MURDER, MY SWEET (1944, Dir. Edward Dmytryk)

© 2019, by M. Keith Booker

Murder, My Sweet is based on Chandler’s 1940 novel Farewell, My Lovely and was released in the U.K. under that title. In the U.S., however, it was felt that the original title might cause filmgoers to think it was a love story or a musical, especially as star Dick Powell was well known for appearing in those kinds of films. Here, though, the baby-faced Powell delivers a surprisingly effective version of Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, who stands even further apart from the world around him than does Spade in The Maltese Falcon. Marlowe, in fact, observes the events of the film from an oddly distanced, bemused perspective, much less able than Spade had been to understand and exert his power over those around him. Spade always seems one step ahead of the action; Marlowe (though better educated and probably a bit smarter than Spade) always seems one step behind, partly because the world in which he finds himself is far more complex and makes much less sense than does the world of Spade.

Murder, My Sweet, like so many noir films, begins at the end and is then narrated in flashback—as opposed to the novel, which is narrated via a more conventional chronological structure. In the case of the film, the out-of-kilter opening scene shows police interrogating Marlowe as part of a murder investigation in which he is apparently a suspect. For his part, Marlowe maintains his habitual wise-cracking cool, though he is a bit disadvantaged due to the fact that his eyes are covered in heavy bandages, making him a private eye without functioning eyes—which is, symbolically, a perfect beginning, given that Marlowe is essentially blind to what is going on through much of the film. By this time, though, Marlowe has unraveled the web of murder and deceit that will constitute the rest of the film, which essentially consists of the story Marlowe tells to the police—though even he doesn’t know the end of the story.

This device allows Marlowe to become the narrator of the film—just as he is the narrator of the book, from which many lines in his narration are taken directly, so that the film is able to capture much of Chandler’s distinctive style, which combines the hard-boiled toughness of Hammett’s style with a dose of populist modernism. For example, as Marlowe is about to begin his story, a cop asks the detective how he feels. “Like a duck in a shooting gallery,” responds Marlowe, immediately displaying his typical sardonic wit and predilection for amusing similes. The story then begins, accompanied by Marlowe’s highly stylized voiceover narration, identified by Andrew Dickos as one of the most “spectacular” examples of voiceover narration (along with that in Double Indemnity) in all of film noir (177). This voiceover takes us into the flow of the story, which begins with a sort of missing-person case, in which the massive Moose Malloy (played by Mike Mazurki, an actor who played many tough-guy roles and who was both a former professional wrestler and a former lawyer) comes to Marlowe’s office in the middle of the night to hire him to find his beloved Velma Valento, with whom he has gotten “out of touch” (because, it turns out, of an eight-year stretch in prison). Marlowe seems reluctant, but quickly changes his tune when the dim-witted Malloy throws two twenties at him—establishing the fact that Marlowe is in business to make money and that even a relatively small amount of money is significant to him. He does, however, have his standards, and we will soon learn that even a relatively large amount of money cannot persuade him to violate them.

Marlowe is, in fact, probably a bit more virtuous in the film than he is in the novel, which is sanitized on the screen in other ways as well. Probably the most important of these is the fact that Chandler’s Los Angeles is altogether seedier and more corrupt than the one we see in Dmytryk’s film. There is also significantly more social commentary in the novel, particularly in its representation of the racism and corruption of the Los Angeles police, an element that is entirely missing in the film. James Naremore, indeed, argues that “law is where you buy it” is the central theme that runs through Chandler’s novel, noting that the Production Code made it impossible for the 1944 film to follow suite (234). In the novel, cops are depicted as routinely being on the take. Meanwhile, all of the action is initiated when Malloy kills the black manager of an all-back club in an attempt to extract information from him about the whereabouts of Velma. However, the novel makes it abundantly clear that the L.A. cops do not regard the killing of a black man as especially significant and that they consequently do not intend to expend a great deal of energy investigating the crime. On the other hand, the film deletes the race angle altogether—making the club seedy, but all white, and omitting the killing, thus making Malloy more sympathetic.

The deletion of the racial commentary in Murder, My Sweet also makes Marlowe more sympathetic, because in the novel he doesn’t seem particularly critical of the attitude of the police toward African Americans, to whom he himself twice refers, unironically, as “niggers.” From this point of view, it might be noted that the 1975 remake of the film—which restores the original title of the novel and features aging noir icon Robert Mitchum as Marlowe[1]—also makes both Malloy and Marlowe more sympathetic than does the novel. The 1975 film restores the killing of the manager of a black club by Malloy and also includes the indifference of the police to this killing. But it implies that the killing was both accidental and in self-defense. Meanwhile, it makes Marlowe more critical of the racism of the cops, while also adding an element not present in the novel by making him sympathetic to the plight of an interracial couple shunned by most in L.A. Indeed, when the husband/father of that couple, a white jazz musician, is killed in the course of the film’s events, Marlowe goes out of his way to help out the African American widow and her mixed-race son, even giving them the money he has acquired in the course of the film.

Both films seek to make Marlowe into a more sympathetic figure than he is in the novel (the 1975 novel even humanizes him further by making him a devoted baseball fan who is avidly following the latter part of Joe DiMaggio’s historic 56-game hit streak, thus establishing the setting as the summer of 1941, slightly later than that of the novel). One could argue that this is simply the nature of Hollywood film, which tends to prefer a sympathetic protagonist at the center of its narratives. But it should also be noted that both films balance their more positive treatment of Marlowe with a more negative treatment of Velma, who emerges in the novel as an almost noble figure who just happens to have a checkered past, but who in both films is portrayed as a sinister femme fatale willing to lie, cheat, and kill to get what she wants.

In all versions of the story, Marlowe’s search for Velma takes him in unexpected directions, partly because he soon takes on a second case that seems to have no relation to the search for Velma, but turns out to be closely related to it indeed. In the second case, the effete Lindsay Marriott—obviously portrayed as gay in the novel[2] and in the 1975 film, but not so obviously in the 1944 film, where he is simply described as a “pretty guy”—offers Marlowe $100 to facilitate a transaction in which he is supposedly buying back some jewels that were stolen from a friend. This job leads to Marriott’s murder in a manner that seems designed to point to Marlowe as the killer, which motivates Marlowe to look further into the case, even though he is no longer employed to do so. Partly, of course, he just wants to clear himself of suspicion in the killing of Marriott, a man whom Marlowe clearly disliked from the moment he first saw him. But Marlowe also wants to solve Marriott’s murder out of a sense of professional obligation, feeling that he should have been able to protect his client. This development points Marlowe in the direction of the wealthy Grayle family, whose aging patriarch (played by Miles Mander in the 1944 film) is married to a beautiful and much younger woman, Helen (Claire Trevor), the owner of the stolen jewels. Marlowe also meets Grayle’s daughter Ann (Anne Shirley), who despises Helen, suspecting her stepmother of being a golddigger.

Helen does, in fact, seem to be a bit of a suspicious character, emerging fairly quickly as the film’s femme fatale character. Meanwhile, Ann clearly emerges as the film’s “good girl” character, forming with Helen one of the pairs of opposed female characters that are so common in film noir. It might be noted here that Ann Grayle replaces Anne Riordan (the daughter of a former cop) from the novel.[3] This substitution places Ann in more direct opposition to Helen, thus enhancing the good woman vs. bad woman structure. Among other things, the two women emerge in Murder, My Sweet as vague competitors for Marlowe’s romantic attentions, though it quickly becomes clear that Helen is the manipulative sort and that any interest she has in Marlowe simply involves being able to make sure he doesn’t uncover certain secrets—such as the fact that the jewelry theft was a hoax designed to pull Marlowe into the case so that he could be killed rather than continuing his search for Velma. Meanwhile, it is revealed that Helen did not want this search to go on because she herself is actually Velma, having now assumed a new identity that would make her more viable as the wife to a man such as Grayle.[4] Anne also gradually emerges through the film as a sort of love interest for Marlowe, seemingly impressed by his professional acumen and rectitude. For example, when he explains to her his interest in following up on Marriott’s murder on the basis of the fact that “I’m just a small businessman in a very messy business, but I like to follow through on a sale,” she seems to find this explanation admirable, rather than venal.

This follow-through will involve an investigation that centers on the stolen jewelry, a jade necklace that was supposed stolen from Mrs. Grayle and that plays something of the same role in this film as the falcon statuette had played in The Maltese Falcon. Like that statuette, the necklace, having come from China, introduces an element of the exotic into the text. This element, meanwhile, is further enhanced when Marlowe, in the course of his investigation, is taken by Helen to the Coconut Beach Club, where the entertainment is provided by a Chinese dancer undulating to Oriental-sounding music, providing exotic atmosphere.

As William Luhr notes, Murder, My Sweet “not only develops patterns of disorientation by means of strange camera angles, unexpected editing, and lighting strategies, but it also repeatedly places Marlowe in situations that are exotic or perverse. The settings for these situations seem to have little in common. They vary from sleazy low-life dens—the filthy, littered house of Mrs Florian (Esther Howard) and Florian’s seedy bar—to the dwellings of the ultra-rich—the high ceilings, wood paneling, and cavernous interiors of the Grayle mansion; the overlit, ultramodern apartment of the suave psychic, Jules Amthor (Otto Kruger); the shadowy sensuality of the Grayle beach house—to Marlowe’s shabby apartment and office; from the bright lights of Los Angeles at night to the primeval canyon in which Marriott is murdered” (81).

To Luhr’s catalog here one might add the hints of exoticism that are added to the text by the presence of the Chinese jade necklace and the Chinese dancer in the Coconut Beach Club. Such elements, as they frequently do in film noir (and as they memorably to in such neo-noir films as Chinatown), add atmosphere because (especially at the time Murder, My Sweet was made), audiences would have associated them with a panoply of Orientalist stereotypes. China, to Western audiences of the 1940s, was a mysterious and largely unknown realm. Its evocation in the text thus reinforces the ever-present notion of Marlowe’s confusion and inability to decipher the strange events that are occurring around him. In addition, China was at the center of a number of associations in the popular Western mind between the “Orient” and a certain sexual exoticism. From this point of view, it is significant that the dancer in the club wears a very exotic and (by the standards of 1940s Hollywood) skimpy costume.

In any case, Helen, as she had planned to do all along, ditches Marlowe at the club, knowing that Malloy will pick him up there and take him directly to see Jules Amthor, a “psychic consultant” the police have already warned Marlowe to stay away from and who is in league with Helen. Confronted with Amthor, Marlowe, confused as he often is in this film, is for once unable to come up with a snappy line. “I don’t get it,” he simply says. In this case it is Amthor who is ready with the smart retort. “You mean there are some things you do not understand,” he says. “I’ve always credited the private detective with a high degree of omniscience. Or is that only true in rental fiction?” Minutes later, Marlowe is knocked unconscious for the second time in the text, his loss of consciousness visually signaled by a wavering pool of black that engulfs the screen. Indeed, Murder, My Sweet is marked by a number of inventive visuals, causing Andrew Spicer to note that this film was particularly striking for the way it built on the legacy of Citizen Kane in terms of “voice-over narration, expressionist lighting, distorting and disorienting reflections” (54). Indeed, made by the same studio that had made Citizen Kane three years earlier, Murder, My Sweet seems to have derived much of its visual style from Welles’ film, without any clear awareness that it was contributing to the development of a “noir” style.

This style is perhaps most strikingly evident in the central part of Murder, My Sweet, which is taken up by a dreamlike sequence in which Marlowe awakens (sort of) to find himself held prisoner in an establishment where he has been interrogated under the influence of drugs administered to him by a Dr. Sonderborg (Ralf Harald), a sort of Naziesque mad scientist. Marlowe is, in fact, still under the influence of these drugs even as he partly regains consciousness. This sequence certainly verifies the claim by Borde and Chaumeton that film noir is “oneiric” (i.e. dreamlike) in ways that confuse and disorient audiences. Indeed, the sequence blends in quite nicely in a film in which Marlowe is so consistently confused and in which virtually no one can be counted on to be who they appear to be. Moreover, the surreal visuals in this middle sequence not only provide a pictorial representation of Marlowe’s epistemological confusion throughout the film; they also represent one of the best examples in all of film noir of an attempt to use out-of-kilter visuals to represent an unbalanced state of consciousness—which is often Marlowe’s state in this film. Meanwhile, if a confused understanding of one’s surroundings is, as Fredric Jameson claims (he calls it a “failure of cognitive mapping”) central to the postmodern experience, then this sequence provides ample evidence that Powell’s Marlowe is something of a postmodern character, making this film one of the key ways in which film noir (more often associated with modernism) prefigures the rise of postmodernism.[5]

A visual from the drug-dream sequence in “Murder, My Sweet.”

Not overly tough or even especially masculine (in comparison, say, with Sam Spade, and certainly not when compared with the powerful Moose Malloy), Marlowe is also seemingly always a step behind the events that surround him. Still, he is at least dogged. Indeed, Marlowe’s stubborn persistence seems to be one of the things Ann admires about him, though she does not appear fully to appreciate the extent to which is disoriented by everything going on around him. Thus, she compares him (approvingly) to a football running back who continues to run off-tackle despite never getting anywhere, noting that he doesn’t even appear to know which team he is on. He responds, sardonically, by noting that “I don’t even know who’s playing.”

Marlowe certainly doesn’t understand who is playing or what they are playing at in this central sequence at Dr. Sonderborg’s, but he manages a stumbling escape from captivity even in his impaired condition. Then he runs immediately into Malloy again, but the big man, who also often doesn’t know which side he is on, has now reassessed his relationship with Amthor and this time aids Marlowe in his getaway (and will soon afterward kill Amthor). Malloy’s sudden shifts in allegiance are perfectly at home in this film, which is filled with sudden changes in direction, making the plot seem a bit incoherent, even though it has been simplified significantly in comparison with that of the novel. In fact, from this point forward, the plot of the film is made up of one abrupt shift after another, culminating in the final scene in which the ruthless Helen, having been revealed to be Velma, is about to shoot Marlowe but is instead herself shot and killed by Grayle, who subsequently shoots and kills Malloy in the midst of a struggle in which Grayle is killed as well. Marlowe is blinded by the flash of the gun as he tries to prevent the shooting of Malloy, thus looping us back to the beginning of the film (and at the same time completely changing the ending of the novel, which is more sympathetic to both Helen/Velma and to Grayle, while also leaving them both alive—until she ultimately kills herself in a coda set months later to avoid going on trial and embarrassing Grayle). The film then ends with its own coda, which significantly expands the romantic (and playful, thus innocent) conclusion for Marlowe and Ann, who seems remarkably unshaken by the recent death of her father.

If this ending seems slightly discordant, it might be because it deviates so much from the novel’s, just as Ann Grayle in the film is a much more innocent and morally pure character than is Ann Riordan in the novel. Barton Palmer might also be correct that this ending was probably developed to provide a reward for Marlowe’s own virtuous pursuits in the film, thus providing a sort of counterweight to the darkness of the world presented even in the film’s sanitized version of the story (81). Indeed, Palmer goes on to argue that “the film as a whole still strongly makes Chandler’s original and despairing point that American culture, from top to bottom, is sick with anomie, mindless pursuit of self-interest, and obsessive psychopathology” (81–2).

Palmer’s “top to bottom” comment is worthy of exploration. One of the reasons why Chandler’s fiction seems so cynical is that it contains so few genuinely positive figures. Marlowe himself stands apart from a world full of selfish, venal, manipulative operators, regardless of their class or gender. (Though Chandler can be critical of racism, his major characters all tend to be white, so race is not really part of the equation.) The film modifies this figuration in terms of gender by adding “good girl” Ann Grayle. But the film still avoids any sort of attribution of virtue on the basis of class. Moose Malloy is clearly a sort of proletarian figure; he avoids the sinister plotting associated with most of the upper-class characters, but that is largely because he is depicted as lacking the intelligence to conceive of any sort of connivance. And he, of course, is a killer who commits a number of other crimes in the course of the film as well. Velma, meanwhile, is also a working-class character, but she is depicted as an amoral woman who has conned her way into a posh life and is willing to do anything to keep it. The cops of the film are also essentially working-class figures, and they are relatively honest in comparison with the cops in the novel, but they are not particularly competent. Among the characters depicted as upper-class figures, Marriott and Amthor are depicted as effete (a code for gay) and morally bankrupt. Grayle, meanwhile, is essentially a pathetic figure, sexually inert and devoid of any assets except money. In the novel, he is depicted as a successful businessman, but in the film he seems so hapless that it is difficult to imagine him acquiring his fortune in any way other than inheritance. And, of course, he turns out to be a killer as well. It is little wonder, then, that Marlowe seems to stand apart from the society around him in Chandler’s fiction, though the film, in good Hollywood fashion, supplies him with a human connection in Ann Grayle.

This personal dimension is also indicative of the way in which almost all of the social critique in Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely has been transformed into personal and psychological drama in the film. As Jonathan Buchsbaum has pointed out, this transformation makes Murder, My Sweet an excellent example of the crucial role so often played in film noir by personal psychological forces, especially paranoia. Thus, in the novel, the plot revolves around the interactions among corrupt cops and an organized criminal mob that does not even appear in the film, where the plot revolves around the drama of the Grayle family and their circle of personal associates. In both cases, Marlowe must struggle to make his way through a dangerous world. In the novel, however, these threats come primarily from the organizational structures of the cops and the mob; in the film, the threats are centered on the sexually aggressive Velma/Helen, set in opposition to the innocent Ann, who provides a non-threatening alternative that is nevertheless still contained within the Grayle family.

Like Buchsbaum, William Luhr points to Murder, My Sweet as an exemplary noir text largely because of its ability to create certain psychological effects. For Luhr, the central strategy of the film is “disorientation,” which is accomplished in virtually every element of the film:

“Although the plot contains numerous puzzles, the movie uses multiple strategies to weave confusion itself into its very fabric. Most significantly, it presents nearly everything to us filtered through the point of view of the main character, who is himself confused. How can we rely on anything he tells us? This central perceptual problem works hand in hand with other strategies that are evident in the film’s editing, cinematography, confusing timeline, character disorientation, and even in the questionable reliability of some of its images” (78).

Visually, thematically, and atmospherically, Murder, My Sweet is one of the iconic works of film noir and one of the films that helped to define noir as a mode. Powell’s Marlowe, meanwhile, is one of the great noir characters, even though that character would soon come to be identified in the popular mind with his portrayal by Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep (1946). But Powell’s portrayal of Marlowe is actually closer to Chandler’s original than is Bogart’s, which is much more inflected through mainstream Hollywood modes of characterization and through Bogart’s own by then well-established screen persona. It is, in fact, an altogether more mainstream Hollywood film, though still well within the realm of the noir mode, which is versatile enough to encompass both films easily.

WORKS CITED

Buchsbaum, Jonathan. “Tame Wolves and Phoney Claims: Paranoia and Film Noir.” The Book of Film Noir. Ed. Ian Cameron. Continuum, 1993. 88–97.

Dickos, Andrew. Street with No Name: A History of the Classic American Film Noir. University Press of Kentucky, 2002.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Duke University Press, 1991.

Luhr, William. Film Noir. Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.

Naremore, James. More than Night: Film Noir and Its Contexts. University of California Press, 1998.

Palmer, R. Barton. Hollywood’s Dark Cinema: The American Film Noir. Twayne, 1994.

Spicer, Andrew. Film Noir. Longman, 2002.

NOTES


[1] Mitchum thus came to the role of Marlowe late in his career. However, he also played Marlowe in the 1978 remake of The Big Sleep, making him the only actor to play Marlowe more than once on screen.

[2] This portrayal, alas, is not a virtue of the novel. Chandler’s homophobia has been noted many times, as when Palmer notes it in conjunction with the portrayal of Marriott and Amthor in Farewell, My Lovely (82).

[3] This character is missing altogether from the 1975 film, which thus opts not to provide a romantic interest for Marlowe.

[4] In both versions of Farewell, My Lovely, it is clear that Velma had been a prostitute. In Murder, My Sweet, with Code restrictions in place, this association is only implied.

[5] Jameson takes his notion of “cognitive mapping” from the work of Kevin Lynch on the difficulties sometimes encountered by individuals trying to find their way about modern cities. Relevant here is Marlowe’s indication in the film that, recently hired to find an errant husband, he had failed to do so, instead, merely finding out “how big this city is.”