“It’s a long story and not pretty”

murdermyMurder, My Sweet (1944), 95 mins, Blu-ray

Actually it is a short story and it is absolutely very pretty- the cinematography, the women. Just look at that image above, in which Marlowe is sitting in his office looking at the night-time streets beyond his office, when in the flicker of the neon lights he suddenly sees the reflection of a brutish man standing behind him. Its an arresting moment and one that typifies the impressive noir lighting. But regards that story- well, I had a grip for the first fifteen minutes but beyond that I was mystified throughout, which detracted from my enjoyment of the film. This might be a case (sic) when a noir’s tightly-paced plot and brevity, usually a big plus, actually works against it., as I think a two-hour running time and a more sedate pace may have helped it no end- but then again, I may be missing the point. Maybe we’re supposed to be left guessing throughout, frustratingly feeling like we’re still floundering in the previous reel, bewildered and behind everything that’s going on.

By the end of the film, I felt dizzy and even Marlowe explaining everything left me at a loss.

Murder, My Sweet opens with private investigator Philip Marlowe (Dick Powell), his eyes bandaged due to injury, being interrogated by police as a murder suspect. Marlowe tells them the events of a case that has left him in this predicament –  first he was hired by brutish ex-con Joe “Moose” Malloy (Mike Mazurki) to find his girlfriend, Velma Valento, who he lost track of while he was in prison for eight years. While investigating this case, Marlowe is then hired by sweet-smelling dapper Lindsay Marriott (Douglas Walton) for protection when Marriott’s to meet someone in a secluded area to buy back a lady’s jewellery. However, the meet goes awry, Marlowe is knocked unconscious and later awoken by a mysterious woman who flees, and Marlowe discovers Marriott is dead.

The next day Marlowe is approached in his office by Ann Grayle (Anne Shirley) who claims that the missing jewellery belonged to her father Leuwen Grayle (Miles Mander) and her stepmother Helen (Claire Trevor), who Ann despises. Marlowe later goes to visit the Grayle’s who live in a huge mansion (“but it wasn’t as big as Buckingham Palace,” observes Marlowe with his usual sarcastic wit). where he discovers that Helen is decades younger than the sixty-five year old Leuwen, and that Helen may have been the victim of’ ‘psychic consultant’ Jules Amthor (Otto Kruger), someone well-known to the police as a blackmailer.

Eventually Marlowe learns that Malloy works for Amthor, and that the two cases are indeed linked, but by that point I was already fairly at a loss and by the end… well, summarising the story here helps a little but I still can’t say that I’m comfortable with it, remaining puzzled by elements at the end. Well, I guess that’s the advantage of Blu-rays, its easy to re-watch and piece the puzzle together, but I’d contend that if the film worked properly that shouldn’t be necessary.

There were a few familiar faces in this film- primarily Otto Kruger, an actor gifted (or cursed, it depends on what one thinks of typecasting and regular gigs) for playing untrustworthy types/ slimy villains, as evidenced by roles in Power of the Press, 711 Ocean Drive, and Escape in the Fog.  Murder, My Sweet‘s lead, Dick Powell was, at the time, famous as a star of Hollywood musicals, and this was a deliberate attempt at a career-adjustment for him as he approached middle-age; I’ve only seen him before this in the superior Johnny O’Clock, which he made a few years after, the title role of which suited him better than does Marlowe here. I guess if I saw him in one of those musicals I’d be in for a shock and perhaps appreciate his turn in something like this all the more.

But I certainly can’t help wondering, considering some of the films I’ve seen over the past several months, what Robert Ryan would have brought to it, if he’d been cast as Marlowe in something like this. Physically at least he’d have been a better fit, and likely with his innate intensity more believable as the life-worn cynic most private detectives seem to be.

murdermy2Curiously, I was most taken by Ann Shirley, who played the beautiful Ann Gayle, eventual romantic muse of Marlowe and who proves a mysterious figure appearing in and out of the film (she’s the woman who awakes Marlowe to find Marriott is dead). Its a fine performance and I was amazed to discover that Murder, My Sweet would be her last film, at just twenty-six years old. According to her bio, she’d already made 60+ films at that point, a child actress who became increasingly weary of the Hollywood rat race and decided to call it a day. After nearly 70 appearances in just over twenty years its understandable, and  I guess Murder, My Sweet wasn’t a bad film to end one’s career with, but on the evidence of her performance here I think its a pity.

Murder, My Sweet isn’t a bad film at all- I was just perplexed by its hectic, labyrinthine plot which I hope will prove easier to decipher on subsequent viewings. I’m increasingly of the opinion that with some of these noir, reviewing them after just one viewing may do them a disservice and indeed there are one or two recent examples –NIghtmare Alley (1947) and The Reckless Moment (1949)- that I have seen and greatly enjoyed which I’ve been hesitant regards posting reviews of because, well, I think I need a further viewing to do them proper justice. Perhaps Murder, My Sweet should have been another, but we’ll see when I revisit it (that re-watch roster is getting to be a long list).

2 thoughts on ““It’s a long story and not pretty”

  1. I’ve found that many films noir can be a bit bewildering on first viewing, just trying to keep some of the plotlines straight is a big ask. Subsequent viewings allow me to enjoy other aspects of the movie since I can relax to an extent. That said, Chandler’s work isn’t the easiest to make sense of at the best of times – I’m sure you know the famous bit of lore about the filming of The Big Sleep leaving Howard Hawks, Leigh Brackett, Faulkner et al lost when it came to working out who killed the chauffeur. In desperation they are said to have called up Chandler to see if he could throw any light on it, to which he allegedly claimed not to a notion either.

    As for Powell, I really like his Marlowe. Whenever I read Chandler I still tend to “hear” it in Bogart’s voice, but I also feel Powell runs him an awful close second.

  2. Pingback: How does it feel to be a decent, respectable married man? – the ghost of 82

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