Murder My Sweet (Warner Archive, Blu-ray) is not just the most faithful screen version of Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled hero Philip Marlowe from the classic era of film noir, it’s also one of the best. Dick Powell, the 1930s crooner and boy next door romantic lead of dozens of musical comedies, changed his career trajectory overnight when he took the lead in the Edward Dmytryk-directed adaptation of “Farewell, My Lovely” (the title was changed for the movie just to let audiences know that this was a darker side of Powell).
The cynical, smart talking private eye gets hired in short order by, first, a dim ex-con (pug nosed Mike Mazurki) to find his girl Velma, and then by the prissy stooge of a blackmail victim to babysit him during a handoff. The meeting ends with the stooge’s death and Marlowe is immediately engaged by the owner of the jewels, the wily Mrs. Grayle (Claire Trevor), to recover them. As Marlowe navigates the dark, dangerous world of wartime LA, splitting his search between high society haunts and the cheap smoky bars and flophouses of the inner city, he turns up one too many stones, winds up on the wrong end of a fist, and wakes up to a drug induced nightmare that Dmytryk delivers with a mixture of surreal symbolism and sinister expressionism. Powell delivers screenwriter John Paxton’s snappy lines and droll asides with hard boiled cynicism, like someone not quite as tough as he talks, but it’s Powell’s innate vulnerability that makes this reluctant saint of the city so compelling. Dmytryk’s shadowy style creates a visual equivalent to the web of intrigue Marlowe navigates, an almost perpetual world of night.
It is one of the first great film noirs and an often overlooked detective movie classic, and it has been beautifully mastered for its Blu-ray debut. Also features commentary by film noir expert Alain Silver (carried over from the original DVD release) and the original trailer.
Dick Powell found the genre, which at the time were simply crime thrillers or crime dramas, a good fit for his dry delivery and understated style so after starring in Cornered (1945), Johnny O’Clock (1947), and To the Ends of the Earth (1948), he turned producer (though without screen credit) and developed his own project. The first of his independent efforts, the 1948 Pitfall (Kino Classics, Blu-ray, DVD) is one of the greatest—and most adult—film noirs that even many film buffs have never heard of.
Powell is middle-class insurance man John Forbes, a white collar husband and father living in suburbia and on the verge of burn-out, or at least disillusionment with the rat race. His deadpan patter is ignored by his wife Sue (Jane Wyatt) and bounces over the head of his oblivious son (Jimmy Hunt), and his sardonic attitude is carried into the job, where he deals with a seedy private detective (Raymond Burr at his sleaziest) who tracks down stolen property insured by his firm. That’s how he meets Mona (Lizabeth Scott), a smoky-voiced model who was showered with gifts from an embezzling banker. She’s not the gold-digger that John expects, however, and he ends up in an affair that isn’t exactly an affair, at least not how it’s presented to steer clear of production code dos and don’ts. There are afternoon meetings in smoky bars and scraps with the PI who goes all stalker on Mona, and the shadows of his city sins follow him home to suburbia.
Those narrative gymnastics are part of what make the film so interesting. It’s not sex that jams up John, it’s the fantasy of a secret life outside of his routine, and it’s just as much a betrayal. Sue may appear obliviously sunny and content but she’s perceptive and self-aware, thanks both to mature screenwriting and a strong performance by Wyatt, who is far more central to the drama than her screen time might suggest. And while the violence erupts in the dark of night, with slashes of light picking the players out of the shadows like any great noir, the rest of the film plays out in the light of day in familiar settings: home, office, the busy streets of Los Angeles (not a studio backlot but real location shots that give the film a presence in the real lives of real people). Director Andre de Toth, whose legacy of hard-edged dramas in all genres is still too-often overlooked, keeps the film in a recognizable world and focuses on consequences and responsibility more than the spectacle of violence. This isn’t the story of outlaws but a straight arrow guy who drifts into a little secret excitement and finds his shadowy actions exposed for all to see with the dawn, and the film ends with the family facing the fallout with a decision to make: how do you move forward from something like this?
The film came out on VHS and laserdisc decades ago but, as it was independently made and thus not protected by a studio, it fell through the cracks of preservation. The Film Noir Foundation financed a restoration from the best available elements, which was undertaken by the UCLA Film Archive. It’s not pristine, mind you, and there are scenes with major wear, but the focus was on getting the best image and this has good contrasts and clarity behind the wear, and in the best scenes it is clear and clean.
The Blu-ray and DVD release also features commentary by film noir historian and Film Noir Foundation founder Eddie Muller, who provides both a detailed history of the production and observations on the style and sensibility of the film.
Powell teamed up with (uncredited) screenwriter William Bowers for a second film, Cry Danger (1951), a couple of years later, another smart, sharp little picture that was also restored by The Film Noir Foundation and UCLA and released on Blu-ray and DVD by Olive last year. If you like Pitfall, track down Cry Danger and get the full Powell experience. (Reviewed on Cinephiled here.)