Noirathon

A new Spurious Project for me – because you can never really have too many, can you? I pass my shelves every day, and from those shelves the plaintive cases of DVDs I have bought look out at me, pleading to be watched. I also have stacks and stacks of unwatched discs in folders and drums and drawers, but I didn’t pay for those, so I feel less guilty/stupid. The fact that I shelled out good money for nice pre-recorded DVDs in nice packaging, and then allow them to sit unwatched, for years in many instances, is clearly unsustainably crap. So my new project is to watch all the unwatched movies on the big shelving unit by the kitchen.

MURDER MY SWEET (known in the UK, with our mania for source fidelity, as FAREWELL MY LOVELY) is one that I felt I’d sort of seen, just not all at once or in the right order. It was to correct this that I picked up the Region 1 DVD secondhand when I stumbled upon it. Not having properly watched one of Edward Dmytryk’s top films and one of the key films noir of screen history was too shameful even to admit until now, when I’ve done it at last. Here are my impressions –

I remember a piece about Raymond Chandler where essayist Clive James said part of Chandler’s self-selected authorial problem was to stop Philip Marlowe coming across like too good a writer. The guy’s meant to be a private eye, not Henry James, after all. If Chandler were the terse kind of writer like Hammett, he could no doubt have pulled this off more easily – Hammett is actually the better writer, I’d say, but his terse, no-nonsense prose appears to sound more like a regular Joe yapping. By contrast, Chandler is nearly all nonsense, the wacky similes and figures of speech flying forth in a decidedly non-naturalistic way. So it’s a slight mistake for screenwriter John Paxton to frame their story as a flashback with Marlowe (Dick Powell) throwing out one-liners to an unsympathetic copper — “My bank account was trying to crawl under a duck,” that kind of thing. As Jack Lemmon argues in SOME LIKE IT HOT, “Nobody talks like that.” What just about scrapes by as the character’s thoughts or reflections suddenly seems rather florid when recycled as dialogue.

But once you get over the initial awkwardness, and the wit of the lines certainly helps, the story carries you along, with Powell surprisingly effective. When he was being tough or suave I sometimes felt I’d like to see someone else have a crack at it (Chandler’s own preference, Cary Grant, would be interesting – I can’t quite see it, which makes me want to), but where he scores is in the moments of horror and violence. He makes you feel the pain, especially since his tough-guy exterior is allowed to get much more shredded and distressed than would be the case with Bogart, say.

That spooky opening with Marlowe’s eyes bandaged, and the glowing-white tabletop, feels like a seance, calling the rest of the story out of the night. And then comes the great neon-lit scene in Marlowe’s office, with Moose Malloy appearing like a spectre, reflected in the window.

Is this Mike Mazurki’s best ever role? I like to think he got the part of Moose Malloy at least partly for alliterative reasons, and not just because he’s a hulking bruiser, looking something like an Easter Island statue who’s managed to dig himself free after being buried in the sand up to the neck. Moose was the main thing I recalled from the novel, which I read years back, and I have a feeling I almost liked him better in the film. Chandler paints Moose as an innocent giant, and while that’s part of the Mazurki characterisation, he’s also more than a touch psycho, and less appealing but more real because of it. Despite this glaze of psychology, he’s also a lumbering, two-fisted plot function, turning up wherever he’s need to provide some aggro, and oddly able to appear in a room without being noticed by anybody, like Mrs Danvers.  A sort of Moose Ex Machina, if you will.

His first appearance of this kind, revealed in a reflection in Marlowe’s office by a blinking neon sign, is one of his best. Dmytryk apparently found a problem when cutting this scene, though: when he cut back and forth between his two leads, the need to preserve the rhythm of the blinking sign was killing the drama. He was forced to linger on the speaker in order to make the sign stay off or on at a consistent rate, when he really wanted to be cutting to the listener’s reaction. Finally, on a chance, he cut the scene purely for dramatic values, ignoring the continuity issues created. He found the scene played so well that nobody noticed that the sign was now on for two seconds, off for four, on for three, off for two… Now you understand why Scorsese seems to care so little for continuity gaffes.

Dmytryk’s Sixth Rule of film editing:  “Cut for proper values rather than proper ‘matches’.”

Nice scene driving at night, with spooky reflections! And then a weirdly lit scene in the woods with massive light sources beaming through the fog in all directions? A sky-full of moons, or an arboreal disco? Dmytryk’s method at this time was forego niceties and shoot what looked nice and could be achieved quickly. He sought to concentrate his time on rehearsing the actors, not waiting for the lighting to be ready. So this system is a mixture of “simple to achieve” — turn on a few big lights on the rig — and “looks pretty”. The low-key chiaroscuro style came from a similar need for speed.

Along for the ride are the equally euphonious Miles Mander, England’s thinnest thespian, a quavery-voiced monofilament in a suit*, and the smarmy chin that is Otto Kruger, on particularly fine despicable form. Anne Shirley is one of those somewhat interchangeable, sweet young actresses of the era whom I’m always a little sweet on (ah, Joan Leslie!), and the iconic Claire Trevor is hands-down the most fascinating person on view. Sleazy, brazen, mysterious, wicked, aloof, needy, lusty and reeking of nicotine (like everyone else in the show), CT dominates, effortlessly. It helps that she can look cheap as well as beautiful.

What a fine film this is — as is often the case when one watches a classic which had somehow eluded viewing for years, the prevailing feeling is one of silliness: how could I not have seen this before? The secondary feeling is an appreciation of the film’s Gothic attributes, that unspoken air of eeriness, predominant in the nightmare hallucination sequence, but really present throughout.

The goofy nightmare, which kind of sets the tone for 90% of Welles’ THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI, looks to be under the influence of WAXWORKS (Jack the Ripper segment) and somehow finds its way into the dayglo eighties pulp of I, MADMAN! (stalker with syringe) and CRIMEWAVE (line of free-standing doors). The more location-set noir movies would become, the less possibility there would be for this kind of hopped-up carnival atmosphere.

I liked the ending! Up to the moment when the blinded Marlow finishes his story and Ann Shirley mouths a warning to the cops not to reveal her presence, things are looking pretty grim. And indeed, I would have loved that ending, with the bereaved leading lady slipping quietly off and abandoning our poor trodden-on flatfoot. But then a happy romcom ending is gleefully pasted on, and it somehow works. Shirley looks way too happy for someone who’s just lost most of her family, but it’s played with enough wit that, like all the other dicey moments, it winds up an unlikely triumph.

*So thin was Mander that he had a problem registering on celluloid. You’ve heard no doubt, of persons so thin they disappear when they turn sideways. Mander disappeared from all angles and never reappeared, making it necessary for two burly stagehands to grip him by the head and feet while the director strummed the actor’s midriff, causing him to oscillate violently and thereby temporarily occupy enough space to allow him to be captured by photochemical means. The effect was short-lasting, and after three minutes or so, Mander would revert to passing between the raindrops in his usual manner. This affliction resulted in Mander losing a role to Sir Cedric Hardwicke in Hitchcock’s ROPE, after Hitch realised that the actor would simply fade from view one-third of the way through each of the long takes he was planning to use. “Mander was too slender even for the title role,” Hitch quipped.

Buy MURDER MY SWEET from US Amazon –

Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 1 (The Asphalt Jungle / Gun Crazy / Murder My Sweet / Out of the Past / The Set-Up)

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38 Responses to “Noirathon”

  1. Cracking post . ‘looking something like an Easter Island statue who’s managed to dig himself free after being buried in the sand up to the neck. ‘Spot on!

  2. Great post; great movie, great book.

  3. Yes! I was waiting for this one, Moose is one of the all time greatest characters in a Noir, and the bit about the neon continuity reminded me of when one of the young assistants on the set of an Ozu film asked him why he didn’t shoot according to the 180 degree rule to make it seem the characters were looking at one another, Ozu decided to film the scene twice, once doing it this way, then again ignoring the rule and compare “You see? No difference!”

  4. There IS a difference, but I forget about it after five minutes. I certainly believe his characters are looking at each other. Attempts to explain Ozu’s motivation always seem inadequate to me, but the idea that he’s following his own individual set of rules has appeal. We can kind of see the rules in action, but only he really knows what they are.

    The very worst kind of line-cross accident is if you follow the rule, or bypass it with master-shots so it seems to be in effect, and THEN break it. Two closeups looking the same way is a disaster.

    I envy Ozu for not having to worry about what side of the eyeline he’s on, because he’s generally right on it. Very interesting to look at scenes with multiple characters and imagine if they’d still work if you changed the eyeline of one character.

  5. Great post and some lovely turns of phrase -I’ve read the book, but will now have to track down the film.
    I also keep meaning to work my way through my unwatched DVDs -how many hidden gems lurk within the shelves?- I will take this post as a sign to get a shuffle on and actually start!

  6. Thanks, R & R!

    Next up may be one of my unviewed Jacques Becker discs from Criterion. Staying on the noir side of things, I guess. I’ve seen criminally little Becker, except I have a vague recollection of maybe seeing Touchez Pas Au Grisbe when I was a teenager, on an early edition (the first?) of BBC2′s Film Club. So I’m curious to see if I remember it.

    BTW: Dmytryk’s rules –

    “Rule 1: Never make a cut without a positive reason.”
    “Rule 2: When undecided about the exact frame to cut on, cut long rather than short.”
    “Rule 3: Whenever possible cut ‘in movement’.”
    “Rule 4: The ‘fresh’ is preferable to the ‘stale’.”
    “Rule 5: All scenes should begin and end with continuing action.”
    “Rule 6: Cut for proper values rather than proper ‘matches’.”
    “Rule 7: Substance first—then form.”

    Quite conservative, but a good starting point: questioning these rules leads to creative thought.

  7. Great post but you overlook the film’s most startling innovation — the totall iconographic transformation of Dick Powell. Formerly the screen’s most appealing boy tenor he emerges here as its suavest tough guy.

    As for Mike Mazurki his greatest performance, IMO, is as Tunga Khan in John Ford’s last masterpiece Seven Women .

    In Before Stonewall, a marvelous documentary that deals in large part with the work of Dr. Eeveln Hooker there’s a marvelous exceprt from one of Christopher Isherwood’s home movie showing Raymond Chandler making a swan dive into the good doctor’s swimming pool at a party she was hosting.

    Chandler should also be cited for describing La Jolla Califronia as “A place where old people go to live with their parents.”

  8. Powell must’ve been desperate to break out of light comedy leads, although Sturges proved with Christmas in July that he could do great work in that field. What wowed me most is not that he could do tough or suave, since Bogart or Grant could have done each of those qualities better, but the vulnerability he brought to the part, which nobody has touched.

  9. Well my favourite of the Philip Marlowe actors is Elliot Gould who is vulnerable in a scruffy scrapper way.

  10. Great quote on La Jolla! My one-time favourite author Anne Rice moved there recently, and the effect on her writing is all too apparent.

    On the plus side, it is Raquel Welch’s home town.

  11. Gould’s Marlowe is so out-of-it that I rarely felt afraid for him, but it’s a great movie and a fantastic interpretation. I can imagine Altman’s direction might be something like, “Don’t read the books, don’t think about the character, just react to the situations.”

    It’s an interesting and beautiful idea, that Marlowe is a Rip-Van-Winkle from 40s noir who’s just awakened in 70s LA… and then getting the most 70s actor ever to play the part! If he’d been a Bogart type in a trench coat actually playing the anachronism it’d have been awful.

  12. It’s also a perfect picture of L.A. in the 70′s. Big empty streets. Today it’s like a parking lot.

    The Altman also boasts Syerling Hayden at his most magnificent and henry Gibson at his most malevolent. As for Gould he’s so dmaned unusual it’s amazing he got into the movies at all. He was doing quite well on Broadway for many years (he’s a superb singer) starring in Harold Rome’s musical version of I Can Get It For You Wholesale, with Harold Lang, Lillian Roth and someone named Barbra Streisand, who he married.

    I saw him in a rather nice failed musical called Dtar The Cat! in which he co-starred with Leslie Ann Warren (It was a Little Mary Sunshine styled spoof.) The show’s big numbewr was a ballad called “She Touched Me” which Gould sang with great force. He gave it to the Mrs. who produced a version so memorable as to inspire the slavish devotion of one Glenn Gould.

    I see Elliot Gould around town fairly frequently. The last time was at the premier of Milk which he attended with his son Jason.

  13. MORE COFFEE!

    The Altman also boasts Sterling Hayden at his most magnificent and Henry Gibson at his most malevolent. As for Gould he’s so damned unusual it’s amazing he got into the movies at all. He was doing quite well on Broadway for many years (he’s a superb singer) starring in Harold Rome’s musical version of I Can Get It For You Wholesale, with Harold Lang, Lillian Roth and someone named Barbra Streisand, who he married.

    I saw him in a rather nice failed musical called Drat The Cat! in which he co-starred with Leslie Ann Warren

  14. Actually I think that Gould’s Marlowe is an accurate rendition of Marlowe had he lived in the 1970s, he’d be eccentric and out of sorts and the scruffy hardscrabble integrity that Gould brings is closer to Chandler’s tarnished knight than the idealized figure in “The Big Sleep” where it casts Bogart in the role, pretty much how people should like Marlowe to be instead of how he would be in a world resembling ours. Don’t forget that Gould’s Marlowe is still a brilliant detective, still mouths off cops, still beats them at their game and remains supercool before ridiculous thugs(who are nonetheless unashamed in their violence). That and Leigh Brackett wrote the script of the Altman as well, I see it as maintaining continuity more than upsetting the traditions.

  15. True.

    Also at the close Gould’s Marlowe commits an act that is both payback for the murders and revenge as it was practiced in films of that particular era (the 60s’ and 70′s) IOW he gets to do waht Lee Marvin ironically fails at in Point Blank

  16. For Altman of course, he was interested in taking a genre film and infusing that with satirical observations of class, sexual mores and the like, not unlike Godard, in fact Elliot Gould as Marlowe is very Belmondo-esque(even more so in CALIFORNIA SPLIT), especially that scene in the integration with the mock black-face, looking quite like Belmondo in face paint(the colour there is blue) in PIERROT LE FOU.

  17. And Sterling Hayden’s remarkable performance, his great bear-like gait reminds me of Michel Simon. For me it’s his greatest performance, after great work in the 1950s he capped of his career appearing for Coppola in THE GODFATHER, Altman in this film and Bertolucci in Novecento(he’s the only American playing a peasant in the movie, as BB felt that the hero of The Asphalt Jungle couldn’t possibly be a landowner).

  18. I’ll never forget Hayden drinking his Aquavit from inside a big block of ice. And towards the end when he stumbles into the waves in almost complete darkness…

  19. Nina Van Pallandt is exquisite too. Altman makes you believe this torubled mismatched marriage.

    And speaking of Nine, I was just looking her that most maudit of all Altmans, Quintet.

    You can find plenty of people willing to give props to O.C. & Stiggs, provided that they’ve actually seen it (as it’s Altman at his most obscure.) But Quintet is another kettle of frozen fish. Totally mystified me when it first came out back in 1979. Who on earth did he imagine wanted to see a film about a world (maybe our own, maybe another planet) freezing to death — even with Paul Newman in the starring role. But now it looks quite tasty. Ideally double-festured with Rivette’s equally bonkers Noroit

  20. Christopher Says:

    in the books,Chandler’s Marlowe was always getting beat up or “sapped”(chandler loved to describe the feeling of falling into unconsciousness)So I was pretty impressed when I first saw Murder My Sweet and Powell(whom I’d only seen in Busby Berkley)looking pretty dire at the beginning.I need to see this again..I can only recall seeing this once,in a movie theatre about the same time that I saw Mitchum’s 1975 version,FARWELL MY LOVELY ..and as I recall..Jack O’Halloran makes the same impressive intro in the reflection as Mazurki does in the ’44.

  21. The 1975 version is pretty unimaginative, so it doesn’t surprise me they swiped shots. Mitchum is fine casting, but not at his age. The contrast between the retro period approach of FML and Altman’s despairing, space-out vision, must have been pretty striking at the time. What Altman has which the Dick Richards version seems to lack, is a real attitude to the material.

  22. Note the presence of the Governor of California:

  23. Chandler, who was in the trenches in WWI and knew what it was like to whacked in the head, gave tips to Ian Fleming on how Bond should look and act after regaining consciousness. I believe puking was the first step.

    Strangely, Chandler was sorta living with his “Mom” in La Jolla. !!! He and Dr. Seuss were drinking buddies in Dago, but the cops loved him.

    His written work has a different effect when read, rather than acted out, an effect he and Wilder noticed about Cain’s “Double Indemnity” when they brought in actors to practice dialogue straight from the book, and it was bleh. Some writers need the screenplays to capture the feel and mood, rather than just yap the written.

    Anne Shirley almost wasn’t Anne Shirley in this one, she wasn’t as usual. Claire, tho, she ate this film alive, she was fun to watch. Mazurky was about as perfect a character ever cast, he was Moose, period.

    Powell was an excellent spoof in another, loopier, detective film, “You Never Can Tell”, where he plays a re-incarnated dog who was murdered, Rex Shepherd, who carried around kibble in his coat pocket to snack on. His Marlowe characterization was amped up to a hilarious degree.

    I’m glad you got around to seeing this one, tho, it’s a great film.

  24. I feel some obligation to defend La Jolla, since I spent a number of good years with my theater reviews published by the La Jolla Light.

    My friend David Gregson, an awfully good writer, grew up in La Jolla. He has an awfully good story about the La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club — membership including Raymond Chandler — which I’d love to be able to repeat, were the authenticity more certain. But he *does* give us this reliable bit …

    “My dad saw Raymond Chandler dressed as a hobo and rummaging through La Jolla trashcans near his home on Camino de la Costa, so he [Chandler] was a bit eccentric. Dad was a day laborer then and laying some cement with some other workers. The men were making fun of the hobo — and Dad, who knew who it was, said, ‘I bet you guys that bum will walk up to that big house over there, take out a key and go in.’ The men laughed — until Chandler did just that. I gather he hated La Jolla.”

    *

    I’ll also add, on a less memorable note, that Powell’s trick in “Murder, My Sweet” of lighting matches in opportune places — off a cherub’s rump, f’rinstance — is picked up by Gould in “Long Goodbye.”

  25. Curiously, Cissy Chandler’s ashes, which were supposed to buried with Ray, have been instead, sitting on a shelf in a storage area since she died 56 (!!!) years ago. I gather there was some strange goings-on when he died, and he was shuffled off to a wee plot in another graveyard. I looked into it a long time ago, with the intention of perhaps moving her ashes to be with Ray’s tiny marker, but it was an impenetrable morass. Someone else has accomplished it, and next Valentines day, they plan a ceremony joining them. I’ll be there, for sure, having visited his grave a few times over the years, i finally have something positive happening there.

  26. The ashes of Anton Walbrook, a perpetual exile and wanderer, took decades to find a resting place.

    Chris, thanks for the stories. I like the match-lighting observation, it’s nice to know Gould DID borrow something from the classic Marlowe.

    Vanwall, it’s certainly true about written versus spoken dialogue. Chandler and Hemingway both sound a little more stylised when read aloud, although they can certainly work. Whereas Mamet’s stuff looks pretty weird on the page sometimes (and is very hard to deliver, my actor friends tell me).

  27. Well that’s because Mamet is a very bad writer.

  28. I think he does have at least a recognisable and surprising dialogue style. I hate his stories, and his direction is very dull indeed, and he’s a deeply obnoxious person from what I’ve seen. But his dialogue has a certain flare.

  29. I don’t find his dialogue surpsing at all. He has a very simple formula: When in doubt have them scream obscenities very loudly at a designated victim who’ll cower in fear and shame.

    Bullying is not a literary style.

  30. Mamet is a lot better when directed by someone other than Mamet – De Palma (The Untouchables), Lumet (The Verdict), James Foley (Glengarry Glen Ross), and – especially – the underrated Edmond directed by Stuart “Reanimator” Gordon.

  31. This is it: despite his books on filmmaking, he’s not very interesting when he does it. When he describes his method to students in one book, they raise the possible objection that this might be boring — and it is. The true minimalists have a lot more verve and stylistic tightness than Mamet.

    Mamet’s dramatic situations often devolve into basic power struggles, but the language used is a bit more interesting than the situs.

    “Enthusiasms, enthusiasms… What are mine? What draws my admiration? What is that which gives me joy? Baseball! A man stands alone at the plate. This is the time for what? For individual achievement. There he stands alone. But in the field, what? Part of a team. Teamwork… Looks, throws, catches, hustles. Part of one big team. Bats himself the live-long day, Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, and so on. If his team don’t field… what is he? You follow me? No one. Sunny day, the stands are full of fans. What does he have to say? I’m goin’ out there for myself. But… I get nowhere unless the team wins.”

    I think it has a nice judder to it.

  32. At his best I’d say Mamet’s up there with Chekhov and Beckett as an innovator of theatrical dialogue which redefined an actor’s job. I find his stuff an absolute dream to deliver, but a nightmare to learn, precisely because it comes so close to how people actually speak (also he has this preference for ellipses over dashes which sometimes baffles the rhythm). I remember the thrill I experienced as a seventeen-year-old watching Glengarry Glenn Ross in the cinema and seeing how much was being done with so little (I had to wait twenty years until Mad Men came along to re-experience that). And Oleanna, showing EXACTLY how much power people take for granted by ripping it out from under them, is as good as Euripides. No he’s smart, and right, and good.

  33. I find everything else, or almost everything else, about him unsatisfactory, but I acknowledge his gift for capturing speech.

    I well remember how stunned I was that people found House of Games unpredictable. “So, they’re con artists, and the twist is… it was all a con?” How is that surprising?

    The plotting in GGR is much better because he limits himself to more real-world scenarios.

  34. His screenplays never live up to his plays (though not as badly I think as Pinter’s) and he is a lousy director of his own stuff (for example: the cramping oddness of the following http://www.funnyordie.com/videos/6c24ef6e5a/inside-the-actor-s-workshop-with-danny-devito)

  35. His book on acting is interesting as far as it goes. I asked him in a Q&A how the director could help an actor achieve strong emotion when the scene demands it, and he quoted about four pages of it from memory without answering the question. If I’d had right of reply I’d have said I was impressed by the quotation but if the answer were in his book I wouldn’t have felt the need to ask the question.

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