One of the most dramatic career reinventions in film history occurred in 1944 when Dick Powell jettisoned his boyish crooner persona to play the hard-boiled private eye Philip Marlowe in the RKO production of Raymond Chandler’s “Farewell, My Lovely.” However, preview audiences that were unfamiliar with Chandler’s work incorrectly assumed from the title that “Farewell, My Lovely” was another lightweight Powell musical, so the studio rebranded it with the cynically appropriate “Murder, My Sweet.”
The unlikely casting was not the only jolting consideration for the audiences of that era. Powell’s Philip Marlowe was an astonishing presence that was new to the 1940s screen: a wise-guy private eye whose bravado never entirely masked a chronic fallibility that repeatedly put him in harm’s way. Indeed, the film is framed by the police interrogating Marlowe while his eyes are bandaged from an initially unspecified injury – a state of helplessness rarely seen in Hollywood tough guys of the era.
But, in retrospect, we can recognize that “Murder, My Sweet” ushered in the age of film noir thrillers, where vulnerable heroes and charismatic villains often shared too much common ground. Powell’s Marlowe was slick but never truly shrewd – his ability to persevere is a victory of guts over brains, reinforced by a seedy steeliness to push ahead even if it nearly kills him while massacring nearly everyone around him.
Beginning with a somewhat ridiculous petty assignment – a dim ex-con (hulking Mike Mazurki) hires him to locate a long-lost showgirl lover – Marlowe gets involved in a convoluted blackmail case involving stolen jewelry that devolves into murder. The seemingly parallel cases crisscross unexpectedly as a skein of unsavory characters from all levels of the social spectrum confound and bedevil Marlowe’s investigations.
Screenwriter John Paxton took liberal slices of Chandler’s pulpy dialogue – standout lines include “She was a charming middle-aged lady with a face like a bucket of mud” and “The cops always like to solve murders done with my gun” – and the Production Code limits were pushed to the edge with blatant taboo-busters involving an obviously homosexual villain and torture by narcotics (including a Daliesque dope-fueled dream sequence). A vulgar sight gag with Marlowe lighting a match off the backside of the statue of a naked angel also managed to make the final cut. Director Edward Dmytryk presented the story through an intricate swirl of shadowy sequences that defined the film noir look – it is easy to imagine that no one in the story could exist in the light of day.
While Powell anchors the film with a deeply textured performance – from his world-weary search for the missing showgirl to his desperate effort to force himself from his dope-fueled imprisonment – he is surrounded by fine actors that take potentially one-dimensional roles and expand them with wicked intelligence: Claire Trevor as the dubious blonde femme fatale at the crux of the jewelry robbery, Anne Shirley as her not-so-innocent stepdaughter, Otto Kruger as a suave quack psychologist, Don Douglas as the police detective who is constantly exasperated by Marlowe, Esther Howard as the drunken widow of the bar where the missing showgirl once worked, and the aforementioned Mazurki as the oversized creep whose obsessive search for his lost love triggers spasm of brutal violence.
Over the years, “Murder, My Sweet” was upstaged by other film versions of Chandler’s Philip Marlowe mysteries, most notably the Bogart-Bacall star vehicle “The Big Sleep” (1946) and Robert Montgomery’s gimmicky “Lady in the Lake” (1947). The 1975 remake “Farewell, My Lovely” was memorable solely for Robert Mitchum’s hard-boiled (if somewhat overaged) Marlowe, while flashy efforts to make Marlowe a modern hipster via “Marlowe” (1969) with James Garner and “The Long Goodbye” (1973) with Elliott Gould were notable only for their ineptitude.
Yet “Murder, My Sweet” is, quite frankly, the most satisfying screen version of the Chandler stories. When Powell matter-of-factly proclaims, “I’m just a small businessman in a very messy business,” he effortlessly encompasses the brilliance of the source material while establishing the basic foundation of the cinematic antihero. It’s a great performance in a great film.