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Murder, My Sweet (1944)

225px-SweetPosterWhen I was watching Gold Diggers of 1933 some time ago, I marveled that Dick Powell, playing an eager, enthusiastic, boyish tenor, could turn into the hard-bitten and wry private eye, Philip Marlowe of Murder, My Sweet. It was one of the more radical mid-career changes I’ve seen. But for me, Dick Powell is Philip Marlowe, even more so than Humphrey Bogart. He has that world-weary, wry way of speaking typical of Marlowe in Raymond Chandler’s novels and whenever I read a Chandler novel, I can hear Dick Powell’s voice speaking Marlowe’s lines.

Murder, My Sweet was based on Raymond Chandler’s novel, Farewell, My Lovely, but the title was changed because it was thought it sounded too much like a musical. But Murder, My Sweet is one of those movies I seem to enjoy more each time I watch it and it has become one of my favorite noirs. It also has one of those plots that is so confusing that I seem to have new questions about it each time I watch it. And it’s streamlined in comparison to the book.

Moose Malloy (Mike Mazurki) wants private detective Philip Marlowe (Dick Powell) to find his girlfriend, Velma, who he hasn’t heard from since he was sent to prison. It seems like an innocent enough job, but it seems to trigger all sorts of things and people suddenly want to hire Marlowe to look in to different things, to get out of things, to keep things hidden. The police are on his case, a jade necklace is stolen, a man is murdered. An elderly millionaire, Mr. Grayle (Miles Mander), and his young wife, Helen Grayle, (Claire Trevor), and a daughter from his first wife, Ann (Anne Shirley) are involved. There is also a shrink, Mr. Amthor (Otto Kruger), who is also interested in the stolen jade necklace. Marlowe’s hit on the head, choked, drugged, vamped, threatened, plead with, and hounded by cops. He has a rough film. His outstanding strength is not that he’s such a great detective, but that he’s persistent. People always assume he knows more than he does, but he thinks on his feet and manages to outfox everyone anyway.

a chauffuer, Dick Powell and Mike Mazurki

A chauffeur, Dick Powell and Mike Mazurki

Murder, My Sweet is called a film noir, but it’s more lighthearted than the usual noir, mostly because of the colorful script that comes from Chandler’s novel and the way that Powell delivers his lines and voice-over narration: “My bank account was trying to crawl under a duck” or his description of the Grayle’s mansion: “It was a nice little front yard. Cozy, okay for the average family. Only you’d need a compass to go to the mailbox. The house was all right, too, but it wasn’t as big as Buckingham Palace.” He’s irreverent and so the viewer is never really allowed to take the film too seriously. Even when he’s been drugged and having bizarre dreams about falling, doors and syringes, he still keeps up a stream of sarcastic commentary, even though it’s clear he’s just trying to hang on to his sanity.

“‘Okay Marlowe,’ I said to myself. ‘You’re a tough guy. You’ve been sapped twice, choked, beaten silly with a gun, shot in the arm until you’re crazy as a couple of waltzing mice. Now let’s see you do something really tough – like putting your pants on.”

Philip Marlowe dominates the film, but though the other characters are less central they are still highly picturesque. It’s not the deepest showcase for femme fatales, though. Clare Trevor as Helen Grayle does very well as the dangerous blonde who likes chasing men (I imagine they meet you halfway” Marlowe replies). She’s central to the plot, the reason everything is happening, but she only has about three or four scenes in the film (though she makes the most of them) and it is pretty obvious from the beginning where her character is coming from.

Dick Powell, Claire Trevor

Dick Powell, Claire Trevor

Anne Shirley as Helen’s step-daughter, Ann, gets one of the more forgiving non-femme-fatale roles in a noir that I’ve ever seen. It’s partially because she actually has more scenes than Claire Trevor does. She’s worried about what Helen’s shenanigans will do to her father and is trying to keep Marlowe away from both her father and Helen. I thought she brought a freshness and spunk to the role.

In the book, Ann was actually a reporter and you would think that would be a more empowered role than daughter of a millionaire, but to be honest, I think she’s better in the movie. In the book she has a case of hero-worship and makes a few slightly embarrassing speeches about how wonderful he is while he shrugs it off like a bored courtesan who has half of Paris at her feet. In the movie, she’s much more suspicious of him and there are mercifully no embarrassing hero-worship speeches.

Mike Mazurki as Moose Malloy is particularly memorable as the hulking lug who is not too bright, but just wants to find Velma (“Cute as lace-pants, she was”) and doesn’t usually mean to hurt anyone, but is just so strong (though a few times he does mean to hurt someone). He may be just a lug, but he’s still sincerely in love.

Dick Powell and Anne Shirley

Dick Powell and Anne Shirley

It’s not as bleak as many film noirs, though it does have that general atmosphere of corruption with a world-weary Marlowe who seems more, in the words of Ross Macdonald in regards to Chandler, like a “slumming angel” than an actual part of the corruption. But that should not obscure how much fun Murder, My Sweet is. It makes for a good transitional film for Dick Powell. Some of his later noirs, like Pitfall, are more uncompromisingly pessimistic. Another adaptation of a Chandler novel, The Big Sleep with Humphrey Bogart, is like that, too: a fun film noir.

 
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Posted by on October 7, 2015 in Movies

 

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Seeing Double Indemnity on the Big Screen

dipst-lgOn Sunday, TCM presented Double Indemnity across the country at select theaters and I promised myself that come rain or shine, sickness or in health, I would be there. And so I was. It was the first time I had seen any classic film on anything other than my puny and unimpressive TV and the experience was exhilarating, even more so because Double Indemnity is one of those films I never grow tired of watching.

I’d like to say that seeing it on the big screen was a revelation, but since I already knew it so well, the affect was less revelatory than it was heightened. The sound was much improved, naturally, so the moment when the gun goes off and Phyllis shoots Walter had more impact, less a pop gun and an actual murder attempt that takes him unawares and even startled me a little. And apart from my initial viewing, the moment when they are in the car and about to make their getaway and Phyllis can’t start the car did not make me feel truly tense, despite my enjoyment and appreciation. But this time, I could feel the tension, palpably.

The theater was not even half full (which seems a pity for such a great film), but it was interesting to watch with a crowd of people and their reactions. I went with six other people, some of whom do not usually watch classic films and it is curious how the knowledge that other people are seeing it for the first time changes how I view it. I always knew that Double Indemnity contains dialogue that no one ever would speak, but this time I really noticed it. It didn’t bother me – I think it’s brilliant – but it did become apparent to me how stylized it is. It’s dialogue that fits together like a mechanical watch, so closely fitted that to remove anything might unwind the whole, each line inevitably leading to the next. There is no casual conversation going on in Double Indemnity.

MV5BMTgxMTI4MDc5Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwMTUxNjQ2._V1_SX640_SY720_I was once again struck with how brilliant Edward G. Robinson is. Almost every time someone laughed in the theater, it was in response to one of his lines. His energy partly is what propels this film.

I am delighted to say that everyone I went with enjoyed it. But in talking to people, I discovered that I have difficulty expressing why I love this movie so much. Talking about the plot or saying I like the dialogue or actors doesn’t seem to really capture it.

I once read someone describe watching Double Indemnity as listening to a Mozart symphony. That seems to best epitomize why I love the film. It is one of those perfectly plotted films, each scene leading inevitably and smoothly into the next, informing the next scene. I can revisit it the same way I keep listening to my favorite pieces of music. There is so much going on in every scene, characters playing on multiple levels of communication between each other and to the audience.

For example: Walter has just told Phyllis that he is going to kill her husband; he is going to plan everything and do it right without any weakness or sloppiness. He thinks he’s in control, calming an apparently hysterical woman who says she can’t stand living with her husband anymore, doing a good impression of someone who might run out into the night and reckless bump off her husband, come what may. But after Walter tells her what he is going to do, she stands up and there is a look of such supreme satisfaction on her face that you know she has just gotten what she wanted. Barbara Stanwyck is playing two parts, the part Phyllis is playing for Walter’s benefit and the part of Phyllis, the cold-blooded killer.

imagesAnother example: Walter is in Keye’s office and Keyes is telling him how he has figured out the murder was committed. Once again, he is acting on two levels. There is the part he is playing for Keyes, the friend and confident, and the part of the murderer, who knows the man Keyes is hunting for is him. It’s brilliant stuff and most of the scenes are like that.

When Lola goes to Walter to tell him that she suspects that Phyllis killed her father, now Walter has to react on three levels. He is talking to Lola and trying to calm her down, he is afraid that through her the entire plan could bust in his face and he is hearing from Lola a new and decidedly disturbing side to Phyllis’ character that he had not previously comprehended.

I also love watching the characters move and act and speak. The way Phyllis throws away her cigarette and reaches for her gun, expressive of so much control, contempt and determination. The scene where Keyes cites statistics and pretty much shows up his boss as a fool, the charged expressions Phyllis and Walter give each other during that scene, the endless lighting of cigarettes on Walter’s thumb nail and offering it to Keyes, the way Phyllis pointedly drops a piece of lemon into Walter’s tea and says “Fresh.”

Another great scene is when Keyes goes into his spiel about why Walter should become a claims manager, describing it as a combination of surgery, religion, detection, psychology, human drama and even the judicial system. His eloquence and passion flow on, pausing only to answer the phone, and then continues without skipping a beat. But what also makes the scene great is that he is describing his job as a calling, something he believes in, bolstered by his own moral sense. Walter is not interested because of the cut in salary – he does not view his work as a calling – and Keyes’ passion is contrasted with the phone call from Phyllis, who is telling Walter that her husband is taking the train after all, so they can go ahead with their plan to murder him.

double-indemnity-3To me this is the key scene of the film, where Walter could have chosen to back out and gone Keyes’ way, but does not. In fact, he never seriously considers it, but the chance is there.

Finally, what I love about this is film is that despite all the cynicism, violence, manipulation, weakness, and lust there is still warmth to be found in the film, especially between Walter and Keyes. Walter is capable of nobler feelings, for Lola and his friendship with Keyes, and it is these emotions that make you care what happens to the characters and make the ending all the more tragic.

 
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Posted by on July 20, 2015 in Movies

 

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Fallen Angel (1945)

Fallen_Angel_1945_posterIf anyone ever offers you the role of the good girl in a film noir, say no. It is one of the most unforgiving roles I have ever seen in the movies – like playing “the other woman,” a third wheel – and femme fatales were made to run away with movies. Unfortunately for Alice Faye, she said yes in 1945. An extremely popular star at 20th Century Fox, she was previously known for her musicals (I love her voice) and wanted to move on to more dramatic films; as Dick Powell managed to do in 1944, transitioning from singing tenor to playing hard-boiled detectives. But Dick Powell’s first foray into noir was with Murder, My Sweet and Alice Faye chose Fallen Angel.

It’s not that Fallen Angel is a bad film; it’s definitely worth a look and is fairly enjoyable, despite some plotting issues. And Alice Faye wasn’t even that bad in the role; it was just a role not even Bette Davis could turn to much account and it did not further her career. In fact, it was the last film she made for sixteen years. It did, however, further the career of Linda Darnell, who played the femme fatale.

Dana Andrews is Eric Stanton, a drifter and a con artist who drifts into Walton, a small town between Los Angeles and San Francisco. He stops at a tiny diner and meets Stella (Linda Darnell), who seems to have all the men obsessed with her. There is Pop (Percy Killbride), who owns the bar and is nuts about Stella. There is also Mark Judd (Charles Bickford), a married man and a retired cop who always comes into the diner just to gaze at Stella and who plays the same song on the jukebox that Stella likes called “Slowly.” There is also another guy who services jukeboxes named Atkins (Bruce Cabot). Stella does not seem noticeably impressed by all this attention.

Dana Andrews and Stella

Dana Andrews and Linda Darnell

Inevitably, Stanton falls for Stella, but though she likes him she is rather dismissive of him, too, since all he seems to be offering is the same line that all the men have offered through the years and she has decided that she’s done with that. She wants a home and a husband with a little money and she’s no longer giving anything unless there’s a ring. Stanton says he’ll marry her and promises that he’ll get some money, somehow.

Stanton’s plan to get money is to fleece June Mills (Alice Faye), daughter of a much respected former mayor, who plays the organ, likes books and lives with her protective older sister, Clara (Anne Revere). June falls in love with him quickly, but he soon realizes that he can’t get her money without getting married, which they do, despite Clara’s warnings that he’s no good.

When Stanton tells Stella what he’s done she’s even less impressed and they argue (I would be nonplussed, too, if a man told me he was crazy to marry me and then arrived to say that he’d married another woman, all for me).That night Stella is murdered. Judd is asked by the police to help with the investigation and there are no shortage of suspects: Judd himself, Pop, Atkins, Stanton and even Clara, who found out about Stella and seems just protective enough of her sister to be capable of it. Stanton, however, is afraid that Judd will pin the murder on him and flees Walton, with June coming along with him.

Alice Faye and Dana Andrews

Alice Faye and Dana Andrews

The rest of the film is part mystery and part romance, with the con artist redeemed through the unalterable love and faith of a good woman. June is probably the first person who ever believed in him. The trouble is that her faith seems a trifle willful. There’s nothing in his behavior to indicate that he might have a good heart, hidden, somewhere and her faith seems less based on anything we see in him and more on her apparent determination to have him. She loves him, she wants him, so she has faith. The result is that she gets stuck with some rather weak dialogue and not much motivation. Her role is to be patient and sympathetic. Alice Faye plays her gracefully, but there’s just not much to do with it and nobody can look good in a film when they are obliged to to be seduced and then stand by their man.

Linda Darnell, however, is a more interesting character. She’s more siren than femme fatale and one you can sympathize with. Stella is world-weary, a bit sulky, and has seen it all (except a ring) and been given promises by a lot of men. She’s a femme fatale who would rather be somebody like June (whereas June wants to be more of a Stella, which I assume is why she marries Stanton despite the fact that he’s obviously on the make). If Judd, Stanton and Pop are any sample of the kind of men Stella’s met through life, you can understand her attitude and I couldn’t help rooting for her to find what she is looking for.

Murder suspects - the landlady looks on as Charles Bickford, Bruce Cabot and Dana Andrews warily check each other out

Murder suspects – the landlady looks on while Charles Bickford, Bruce Cabot and Dana Andrews warily check each other out

Fallen Angel is kind of like a sequel to Laura. It has the same director (Otto Preminger), same leading man (Dana Andrews), same composer, (David Raksin), same cinematographer (Joseph LaShelle) and even same set designer and so forth. And a similar theme of obsession and ownership over a woman. The result is that it looks very good. It is the plot that falters. It’s a bit incredible and a trifle choppy and uneven. The acting is universally fine, however – even Alice Faye is not bad.

It’s too bad that Fallen Angel was Alice Faye’s last movie. Supposedly her role was cut down by producer Darryl Zanuck and Linda Darnell’s role was built up (Darnell went on to play many more sirens). Also, Faye was supposed to sing the song “Slowly,” which was removed from the film. When she saw the finished product, she wrote an angry note to Zanuck and left the studio. It wasn’t a decision completely out of the blue, however. She had recently given birth to her second child with husband and bandleader Phil Harris and when she finished making movies, she devoted more time to her family, also working in radio with her husband. She later said she was perfectly comfortable leaving her movie career behind, despite many of her fans’ and even Darryl Zanuck’s attempts to get her back into movies.

I think the moral of the story is, however: never play the good girl in a film noir.

 
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Posted by on May 13, 2015 in Film Noir

 

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