Silver Screen Standards: Dick Powell in Murder, My Sweet (1944)
Humphrey Bogart might be the most iconic version of Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled detective, Philip Marlowe, but Dick Powell gives a surprisingly perfect take on the character in the 1944 noir classic, Murder, My Sweet, adapted from Chandler’s 1940 novel, Farewell, My Lovely. If you’ve only seen Powell as a hoofer in early musical hits like 42nd Street (1933), Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), and Footlight Parade (1933), it can be something of a shock to find him embodying a quintessential tough guy like Marlowe, but his success in the role allowed him to part ways with his musical comedy past and embrace darker, more dramatic parts in middle age, when youthful dancers no longer suited him. Powell gets ample support from the rest of the cast in this crackling noir caper, with Claire Trevor and Mike Mazurki in particularly fine form as two of the shady characters Marlowe encounters, but it’s Powell himself who really leads with his convincing take on the classic detective.
The mystery begins when Marlowe is hired by recently released convict Moose Malloy (Mike Mazurki), who wants to track down his former girlfriend, Velma. Moose still loves Velma even though she stopped writing during his prison term, but a lot can happen in eight years, and Velma proves elusive. Meanwhile, Marlowe is also hired by Lindsay Marriott (Douglas Walton) to help retrieve a stolen jade necklace for Marriott’s married lady friend, Helen Grayle (Claire Trevor). When Marlowe and Marriott are jumped at the meeting spot, and Marriott ends up dead, Marlowe feels obligated to salvage his business reputation by tracking down the killer. His investigation lands him in trouble with the cops as he becomes entangled in the schemes of psychic swindler Jules Amthor (Otto Kruger), but Marlowe is also drawn in by Helen’s pretty stepdaughter, Ann (Anne Shirley), who hates Helen but is determined to protect her beloved father, Leuwen (Miles Mander).
Powell’s Marlowe has a scrappy, wry charm, though he’s rarely seen at his best in this story, which takes particular delight in abusing its protagonist. He suffers repeated blows to the head, falls into dark pools of unconsciousness, is attacked by Moose, gets kidnapped and drugged out of his mind for three days, and opens and closes the picture with damaged eyes wrapped in bandages. Even when he isn’t being roughed up he looks ragged, like a guy with a lot of miles behind him but not much to show for it. I’m especially struck by the scene with Marlowe in his undershirt, partly because we had so memorably seen Powell in the same state of undress back in his younger days in 42nd Street. In Murder, My Sweet, it looks like Powell has been wearing the same undershirt for the last eleven years; it’s stretched out and ill-fitting, but Marlowe isn’t going to waste money on new undershirts as long as the old ones hold together. Instead of a proper belt he wears a piece of cloth to hold up his pants, probably because it’s 1944 and there’s a war on, with a leather shortage leading to rationing, but also because even without a war Marlowe can’t afford the luxury of a new leather belt. Powell is a perpetually broke, middle-aged Marlowe who looks like it. When Helen makes love to him we know it’s phony, and so does he, because only a romantic kid like Ann could actually fall for a cash strapped, forty-something private eye whose personal codes – of honor, justice, or sheer contrariness – constantly land him in danger. These are the qualities that make Marlowe such a perfect noir hero, and Powell really digs into the character and makes us believe in him.
Everything else about the picture supports that perfect noir mood. Director Edward Dmytryk treats us to reflections and shadows, looming blackness, and drug-fueled hallucinations. We see Moose, huge and menacing, reflected in Marlowe’s office window, and Helen smoking in the dark, a cloud of cigarette smoke rising in the moonlight above her head. They are all inhabitants of Dark City, the nighttime world of secrets, lies, and murder where Marlowe is a battered knight errant in search of a damsel in distress but just as likely to find a femme fatale. It’s fitting that he begins and ends the movie blinded, noir’s own figure of a certain kind of Justice, because Marlowe is always in the dark himself, groping for pieces of the truth while everybody lies to him. This theme reaches its peak in the delirious drug scene, with a helpless, panicked Marlowe running through imaginary doors like a Gothic heroine while the faces of his tormentors rise up before him. That feminization of a tough guy might seem strange, even contradictory, but it gets at the heart of noir by highlighting the powerlessness of the disenfranchised individual against a corrupt system that seeks to abuse, control, or destroy those who oppose it. Personally, I think that’s one of the main reasons I love classic noir, because I see myself in characters like Philip Marlowe just like I see myself in Gothic heroines like Jane Eyre. A film like Murder, My Sweet stays with the viewer, and remains relevant decade after decade, because so many of us can look at Dick Powell’s outsider hero and see ourselves reflected in his world-weary face.
If you’re eager to experience more of Dick Powell’s darker roles, try Cornered (1945), Johnny O’Clock (1947), and Pitfall (1948). For a lighter take on the Marlowe type, catch Powell as a reincarnated dog turned private detective in the weirdly delightful fantasy, You Never Can Tell (1951). Edward Dmytryk’s other noir films include Cornered (1947), Obsession (aka The Hidden Room, 1949), and Crossfire (1947). In addition to Bogart and Powell, other actors who have played Philip Marlowe are Robert Montgomery in Lady in the Lake (1947), George Montgomery in The Brasher Doubloon (1947), James Garner in Marlowe (1969), Elliott Gould in The Long Goodbye (1973), and Robert Mitchum in Farewell, My Lovely (1975) and The Big Sleep (1978). Most recently, Liam Neeson took up the role for the 2022 film, Marlowe, but the movie garnered poor reviews and little success at the box office.
— Jennifer Garlen for Classic Movie Hub
Jennifer Garlen pens our monthly Silver Screen Standards column. You can read all of Jennifer’s Silver Screen Standards articles here.
Jennifer is a former college professor with a PhD in English Literature and a lifelong obsession with film. She writes about classic movies at her blog, Virtual Virago, and presents classic film programs for lifetime learning groups and retirement communities. She’s the author of Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching and its sequel, Beyond Casablanca II: 101 Classic Movies Worth Watching, and she is also the co-editor of two books about the works of Jim Henson.