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Monday, March 03, 2014

Something Fresh For Detecting Ranks

The New Dick Powell Enters In Murder, My Sweet (1944)

The one to change tides for Dick Powell and sound early charge for film noir to come. Who's to judge what is noir? Detective stories like Murder, My Sweet could be argued as merely that, and not noir as it was later defined. Must a private sleuth plumb depths of down-and-out-ness to achieve noir standing? Powell really doesn't here, being upbeat and adjusted despite abuse he takes. So was Sam Spade, for that matter. One person's idea of noir tends to differ from others. It's a subjective category. What Hollywood saw at the time was indication that sleazy crime pics could draw mainstream patronage, this forecast by success of The Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity. Maybe war news had toughened us all, and it was time to hoist mysteries out of tame and whodunit category. Whatever the reason, there'd be brass knuckles taking place of velvet gloves. Among best of freshened approach Murder, My Sweet is reborn thanks to HD streaming on VuDu, inky RKO sets never so flavorsome. Director Edward Dmytryk spoke in interviews of darkness standing in for sets they couldn't afford, his idea of a minus then perhaps, but very much a plus for us now that high-def can reveal richness of what Dmytryk shot.

Powell gets laughs playing with props, a trick he'd oft-employ, at one point lighting a match off the buttocks of a nude statue. Detecting was more fun before 70's nihilism and proto-noir (or is it crypto?) crept in. Philip Marlowe introduced new attitude into mysteries courtesy of language lifted from Raymond Chandler's source book. Part of what made Powell and Murder, My Sweet click was RKO's reliance on magic words they'd bought from Chandler, whereas Howard Hawks did more his own thing with later The Big Sleep. Chandler's prose was in ways not unlike wisecrack format of 30's musicals Powell had led, so witty words came natural for him. Based on what we'd hear, the Marlowe role was no radical depart for this star, whatever stubble he let grow or tie left askew.

The "New" Dick Powell, then, came mostly in terms of visual change. That's why ads emphasized a disheveled Powell, shorthand to effect that he never looked like this before. Otherwise there was assurance of a favorite not stepping too wide of insouciant image as chief skylark for Warner Bros. musicals. Powell registers least in Murder, My Sweet when most intense, this where a learning curve is evident, plus fact he wasn't all the way around it. Truer transition from crooning wiseacre to noir dweller would come with next New Powell that was Cornered, where he's scarred, bitter, and buzz-cut, adding emphasis by beating villainy to death in an ice-cold finish they wouldn't have gambled had not Murder, My Sweet rung up such endorsement of Dick Powell as loner tough guy. Gallup-polling of the title Farewell, My Lovely had revealed misunderstanding that it would be a musical, especially with Dick Powell heading marquees, so eleventh-hour change was made, this after main titles had been shot and posters printed. Re-do of these cost RKO an extra $5,000, but Gallup estimated $300K more in eventual tills, so pill was took and F,ML went out as M,MS.

RKO had done a Falcon mystery "B" based on Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely, different enough from Murder, My Sweet for most not to recognize it, despite little time between the two versions. In those days, a major studio could remake a B as an A, or vice versa, with impunity, figuring its audience for short memories or such inure to formula that they wouldn't mind yarns warmed over and re-served. Why should any well-built narrative be used but once? Different faces and more money spent could generally make old seem new. The Falcon Takes Over, adapted from Farewell, My Lovely, had been released in 1942 at negative cost of $142K and got back $308K in worldwide rentals.

Chicago First-Run Puts Big Emphasis on Powell Image Change
Murder, My Sweet spent $479K to re-do the story with meaningful cast amidst "A" trapping and earned $1.7 million worldwide, some of better money RKO took that year from an in-house production. They'd boldly sell Murder, My Sweet as a "New Kind Of Murder-Mystery," as if daring anyone to mention the Falcon predecessor.  Ad art was built almost entirely around Dick Powell as Rough, Tough, Terrific, Two-Fisted ... have your choice from ocean of adjectives. Curiosity would have bought admission into this one as they'd once-upon-time come to see/hear favorite stars debut in talkies. And maybe it was by way of adjusting audiences to newness of Dick Powell that caused the actor and Murder, My Sweet heavy Mike Mazurki to hypo key openings of the film with a fifteen-minute stage act, priceless first-hand account given by historian Don Miller in an article on Private Eyes for Focus On Film in 1975. Said Miller, who was in the audience at the RKO Palace theatre when Murder, My Sweet opened during winter 1944: "Powell made a one-day personal appearance on stage ... there he was, his old, smiling, emcee self, all charm and teeth and wavy hair, wowing the ladies in the audience and and joining in repartee with co-player Mike Mazurki for easy laughs. He topped it off with a rendition of "Don't Fence Me In." Murder, My Sweet was a switch for Powell, though RKO acknowledged his path had been broken with recent It Happened Tomorrow, this to assure that transition to Tough and Terrific wouldn't be quite so radical. As to footnote, seems I read that Powell played Philip Marlowe again on one-shot TV occasion ... does this half-hour (or is it hour) still exist?


Blogger opticalguy said...

Um … were you watching the same movie as I was?

"Detective stories like Murder, My Sweet could be argued as merely that, and not noir as it was later defined. Must a private sleuth plumb depths of down-and-out-ness to achieve noir standing? Powell really doesn't here, being upbeat and adjusted despite beatings he takes."

Are you kidding me? How dark does a film noir have to be to be considered the real thing? From the nightmarish introduction of the semi-magical Moose Malloy (he's almost 7' tall and yet has no problem evading the police and appearing like magic at appropriate times) to Jules Amthor (Otto Kruger) saying, "Dirty stupid little man in a dirty, stupid world. One spot of brightness on you and you’d still be that” before having Marlow shot up with enough drugs to destroy Keith Richards this is a dark film. Dick Powell works better that Bogart since Powell's Marlowe is clearly in danger and well over his head. It is as noir a film as was ever made. Obviously I'm quite the fan of it. Some quibble that it has a hopeful ending and that should disqualify MURDER, MY SWEET from being dark enough. Oy! After being dragged through hell cut the lead character some slack!

8:51 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Maybe it's just the way I see Dick Powell, Spencer.

Received the following answer to my query re Powell as Marlowe on TV:

I always thought it was a shame that Powell never made another Marlowe feature.

I would have posted this on Greenbrier, but there are some web-sites including yours that I have trouble posting comments, so I could not post directly on the site.

You asked "...As to footnote, seems I read that Powell played Philip Marlowe again on one-shot TV occasion ... does this half-hour (or is it hour) still exist.."

Dick Powell played Marlowe on the Lux Radio Theater production of Murder My Sweet and a in an adaptation of "The Long Goodbye" in 1954 on live TV. My understanding it is that the TV Malowe is lost

Joe McGrenra

Thanks much for this info, Joe.

12:04 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer steps up with some insights about Chandler, Dick Powell, and Philip Marlowe:

Many years after "Murder, My Sweet" was made, Robert Altman directed what was more or less a burlesque of Raymond Chandler's most ambitious novel, "The Long Goodbye." Altman supposed that the Philip Marlowe character had become an anachronism, so his sendup placed a dour Marlowe in 70s Los Angeles, wearing dark, dated suits in a time of bell bottoms and love beads, chain smoking Luckies, and driving a 1941 Lincoln Continental, though such a car would have been far beyond Marlowe's wage scale, then as before. The Plymouth Bogie drove in "The Big Sleep" was closer to what he could afford.

In Eliott Gould, Altman had a Marlowe whose values could never be authentic but, at best, an affectation. There was one inight, however, that was true and correct, in that any man who consciously sought virtue placed himself at odds with other men who had no such concerns, and was all the more vulnerable for it. Or as Chandler himself recognized in a memorable phrase from his essay, "The Simple Art of Murder": "Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid."

It is this quality of vulnerability that makes Dick Powell's Marlowe such an appealing character, in that his sense of decency will take him into situations where he's obviously in over his head. The boyishness of his face makes it easy to forget that Powell the man was six feet two inches tall and solidly built. So that Mike Mazurki's Moose Malloy would seem even more imposing, it was necessary for him to walk in the gutter in their two-shots. His light way with a line also reveals that he is, indeed, not a mean man or a hard one. He can be overwhelmed and hurt, yet his sense of honor obliges him to see it through. As often as he is unhorsed, he returns to the joust.

Chandler liked Bogart, who he said could be tough without having to do anything to demonstrate that toughness. He also said that Cary Grant was physically more what he had in mind for Marlowe. Of the actors who actually played the character during his lifetime, however, he thought Powell was closer to his character than Bogart was. Maybe part of that was John Paxton's screenplay, with those great, Chanderlesque lines. As you noted, Howard Hawks had other ideas for "The Big Sleep." Mostly, though, I think it was Powell himself, who suggested a man who realized that honor came with a price, but one he was willing to pay.


12:06 PM  
Blogger MDG14450 said...

On the "is this noir" question: stylistically, no doubt. But one of the thematic marks of film noir is also the guy put on the spot, on his way down, and/or in over his head because of circumstances out of his control (e.g., 99 River Street, Crime Wave), or his own desire for money, sex, revenge, or some combination of these (e.g., Double Indemnity, Cry Danger).

That's why I have a hard time with detective or police protagonists being strictly noir--they are hired to get involved. It's not their fight--it's their job.

Where it might cross the line--and this happens in MMS--is when the dick or cop has been played as a patsy and decides to settle the score on his own time.

5:08 PM  

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