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Murder, My Sweet
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by Jay Seaver

"The first Philip Marlowe, and a heck of a start."
5 stars

In the space of barely more than two years, four different studios released four different adaptations of Raymond Chandler novels with four different actors playing Philip Marlowe, a situation that seems almost inconceivable today. The second and third are the best-known, because "The Big Sleep" is an all-time classic while "The Lady in the Lake" is an interesting experiment, if a failed one, while the fourth ("The Brasher Doubloon") is almost completely unknown. This first one is quite good, and even knowing "The Big Sleep" was being made at about the same time doesn't make it any sort of a disappointment.

In this tale, private detective Philip Marlowe (Dick Powell) finds himself with two cases: First, a walking slab of meat by the name of Moose Malloy (Mike Mazurki) just back from eight years in the joint wants him to track down his old girl; there's also nervous fellow Lindsay Marriott (Douglas Walton) who needs backup making an illicit payment. The second should at least be straightforward, but it's a setup that also pulls in Ann Grayle (Anne Shirley), her wealthy father (Miles Mander), and his much-younger wife Helen (Claire Trevor), who appears connected to both Marriott and Jules Amthor (Otto Kruger), whose quackery is so ill-defined as to barely disguise his actual activities.

It's no surprise that there was such a rush to adapt Chandler's books in the mid-1940s (and in spurts since); they're great reads, and if Chandler's creation of a tough private eye who punctuates surprisingly eloquent narration with self-deprecating wisecracks wasn't entirely unique, it has seldom if ever been improved upon. At times, screenwriter John Paxton and director Edward Dmytryk struggle with that, especially when they try to drop prose from the novel right into the film as Marlowe gets knocked unconscious - moments when a film becomes as subjective as prose stick out a bit when the rest is conventional. They wind up about fifty-fifty on narrative flourishes.

What they do get right is how Marlowe is both a natural part of the world in which he operates and a contrast to it. There's something genuinely seedy about the business here; the hallways in the office building where Marlowe has his offices don't appear to have been swept for weeks, even the client hiring him on behalf of wealthier folks seems disreputable, and the actual work involves a lot of active sneaking and spying. It wouldn't be like that in The Big Sleep, where General Sternwood took an immediate shine to his detectives and Marlowe could hang back and follow suspects rather than really getting in and invading their privacy. It's a dirty business, and Marlowe can be as abrasive and occasionally amoral as the people he has to deal with in it.

That's not what makes him such a great character, even though Dick Powell can rattle off a snappy comeback as well as anybody. It's that he is smart and a romantic at heart, even if he tries to smother his nobler impulses because he knows the trouble they lead to. Powell's Marlowe talks tough but is always a sucker for a beautiful woman, even if it takes him a while to get to the point where he can trust and admire her. Some of his most entertaining scenes come against Mike Mazurki as Moose, where Powell bounces between sympathy, fear, and detached amusement at the dumb, heartbroken, and dangerous beast.

Mazurki is fun there, too, playing what is at times a comical thug with genuine menace. He's just one member of a fine gallery of supporting actors, with Claire Trevor, Douglas Walton, and Otto Kruger all giving the audience plenty of reason not to take their characters at face value while keeping them unique varieties of fun to watch while they're on screen. The same goes for Anne Shirley; she makes Ann Grayle an appealing partner for Marlowe as well as quietly capturing just how her character must find her father tremendously frustrating.

Shirley mostly hitting the right note is probably more important than it seems; even in 1944, audiences were probably canny enough to watch a mystery and just by applying the "it's always the person that looks most innocent" rule decode that the nice young girl is more likely than the wicked stepmother, so it's nice that Shirley, Dmytryk, Paxton, et al, give her a little reason to draw suspicion even if she is the one Marlowe naturally pairs with; it keeps a lot of things fair game even if the viewer is going by rules rather than clues. It's an enjoyable mystery in general, with the right balance of clues that need digging up and ones that are sitting right there, twists that never lose the plot, and characters that are appealing whether they turn out to be doing good or evil.

Powell would actually revisit the character of Philip Marlowe a decade or so later on TV, in an episode of "Climax!", and I'd like to see that, as well as some more of the dozen or so other takes on the character that have been committed to film (they have been an incredibly varied lot). It's not quite "The Big Sleep" (little is), but it's entertaining in part for how it goes at the same sort of material differently, which is always welcome when comparison to a classic is inevitable.

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originally posted: 12/04/15 16:47:27
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User Comments

3/22/09 Josie Cotton is a goddess This movie has some of the best dialogue ever written 5 stars
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  DVD: 06-Jul-2004



Directed by
  Edward Dmytryk

Written by
  John Paxton

  Dick Powell
  Claire Trevor
  Anne Shirley
  Otto Kruger
  Mike Mazurki
  Miles Mander

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