Tuesday, August 18, 2015

MURDER, MY SWEET (RKO 1944) Warner Home Video

Dick Powell rewrote the rules of his public persona in director, Edward Dmytryk’s Murder, My Sweet (1944), a loose, and yet faithful, adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s scalding novel, Farewell My Lovely. Although Bogart generally gets the nod today for playing Chandler’s famed – and slightly infamous – private dick, Philip Marlowe, in John Huston’s The Big Sleep (1946), it’s actually Powell’s preceding, pulse-quickening and cutthroat performance in this movie that comes closer to the precepts and cynical ‘charm’ of the character as written. Powell, who had carved out a career at Warner Bros. in the 1930’s, perennially recast as the smiling male ingénue in Busby Berkeley musicals, was to experience a downturn in his fortunes after such light-hearted excursions fell out of favor and Berkeley decamped the Warner backlot for, presumed, greener pastures over at MGM. Mercifully, this rough patch in Powell’s career was not to last; Dmytryk willing to take a chance on Powell playing the complete opposite of his typecast self-image and coming across virtually infallible herein as the cruelly self-centered loner who sees the world as a two-dimensional cesspool of inscrutable sin and corruption.
Alas, Powell’s Marlowe isn’t all too far off the mark; John Paxton’s screenplay careening through a series of stylish set pieces that gradually come together with unexpected clairvoyance and plenty of deep-focused ambiance a la Harry J. Wild’s evocative cinematography. Murder, My Sweet is, above all else, an elegant film noir made long before the term was even coined, but in hindsight, one of the exemplars of the ‘movement’ or ‘influence’ gradually creeping into American-made melodramas and thrillers with a dark and biting edge. RKO, a studio not generally known for its extravagances, particularly after their lucrative, escapist fantasies costarring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers had run their course by 1939, and the abandonment of boy genius, Orson Welles incurred crippling debts on back to back flops with Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942); the studio gradually settled into a sort of B-budget (though hardly B-grade) dream factory of nightmares; churning out dirty ‘little’ films with modest budgets but very big appeal at the box office.
Murder, My Sweet heralds the new RKO philosophy of thrift in place of showmanship. Thankfully, the studio was not entirely willing to surrender glamour for grit. Hence, Murder, My Sweet spends the bulk of its 95 min. toggling back and forth between the hard-boiled and claustrophobic interiors of a police interrogation room, with a temporarily blinded Marlowe regaling the coppers with the particulars of his harrowing private investigation, and the moneyed backdrop of a wealthy Californian clan, living on a palatial estate and/or spending their spare time at a dreamy cliff-side beach house, complete with a breath-taking matte process screen view of the Pacific, majestically glimmering by moonlight. Carroll Clark and Albert S. D'Agostino’s art direction gets the nod here, an effortless blend of second unit locations married to studio-bound sets, Michael Ohrenbach and Darrell Silvera set decorations encompassing a sort of time capsule California chic for these uber-rich landscapes and a more involving patina of grunge to haunt the moody, backlit alleyways and overgrown/fog-laden forest landscapes that increasingly encroach upon this superficial perfection.     
Murder, My Sweet is a potpourri of now familiar faces; fine actors given intriguingly competent parts to play; Claire Trevor, as the wickedly elegant lady of the maison, Mrs.Helen Grayle (a.k.a., gold digger cum rich bitch and femme fatale, Velma Valento); ex-pro-wrestler, Mike Mazurki (a noir main staple) as thug muscle, Moose Malloy – the ideal killing machine because, much like a shark, he does it indiscriminately for sheer sport; Esther Howard, as Jessie Florian, a misshapen middle-age frump and drunken ex co-owner of a seedy little walk-up nightclub, whom Marlowe astutely describes as having a face like a bucket of mud; Otto Kruger, oozing slickly corrupted genius as the oily quack psychologist and blackmailer, Jules Amthor; Anne Shirley, the sometimes enterprising, though ultimately naïve ‘good girl’, Ann Grayle; Douglas Walton, as Lindsay Marriott, a spuriously effete and temperamental dupe, doomed to come to no good (shades of The Maltese Falcon’s Joel Cairo, played less superbly herein than by Peter Lorre in that aforementioned classic); Ralf Harolde, as Dr. Sonderborg, an ominous proprietor of a private clinic where Marlowe is taken and drugged, and finally, Don Douglas, as stalwart Police Lieutenant Randall. Murder, My Sweet bears an uncanny resemblance to The Big Sleep in that its narrative really doesn’t make much sense: Marlowe, hired by Moose to find Velma; retained, thereafter by Marriott to pay thieves to retrieve a stolen jade necklace; later to be engaged by enfeebled, Mr. Grayle (Miles Mander) to recover the same priceless jewelry belonging to his wife, Helen, and, soon to be ensnared in Amthor’s blackmail scheme, since Helen is, in fact, the ex-plaything Moose gave up eight years earlier after going to prison.
All of these wicked reprobates swirl about this vintage noir milieu, their dirty little secrets constricting in concentric circles like the inky blackness that envelopes Marlowe several times throughout the story; subdued from making further inquiries with a whack across the neck, leading to bouts of repeat unconsciousness (arguably, Dmytryk’s one clumsiness in the picture, seemingly unable to find any other way to transition from one disparate scene to the next, except with a fade to black – literally). Murder, My Sweet is a movie seemingly with too many intriguing leads to follow, and arguably, with most of them leading to dead ends. Marlowe’s recollection of the events recalled in flashback are equally as disconnected from the reality of the present until mere seconds before the end credits and a reconciliation of sorts between he and Ann in the back of a waiting taxi. Until this penultimate reunion we are never entirely certain where Ann’s loyalties lay; with her devoted/deceased father, who has married an unrepentantly devious and sexually aberrant viper now occupying his home, even as she has systematically eaten away at the last vestiges of his heart. Or is Ann with Marriott, whom she tails – along with Marlowe – to a very remote dead end road somewhere in the Hollywood hills; Marlowe, remembering her from their brief encounter after awakening from the first bump on the back of his head to discover Ann leaning over his bruised body and Marriott brutally murdered in the front seat of his car.
John Paxton’s screenplay keeps everyone guessing; chiefly, the audience – but occasionally leaving too many stones unturned at the start of the picture; alas, to discombobulating effect. The pieces of this intricate puzzle simply do not fit, but begin to take on a more concrete and satisfying form after Marlowe realizes everything he has come to know since confronting Jessie Florian is a complete lie. He’s been set up and led astray and so have we; the publicity still Marlowe snatched out of Jessie’s hands, sold to us as Velma Velento is actually just some unknown chorus gal, the whole plot put into motion – or rather – commotion; Moose, the unwitting dupe, legitimately on a single-minded quest to find Velma and Marlowe, meant to follow these wrong leads because he believes Velma is still alive even though Jessie confides that she’s dead – another wild goose chase. Because Helen is Velma, conspiring with Marriott and being blackmailed by Amthor, even as Mr. Grayle is already quite aware his wife is hardly virginal or even marginally devoted to him; Murder, My Sweet is, in many ways, deeply ensconced as a stylish journey of misguidance, sacrificing substance and common sense along the way, but replacing both with a few expertly written and well-played scenes embracing this misdirection as high art.  
It all works because Paxton’s screenplay does, in fact, bring everything together for the all-too brief confrontation between most of these surviving principles at the end, in the scene that temporarily blinds Marlowe with back spray and puts a period to Helen, Moose and Mr. Grayle, leaving Marlowe and Ann to toddle off together for the proverbial happy ending; however, temporary. The world of noir thrillers is rarely as optimistic about the future as the final few minutes of Murder, My Sweet; a more savvy, if blindfolded Marlowe, instinctually knowing Ann is waiting for him at the police station, having seemingly forgiven him for entangling her late father in the showdown that ultimately cost him his life, but now, quite unable to maintain her virginal ‘good girl’ façade a moment longer, throwing herself at his playfully telling request for a kiss from Detective Nulty (Paul Philips).
Our story begins in a smoky police interrogation room, Marlowe, temporarily blinded, eyes bandaged, giving Det. Nulty and his cohorts a relatively hard time until the arrival of Lieutenant Randall, arguably, the only cop he respects. Marlowe, so we are told, is up for a pair of murders…odd, given the body count at the end of Murder, My Sweet tallies four. With a little prodding, Marlowe regresses into his flashback; his running commentary matted into stock footage of the lonely neon-lit streets at dusk, the camera eventually coming to rest on Marlowe, staring blankly out his office window. He decidedly had other plans – a hot date, thwarted by the arrival of Moose Malloy; unexpected and menacing as he demands Marlowe take up the cause of locating a former gal pal, Velma Valento, a showgirl who used to entertain at Florian’s speakeasy some eight years earlier.
Marlowe and Moose hit the club, or rather, Moose takes out his frustrations on the proprietor after intimidating a few of the patrons. Marlowe is perplexed and not terribly engaged. But he does look up the widow of the club’s former owner, Jessie, who feigns drunkenness and claims Velma Valento died some years ago. After snatching a photo, presumably of Velma, from Jessie’s meaty hands, Marlowe quietly observes through the window as a suddenly very clean and sober Jessie is on the phone to someone about his visit. The next morning, Marlowe is called on by a dandy bon vivant, Lindsay Marriott, who offers him the paltry sum of $100 merely to shadow his trek into a secluded canyon at midnight. As Marriott explains, he is the go-between hired to pay out a ransom for some stolen jewels. Marlowe doesn’t buy this for a moment, but nevertheless makes the ill-fated decision to go along to this prearranged rendezvous.  After skulking around the bushes for a moment or two, Marlowe is knocked unconscious by an unseen attacker. Awakening in a semi-conscious state, Marlowe sees Ann shining a flashlight in his face, inquiring if he is alright before becoming spooked and running off into the forest. The ransom money is gone and Marriott is slumped over in the front seat, viciously murdered.
Marlowe reports the crime and leads Randall and his men to the body, but receives a lot of grief for his efforts. Randall demands to know what Marlowe does about a guy named Jules Amthor. As Marlowe knows nothing, Randall orders him to steer clear of the police’s investigation. Returning to his office, Marlowe encounters Ann, disguised and posing as a reporter. As with all novices desperate to unearth secrets, Ann gives away far more than she learns, leaving Marlowe to suspect her of staging Marriott’s setup and betrayal.  At Marlowe’s behest, Ann introduces him to her wealthy father and his second wife, Helen, whom she despises. It seems Mr. Grayle’s rare jade necklace – a gift to his wife and worth $100,000.00 was stolen in a robbery while Helen was out on a date with Marriott. Leaving Helen alone with Marlowe, she wastes no time becoming flirtatious. He engages her in the ruse, each plying the other with their charms to learn something more about the case. However, when Jules Amthor, a psychic healer who treated both Helen and Marriott, unexpectedly arrives for a visit just as Marlowe is leaving, Helen decides to retain Marlowe to recover the jade. Marlowe agrees, but only moments later, he is confronted by Ann, who tries to bribe him to stay out of it.
That evening, Moose arrives at Marlowe’s office once again, forcing him to go and ‘meet somebody’; the mystery man, none other than Amthor. Taken to Amthor’s penthouse suite, Marlowe wastes no time confronting him with his suspicions; that he and Marriott were in cahoots to steal the necklace and set up Helen. Alas, something in this perfect plan went horribly awry and Marriott was killed. It all sounds good, except Amthor has deceived Moose into thinking Marlowe is holding out on him about Velma’s whereabouts. On his command, Moose repeatedly strangles Marlowe to the brink of unconsciousness. At the last possible moment, Marlowe is spared and dragged off to a private clinic where he is repeatedly tortured and injected by Dr. Sonderborg with truth serums and other hallucinogenic drugs in the hopes of learning what has become of the jade necklace. After three days of suffrage and interrogation, Marlowe manages his escape from this asylum. He convinces Moose he has been tricked by Amthor and then hurries to Ann, having only just realized she was the girl who shone a flashlight in his face at the scene of Marriott’s murder.  Ann is drawn to Marlowe after he learns from Mr. Grayle Marriott was renting the family’s beach house.
Breaking into this shuttered retreat, Marlowe finds Helen hiding from the police and wisely deduces it was she who set him up for Amthor's interrogations, even as Ann was desperately trying to save him with her bribe to steer clear of the search for the necklace. Helen seduces Marlowe in a plot to murder Amthor. For her sake, Marlowe lets Helen believe her viperous charms have worked their destructive magic on him. But later, Marlowe discovers Amthor already dead, his neck snapped by some very large hands. Discovering Moose waiting for him back at his office, Marlowe shows him the photo he took from Jessie. This confirms his suspicions; the girl in the photo is not Velma. Now, Marlowe takes Moose to the beach house, ordering him to stand by until he gives him the signal to come up to the house and confront Helen, whom Marlowe now knows for certain is Velma.  
Helen confesses to everything; it was she who faked the robbery and ransom in order to kill Marlowe, after being tipped off by Jessie he was looking for her. She killed Marriott and would have murdered Marlowe too, if only Ann had not stumbled along. Now, Helen reveals she is carrying a gun. Alas, Helen’s plans are thwarted by a lovesick Mr. Grayle, who confronts her treachery. Grayle shoots his wife, the gun blast drawing Moose out of hiding. Enraged to find his former lover dead, Moose lunges for Grayle. The two men struggle and the gun is discharged several more times, the blasts momentarily blinding Marlowe and killing both Grayle and Moose. Satisfied Marlowe is telling the truth, Lieutenant Randall releases him into Det. Nulty’s care, escorted into a waiting taxi where Ann is eager to be reunited with the man she so clearly loves. In the final moments, Marlowe, still blind and blind-folded, but instinctively knowing he is no longer in Nulty’s care, confides his abiding affections for Ann, who willing complies with his goofy request to be kissed by Nulty.
Murder, My Sweet is so deliciously sinister and slickly cynical one cannot help but fall under its spell. All the elements in the ‘noir’ formula, long since transgressed into rank clichés, are on display and in vogue herein. Dick Powell is a formidable Marlowe with a wicked sense of timing for the essential deadpan and very pithy retorts. It is one thing to write this stuff; quite another to convincingly project such glib animosity imbued from within as harsh social commentary.  But when Powell speaks lines like, “I'm a homing pigeon. I always come back to the stinking coop”, or “the only reason I took this job was because my bank account was trying to crawl under a duck” we can sense the bubbling wellsprings of a very personal contempt for humanity at large; particularly the rich, as he confides about the Grayle estate, “Cozy…for the average family. Only you'd need a compass to go to the mailbox. The house…wasn't as big as Buckingham Palace”: also, Marlowe’s self-loathing, forced to contribute merely to survive.
Claire Trevor is a formidable femme fatale, luxuriating in Edward Stevenson’s skimpy and form-fitting gowns; transmitting a vacuous and deceptively hollow physical attractiveness beneath the oversized shoulder pads and sequins. When Trevor speaks, even the straight forward lines adopt multiple layers of subterfuge, tainted with an ominous hint of vengeful dread. She slinks across the screen magnificently too; like an asp poised to strike and infect the unsuspecting that surround her. The rest of the cast all do their part to engross and enthrall with competency. This occasionally boils over into genuine conviction. But the show squarely rests on the vial, if intoxicating, on-screen chemistry and sparks flying between Marlowe and Helen. Herein, Powell and Trevor give it their all and it is a hell storm of inveigling sensuality to behold. When it was released, Murder, My Sweet garnered near unanimous praise. It has lost none of its power as nail-biting entertainment in the intervening decades; Alison Dalzell, writing for the Edinburgh University Film Society, adding her kudos to the heap by suggesting, “Since the forties, countless mystery and neo-noir films have been made in Hollywood and around the world. Murder, My Sweet is what they all aspire to be.”
The Warner Archive (WAC) has already announced a Blu-ray release for this deep catalog title in September. When it arrives, one can only suspect it will be vastly improved over the Warner Home Video DVD release currently available. While a good deal of the DVD transfer is moderately impressive, Murder My Sweet is riddled with a barrage of age-related artifacts, inconsistently balanced contrast levels, varying degrees of sharpness (and frequently a less than refined image than one would hope for), weak black levels, and the occasional jump cut causing the entire image to wobble from side to side. There is also a hint of edge enhancement sporadically cropping up. This isn’t an awful presentation, but it remains a highly imperfect one. WAC has shown a willingness to revisit deep catalog titles and immensely improve upon them for hi-def Blu-ray remasters. We will wait with baited excitement and report on the Blu-ray when it becomes available. The audio herein is Dolby Digital mono and while offering nothing extraordinary is nevertheless competently rendered with no hiss or pop. We get an audio commentary from Alan Silver, well worth the price of admission, and a badly worn theatrical trailer I could have done without. Bottom line: with the hi-def reissue just around the corner I would respectfully suggest those who don’t already own this title wait for the Blu-ray. It is bound to offer a far more engaging home video presentation than this!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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