The city of Los Angeles has a reputation for being the bearer and recorder of an entire nation's hopes, dreams, and ideals. It was first settled by Spanish missionaries in 1769 and through its long history it has been a place where its sunny climate belies a community divided by economic, social, and ethnic lines. As the central location for film and TV production it has shaped the way many people think, feel, and act. And subsequently since the start of the twentieth century it has provided a soundtrack from which many generations from then till now have listened to and defined their lives by.
Their have been many great chroniclers of the city of Los Angeles, and like all great metropolitan areas a distinct mythology has developed around the town. Whereas Manhattan, some historians believe, earned the moniker of being the Big Apple through a series of newspaper articles written by John J. Fitz Gerald about horse-racing. As the news reporter eloquently put it: "The Big Apple. The dream of every lad that ever threw a leg over a thoroughbred and the goal of all horsemen. There's only one Big Apple. That's New York." The nickname Gerald gave the east coast town evoked the fast paced city living and sink or swim mentality that has come to define New York City and its five boroughs. Los Angeles on the other hand may have gained the nickname City of Angels due to the original Hispanic settlers wishing to evoke God's good fortune due to the harsh conditions of settlement living. The City of Angels is a place that attracts all sorts of disparate people and groups seeking their own personal paradise, but with so many people arriving day in, day out many of those dreams end up in the gutter.
Raymond Chandler played a large role in defining L.A. as a corrupt dream factory. His seven novels sketched out for readers a California infected with all sorts of deeply flawed characters. And the way he wrote about Los Angeles became the default cinematic representation of the city. His first novel, The Big Sleep, was adapted by Warner Bros. in 1944 and theatrically released in 1946. It became, for many, the definitive adaptation of a Chandler novel, but in reality it was neither the first of Chandler's books to be adapted nor is it the only film to evoke an L.A. polluted by money and swarming with opportunists.
Two years before the release of the Howard Hawks film Edward Dmytryk would take a crack at putting a Philip Marlowe mystery on the big screen. The film, Murder, My Sweet, would be adapted from Chandler's second novel, Farewell, My Lovely, and the picture would be financed by RKO studios. On its own the film stands as a great example of the private eye genre, but as a Philip Marlowe story their has been a long running debate between Raymond Chandler aficionados as to whether the film can even be considered part of the Philip Marlowe canon. The main point of contention is the casting of Dick Powell as private eye Philip Marlowe.
Dick Powell began in show business as a singer and when he made the transition into film the studios took advantage of the burgeoning new sound technology and put him to work in musicals. The 1930's was a golden era for Powell who starred in several Busby Berkeley musicals alongside such talented actresses as Ruby Keeler and Joan Blondell. Yet as the decade closed Powell grew tired of being a song and dance man and took his first steps into more "serious" roles. He tried his hand at Shakespeare and even auditioned for the part of Walter Neff in Double Indemnity, but all his attempts to broaden his range as an actor failed. By 1944 RKO stood on the precipice of bankruptcy. After handing complete creative control to Orson Welles three years before and having to deal with the fallout from the Hearst scandal RKO was in no position to compete with the Big Five in Hollywood. They signed Dick Powell to a contract in the hopes that they could churn out a few relatively cheap musicals, but Powell would only sign after they agreed to offer him a legitimate dramatic role first. To keep Powell happy they quickly offered him the main part in Edward Dmytryk's next picture. With the part of Philip Marlowe Powell saw the role as a way to reinvent his image. What neither RKO nor Powell had considered was that to many film fans Dick Powell would always be a song and dance man. Not to mention the fact that when Dmytryk's film first opened it was released as Farewell, My Lovely and audiences seeing the title and Dick Powell's name on the marquee went in believing that they would be entertained by a light musical comedy. Audience turnout quickly plummeted and to salvage the film they changed the title to Murder, My Sweet.
Decades after its theatrical release one can easily watch the film without the prejudices that audiences in the 1940's had about Powell. Detractors enjoy pointing out that Powell is a light hearted Marlowe and although I agree with that assessment I do not believe that it is a detriment to the film. Although the character of Marlowe may fall under the category of hard boiled detective he was more of a thinker than a tough guy. Whereas most cinematic private eyes learned their craft primarily from the school of hard knocks Philip Marlowe is a college educated thinker. What Powell brought to the role was a gentleness that Bogart and the other actors that later portrayed the character simply lacked. Most actors when playing Marlowe emphasize his wisecracking attitude, defiance against authority, and overall weariness for the job but most forget the inherent gentleness within the character. Powell as Marlowe moves, at times, in a clumsy manner and is constantly beaten up and knocked unconscious by several characters in the film because he is a mere man. When you watch Bogart in The Big Sleep or The Maltese Falcon you can't believe that anyone could beat him up or hurt him in any way because Bogart is one of Hollywood's perennial tough guys. Dick Powell on the other hand plays Marlowe as a man who tells corny jokes and he is never the guy with all the answers, and we believe him partly because of his reputation as a song and dance man but also because even in his 30's Powell still retained that baby-face of his.
After watching Murder, My Sweet anyone with a passing interest in film will notice how indebted Dmytryk's film is to Citizen Kane. No coincidence since both Citizen Kane and Murder, My Sweet were made within two years of each other, and many of the crew from Kane even ended up working on Dmytryk's film. The cinematographer, Harry J. Wild, constructs shots which utilize the full depth of field and unlike many big budget films of that day he was not afraid to employ shadows for dramatic effect. And as for the set design one can see touches of Charles Foster Kane's Xanadu in the Grayle mansion. Also I would not be surprised if Marlowe's drug-induced nightmare hallucinations in the film would later be the inspiration for Salvador Dali when he designed the surrealistic dream sequences for Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound a year later.
One thing that all Raymond Chandler aficionados can agree upon with this film is that as in Chandler's novel Dmytryk's film is faithful to the themes which recur throughout all of the Philip Marlowe stories; which is that money is a device used by the wealthy to wash away their sins. The character of Helen Grayle is a perfect example of this since the main thrust of the story is the search for Velma Valento, a red-haired nightclub singer. It is only later in the film that Marlowe and we the audience finally figure out that Helen Grayle and Velma are one in the same woman. No matter what color she dyes her hair, expensive clothes and jewelry she puts on, or people she kills Helen Grayle cannot escape the fact that she came from a less than respectable background. Her reasons for marrying Mr. Grayle is purely a selfish desire to attain the respectability she longs for, but by creating an alternate identity she betrays her true self. Helen/Velma is a murderer and manipulator, but she is also a victim. She is a product of all of the men in her life that have exploited her insecurities and now after all that abuse she is finally taking her revenge. Murder, My Sweet is a film about corruption; not institutional corruption but personal corruption for the lies we tell ourselves can easily poison every aspect of our identity till we turn into everything we have fought to not become.