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Powell's Acting Is Strong; Reinvigorated His Career
on 27 August 2014
MURDER MY SWEET, 1944. This classic black and white film noir, starring Dick Powell and Claire Trevor, and many others, has been acclaimed by critics, and is considered widely influential. The crime drama captures the sharp wit and style of Raymond Chandler's underlying novel FAREWELL MY LOVELY, about his famed gumshoe Philip Marlowe. The private detective is searching for a missing moll, Velma, whom her just-released- from-prison petty crook boyfriend Moose Malloy hasn’t seen in eight years. Upon the classic thriller’s release, it was renamed so American filmgoers wouldn’t confuse it with a Powell musical; he’d spent years making listless musicals before this. But this mystery reinvigorated the actor's career, helping him to shed his choir-boy image. Respected Hollywood director Edward Dmytryk worked from a script by John Paxton.
In this witty and suspenseful Los Angeles-based film, Marlowe is reluctantly hired by Moose (Mike Mazurki, SOME LIKE IT HOT, NIGHTMARE ALLEY) to find Velma Valento, former chanteuse. The private eye also seems immediately to get involved in the case of a femme fatale local woman, Mrs. Helen Grayle, as played by Claire Trevor, (STAGECOACH, KEY LARGO) whose $100,000 jade necklace has been stolen and is up for ransom. Once involved in this apparently second case, he meets Ann Grayle, Helen’s stepdaughter, as played by Anne Shirley, (STELLA DALLAS, ANNE OF GREEN GABLES). And Jules Amthor, an influential local psychiatrist, as played by Otto Kruger, SABOTEUR, HIGH NOON. The cases prove to be just one case, and it is tougher than Marlowe expected. His initially promising enquiries lead to a web of deceit feeding on bribery, perjury, murder and theft. Furthermore, no one's motivation is obvious, least of all Marlowe's.
Direction by Edward Dmytryk and cinematography by Harry Wild are fine, giving the film a tight, economical feel, grooming shadows, yet hinting at the powerful underlying chaos and seediness of Los Angeles. Why so many successful films noir, whether black/ white or color, are set there. The acting is fine, though I did think Shirley a bit too light weight for her role. However, Powell’s is strong: author Chandler approved of his work. Powell is able to give Marlowe a common touch plus a vulnerable cynicism: his background in romantic musicals seemed to give him access to the deep emotional range needed to play the complex and conflicted Marlowe; his cynicism, his humor, his loyalty to his code. And his resonant wit.
Nevertheless, not to take anything away from this picture, upon a re-viewing, I just couldn’t get into it. Perhaps because I have no film expertise: I’m just a person who loves movies. Perhaps because Robert Mitchum is my favorite Marlowe: I think his bruised tender toughness perfect for the role and own his two outings in it: the London-set THE BIG SLEEP, and the LA-set FAREWELL MY LOVELY. But let us give praise where praise is due.