Murder, My Sweet
It's easy to describe a film as a "definitive" example of this or that style, but harder to make the description stick with a literal interpretation of the word. When it comes to Murder, My Sweet, the 1944 adaptation of Raymond Chandler's pulp novel Farewell, My Lovely, it not only sticks, it clings like the shimmery black dress on the gorgeous gams of a dame with a revolver aimed at your belly. The term "film noir" was first used by French critic Nino Frank in a 1946 essay in which he singled out Murder, My Sweet and Double Indemnity as quintessential, defining examples of the form. From its strongly accented camera angles and darkness-drenched nighttime action to the hardboiled narration of a cynical Los Angeles gumshoe outfitted in trenchcoat and fedora, Murder, My Sweet is pure Detective Noir 101.
All the essentials are here: laconic private dick Philip Marlowe (Dick Powell), a slinky femme fatale (Claire Trevor) who'd kiss you one minute then put a slug into you the next, a second dame who might not be as innocent as she seems (Anne Shirley), all wrapped into a twisty and rather over-populated mystery involving a murder, a priceless jade necklace, the missing moll of hulking thug Moose Malloy (Mike Mazurki), a blackmail scheme, and a con-man psychic (Otto Kruger). Everyone's at the top of his or her game, with Trevor and Mazurki in particular displaying career-shaping performances. Powell, who'd been known as a juvenile lead singer-dancer in light comedies and Busby Berkeley musicals, was an odd choice for the archetypal tough-guy Marlowe. Nonetheless, he pulled it off and Murder, My Sweet boosted his career the way Pulp Fiction jolted John Travolta's. He gives us a wittier, lighter (and more authentic) Marlowe than Humphrey Bogart's in The Big Sleep ('46), although without Bogart's matchless charisma. His voice-over is straight-up Chandler "I caught the blackjack right behind my ear. A black pool opened up at my feet. I dived in. It had no bottom. I felt pretty good. Like an amputated leg."
Marlowe is a hard-bitten romantic knight-errant working the mean streets, walking through black-and-white cinematography that's all about improbable but dramatic shadows and canted perspective shots, with mood trumping realism as Marlowe descends deeper into the seedy L.A. netherworld. After Marlowe is beaten and drugged, a Vertigo-like "crazy coked-up dream" sequence is a memorable highlight. With an assist from RKO set designs and compositions as perfected by Orson Welles, director Edward Dmytryk practically invents the film genre's tropes of bleak alienation, paranoia, and off-kilter visual distortions. He keeps it all moving forward at a brisk clip, despite a nearly indecipherable screenplay that can't work up much suspense between its two competing storylines stapled together by coincidence. Chandler cobbled his novel from three short stories he sold in the '30s, and that patchwork structure carries through to this film.
Yet despite its narrative contortions, Murder, My Sweet is so full of canonical noirishness that it'll remind you of every "hardboiled detective" parody you've ever enjoyed. If you're a fan of the form you'll also recognize it as a seminal influence that remains entertaining, like a shot of first-rate hooch on a dark night, with the staccato patter of rain on the office window, then she walks in....
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Warner Brothers' DVD of Murder, My Sweet, part of the "Film Noir Classic Collection," gives the film a grade-A treatment. The clean print and transfer (original 1.37:1 full-frame) provide a fine image that shows off inky blacks, precise contrast, and well-controlled grayscale, yet with just enough grain and brief moments of slight wear that feel somehow right for a film that shouldn't be polished up too much. The DD 1.0 monaural audio is strong and free of hiss or other distractions.
Well-read genre fans already know author Alain Silver as an expert who literally wrote the book (or at least some books) on film noir a half-dozen times over, and on this disc he delivers a commentary track that won't diminish his august standing one bit. He's not the most dynamic of speakers, but his ability to dish out facts from genre-spanning analysis to worthwhile annotations on the actors' performances and the finer points of cinema technique employed onscreen is impressive. The only other extra is the original theatrical trailer, which still shows signs of being roughed-up over the years. Keep-case.