Monday, September 19, 2016

The Favorites - Murder, My Sweet (#49)


The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Murder, My Sweet (1944/USA/dir. Edward Dmytryk) appeared at #49 on my original list.

What it is • Raymond Chandler has been treated on the big screen many times; this particular novel was adapted again in the seventies under its original title (Farewell, My Lovely), with no less a noir luminary than Robert Mitchum in the lead. The most infamous actor to portray Philip Marlowe is, of course, Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep but if you're seeking an offbeat alternative, you'd naturally be tempted to go with Elliot Gould in The Long Goodbye (I have some respectful issues with Robert Altman's take on Chandler, but this isn't the time or place). Too frequently overlooked, however, is the first Marlowe: song-and-dance man Dick Powell, looking remarkably world-weary a decade past his bright-eyed Busby Berkeley days. Murder, My Sweet is not the first Chandler adaptation (it isn't even the first adaptation of Farewell, since two years earlier The Falcon Takes Over had borrowed its plot wholesale) but earlier incarnations of his work had changed the name of the detective hero, as if it didn't even matter. Of course it matters. Marlowe is one of the most iconic characters in modern fiction and Powell's stoic, exhausted, but forthright version of the private eye honors its literary source. In some ways, this Marlowe may actually be closer than Bogie's (whose own star power may have obscured the character's nature). Ultimately, though, the film is here for its intoxicating atmosphere, the most perfect evocation of noir's je ne sais quoi that I've ever encountered, thick with fog, chiaroscuro, wet streets, tightly packed deep frames, harsh lights hitting the lens, and that gorgeous, gorgeous shot of a femme fatale embracing our skeptical hero as her cigarette smoke curls in the air beside him. So that's "what it is." The murder mystery plot? Please, don't make me try to explain that! I've forgotten the details and always have trouble following these sorts of stories as they unfold, with their bewildering array of suspects, double crosses, and red herrings. I'm not sure even Chandler knew what was going on, though Marlowe himself probably had it all figured.

Why I like it •
I've never really been a "genre" person. Not in the sense that I dislike films that fall into a particular, well-defined category, but in the sense that I like to partake in as many different categories as possible. Genres are more interesting to me when they are stacked side by side, so that I can dip into a horror film and then jump to a western before tap-dancing my way through a musical. I like the big-picture diversity more than the individual example, the forest more than the trees. Though I do enjoy getting lost in those trees from time to time, I never quite developed the taste for codification and deep cut diving that defines the genre aficionado. Perhaps for that reason, my favorite selections from different genres tend to epitomize their forms, as if containing all other examples packed into one tight, nearly bursting package. Sometimes this preference produces predictable selections. Singin' in the Rain, full of good cheer, catchy tunes, and imaginative setpieces, is a no-brainer for favorite musical (although, if we expand the rules of that genre a bit, it technically isn't my #1). The Searchers, though overlooked in its time, has grown into the iconic western for a reason: those looming shots of Monument Valley, John Wayne brooding in the doorway, its penetrating exploration of the settlers' violent relationship with the native population. So few would be surprised to discover it's my highest-ranked western. Murder, My Sweet, however, is not often selected as the ultimate noir - and while I did rank one British noir higher, my favorite Hollywood example of this quintessentially American genre deserves its own tip of a fedora (whether it's fair to call this style a "genre" or not is a debate I'll leave for another day). As already mentioned, Powell is not your conventional gumshoe; it's Bogie who is the Duke of private eye flicks. Aside from that detail, though, it's hard for me to imagine why this film isn't as famous as The Big Sleep or The Maltese Falcon. It is just absolutely dripping with style, and if my "why I like it" category has strayed from its usual approach to talk about meta-conceptions of genre rather than the specifics of this movie, it's primarily because the film's visuals are the best argument for its value. At this point, then, I'll direct you to...

More by me • ...my visual tribute to the movie, a succession of luscious screen-caps making its case far better than words could. For some clips, jump to 5:57 in "Dreaming in Wartime", a chapter in my "32 Days of Movies" video clip series, or look near the end of my 7 Rooms guide montage. Finally, for more on Chandler and Marlowe, albeit not about Murder, My Sweet, you can read my study of The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep, comparing Sam Spade to Marlowe both on the page and in Bogart's performances.

How you can see it • From there, you can go on to watch the film itself...or sadly, maybe you can't. I rented the film from Netflix years ago, but it's no longer available there. It can be found for digital rental and purchase (or as a hard copy) on these sites if you're willing to pay for it individually. It's worth it.

What do you think? • Who is the best Marlowe - Powell, Bogart, Gould, Mitchum, or someone else? Do you prefer Spade or Marlowe, Hammett or Chandler? What do you consider the "ultimate" noir film, or if that's just too damn tricky, what's your personal favorite?

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