Film of the Week | 24th May 2021
Sony Classic Movies has become GREAT! MOVIES CLASSIC, but it is the same old stuff.
Directed by Edmund Dmytryk, this is an underestimated film, and it catches the Raymond Chandler world more successfully than any other of the films made from his books. Telling the story in flashback captures the tone of the first-person narrative (as much as any technique could, for the most famous Chandler adaptation, The Big Sleep, is Howard Hawks’s film rather than Chandler’s). Dmytryk doesn’t have the kudos of more organised auteur directors, and, after a period of imprisonment, he named names in the HUAC enquiries, which always tends to dent a legacy (Crossfire is his other most memorable film). But this works: outbursts of violence, wisecracks, dangerous women, gunfire, drug dealers, swirling shadows, hallucinations, pouring rain, dark streets…. It’s all here.
The title of Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely was changed to Murder, My Sweet because audiences assumed that it was a Dick Powell musical: Powell had made his career as a crooner in Busby Berkeley films, chortling among the half-dressed girls in the days before the Hays Office, but he wanted to move on. Having applied for the lead in Double Indemnity, Fred MacMurray got that part, so he tried again. The producers didn’t think Powell would be able to pull this off, until they saw his screen test. And pull it off he did. Blinded and blindfolded, this may be his finest hour. And perhaps Dick Powell’s training in musicals gives him a lightness and an emotional range that Humphrey Bogart, whatever his virtues, did not possess. Powell has the impish destructiveness of the Marlowe character, wise-cracking, irreverent, incorruptible, striking a match on a statue’s backside, tough when he has to be, and cool.
The giant patsy Moose Malloy is played by Mike Mazurki, a wrestler, not an actor. Mazurki was supposed to loom over Marlowe, but he was only a couple of inches taller than the six feet two inches Powell, so Powell in some scenes had to stand in a trench. To add to the effect, some sets were built with sloping ceilings to change the perspective so that Mazurki seems to grow as he moves towards the camera. Dmytryk used the Hitchcock trick used in Saboteur by having the camera pull back from the actor to make it seem as if he is falling when he is drugged and hallucinating.
Claire Trevor is terrific as the woman who plays perhaps the strongest character in the story, escaping from secondary roles in Westerns to show what she can do with a gun in her hand. She is at the heart of every major plot-line.
The African-American nightclub of the novel had to be changed to a club for whites only, so that scenes wouldn’t be cut when it was shown in the South.
There was a decent remake directed by Dick Richards in 1975 with Robert Mitchum as an ageing and world-weary Marlowe.
NOTE: Dick Powell turned into a stolid Republican bore, and a director. He made The Conqueror in 1956 in Utah, a ludicrous biopic of Genghis Khan named as one of the fifty worst films ever made, filmed in the desert, but on a site downwind of an atomic testing ground. Of the two hundred and twenty people involved in the film ninety-one had developed some form of cancer by 1981 and forty-one had died of cancer, including Susan Hayward, John Wayne and Dick Powell. Was there a link? Powell and Wayne were both chain smokers.
NOTE: The final sentences of Farewell My Lovely are among my favourite of all novel endings. When everything is over, Philip Marlowe leaves the policeman’s office to go back to his lonely life: “I rode down to the street floor and went out on the steps of the City Hall. It was a cool day, and very clear. You could see a long way – but not as far as Velma had gone.”
Best wishes. Bill.