Tag Archives: Murder Mysteries

Farewell, My Lovely – Raymond Chandler

2050For a film noir, Murder, My Sweet is a very upbeat, entertaining film. Dick Powell’s Philip Marlowe is never serious, often making flippant or whimsical remarks about situations in a wry tone.

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.

Humphrey Bogart’s Philip Marlowe wasn’t this whimsical in The Big Sleep. Most people posit Bogart as the definitive Marlowe, but though I like The Big Sleep and Humphrey Bogart (actually, I like the original ’45 version rather than the generally viewed ’46 version), I found Powell’s Marlowe more distinctive. Bogart’s Marlowe is still Sam Spade, just with more principles.

Farewell, My Lovely (the title was changed to Murder, My Sweet for the movie) was written in 1940, the second Philip Marlowe novel by Raymond Chandler. When Chandler first wrote his Marlowe novels he did so by combining short stories into something that resembled a cohesive whole. Like The Big Sleep, the story is not all that clear; it feels like there are at least two or three plots that have been intertwined.

Philip Marlowe meets Moose Malloy, just out from prison, while returning from an investigation and accidentally becomes entangled in Malloy’s search for Velma Valento. But Malloy shoots a man – a black man, so people don’t seem to mind as much – and goes on the run and Marlowe is asked by the police to help them find him. Meanwhile, Marlowe also becomes entangled in another murder that seems to be tangential to Malloy. He is hired by Lindsay Marriott to protect him when he tries to buy back a stolen jade necklace from a gang. But Marriott is murdered and next Marlowe finds himself entangled in the affairs of the owner of the jade necklace, the lovely Mrs. Lewin Lockridge Grayle. Marlowe is also assisted somewhat in his investigations by a reporter, Anne Riordan, who has an awful crush on Marlowe.

Marlowe is apparently irresistible to women because in all his books women are constantly flirting, kissing, or trying to get into bed with him, which seems like wish fulfillment by the author. But Marlowe remains coolly above such things, practically a god. Anne even makes a slightly embarrassing speech at the end about how wonderful he is. No matter what happens, he just keeps going until he resolves the case. He’s a superman rising amidst the squalor and corruption of the city.

Dick Powell and Claire Trevor

Dick Powell and Claire Trevor from Murder, My Sweet

The entire time that I was reading the book, I could hear Dick Powell voice narrating the story – it is written in first person and bears Marlowe’s distinctively whimsical, cynical tone. His analogies are often unexpected and quite humorous. When he is chauffeured in a fancy car he remarks that,

Sitting there alone I felt like a high-class corpse laid out by an undertaker with a lot of good taste.

Exhausted one night, he drives recklessly home and “takes the red lights as they come.” It always makes me laugh. He’s also is quite adept at sensory description. When he writes that “I ran my hand up and down the door frame. It felt slimy. Just touching it made me want to take a bath,” I wanted to wipe my hand off on something. His surroundings are dirty, venal, and corrupt, but he refuses to get dragged down into it. Raymond Chandler liked to think of Marlowe as a kind of knight sallying forth to right wrongs – relatively speaking. He’s a cynical knight who can only do so much, but gets by through sheer tenacity. It’s not clear that he’s an especially brilliant detective. He seems to get beat up a lot. But you can tell that underneath, he still retains a streak of sentimentality and romanticism.

He takes time to rescue a pink bug and manages to feel compassion for a variety of people, some of whom are actually killers. And by the end – after he’s been beaten up, drugged, several murders are committed, encountered corrupt cops – he still puts a romantic spin on events and the characters practically rise to Shakespearean heights of love and sacrifice despite all the brutality, selfishness and murder. Even killers and crooks and depressed old men can love sincerely and deeply, even if the object of their love is a murderess. But Marlowe even finds poignancy in the murderess’ final act in life. Marlowe says to police detective Randall,

I”m not saying she was a saint or even a halfway nice girl. Not ever…But what she did and the way she did it, kept her from coming back here for trial. Think that over. And who would have that trial hurt most?…An old man who had loved not wisely, but too well.”

Randall said sharply: “That’s just sentimental.”

“Sure. It sounded like that when I said it. Probably all a mistake anyway. So long. Did my pink bug ever get back up here?”

Considering that she shot a cop in order to enact her great sacrifice, there is some irony in Marlowe’s sentimentality…but it’s still sentimental. He wants to think that these people occasionally have a noble impulse.

downloadChandler even manages to make fun of the more polished detective stories, like Philo Vance or The Thin Man. After he solves the case, Ann Riordan tells him humorously that he “ought to have given a dinner party,” in black suit and white tie and invite all the suspects to listen to him unmask the villain. Instead, we get a lovesick gangster, Marlowe in his pajamas and a femme fatale in her white fox evening cloak and emerald earrings, all in Marlowe’s cheap apartment.

The book is astonishingly racist, with derogatory epitaphs spread generously throughout the book regarding African Americans, Italians, Native Americans, that took me aback. Marlowe even meets an “Indian” who’s English is so bad that I kept expecting it to turn out that he wasn’t a real Indian at all, but someone pretending to be one and talking like people expected Indians to talk in the movies. Though the presence of so much racism does add to the sense of moral squalor throughout the book.

I enjoyed Farewell, My Lovely more than The Big Sleep; it was funnier and more poignant. I even enjoyed it more than The Maltese Falcon, but that partially is because the movie The Maltese Falcon is so close to the book that reading the book felt like reading a screenplay, though an enjoyable one. Murder, My Sweet is a streamlined version of the book and so reading the book remains fresh and original.

1 Comment

Posted by on June 10, 2015 in Fiction


Tags: , , , , , , ,

Witness for the Prosecution – Movie, Play, Short Story, from Agatha Christie to Billy Wilder

Charles Laughton as the barrister and Tyrone Power is on trial for his life

Charles Laughton as the barrister and Tyrone Power is on trial for his life

One of the best adaptations of an Agatha Christie story is Witness for the Prosecution, released in 1957 and starring Charles Laughton, Marlene Dietrich, Tyrone Power and Elsa Lanchester. It is a courtroom drama, but also a suspense story and even a bit of a comedy. It is one of those films that you think perhaps Alfred Hitchcock could have directed, though it does contain the trademark biting wit of the actual director, Billy Wilder, who also co-wrote the screenplay, with barbed words and witticisms zinging through the courtroom.

The movie is known for its surprise ending and when I first saw the film, I unfortunately knew the surprise, or at least some of it. But what I discovered is that even though I knew the twist at the end, I did not have the ins-and-outs of how it was worked out quite right and my enjoyment was nearly as high as if I had not known what was coming. And even knowing everything, the film loses nothing in subsequent viewings. There is too much humor, good characterizations and the fun of knowing what is coming and watching people’s reactions to things other characters do not know.

Not only did the movie introduce me to Billy Wilder, Marlene Dietrich and Charles Laughton (I already knew Tyrone Power from his swashbucklers, like The Mark of Zorro and The Black Swan), but it also made me want to read the original Agatha Christie story. Witness for the Prosecution is based on a 1953 play, which Agatha Christie adapted from her own short story from 1925. I read them both and it was fun to see how the basic story remained the same, but was changed to suit the increasingly visual mediums, from page to play to celluloid.

51XqC-+3slLBut the story remains the same in all three. Leonard Vole is a pleasant young man who seems to have a way of unconsciously making people, especially woman, like him. He becomes platonically involved with an elderly lady who is murdered, but leaves all her wealth to him. Unsurprisingly, he is then accused of the murder. His solicitor and barrister work to get him off in the face of nearly impossible odds. To make it worse, Vole’s German wife, Romaine (Christine in the movie) seems curiously antagonistic towards him and surprises everyone by refusing to give him an alibi and instead stands up in court to denounce him (since they were not legally married because she had a husband in Germany still living). The solicitor and barrister then receive evidence that might disprove her story.

Short Story by Agatha Christie (1925)  – The short story is told from the perspective of Leonard Vole’s solicitor. We see everyone, Leonard and his wife Romaine, from his perspective. In this original version, Romaine dominates the story. The story is really about her, though we do not meet her right away. The solicitor, Mr. Mayherne, believes Leonard when he tells him he is innocent, though the case looks very bad, but cannot figure out the motivations of Romaine.

In England they have solicitors and barristers. The solicitor is the one who works closely with the client, acts by the authority of the client, but cannot speak in court. The barrister does not have as much contact with the client, cannot act for them, but is the one to make the case before the judge. In the short story, we hardly meet the barrister. He has perhaps one line, but the story is not centered in the courtroom. It begins in Mayherne’s office, passes through the courtroom briefly and then wanders away as Mayherne follows a lead that might break Romaine’s testimony. It is very interesting, but lacks punch when you already know what is coming.

witness_playPlay by Agatha Christie (1953) – In his introduction to The Mouse Trap and Other Plays, Ira Levin writes that Agatha Christie began writing plays because she felt that when other people had adapted her novels into plays, they adhered too closely to her novels, thus making the play confusing. When she adapted her own works, she changed and simplified plots, once even changing who the murderer was and occasionally removing Hercule Poirot from his own story. For “Witness For the Prosecution,” however, she expanded the plot rather simplified it, though she does change some things.

In the play, Mayherne becomes Mayhew, but must share space with the barrister, Sir Wilfrid, as the story becomes a courtroom drama. The plot remains the same and Romaine remains a figure of mystery, much speculated on by the lawyers. And where the short story really doesn’t speculate on who the murderer is if Leonard didn’t kill her, the play offers a suspect in the murdered woman’s housekeeper, the extremely bitter Janet McKenzie, who is also in the short story but less prominent. The play also provides one extra twist to the end of the story that was not in the original story.

Film, directed by Billy Wilder (1957) – Reportedly, Billy Wilder did not want to make Witness for the Prosecution; he felt an adaptation of a play wouldn’t be particularly challenging for him. However, he does an excellent job and really brings the story to life. Where the play is just a courtroom drama, Billy Wilder brings humor and humanity. The biggest change is how he makes Sir Wilfrid (Charles Laughton) the center of the story and gives him a story of his own that is separate from the trial, though connected.

Sir Wilfrid worked so hard that he suffered a heart attack. The movie opens with his return to his office with a nurse in tow (Elsa Lanchester) and orders from his doctor not to take any stressful cases. But Mayhew the solicitor brings along Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) in an effort to interest Sir Wilfrid. With his nurse protesting all the way, he decides to take the case. Suddenly, not only is Leonard Vole’s life at stake, but also Sir Wilfrid’s, who has to take pills throughout the trial for his heart.

MV5BMTc0MjgyNTUyNF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNDQzMDg0Nw@@._V1_SX640_SY720_The relationship between Sir Wilfrid and his nurse, played by married couple Laughton and Lanchester, is great. She is the super-cheerful, commanding kind of nurse so often found in Agatha Christie novels who have a habit of saying “we” instead of “you” (how are we doing today?). But she has her match in Sir Wilfrid, who hides cigars in his cane and whisky in his thermos instead of cocoa, and their interaction provides half the laughs. But they also develop an unexpected and mutual respect for each other in the end.

Laughton is the real star of the film. His Sir Wilfrid is brilliant, petulant, warm-hearted and tyrannical, but also truly cares about his clients and is not in the business just for his reputation. As a result,though, of Sir Wilfrid’s prominence, Leonard Vole’s wife (now called Christine and played by Marlene Dietrich) is slightly less the overshadowing figure that she is in the short story and play, but her character remains a highly interesting one, and the one around which the plot still turns.

I don’t want to spoil the ending if you’ve never seen the play or movie, but it is an excellent film. Along with And Then There Were None (1944), it was one of the few movie adaptations of her books that Agatha Christie liked.

Random Note – in the film, the murdered woman’s housekeeper, Janet McKenzie, is played by the inimitable Una O’Connor (The Bride of FrankensteinThe Invisible ManChristmas in ConnecticutThe Bells of St MaryThe Adventures of Robin Hood). O’Connor also played the housekeeper in the play only several years earlier. Since McKenzie seems extremely bitter in the play (though I’ve only read the play, but that is how it seems) and is comedic in the movie, I am extremely curious how she played the role on stage.

Here is a clip of Sir Wilfrid cross-examining Janet McKenzie.

Leave a comment

Posted by on January 26, 2015 in Drama, Fiction, Mystery, Plays, Suspense


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Lady on a Train (1945) – Deanna Durbin Investigates on Christmas

lady-on-a-train-movie-poster-1945-1020416325Lady on a Train is that unique film, a Screwball/Christmas/Musical/Mystery. Actually, it’s not technically a musical, but because the film stars Deanna Durbin, the girl who reportedly saved Universal Studios (the home of Frankenstein, Dracula and the Mummy) from bankruptcy in the mid 1930s with her frothy musicals, the film manages to provide three songs for her to sing during the course of her investigations.

Nikki Collins (Deanna Durbin) is on a train, coming into New York City from San Francisco to visit her aunt during Christmas. She is reading what appears to be a rather thrilling pulpy mystery (with eleven murders so far!) when she looks out her train window and sees a man murdered in a nearby building. She goes to the police, but they don’t believe her, so she goes to the author of the pulpy mysteries, Wayne Morgan (David Bruce), and tries to enlist his help. He gets dragged in, willy-nilly, while she discovers that the man who was killed was a not-so-nice business man named Josiah Waring. She sneaks into his house, just in time for the reading of his will.

She also runs into the family, which consists of Aunt Charlotte (Elizabeth Patterson) and his two nephews, Arnold Waring (Dan Duryea – his usual, delightfully creepy self) and Jonathan Waring (Ralph Bellamy). There are also two men who work at the house, a certain Mr. Saunders (George Courlouris) who walks around the now shut-up mansion  looking menacing with a white cat draped over his arm, and Danny (Allen Jenkins), who works under Mr. Saunders and also seems to be in on whatever secret Mr. Saunders seems to be in on.

2d1252d146647767665cc8debf876559At the house, however, Nikki is mistaken by the family for a night club singer named Margo Martin, to whom Josiah Waring has left everything he owned. Also while in the mansion, Nikki finds some slippers with blood on them that proves that a murder did take place and not just an accident, as the police believe. She smuggles the slippers out of the house and goes to the nightclub to masquerade as Margo Martin.

It’s an extremely fun movie, with a fairly good mystery, as well. It’s not in Agatha Christie’s class, but still manages to obscure who the killer is so that you are never 100% sure (I’ve seen some mysteries where I can pick out the villain the moment he/she walks into the room).

Deanna Durbin does a good job playing a young lady with an active imagination and great tenacity, somewhat naïve, always gung-ho, who is never much perturbed by events – she just keeps on investigating and ad-libbing and quite casually dragging people into it with her. Durbin had a beautiful, operatic voice, and the highlight song is her rendition of “Silent Night,” which she sings over the phone to her father, while Danny stands outside her room, about to steal the slippers back. He is so affected by the song that he has to wipe tears out of his eyes before he can go on with his work and conk several people on the head.

Deanna Durbin and Edward Everett Horton - with a black eye

Deanna Durbin and Edward Everett Horton – with a black eye

A real scene stealer (as he always is) is Edward Everett Horton, who is Mr. Haskell, the manager of her father’s New York Office who is supposed to be looking after her while she is in New York, though he keeps losing sight of her and gets himself punched in the eye, hit on the head twice and runs about looking for her and even has to bail her out of jail.

David Bruce plays Wayne Morgan, a somewhat hen-pecked boyfriend who’s model girlfriend makes him apologize several times a day for some reason or another. He is an enthusiastic writer – he likes to act his book out while dictating, falling on the floor and clutching his stomach – while his acerbic secretary hopes that she can trash his notes rather than type them. He is also game to help Nikki or fight some villains, though he is often more inept than useful, at one point taking the gun away from the brother who is trying to help Nikki and giving it to the murderer.

And of course there is Dan Duryea, the wonderful, snarky, snaky, menacing Dan Duryea. When he is at the nightclub with his aunt and brother, Aunt Charlotte is shocked that Jonathan (her favorite nephew, whom she is almost too fond of – she can’t stand Arnold) would dance with Nikki, since he ought to be in mourning and not living it up. Dan Duryea turns and looks at her and then says innocently to the waiter, “I’ll have a martini, please.” Aunt Charlotte gives him a highly reproachful glance. “With a black olive in it.” He then says to the waiter. It’s a very Duryean line and the way he says it is hysterical.

Deanna Durbin and David Bruce - knocked out again

Deanna Durbin and David Bruce – knocked out again

It’s the kind of film with people running around, chasing villains, being caught by villains, losing slippers, stealing slippers, murder and lots of mayhem. It’s also the kind of film where Nikki, when her dress is torn when she is locked into the real Margo’s dressing room, stops to change her dress (and hair) before looking for a way out. She then breaks through the one-way mirror and emerges to sing a Cole Porter song.

1 Comment

Posted by on December 8, 2014 in Comedy, Mystery


Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: