According to the commentary track included on Warner Bros.‘s new Film Noir Collection release of Murder, My Sweet, inimitable pulp novelist Raymond Chandler crocheted the busy, multiple levels of narrative for Farewell, My Lovely (the original title) from three different short stories. This approach actually pays off in the novel (reportedly Chandler’s favorite of his own work), as Marlowe is a quintessential wise guy who finds himself in the right place at the wrong time. Using cynicism as a disguise for Marlowe’s deeply-hidden sense of moral chivalry, Chandler’s novels define plot as nothing more highfalutin than simply what happens to the progressively more drawn in private investigator. Mood, setting, and character (or, rather, caricature) are what Chandler means to explicate. And Murder, My Sweet, Edward Dmytryk’s 1945 RKO adaptation of the novel (with Dick Powell playing the P.I. as a past-his-prime looker), follows that blueprint rather well. John Paxton’s screenplay excises at least half of the subplot from Chandler’s text, but he leaves in a fair amount of his juicy dialogue. (You know, the “she was a washed-up middle-aged woman with a face of mud” stuff.) A rogue’s gallery of character actors do justice to Chandler’s underworld of horny old men, homosexual middle-aged ones, and young sweets of undecided moral standing, but what really fills out the film, though, is Dmytryk’s jazzy application of Orson Welles’s RKO set-design. While nowhere near as lattice-happy or deep-focused as Welles’s work, Dmytryk takes noticeable relish in choreographing mug-on-thug-on-lug) power struggles through shifting light patterns (the climactic scene where Claire Trevor keeps switching off lamps and creating gulfs of black space), tracking shots, and even a risky-if-blatant surrealistic dream sequence with melting stairway banisters and menacing cobwebs. It’s one of the rare film noirs where the visual panache almost matches the stoolie loquaciousness (Kiss Me Deadly remains the champ). What doesn’t quite wash about Chandler’s worldview is the convenient, almost flippant resolution, a tossed-off nod to happily-ever-after matrimony, and a Madonna-Whore view of women that Chandler, even at his worst, was capable of rising above.
Another wonderful transfer from Warner Bros. makes their Film Noir Collection one of the year's more significant vintage releases. (That they've apparently finally dropped the snapper cases earns them bonus points.) A crystal-clear print, rife with good, reliable grain (roughage), is boosted with great black-and-white contrast. Here's hoping that their Val Lewton box set slated for next year looks as refreshing as these do. The mono sound mix is also as good as can be expected, though again I noticed that the volume level was a tad low. When I switched back and forth between it and the commentary track (which reverts to the original mix during pauses in the commentary), I noticed that the sound was louder and easier to understand on the second track.
There's a theatrical trailer in addition to the commentary track, and though it's pretty worn out, it makes one wonder what prevented them from doing the same for Gun Crazy. The commentary from Alain Silver (another "author/film-noir specialist") is another fine one (to be pronounced in that proud, mammy manner of "fine"). A well-rounded discussion of Chandler, RKO, Dmytryk, the code, film noir conventions, and, refreshingly, of the performances. Well worth a listen. Maybe a second.
Raymond Chandler might have scoffed at the gauze of Hollywood, but Murder, My Sweet is crawling with grunty RKO expressionism.