Filmsite Movie Review
Murder, My Sweet (1944)
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Murder, My Sweet (1944) was to be released with the original title of its literary source, writer Raymond Chandler's 1940 novel Farewell, My Lovely, although it was changed so that fans of 30s song-and-dance star Dick Powell, portraying the main character, wouldn't think the film was a musical comedy.

As one of the earliest hard-boiled detective film noirs, its success was a major catalyst that ensured the expressionistic 'genre' style would continue to thrive and develop in subsequent years. It was more similar stylistically, however, to the noirish drama Citizen Kane (1941) than to the classic detective noir The Maltese Falcon (1941) with Bogart's Sam Spade searching for a black statuette. The film's defining elements included expressionistic, shadowy chiaroscuro lighting, strange camera angles, frequent first-person, descriptive voice-over narration, innovative set design, a convoluted time frame, and numerous flashbacks to frame the narrative.

This film of intrigue, murder, tough dialogue and corrupt deception marked the earliest screen depiction of PI detective Philip Marlowe.

[Note: Philip Marlowe was first introduced in 1939 in Raymond Chandler's first pulp novel "The Big Sleep," which wasn't made into a movie until The Big Sleep (1946) with Humphrey Bogart in the starring role.]

It was the second screen adaptation of Raymond Chandler's second novel "Farewell, My Lovely" - the first one was RKO's and director Irving Reis' The Falcon Takes Over (1942), starring actor George Sanders (in his third starring role in the series) as the gentleman detective The Falcon (aka Gay Lawrence).

This 95-minute RKO film (known for its gritty B-films) with a deceptive title, directed by Edward Dmytryk was remade almost 30 years later with the original title, Farewell, My Lovely (1975), starring Robert Mitchum and Charlotte Rampling. Both tales were adapted from Raymond Chandler's 1940 hard-boiled novel - a superb, complex, shadowy, twisting film noir of murder, corruption, blackmail, double-cross and double identity, with witty dialogue and cynical, descriptive, terse and evocative voice-over narration, wisecracks, and highly-quotable one-liners. There were some remarkable taglines for the film:

  • "Haunted by a lovely face...hunted for another's crime!"
  • "Her Kiss - Passport to Paradise or Prelude to Danger?"
  • "DON'T FALL FOR THAT FEELING...She kills like she kisses!" ("Careful, Dick...she's as cute as lace pants...but you can't stop a murderess...if you stop a bullet first!")
  • "FORGET THAT FEELING - She's got murder in her heart!"
  • "The Screen's Great Mystery Wallop Electrified With High Voltage Thrills, Action, and Excitement!"
  • "A Night of Murder the Police Won't Let Him Forget! The Only Key to His Safety - A Woman's Face He Can't Remember!"
  • "Hard-boiled, two-fisted, smashing through a crimson maze of treachery, violence, and MURDER!"

There were basically three separate narratives that were neatly woven together (Chandler had also woven together three short stories to create his own narrative in his 1940 novel Farewell, My Lovely):

  • the search for a love-sick ex-con's missing ex-lady friend, a show-girl
  • the search for a 'stolen' jade necklace, including identifying who killed the 'money-bearer' during the late-night delivery of a ransom payment
  • the winding criminal path followed by a lowly show-girl to elevate (and maintain) her social standing as a wealthy, gold-digging, promiscuous trophy wife

The film's MacGuffin (a Hitchcockian stand-by) was the menacing femme fatale's valuable jade necklace worth $100,000 around which much of the action occurred. There was also a play on words in the film's lengthy quest and search for the truth - to investigate the Grayle family ("The Holy Grail").

Told mostly in flashback except for the short beginning and ending, blinded, bandaged, down-and-out private detective Philip Marlowe (Dick Powell) opened the film to describe his past sojourns during an antagonistic police interrogation. Then, he became engaged in two seemingly-separate investigations in which he navigated through a perilous and corrupt world, becoming further entangled with and threatened by despicable and duplicitous high- and low-class criminals and con-artists. Singer Dick Powell was cast against type as the down-and-out, tough-talking, cynical PI Philip Marlowe - often making sarcastic, irreverent and disdainful comments about his predicament. He spoke about how he was knocked out multiple times (including gun whippings), taken hostage, drugged (and hypo-ed) and temporarily blinded. It was most memorable for its narrated sardonic dialogue: (for example, "I caught the blackjack behind my ear. A black pool opened up at my feet. I dived in. It had no bottom").

Producer Adrian Scott and screenwriter John Paxton were re-teamed with director Edward Dmytryk and actor Dick Powell for another highly-regarded RKO film noir, Cornered (1945). Two years later, co-writer Paxton, producer Scott, and director Dmytryk were also working together in another noirish crime drama, Crossfire (1947). However, Dmytryk and Scott both found themselves testifying for the House Un-American Activities Committee for their alleged membership in the Communist Party, and by refusing to testify became part of the blacklisted Hollywood 10.

There were no Academy Award nominations for this quintessential film noir - although it was heavily praised as one of the best examples of the film noir era. Other great film noirs that were also box-office hits released the same year included Double Indemnity (1944) (with seven nominations including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Screenplay, and Best Cinematography - and no wins!), and Laura (1944) (with five nominations including Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor, with only one win for Best Cinematography (B/W)). These three classic film noirs were mostly overlooked with the almost-complete sweep of Academy Awards by the light-hearted dramatic comedy Going My Way (1944).

Plot Synopsis

Under the opening company logo and titles, the film opened in wartime Los Angeles. The disorienting opening shot was of a blinding ceiling light and sounds of accusatory voices in a dark shadowy room, and then soon after, a pull-back camera movement revealed the side of the face of tough yet vulnerable, blindfolded gumshoe detective Philip Marlowe (played by 30s musical crooner Powell in a dramatic role switch). He was being grilled - and considered a prime suspect in a few murders, because his gun was used. Sitting under a bright light at a small table, he was surrounded by hostile police interrogators, including Detective Nulty (Paul Phillips), and joined by Police Lieutenant Randall (Don Douglas). Dazed, Marlowe explained how he felt: "Like a duck in a shooting gallery." He began to relate his convoluted, bewildering story from the beginning ("the works") about how he ended up blinded - in flashback - to be noted on the record.

The unseeing and powerless Marlowe, metaphorically and physically, started his reflection: "With Malloy, then."


After a bad day at 7 pm one evening, Marlowe was in his dark office (labeled with painted words on his window overlooking the city street: PHILIP MARLOWE: CRIMINAL & CIVIL INVESTIGATIONS). City lights were seen through the outer window. He was drinking, smoking and contemplating getting a date after a failed case:

(voice-over) My feet hurt. And my mind felt like a plumber's handkerchief. The office bottle hadn't sparked me up, so I'd taken out my little black book and decided to go grouse hunting. Nothing like soft shoulders to improve my morale. The soft shoulders had a date, but she thought she could do something about that and was gonna check right back. There's something about the dead silence of an office building at night. Not quite real. The traffic down below was something that didn't have anything to do with me. (He casually placed his revolver on his desk top).

Suddenly, a brooding appearance of a towering apparition was mirror-reflected in Marlowe's office window-pane. Flashing city lights reflected the stark, hulking presence of the figure of Joe "Moose" Malloy (Mike Mazurki) onto his window - the prospective client was standing behind Marlowe in the darkness. [Note: This was the first of many such sudden and fateful intrusions of the gangster into the life of Marlowe.] The luggish, huge, brutish ex-con Malloy wanted to hire Marlowe for a job to find a missing long-lost love interest - although the detective brushed off the urgency of the client and suggested coming back the following day. Malloy explained that he was "out of touch," threw a few $20 dollar bills on the desk, and convinced Marlowe to join him and show him where the woman worked. They exited as the water cooler released a large bubble of air. Marlowe was at the start of a film-long quest.

The two stood outside a Central Avenue, downtown Los Angeles nightclub-bar known as FLORIAN's with a flashing neon sign (Marlowe: "The joint looked like trouble but that didn't bother me. Nothing bothered me").The lovelorn, dumb and brawny "Moose" realized the seedy bar looked very different from his last visit, and recalled a stage with some booths ("Pink flowers was in the slatwork. She was cute as lace pants. A red-head"). Recently-released from prison, the half-witted, primitive ex-boxer Malloy was obsessively searching for his mysterious, missing ex-girlfriend/lover Velma Valento (Claire Trevor), a showgirl, who had sold him out eight years earlier and abandoned him. For the previous six years, she hadn't responded with letters while he was in jail.

They ascended steep stairs to the bar where sounds of a honky-tonk piano emanated. Conversations went quiet when "Moose" entered and he was recognized by the bartender (Ernie Adams) and the new bar-owner/"Boss" (Dewey Robinson). After the two ordered whiskeys, the "Boss" told Malloy that his lost girlfriend no longer worked there as a dancer, and then warned that he didn't want trouble: ("I got a reputation for no trouble"). When Malloy interrogated another unidentified young female bar patron (Daun Kennedy): "You remember Velma?", the "Boss" insisted that Malloy not bother the other customers and started to throw a punch. Malloy responded by easily tossing him across the room into some tables and chairs. Marlowe suggested that they should leave the joint ("Come on pal. Eight years is a lot of gin. They don't know anything about Velma here"). Strangely, Malloy needed to be reminded that he had hired Marlowe. After Malloy noted: "I'm beginning not to like it here," the two grabbed a couple of bottles (with another bill tossed onto the counter) and left. The love-struck Malloy added another detail: "We was to be married." Outside, Marlowe was officially hired to find the woman - Velma Valento.

During a brief preliminary investigation, private cop Marlowe learned that the previous owner Mike Florian ran the joint until 1939 when he died while drinking a beer in 1940. He traced the owner's widowed, alcoholic wife Jessie Florian (Esther Howard) to her run-down residence on West 54th Street: "She was a charming, middle-aged lady with a face like a bucket of mud." Wearing her bathrobe while she downed some of his whiskey and appeared tipsy ("she was a gal who'd take a drink, if she had to knock you down to get the bottle"), Marlowe asked her about the current whereabouts of "a red-headed girl named Velma Valento" who used to work at Florian's as a singer/showgirl "doll," but Jessie denied having any recollection. But then to contradict herself, she staggered over to her adjoining bedroom, opened a file folder, withdrew and removed a photograph that she conspicuously hid, and then presented the incomplete folder of Mike's clippings to Marlowe. The detective accused her of concealing Velma's signed picture from him. Jessie then claimed that Velma was dead: "She's dead. She was a nice kid, but she's dead." She reacted with surprise when told that "Moose" was out of jail "looking for his girl," but then denied knowing who he was: "I don't know anybody by the name of Moose, copper. Beat it!" After leaving (with the rolled-up photo in his pocket), Marlowe furtively spied on Jessie through her front-door's window as she made an urgent and mysterious phone call, noting that she had quickly become sober and very oblivious to his continued presence: "Suddenly, she wasn't drunk anymore. Her hand was steady and she was cool, like somebody making funeral arrangements for a murder not yet committed."

[Note: Jessie Florian was revealed in the finale to be calling and alerting spider-woman femme fatale Helen Grayle / aka Velma Valento to the fact that Moose, unexpectedly released from jail, had hired a "nosey detective" to find her. It was also possible that either she or Helen called a con-man later identified as Marriott, giving him Marlowe's name and phone number. The very next morning, an unusual but likely result, Marriott - one of Helen's associate paramours, happened to show up in Marlowe's office to set him up for a deadly ransom exchange for Helen's 'stolen' jade necklace.]

The next afternoon at about 2:30 pm (Saturday), Marlowe took the elevator to his upper-floor seedy office, where he found rosewater-perfumed (the elevator operator had alerted Marlowe: "Smells real nice"), effeminate (homosexual) 30-ish gigolo Lindsay Marriott (Douglas Walton), a Los Angeles resident and con-man, snooping around his desk. As the effete Marriott (with a female name and a scarf) nervously spoke, the dark letters of Marlowe's window sign were reflected onto his camel-hair overcoat. Marriott stated that he had just recently required the services of a private investigator, and had randomly picked Marlowe, to accompany him as a bodyguard that evening for $100 dollars, to a "rather secluded canyon just above the beach colony."

[Note: Actually, Marriott had received a phone call from either Helen or Mrs. Florian to tip him off about Marlowe.]

Pretty-boy Marriott claimed he was meeting some associates shortly after midnight to complete a business transaction for a lady friend. He would function as the "bearer of the money" to make a ransom payment of $8,000 in exchange for allegedly-stolen jewels (a jade necklace):

Some jewels were taken from a friend of mine in a hold-up. I'm - I'm buying them back.

Marlowe was suspicious of the shady deal (and feared that either Marriott would be double-crossed, or that they would be roughed up because they showed up as "twins - one of us might get hurt"). Although it might be a deadly set-up, nonetheless, Marlowe agreed to go along for the ride - solely for the money. It appeared to Marlowe to be a seemingly-unrelated case to Malloy's search for his missing girl friend.

As trench-coated Marlowe drove in his convertible along the Pacific Coast Highway to the designated, isolated rendezvous spot with Marriott crouching down in the back seat, he felt he was being watched ("I was a toad on a wet rock. A snake was looking at the back of my neck"). At some white posts blocking the desolate road, Marlowe stopped the car, withdrew a flashlight, and walked down a foggy path to some bushes to wait, where he heard rustlings from an antlered deer. He pulled out his gun, then returned to the vehicle. [Note: By this time, Marriott had already been killed and his body was stuffed into the car]. He spoke over his shoulder: "Looks like a try-out, to see if you obey orders" - but there was no response from Marriott. Suddenly, Marlowe was blackjacked with a sap into unconsciousness. [Note: The attacker was Helen Grayle - revealed in the finale!]. He described how an inky blackness oozed over the frame and overtook him (the first of three instances):

(voice-over) I caught the blackjack right behind my ear. A black pool opened up at my feet. I dived in. It had no bottom. I felt pretty good, like an amputated leg.

After regaining consciousness by the car, a young woman [identified later as Ann Grayle] blinded him by shining a flashlight into his eyes, while asking: "Are you all right? What happened? Oh!" She slowly came into focus. When she saw Marlowe on the ground and clearly expressed surprise because she was expecting someone else (her father!), she fled on foot. He followed after her, then reached for his gun, felt for his wallet and touched the bump on the back of his head, but gave up the chase. Back at the car, he found Marriott's bludgeoned body slumped over in the front seat:

(voice-over) He 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.

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