Monday, March 17, 2014

Philip Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet (1944)

When members of the general public think of hard boiled detectives in film, it is most likely Humphrey Bogart who comes to mind. After all, Mr. Bogart played Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep (1946). While the general public probably identifies Humphrey Bogart with the hardboiled detective genre more than any other actor, however, classic film buffs know better. Other actors than Humphrey Bogart and other films than The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep have made important contributions to the genre. Indeed, the 1944 film Murder, My Sweet, featuring Dick Powell as Philip Marlowe,  is every big as important to the development of the hardboiled detective films as The Maltese Falcon and may be more important than The Big Sleep. Murder, My Sweet would also play an important role in the development of film noir.

Murder, My Sweet was based on Raymond Chandler's second novel, Farewell, My Lovely, published in 1940. It was  also the second novel to feature the world weary, cynical, and yet intellectual detective Philip Marlowe (The Big Sleep, published in 1939, had been the first). While Farewell, My Lovely is now one of Raymond Chandler's best known works, it initially sold only a meagre 2,900 copies. RKO bought the film rights to the novel for only $2000 and with no intention of adapting it as a "Philip Marlowe" film. Instead RKO very loosely adapted Farewell, My Lovely as part of their "Falcon" series. The film, titled The Falcon Takes Over (1942), then featured The Falcon (played by George Sanders) rather than Philip Marlowe as the main character.

Fortunately events would unfold that would lead to a more faithful film adaptation of Farewell, My Lovely in the form of Murder, My Sweet. As World War II progressed the sales of Raymond Chanlder's novels began to improve. It was around this time that producer Adrian Scott ran upon the novel Farewell, My Lovely among RKO's various properties. Given that The Falcon Takes Over bore only a superficial resemblance to the actual novel (indeed, The Falcon himself resembled Ellery Queen or Philo Vance more than Philip Marlowe), Adrian Scott thought a more faithful adaptation of the novel could be a success. Adrian Scott brought screenwriter John Paxton on board to adapt Farewell, My Lovely as a screenplay. Edward Dmytryk, who had previously worked primarily on B movies, was hired as the film's director.

 The role of Philip Marlowe would be filled by an actor whose casting probably took both Hollywood and viewers by surprise. Dick Powell was best known as the romantic leading man in a series of musicals that spanned from the Thirties to the Forties. He had left Warner Brothers for Paramount in hope of getting more varied roles, only to find himself once more stuck in musicals. He even campaigned for the role of insurance investigator Walter Neff in 1944's Double Indemnity (ultimately played by comic actor Fred MacMurray) to no avail. When RKO's president Charles Koerner wanted to hire Dick Powell for a series of musicals, then, the actor signed with the studio on the condition that he played Philip Marlowe in the upcoming film adaptation of Farewell, My Loveliy. With Murder, My Sweet, then, Dick Powell made film history as the first actor to ever portray Philip Marlowe on the big screen.

While the casting of Dick Powell as Philip Marlowe may have been a surprise to the film industry and audiences at the time, the other characters would be played by actors one would expect to find in such roles. Claire Trevor, who had played an array of women of questionable morals over the year, was cast as the femme fatale Velma Valento. Anne Shirley, who had generally played a succession of "good girls", was cast as heiress Ann Grayle, a virtuous counterpoint to Velma. The somewhat slow witted thug Moose Mallory was played by Mike Mazurki. While he had only been acting since 1941, the towering Mr. Mazurki (he stood 6' 5") was already typecast in such roles.

Murder, My Sweet premiered on 18 December 1944 in Minneapolis under the title Farewell, My Lovely. Unfortunately it seemed audiences thought that Farewell, My Lovely was yet another Dick Powell musical and as a result they stayed away. RKO then changed the title to Murder, My Sweet, leaving no doubt that the film was not a musical. Ultimately Murder, My Sweet would prove to be very successful. What is more it would have an impact. Its most immediate impact may have been on Dick Powell's career. Once typecast as a star of light musicals, Dick Powell was cast in further "tough guy" roles in such films as Cornered (1945), Johnny O'Clock (1947), and Cry Danger (1951). On radio he played the lead on the show Richard Diamond, Private Detective.

Murder, My Sweet would also have a lasting impact on Raymond Chandler's popularity. While sales of his books had been growing during World War II, it was arguably the success of Murder, My Sweet that would turn Mr. Chandler into a best selling author and, short of Dashiell Hammett, the best known writer of hardboiled detective fiction. While The Big Sleep (1946) starring Humphrey Bogart was roughly in production at the same time as Murder, My Sweet (Warner Brothers delayed the release of The Big Sleep to 1946), there can be little doubt that the success of Murder, My Sweet would help it at the box office. The success of Murder, My Sweet would also lead to further Philip Marlowe films: Lady in the Lake starring Robert Montgomery as Marlowe and The Brasher Doubloon starring George Montgomery as Marlowe, both from 1947.

There would also be two radio shows featuring Philip Marlowe. The New Adventures Of Philip Marlowe, starring Van Helfin in the role, lasted only a few months on CBS in 1947. The Adventures of Philip Marlowe, starring Gerald Mohr in the role, proved more successful. It ran from 1948 to 1951 on NBC. Dick Powell, who had originated the role of Philip Marlowe on film, would also be the first actor to play the detective on television. On 7 October 1954 Climax aired an adaptation of The Long Goodbye starring Mr. Powell.

Of course, the most lasting impact of Murder, My Sweet may have been on the nascent genre of film noir. Indeed, Murder, My Sweet features a number of characteristics associated with the genre. Philip Marlowe and his cynical view of the world has provided the blueprint for film noir protagonists ever since. The milieu of Murder, My Sweet would also serve as a template for future films noirs. The world of Murder, My Sweet is a dangerous one, filled with corruption and betrayal. It is a world where it is difficult to know whom to trust. Even the photography of Murder, My Sweet would have a lasting impact on films noirs. Shot in stark black and white, maximum use was made of shadows on Murder, My Sweet, shadows that were in perfect keeping with the darker aspects of Philip Marlowe's world.

While Dick Powell was the first actor to ever portray Philip Marlowe on film, there has always been a small degree of debate over his performance in the role. There are those who argue that Mr. Powell's Marlowe is too light hearted. What many overlook is that Philip Marlowe was not simply a brute with a streak of cynicism. He was a thinking man who enjoyed nothing more than a game of chess and enjoys both whiskey and brandy. Even more than Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep (who did very well in the role), Dick Powell brings out the intellectual side of Marlowe. Dick Powell's Philip Marlowe is a thoughtful, even idealistic man whose toughness is a shield against a world that has consistently let him down. Like the literary Marlowe, Dick Powell's Marlowe is a man whose wisecracks and drinking hide the more philosophical and even gentle man underneath.

Ultimately Murder, My Sweet must be considered one of the most pivotal films in the history of both hardboiled detectives and film noir. At the very least it marked the first appearance of Philip Marlowe on film. It would also entirely alter the course of Dick Powell's career, transforming him from a song and dance man to a star of films noirs. Murder, My Sweet would also help increase the popularity of Raymond Chandler to the point that he is the best known writer of hardboiled detective fiction besides Dashiell Hammett. Finally it would have a lasting impact on film noir, from its stark black and white photography to its convoluted plot to its potrrayal of a world filled with corruption.


Caftan Woman said...

Very nice look at, as you say, an important movie. It's important to me as a late at night viewing when I was a teen introduced me to film-noir, and it's a world I've never left.

Silver Screenings said...

Can't believe I still haven't seen this, only one of the most important film noirs ever made! I can only imagine how terrific Dick Powell is in this one.

Unknown said...

I've always rather liked this movie. I'm in the Yes camp for Dick Powell's casting since, as you pointed out, Marlowe is not just another tough guy. Thanks so much for the excellent review!

Joe Thompson said...

I enjoyed essay just as I enjoy Dick Powell's interpretation of Marlowe. And I've always loved Moose Malloy. What a great character. Thank you for sharing it with us.