murder, my sweet

Murder, My Sweet (1944)

© 2008 William Ahearn

 “Murder, My Sweet” is Philip Marlowe’s film debut and director Edward Dmytryk certainly captured the look and feel of a good 1940’s crime film. While the film varies from the novel – most notably Anne Riordan, the persistent reporter, has morphed into a Grayle daughter from a previous marriage – the changes aren’t as drastic as they would be with the Howard Hawks’ production based on The Big Sleep or Robert Altman’s production based on The Long Goodbye.

Many Chandler fans have taken issue with Dick Powell and his performance as Philip Marlowe. Known more as a song and dance man and juvenile lead in musicals, Powell wanted to break away from all that and tried for the role of Walter Neff in Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity.” (Wilder collaborated on that screenplay with Raymond Chandler.) When that didn’t work he managed to get cast in what would have been called “Farewell, My Lovely” except the studio thought that people would be expecting a musical with Dick Powell and changed the title to “Murder, My Sweet” for the version released in the United States. The film was a hit and Powell had successfully broken free of his juvenile crooner image. Dmytryk would cast him in “Cornered” the next year.

An often-heard quote about Powell’s performance is that he was the “eagle scout” Marlowe. That quote originated with Dmytryk and it wasn’t about Powell, it was about Marlowe. In an interview about why he cast Dick Powell, Dmytryk said:

“[Dick Powell] fit the character, as far as I could see. After all, what is Marlowe? He’s no Sam Spade. He’s an eagle scout among tough guys. He’s a moral, ethical man, with a strong sense of responsibility.”

Philip Marlowe may be re-envisioned by filmmakers for whatever they need for their particular movie as many characters of literature often are. Chandler also cast Marlowe in many different guises and the Marlowe of Farewell, My Lovely varies a great deal from the Marlowe of The High Window or the Marlowe of The Big Sleep or the Marlowe of The Long Goodbye.

The Marlowe in Farewell, My Lovely is a very passive Marlowe, subjected to the whims of Moose Malloy and Dr. Sonderborg and Jesse Florian. This is not the Marlowe of control but the Marlowe of defeat. It is one of the rare times that Marlowe doesn’t understand what is happening until the shooting starts and where the motives of any number of people don’t become obvious until it is almost too late. That isn’t the Marlowe of other novels and in this novel – unlike any of the others – he gets the girl. Not the rich, well-settled Anne Grayle of the movie who will inherit everything from her father but the down-to-earth Anne Riordan of the novel who has nothing and owes nothing to anybody.

To me, I wander through Farewell, My Lovely and “Murder, My Sweet” and I wonder where in the hell is Philip Marlowe? Later, I would wander through Playback and think the same thing. When you strip all the Hollywood out of it, when you get down to cases, this particular Marlowe – who can wisecrack and toss off wonderful descriptions – isn’t really the hard-bitten, above-it-all Marlowe that rips the Carmen-stained sheets off his bed in The Big Sleep or the errant knight Marlowe of The High Window. Nor is it the Marlowe of the long-view that tries to come to grips with the future in The Long Goodbye or even the brittle and bitter Marlowe of The Little Sister.

At one point, Marlowe isn’t even taken seriously while waving a gun. “Damn it,” [Marlowe] said. “When you have a gun in your hand, people are supposed to do anything you tell them to. It doesn’t work, does it?”

This is a ghost of Marlowe surrounded by the poetry of Chandler. It is the smoke of Marlowe and not the fire and in this case someone such as Dick Powell is perfect for the role of Marlowe because a tough guy would show that this book is only hard-boiled in plot. As with The Big Sleep and The Lady In The Lake, Farewell, My Lovely was based on short stories that were published in the pulp magazines. None of those stories featured Philip Marlowe although after Chandler became successful those stories were collected for publication and the main characters were then renamed Philip Marlowe.

Where the novel and the film diverge in terms of Marlowe’s character is best shown in terms of Moose Malloy. In the Dmytryk film, Moose is a client who hires Marlowe to find Velma who is “as cute as lace pants.”

In the book, Marlowe is working for the police who are trying to find Malloy after Malloy kills the owner of a nightclub where Velma once worked. LAPD Detective McNulty convinces Marlowe that Marlowe needs “friends” in the police department and Marlowe accepts the non-paying job of trying to find Malloy.

“Nothing made it my business except curiosity,” Marlowe muses in the book. “But strictly speaking, I hadn’t any business in a month. Even a no-charge job was a change.”

However one tries to frame this relationship, the word “informer” keeps entering the picture. Marlowe tells McNulty, “Okey, if I think of anything, it’s yours. And when you get the mug, I’ll identify him for you. After lunch.” Yet he sets out to track down Velma – who might lead him to Malloy – immediately after the conversation.

To me, this “favor” for the police isn’t a question of ethics or even business practices; it’s a question of consistency in the character of Philip Marlowe. In no other novel would Philip Marlowe entertain for a moment the notion of working as an unpaid finger man for the police. So while many may have a difficult time accepting Dick Powell as Philip Marlowe in “Murder, My Sweet,” I have a difficult time accepting the passive and romantic Philip Marlowe in Farewell, My Lovely.

William Ahearn