6.02.2017

Murder, My Sweet (1946)



"'Brains on her face,' he said.
'That seems to be the theme song of this case.'"

Tonight's post about the classic noir Murder, My Sweet (1944) also doubles as a From Novel To Film entry. The novel in question:


First published in 1940.

I'm ambivalent on Raymond Chandler. On one hand, I'm a fan and fully appreciate his contribution to American literature. On the other, I always start a Chandler book charmed by the ambience and his signature similes ("My mind felt like a plumber's handkerchief," "She was a charming middle-aged lady with a face like a bucket of mud," "He looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food cake," etc.) then grow steadily more annoyed as the reading progresses. The similes get a little too labored ("The eighty-five cent dinner tasted like a discarded mail bag and was served to me by a waiter who looked as if he would slug me for a quarter, cut my throat for six bits, and bury me at sea in a barrel of concrete for a dollar and a half, plus sales tax."), the first person narration undermines the love-and-tough-guy scenes, and the set-ups become increasingly ridiculous.


This last objection was pointedly shrugged off by the author. "My whole career," he once remarked, "is based on the idea that formula doesn't matter, the thing that counts is what you do with the formula: that is to say, it is a matter of style." This approach was put another way by another of its practitioners: "It ain't whatcha write; it's the way 'atcha write it."

And maybe like the late Mr. Kerouac Chandler was better suited for that window of my late adolescent reading than he is to me now. Personally, you understand, not speaking for Planet Earth on this one. I like plenty of other pretzel-plots and plenty of other first-person-love-and-tough-guy lit, but with Chander I'm too aware of the author looming over my shoulder on every page and in every twist, spilling his drink on me. 




Sure, I'd rather have Chander spilling his drink on me than some nobody. This is still the godfather of the genre we're talking about here, so my attitude reading it now is formed by the hundreds of imitators, from the very good to the very awful, that have come and gone. But before we get to the plot and the movie, let me just get three things off my chest.

(1) Drinking and pulp detectives go together like King and Crimson, but there are long stretches of Farewell, My Lovely - all of his books really * - that make me too awkwardly aware of the author's alcoholism. I like my pulp heroes to drink superhuman amounts, don't get me wrong; I just don't like the booze to seep into the page and situations and suddenly everyone's 5 highballs deep over 1 cigarette and another 3 over the next, before martinis at lunch and so on. 


* The Long Goodbye is the exception: a harrowing portrait of alcoholism, not just the author's but an inside-out view of the damage it wreaks, the lies and nihilism and self-hate in its wake, etc. My favorite Chandler, though not necessarily my favorite Marlowe. 

(2) I'm not a particular fan of first-person tough guy and love scenes. You need it for the genre, of course, but you've got to be really careful. I don't think Chandler is always careful enough. It sometimes sounds like he's flirting with himself and (again) having to ply himself with liquor to make it bearable.



Finally, (3) the plotting that just never adds up. It makes sense for Farewell, My Lovely to come across disjointed, as Chandler combined three short stories ("Try the Girl", "Mandarin's Jade", and "The Man Who Liked Dogs") into one plot and wasn't too particular about making sure the tracks met in the middle. What's less sensible to me are some of the over-constructed leaps he frequently has Marlowe make. In The Long Goodbye (just one example) it's finding improbable clues in a wastebasket that even more improbably lead to finding his client; here it's unraveling marijuana cigarettes to find a small rolled up calling card of the reefer supplier that has the next address and phone number Marlowe needs to get to.

I mean... what? In David Lynch's hands, maybe this sort of thing would be dynamite; here it crash-lands with me. That it ends up being a plot sideroad makes it all even weirder. I'll even grant that maybe this was a thing reefer men of Los Angeles and Santa Monica of the late Depression actually did. Even so - a bridge too far for this reader.

All that said (!) Chandler is always fun to revisit, and incongruities aside, Farewell, My Lovely is filled with a generous amount of the author's singular style and expertise. 

"Twenty minutes' sleep. Just a nice little doze. In that time I had muffed a job and lost eight thousand dollars. Well, why not? In twenty minutes you can sink a battleship, down three or four planes, hold a double execution. You can die, get married, get fired and find a new job, have a tooth pulled, have your tonsils out. In twenty minutes, you can even get up in the morning. You can get a glass of water at a night club - maybe." 



THE FILM

Chandler sold the rights for when it was first filmed and had no involvement/ saw no money from Murder, My Sweet. (The name was changed because Dick Powell, cast as Marlowe, had heretofore been cast mainly in musicals and the producers and director Ed Dmytryk felt audiences would think it was just another song-and-dance film.) Nevertheless, he considered it the best screen version of his work - high praise when you consider one of the other versions that came out in his lifetime was The Big Sleep with Humphrey Bogart as Marlowe. Whatever your opinion of the film, Bogie's association with the role is enduring.

The book opens up with Marlowe running into a bear of a man ("Moose Malloy") outside a "coloreds only" joint and ends with him as part of a strike team (of sorts) on a casino boat. John Paxton's script for Murder, My Sweet jettisons all that as well as the reefer subplot, though he keeps Moose Malloy and most of the novel's sweep.


Moose hires Marlowe to look for his old flame, Velma. He's been in prison for 8 years, and the last he saw of her, she worked at this club, Florian's. The film ditches the racial angle - which while understandable is too bad, as Chandler's prose, while certainly of its era, is suitably cynical about police procedure re: "shine killings" - but keeps the basic set-up. 


Another man (Lindsay Marriott) hires Marlowe to accompany him on a ransom pay-off, and when he does, he's knocked unconscious, and Marriott is killed. In the novel, he meets Ann Grayle directly after the killing; in the film he only glimpses her as she runs away. She shows up at his office the next day posing as a reporter, but he sees through the disguise. Marlowe accompanies her back to her father's mansion, where he meets Helen, Ann's father's second (trophy) wife. 


From there, the film follows an agreeably crooked line that sees Marlowe drugged up in true pulp noir fashion, until he and Moose descend upon the Grayle beach house, whereupon it's revealed that Helen is actually Velma. Marlowe is temporarily blinded when Ann's father discharges his firearm too close to his eyes. This is where we came in at the beginning of the picture, with a blindfolded Marlowe recounting the story to detectives.

Freudians take note. (In the novel, the "mother" escapes, to be apprehended off-screen.)

The drug sequence is particularly trendsetting. You see variations of this sort of thing as late as the 70s - are they all channeling Murder, My Sweet? Probably not. But the shorthand/ grammar of such a sequence is regardless articulated quite well here.


THE CAST

Dick Powell as Phillip Marlowe.
Mike Mazurzi as Moose Malloy. (Alliterative heaven.)
Claire Trevor as Helen.
Anne Shirley as Ann Grayle.

Dick Powell played Marlowe in subsequent radio and TV projects as well as Richard Diamond. Mike Mazurzi played a tough guy right up through the 80s. Claire Trevor is on pg. 39 of this time travel treasure from 1940. Anne Shirley retired from acting after the making of Murder, My Sweet at age 26. 

 

~

4 comments:

  1. I think you're problems with Chandler's style really might be a temporal zone of perception thing.

    Back in the 30s and 40s it might have been possible for people, especially the lower classes, to talk like that some of the time. If so, then it is possible that even the working classes had a kind of sophisticated linguistic style that is is missing today. I don't know why that should be except for some kind of sub-conscious changing with the times, maybe along with an accompanying linguistic improvisation...

    English translation: I dunno, language just sounded kinda cooler back then. These days, s-'s all f-ed up.

    As for the film, I had a chance to catch it quite recently, and think its one of the greats.

    I can remember at one point asking myself what became of the mad scientist, and wondering if maybe the Anne Shirley character had him killed. At least I think that's what happened, I'm not sure.

    Still, I can't say I mind Chandler's labyrinthine plots all that much.

    ChrisC

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    1. Yes and no. I like hard boiled dialogue; I don't like when similes try too hard or when the tail wags the dog. Obviously people speak/ write differently in different eras, of course, but it's not like I'm criticizing how people spoke in the 30s and 40s.

      I agree the movie's great, although not my favorite noir. Increasingly that is becoming "Kiss Me Deadly" in my head. That wasn't the case when I started this series, so that's fun to discover.

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  2. I've never read any Chandler, but doggone it, I'd like to one of these days.

    (1) What Chandler says about style makes a lot of sense to me. Not 100% -- I'd argue that what you say is always important to one degree or another -- but maybe 75% or so. I do think that style can render a lackluster message considerably shinier, whereas the most relevant message in the world may suffer unless it's got some panache to it. And in some cases, the panache itself becomes a message of a sort. So essentially, I'm onboard with he's saying there.

    (2) "Sure, I'd rather have Chander spilling his drink on me than some nobody." -- That's some pretty good panache you're utilizing there, yourself, mister!

    (3) "here it's unraveling marijuana cigarettes to find a small rolled up calling card of the reefer supplier" -- Now, I'm no expert on this subject, so somebody correct me if I'm wrong, but ... wouldn't that kind of make the reefer less enjoyable? Who wants their mellow getting harshed by accidentally smoking a business card? Nobody, I imagine.

    (4) Dick Powell is one of those guys whose name I've been hearing forever, but who I don't think I've ever actually seen in anything.

    Glad to see the return of Friday Night Film Noir!

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    1. (3) It's just lazy writing. I don't mean it too harshly - in most every detective/ crime/ mystery story there's usually at least one clue that's too convenient or unrealistic. I brought Lynch up because he parodies this thing well - a long, involved autopsy where they discover a piece of paper with a single letter on it behind a fingernail, etc. Something no one would ever think to look for but (conveniently) contains the thing to move the story to the next spot.

      Detectives notice what others miss, of course, so detective-writers always have an excuse. (Naturally, as a longrunning fan of Batman, I have more than a few Bat-centric examples, but I'll just move on.) Like I say, tho, even if this WAS a thing among high-clientele of the era, it seems unsatisfying to have Marlowe discover clues like this. The one mentioned from THE LONG GOODBYE is the worst of the lot; that one makes zero damn sense and is a better example. I need to finish that From Novel to Film entry one of these days.(Started it in fall 2014!)

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