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)