Murder, My Sweet ★★★★★

FILM SCHOOL DROPOUT: A 2017 year-long movie challenge
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Week 11: Film Noir

I suppose you could call it ironic that in the same year hardboiled author Raymond Chandler was hired by Hollywood to essentially rewrite James M. Cain's novel Double Indemnity for the screen, his own novel Farewell, My Lovely was itself adapted into the movie Murder, My Sweet, without even the least bit of participation from him into that particular screenplay. But whatever the case, it's easy to see why one of the trademarks of the film noir genre that grew up afterwards is that they all sound vaguely like a Raymond Chandler novel; because with the massive dual successes of these two 1944 movies essentially kicking off the entire film noir movement (a movement that can be cynically described as "a thousand more films that tried to be cheap knockoffs of these two"), and both of them having been written by Chandler, it simply makes sense that all the rest would try (with varying levels of success and failure over the years) to duplicate that witty, borderline-naughty, rat-a-tat dialogue he made so famous.

That said, though, Murder, My Sweet interestingly lacks most of the stylistic touches we've come to commonly associate with this genre by now; since it was made at the same exact time as Double Indemnity, and hence didn't get to rip that movie off like all the rest of the resulting noirs did, it lacks the Expressionistic flourishes I was talking about with that film yesterday, having instead the overly bright and flattened look that came with most 1940s studio pictures at the time. The fact that it's still considered a noir, then, comes almost exclusively from the actual story on display -- the first-ever film appearance of Chandler's world-weary private eye Philip Marlowe, later made so famous by Humphrey Bogart, investigating a jewelry theft that in typical fashion opens him up to a sordid Los Angeles underground world of Miss Lonelyhearts con jobs, charming sociopaths with souls as black as the pit of hell, and creepy ex-Nazi doctors who now administer knock-out juice on behalf of their gangster bosses.

Except for the exquisite storyline, Murder, My Sweet would be just another generic crime thriller from those years that would be now long forgotten, except for one last detail that really makes it all come together; that like Double Indemnity this movie cast against type to fill its lead tough-guy role, only in this case through random circumstances that were forced upon it. Namely, RKO Pictures, which was on the brink of bankruptcy at the time, had recently put fading matinee-musical star Dick Powell on contract in the hopes of reviving their flagging business; but this contract stipulated that the first role he did for them had to be a straight dramatic part, since he was so sick and tired of doing matinee musicals, so RKO stuck him in this cheapie B-pic, expecting to burn off the film quickly and get him back into the musicals they had hired him to do. When the film turned out to be a massive success among the public, though, Powell suddenly had a new career resurgence on his hands, RKO's fortunes suddenly weren't looking so bad anymore, and suddenly everybody and their mother wanted to make a movie themselves featuring low-life criminals, morally gray murkiness, and German Expressionist-influenced stylistic cinematographic touches. And thus was film noir officially born, a genre which would dominate the box office all the way up to the Eisenhower years and the McCarthy "Red Scare" witch hunts, when America collectively decided they had had enough of moral gray areas and wanted to go back to a black-and-white mentality again.

Coming tomorrow, my look at 1946's The Postman Always Rings Twice, once again based on a James M. Cain novel, and considered one of the most famous film noirs in history.

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