It's the first Philip Marlowe film to star Philip Marlowe. There had been two movies based on his novels in 1942, but both of them changed the lead character's name on the grounds that they didn't expect the movie-going public to have heard of him. Raymond Chandler had made more of a name for himself two years later, though, so at last his creation appeared.
Marlowe's an unusual cinematic figure, because he's been in lots of films without ever becoming a franchise. Almost every time he appears, he's played by someone different. That's not quite true if you take television into account, but look at all these actors to have played him in the cinema: Dick Powell, Humphrey Bogart, Robert Montgomery, George Montgomery (no relation), James Garner, Elliott Gould and Robert Mitchum. That's quite a line-up. Furthermore this film is merely the second of three adaptations of its original novel, with the other two being The Falcon Takes Over
(1942) and Farewell, My Lovely
(1975) with Robert Mitchum. Obviously the 1942 film is based around George Sanders's Falcon rather than Marlowe, but as far as I can tell that's still a proper adaptation rather than a rip-off.
This one's supposed to be a classic film noir and one of the best Philip Marlowe movies. Dick Powell's a bit distracting in the role at first, but I soon warmed to him. He was an aging matinee idol, signed up by RKO to make a string of musicals, but before doing those he demanded a straight dramatic role. RKO cast him as Marlowe. The film's director, Edward Dmytryk, was at first horrified, while the film under its original title (Farewell My Lovely) failed to draw audiences because they assumed it was another Dick Powell musical. RKO re-released it three months later as Murder, My Sweet and it did much better. As for Powell himself, I wouldn't have called him a tough guy, since he instead struck me as a slightly cuddly middle-aged man reminiscent of William H. Macy. However the script's giving him some powerful characterisation to work with and Powell's doing it justice. This Marlowe isn't good with people. He's abrasive, he likes money and he's rude even to potential clients. However he's also got his own kind of honour, sticking with a job come hell or high water. Frankly he's a blunt instrument. He's stubborn and it's not easy to kick him into getting involved in your case, but once he has, it's damn near impossible to kick him off it. You couldn't call him lovable and I don't think he even cares whether people like him or not, but the more you see of him, the cooler he gets.
Powell really brings all this alive. There's occasionally a lightness to his performance that you wouldn't get from a more stereotypical tough guy, but I liked that. There's nothing particularly interesting about seeing a badass giving people the brush-off, but it has more impact here because Powell's not inherently that type. Nevertheless he completely sells you on this magnificently uncompromising man who's happy to make himself as welcome as a worm in your apple if that's what it takes to get at the truth. His relationship with women is interesting too, since he clearly likes them and even kisses them on occasion, but might as well be putting them on a microscope slide while he's doing so. I was also impressed by the sequence in which he's been kidnapped and drugged, since Powell goes for his performance so wholeheartedly that I think I laughed at the bit where he started shouting at himself. "That's a beautiful bed. Stay off it!"
The rest of the cast is solid too. I remember liking the drunk old lady near the beginning, but to be honest they're all good. We've got villains, femme fatales and some seriously high-class folks.
The plot is, um, by Raymond Chandler. Could I follow it? No, I couldn't, or at least not for a good while. It's not as convoluted as The Big Sleep, but that's not saying much. Eventually one starts to have an inkling of what's going on, but I got the impression that this film is reproducing what it must really be like to conduct an investigation like this. Stuff happens out of nowhere. New clients turn up and pay you to do something completely different. The cast is a bewildering tangle of hypothetical relationships, most of whom you've never seen in the same room as each other and some of whom may not even exist.
These days we're used to plots being simple, clear and idiot-friendly and so I can imagine many people being thrown by this, but personally I thought this was a valid and interesting approach to storytelling. It's a film noir mystery. What did we expect? On the upside, Philip Marlowe is the perfect person to be following through all this. This is what his life's like. He's clever and he knows how to join the dots in a Raymond Chandler plot and leap to the hypotheses that a lesser detective would have to deduce from clues or something. What makes it even harder though is the fact that it's 1944 and the movie doesn't even want to show us people getting hit with weapons (e.g. a cosh). Seriously. We always cut away. As for getting a good look at a corpse, you might as well forget it. Thus at one point someone walked through the door whom I'd thought had previously been murdered, but I can't have been paying attention because no one's surprised and it turns out that the corpse we saw had been someone else.
There's the odd colourful and not entirely comprehensible turn of phrase. What does it mean for a bank account to try to crawl under a duck? I can see what he's trying to say, but... eh?
I also liked the surreal sequence with the syringe-wielding man and the row of doors. That's a rather good visual representation of a nightmare, actually.
This is a strong, intriguing film with lots of atmosphere and a plot that could fence in elephants. It also has an excellent finale, followed by a punchline that made me smile. There are lots of good things here, but best I think is its Marlowe. Dick Powell wasn't the obvious choice for the lead role, but that makes his achievement here more impressive, even if he is being helped a lot by a brave script. Raymond Chandler himself thought Powell got Marlowe right, you know.