Film Noir Series: Murder, My Sweet (1944)
Murder, My Sweet is notable as a wartime noir, one of the early heralds of the style’s ascent in the banner year of 1944. Coming out in the same year as Double Indemnity, the first film I dealt with in this series, there is considerable atmospheric and stylistic overlap between the two classic noir films. They both bear the stylistic hallmarks of the “series:” disorienting camera work (and optical effects in the case of this film) suggesting subjective rather than objective storytelling, stark shadows, intimidating staircases, sinister opulence in set design, and their West Coast setting. In many ways, however, the two films have significant differences as well. The two most obviously distinguish Murder, My Sweet from its bleaker cousin are Dick Powell’s light-footed performance as Philip Marlowe and the more conventional ending.
Powell is a delight in his role, scraping up against unsavory characters with a dry, quick wit. Unlike Bannion in The Big Heat, he lacks a freight train punch and unlike Bogart in The Maltese Falcon he is often genuinely bewildered, at a loss, or indisposed due to being drugged–though the latter also happened to the otherwise invincible Bogart. His defense methods are necessarily more verbal, especially when confronted with a huge adversary like Moose Malloy, who is none too bright but can break a man in two like a stalk of celery. Marlowe keeps his integrity and, most of the time, his cool, poking constant fun at his supposed betters. One shot of him striking a match against Cupid’s posterior is genuinely funny, and this levity makes the entire affair at once more hopeful and more dangerous. We as the audience understand that this sense of humor covers for a physical weakness. In one harrowing and hallucinatory stint under the influence of drugs, we are treated to genuinely surrealistic imagery, a rarity in the films noirs we have seen so far. I found the comedy and some of the bolder subjective distortions applied to the camera, meant to represent Marlowe’s interior state, thrilling. It was, at least, an appreciated ray of sunshine piercing through both the winter murk outside and the dark bleak cloud the other films have cast over the theatre.
The ending is less convincing than Powell, if only because it seems all too easy by comparison with some of its more tough-minded or materialistic peers. I think it works on its own merits, however, and is neither frivolous nor unearned. While, as a classmate of mine pointed out, there is a sense in which the happy ending violates some of the basic tenets of the noir mood, I believe that this slight transgression is a well-deserved one, especially when the film spends most of its time wandering through an intimidating fog. Narrative threads don’t connect in immediately obvious ways, and Marlowe is often forced to throw up his hands at the futility of it all. No one is honest except him, and I think it is at least emotionally gratifying to see that integrity rewarded for once.