I've always enjoyed Dick Powell in the various phases of his career, yet until today I had not caught up with what might be Powell's single most important film, MURDER MY SWEET. Powell plays Raymond Chandler's detective, Philip Marlowe, and he was so successful that he changed the trajectory of his career; the baby-faced leading man of countless '30s musicals transformed into a hard-boiled detective at home in the seedy, dark side of Los Angeles.
Although the film has an outstanding reputation as one of the earliest great examples of film noir, I viewed it with mixed emotions. As one IMDb comment is headlined, "Love the wisecracks, but wish it was easier to understand." Powell was terrific as his Marlowe staggers from place to place -- perpetually beaten, drugged, or fortified with liquor -- and the movie had great atmosphere, style, and dialogue. Powell was believable as a tough guy with an interesting vulnerability; Superman he's not. But I found myself almost as confused as I am when I watch Bogart's famous Philip Marlowe movie, THE BIG SLEEP (1946), which has what is universally considered to be one of the most confounding plots of all time.
MURDER, MY SWEET is very convoluted, as Marlowe skips from one case to another, yet somehow they all tie together in the end. The last third of the film is the most enjoyable, in part because it's the most understandable part of the movie! Perhaps it will make more sense on a second viewing.
I gave up trying to follow the plot closely and instead focused more on enjoying the look and sound of the movie. There's a moment fairly early on when Powell and Mike Mazurki, who plays one of Marlowe's clients, walk into a bar. The set of their hats, the shadows on the ceiling behind them, the ominous silence -- the scene nearly shouts "This is noir style." The evocative black and white cinematography, which included location shooting in the Los Angeles area, was by Harry J. Wild.
Along with Powell and Bogart, Philip Marlowe was also played in the '40s by Robert Montgomery; as recounted in my post on LADY IN THE LAKE (1947), Montgomery both starred in and directed that film, which was very unusual because it was shot with a "first person" camera, enabling the audience to experience the story through Marlowe's eyes.
Claire Trevor plays the femme fatale of MURDER, MY SWEET, with Anne Shirley (recently seen by me in SORORITY HOUSE) as her good girl stepdaughter. Otto Kruger, Miles Mander, and Don Douglas are also in the cast.
Like her STAGECOACH (1939) costar John Wayne -- who was posthumously honored by the renaming of Orange County Airport as John Wayne Airport -- Claire Trevor had deep ties in Orange County, California. She married developer Milton Bren, and the Brens donated millions to the School of the Arts at UC Irvine, now known as the Claire Trevor School of the Arts. Trevor's Oscar for KEY LARGO (1948) is on display at UCI. More information on Trevor, her career, and her connection with UCI may be found here.
MURDER, MY SWEET runs 94 minutes and was directed by Edward Dmytryk. A bit more on Edward Dmytryk was discussed in my recent post on SWEETHEART OF THE CAMPUS (1941).
MURDER, MY SWEET can be seen on Turner Classic Movies. It has had a DVD release and was also released in a very nice VHS edition from Turner Classic Movies. I watched the video, which included the trailer and an introduction by Robert Osborne. The print, while not perfect, was quite good.
October 2015 Update: MURDER, MY SWEET is now available on Blu-ray from the Warner Archive. My review is here.
Dick Powell movies previously reviewed here at Laura's Miscellaneous Musings: GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 (1933), FOOTLIGHT PARADE (1933), 42ND STREET (1933), FLIRTATION WALK (1934), DAMES (1934), GOLD DIGGERS OF 1935 (1935), VARSITY SHOW (1937), HOLLYWOOD HOTEL (1937), NAUGHTY BUT NICE (1939), CHRISTMAS IN JULY (1940), STAR SPANGLED RHYTHM (1942), IT HAPPENED TOMORROW (1944), MRS. MIKE (1949), RIGHT CROSS (1950), THE TALL TARGET (1951), and SUSAN SLEPT HERE (1954).