Murder, My Sweet takes a peculiar approach to the detective story. Lead Dick Powell graciously lets everyone overshadow him in scenes; he doesn’t exactly fumble his way through his investigation, but he does befuddle his way through it. He’s the audience’s point of entry into the mystery and he’s just as confused as anyone else. Or is he? The film runs just around ninety minutes, with a bookending device; director Dmytryk is all about precision with how the audience (and Powell) experience those ninety minutes.
The film opens with Powell being very jokey, which is nearly off-putting. He doesn’t seem to take anything seriously enough, not being questioned by the police, not having man mountain Mike Mazurki threaten him. Powell’s not exactly passive in his scenes, but he’s certainly not active. Dmytryk and screenwriter John Paxton set Powell’s id loose, but more in a way to get the audience situated. Once you buy into the vague unreality of Mazurki’s giant, somewhat lovable moron, you can accept Mazurki as serious. The same goes for the male supporting cast, Otto Kruger and Miles Mander. The film eases the viewer into accepting them beyond face value. It’s awesome because one might think Dmytryk would be too busy with the many technical aspects of Murder.
Dmytryk lets the film wander (carefully, of course) through Harry J. Wild’s photography. Dmytryk even shows it off at times, with characters turning on and off the lights, playing with the idea of what the light hides and the darkness reveals. During the first act, when Powell’s more amiable than anything else, it’s a very strange, then wonderful disconnect. Especially once Claire Trevor and Anne Shirley show up.
Trevor is the femme fatale, Shirley is the good girl. Neither dominate the plot, but Paxton does a great job implying their presence and their importance when they aren’t around. Powell has great chemistry with both, which should be another place the film fails from the disconnect but instead succeeds–they’re different types of characters, Powell’s chemistry with each actor is different. Powell doesn’t get a character arc, not an internal one, but watching Murder, My Sweet is about figuring him out.
Great music from Roy Webb. Great editing from Joseph Noriega.
All of the acting is outstanding. Trevor, Shirley, Mazurki and Mander all get multiple amazing scenes. Kruger is good too, but he’s the closest to a Powell analogue in terms of style. They get to be playful, no one else does.
Paxton’s script is awesome and Dmytryk’s direction manages to be consistently surprising. He always finds a new way angle, whether it’s for a mood shot or just some dialogue. The film’s style is constantly building on itself. It’s fantastic.
Directed by Edward Dmytryk; screenplay by John Paxton, based on the novel by Raymond Chandler; director of photography, Harry J. Wild; edited by Joseph Noriega; music by Roy Webb; produced by Adrian Scott; released by RKO Radio Pictures.
Starring Dick Powell (Philip Marlowe), Claire Trevor (Helen Grayle), Anne Shirley (Ann Grayle), Miles Mander (Leuwen Grayle), Mike Mazurki (Moose Malloy), Otto Kruger (Jules Amthor), Donald Douglas (Police Lieutenant Randall), Paul Phillips (Detective Nulty), Ralf Harolde (Dr. Sonderborg), Douglas Walton (Lindsay Marriott) and Esther Howard (Jessie Florian).