Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The New Dick Powell

The poster to the left says it all.  Murder, My Sweet (1944), which was one of the films on the TCM Cruise, was a new beginning in the career of Dick Powell.  He'd spent the 1930s as a juvenile crooner in such films as 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933, but with this movie he changed the trajectory of his career.   Powell was approaching his 40s, and a middle aged juvenile was a hard sell.  By taking on the part of hard-nosed detective Philip Marlowe, Powell would become a film noir leading man.

A poolside midnight showing of Murder, My Sweet capped day four of the cruise.  Eddie Mueller of the Film Noir Foundation provided the introduction (Mr. Mueller was also the host of the 2015 Summer of Darkness on TCM).  Based on the book Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler, the studio found it necessary to change the name, as audiences thought they were going into a musical comedy (the star was Dick Powell, after all).  And, while it completely altered the career of star Powell, it also was the swan song for Anne Shirley, who retired at the end of the film.  (For more on Ms. Shirley, see our recent post on Anne of Green Gables, as well as this TCM article).
Told in flashback by Marlowe, his eyes completely bandaged, the fairly complicated story begins with Detective Marlowe alone in his office.  A man arrives - Moose Malone (Mike Mazurki) matches his nickname - he is huge and not too bright, but he is in love, and his girlfriend, Velma Valento has disappeared while Moose was in prison.  He wants Marlowe to find her. Then, Marlowe is approached to by Lindsay Marriott (Douglas Walton) help him pay ransom for stolen jewels.  That doesn't go well, and at the drop, Marlowe catches a glimpse of a woman, who will also show up at his office when he gets back from the "drop".  That woman is Ann Grayle (Anne Shirley), and the jewels were stolen from her stepmother.  As the story unfolds, these seemingly unrelated events begin to merge into one big case, as Marlowe is knocked around, kidnapped, and drugged.

Released three years earlier than The Lady in the Lake, this film has a similar feel in the point-of-view references.  Where The Lady in the Lake rarely lets you see leading man Robert Montgomery (we only see him in mirrors), Murder, My Sweet makes it clear that what we are seeing is Marlowe's story, with blurred effects and blackouts as he is injured or intoxicated. It's a very powerful effect, making the story more intense and engaging.
When the film was released, Dick Powell had just hit his 40th birthday, and he looked it.  Type-cast as a musical comedy actor, Powell wanted to expand his roles.  He bought his release from Warner Brothers, and signed a contract with RKO, on the proviso that his first role would be a dramatic one.  This film ended Powell's career in musicals (though he would continue in occasional comedic roles, including The Reformer and the Redhead with his third wife, June Allyson.  He'd also been married to Joan Blondell).  Powell also began to branch out to work behind the scenes - as a producer on TV's Four Star Playhouse and The Dick Powell Theatre, and as a director of films such as Woman on the Run and The Conqueror.  It was on this last film that Powell was most like exposed to the radiation that contributed in his death from lung cancer at age 58.  Filmed in Utah, the crew members were onsite at the time of a nearby nuclear test.  Susan Hayward, John Wayne, Ted de Corsia, Agnes Moorehead, and Pedro Armend√°riz were also affected. 

Let's not ignore the wonderful Claire Trevor as Mrs. Helen Grayle. Her languid delivery is perfect for a woman seemingly more interested in drinking than jewelry or intrigue.  You KNOW she is up to something, but until the end, it's not really clear WHAT she is planning.  Trevor was no stranger to Noir she'd already appeared in Crossroads (1942) when she was cast in our film - she has often been called the Queen of Film Noir, notably appearing in such renowned noirs as Born to Kill (1947) and Key Largo (1948), winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for the latter.  Married three times, Trevor had one child, Charles, who was killed in a plane crash.  That same year, her husband died of a brain tumor.  For the most part, she stopped acting in the mid 1960s, but in 1982, she appeared in the movie Kiss Me Goodbye, and subsequently did several TV episodes.  She died in April of 2000 at age 90.

The AFI database notes that Ann Dvorak was at one point considered for the role of Ann Grayle.   The film would be remade under it's original title in 1975, with Robert Mitchum as Marlowe (it had already been made as a The Falcon Takes Over in 1942).

Trevor,  Powell and Mike Mazurki would reprise their roles in a Lux Radio Theatre version, with June DuPrez voicing Ann.  Even a year later in the radio play, host Irving Pitchel comments that "in answer to the proverb that a leopard cannot change its spots, we bring you tonight a gentleman who turns his back on many years of light and frothy roles by which he climbed to stardom and takes the part of a ruthless, hard-as-nails detective... He's Dick Powell...."  Such was the impact of Powell's career change.  As I go, I leave you with the trailer to Murder, My Sweet:

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