marlowe's voice over dialogue, straight from Raymond Chandler's novel, is crisp and wry: "He [Marriott] was doubled up on his face in that bag of old clothes position that always means the same thing. He had been killed by an amateur. Or by somebody who wanted it to look like an amateur job. Nobody else would hit a man that many times with a sap."
Having failed Marriott, Marlowe is committed to retrieving the stolen jade for elderly wealthy Mr. Grayle and his young and beautiful second wife Mrs. Grayle. To her step-daughter Ann's disgust, Mrs. Grayle promptly tries to seduce Marlowe so that he'll protect her from Jules Amthor, who's been blackmailing Mrs. Grayle over her affair with Marriott. Believing that Marlowe possesses the jade, Amthor goes after Marlowe, aided ably by none other than Moose.
The plot is enjoyably twisty and Marlowe's two cases are combined in a more supple fashion than in The Big Sleep, whose plot is a rather awkward combination of two short stories by Raymond Chandler. The big combo works better in Murder My Sweet because the twists ultimately make sense. Or at least, they did up till the point my brain got tired.
In comparison to The Big Sleep's Bogart, Powell can't quite make Marlowe the ultimate tough guy detective, coming off a bit sulky at times. Yet Powell takes the Marlowe persona farther. Bogart's tough guy demeanour makes his Marlowe invincible but Powell's Marlowe gets taken by surprise, beaten unconscious, held prisoner and pumped full of drugs. He stumbles his way to the truth, even openly declaring, "I guessed wrong" when he accuses Ann of getting close to him so that he won't look too closely at her father as a suspect in Marriott's murder. This Marlowe is more human, going through hell and looking like it.
On the other hand Claire Trevor always looks glamorous as the unfaithful Mrs. Grayle. She's a master, smoothly switching back and forth between seductress and scared little girl to get what she wants. The most high-voltage scene in the film takes place between her and Ann Shirley, who plays her stepdaughter Ann. There's more than a shading of an Oedipal conflict between these two as they wrangle first over Ann's beloved father and then over Marlowe himself.
Bizarre love triangles, a hero who takes a lickin' and keeps on tickin', and a beautifully moody atmosphere--they're all here and they're what make Murder such a sweet treat.
(November 28, 2000)