Sunday, January 8, 2017

Noir Reviews: Murder, My Sweet, December 1944

Today we go from a screenplay written by Chandler to a film based on a Chandler novel: Murder, My Sweet, directed by Edward Dmytryk and adapted from Farewell, My Lovely. It appears to be the first movie based on Chandler, beating The Big Sleep by a year and a half. It's also the first film in this series to feature an honest-to-God trenchcoat-wearing, chain-smoking, wisecracking private eye. Maybe Dick Powell's Marlowe is the one all those other laconic dicks are trying to be.

Now, I have to confess here that I'm a bit biased. I've read Farewell, My Lovely many times, which has tended to make me overly critical of Murder, My Sweet. Every little line that's altered, replaced, spoken by a character who didn't speak it in the novel, or repeated because the writer apparently thought it so effective ("cute as lace pants") makes the creative thought-process a little too obvious. Even the change in the title irritates me. Significant plot alterations make it worse, e.g., putting an actual jade necklace into play, turning spunky sidekick Anne Riordan into lady-in-distress Ann Grayle, and making a jealous jade-collecting husband central to the resolution. The omnipresent seediness of the novel is sanitized away. And it's got a cute, happy ending, which is not what we want in a film noir, especially one about a private detective.
A really good detective never gets married. He would lose his detachment, and this detachment is part of his charm. [Chandler, "Notes on the Mystery Story"]
Or, to put it more succinctly,

That said, considered on its own and not as an adaptation of a novel, there are worse ways to spend an hour and a half. Murder, My Sweet packs an insanely meandering plot with an assortment of bizarre characters into an incredibly narrow compass. The world it depicts is dark, dirty, and corrupt. The dialogue, being mostly Chandler's, is fast, sharp, and funny. And there are some interesting special effects sequences, particularly when Marlowe's hopped up on dope.

The femme fatale is played by the versatile Claire Trevor, already a bit past her prime but still with an Academy Award in her future (for playing a past-her-prime torch singer in John Huston's Key Largo). Mike Mazurki plays Moose Malloy. I'm fond of Mazurki, a pro-wrestler-turned-actor. He's not the best of actors, and he's not exactly what I imagine for Moose Malloy, but you can't deny that he makes a good big galoot. Two big galoots from the novel are actually combined into his character, which doesn't help the logic of the plot any, but his interactions with Marlowe are enjoyable to watch.

In general, however, everyone seems to be mouthing Chandler's dialogue rather than inhabiting it. I much prefer Humphrey Bogart and The Big Sleep, though that one also suffers from happy-ending-with-romantic-interest syndrome.

* * *

I give Murder, My Sweet a grade of C for commonplace on the following scale:
  • A: awesome noir film, to be owned and watched a zillion times or until you have it memorized
  • B: good (bueno) noir film with excellent passages but significant flaws, to be watched on occasion
  • C: fairly commonplace noir film, to be watched once or twice
  • D: dud of a noir film, to be avoided if possible
Others will disagree with this assessment. But I've got it in my DVD collection, and I've only watched it twice. What else can I award it?

High points in Murder, My Sweet include...well, nothing much stands out to me, sorry. I kind of like the swirling black clouds that appear whenever Marlowe is struck unconscious, which happens with disconcerting frequency. Takeaway quote:

"Only reason I took the job was because my bank account was trying to crawl under a duck."

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