Dick Powell takes on Philip Marlowe

Dick Powell was a huge success as a musical/comedy star in the 1930s.  But by the 1940s many considered him little more than an aging matinée idol, a perception he was sick of and intended on changing.

[observation, 1936] I’m not a kid anymore but I’m still playing boy scouts.”

In the early 1940s RKO Radio Pictures was on the verge of bankruptcy and hoped to change the course of the studio by signing Dick Powell to star in a series of musicals of their own.   However, Dick Powell had other things in mind – like showing his darker side.  Taking advantage of RKO’s precarious situation, Powell put forth demands of his own – he’d agree to the terms of the contract if he be allowed to play a straight, dramatic role first.  Powell had been trying to get into “serious” roles for several years with attempts that included trying out for the male lead in Billy Wilder’s, Double Indemnity, which he was turned down for because Wilder thought audiences would never buy into Powell as the “hard-boiled type.”  RKO agreed to Powell’s demands, however, and much to the chagrin of director, Edward Dmytryck, cast him as private eye, Philip Marlowe in Farewell, My Lovely in 1944.  Farewell was based on the 1940 novel of the same name by Raymond Chandler.  Like Dmytryck, Raymond Chandler was not too keen on hoofer/singer, Powell playing his popular detective, but RKO forged forward with the film as planned.

Upon its initial release, Farewell, My Lovely didn’t even get a lukewarm reception from audiences.  Hoping the disappointment was due to the film’s title, which led people to believe it was yet another Dick Powell musical, RKO decided to change it to the darker, Murder, My Sweet and premiered the film in New York City with that title.

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RKO’s “hunch” proved right as Murder, My Sweet became a hit.  The film renewed Dick Powell’s career, giving him a broader appeal as a tough guy.  Murder and Powell’s portrayal of Philip Marlowe also gave Raymond Chandler’s career a boost.  The author changed his personal views on Powell as Marlowe as soon as he saw the movie, expressing his approval of the portrayal – what was the first Philip Marlowe portrayal in a feature film.  Some think Powell’s portrayal of Marlowe is the most effective, by the way.  In his 1972 book, The Detective in Film, author William K. Everson suggests Powell’s Marlowe is more effective than Bogie’s from an audience perspective because “the realistic conception of the private eye was relatively new, and because Powell was totally new to it — became Marlowe far more easily than Bogart [in The Big Sleep (Warner Bros., 1946)], who had several other competing images working against him: the gangster image, Sam Spade, Rick from Casablanca. Powell tossed off the tired, contemptuous, yet biting Raymond Chandler wisecracks and insults with superbly underplayed style.”  I’m not sure I agree with even trying to compare the two because they’re such different takes on the character.  If pressed however, despite my love of Humphrey Bogart, I would have to choose not only Powell’s Marlowe, but Dmytryck’s film over Hawks’ in this case. (Phew! That actually hurt.)  Whether you agree or not, Everson’s is a compelling argument.

Powell as Marlowe
Powell as Marlowe

“‘Okay Marlowe,’ I said to myself. ‘You’re a tough guy. You’ve been sapped twice, choked, beaten silly with a gun, shot in the arm until you’re crazy as a couple of waltzing mice. Now let’s see you do something really tough – like putting your pants on.'” – Powell as Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet

Dick Powell found a niche playing anti-hero characters – usually likeable guys with a tough edge.  He was a natural at it, in fact, and would have essentially a “new” career thanks to his portrayal of Philip Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet.  So – that’s why as a tribute to the actor on the anniversary of his birth date, I am sharing a classic, radio version of the role and film that introduced Powell’s “darker side” to audiences in 1944 – a special Noirvember presentation.

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From June 11, 1945, the Lux Radio Theater presentation of “Murder, My Sweet” with both Dick Powell and Claire Trevor reprising their film roles. (Click on the image to listen to radio broadcast)

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Powell and Trevor in MURDER, MY SWEET

 

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12 thoughts

  1. Aurora, as I’ve said elsewhere, I’ve always considered Dick Powell to be a mighty close second to Humphrey Bogart when it comes to portraying Phillip Marlowe. How close? THISCLOSE! 🙂 Both Bogart and Powell were great as Marlowe, but I can why you prefer Powell; it’s kind of like Bogart is an unassailable icon, bigger than life, while Dick Powell is more like an everyman we can all relate to. In any case, they’re all great in their own memorable ways. BRAVA to you for your superb post, and Happy Birthday to our man Dick Powell! 🙂

    1. Yeah, it nearly killed me to choose one, but I can’t deny it. Bogie is just wonderful in everything he did. I confess, though, that THE BIG SLEEP is not particularly a favorite of mine. I remember reading that Hawks’ felt that film scenes should be great, rather than an entire film being great. Or, rather that if he made individual scenes great that the film will work itself out. I feel that THE BIG SLEEP has unforgettable scenes and performances, but the entire thing is somewhat confusing.

      SO I DID IT! I chose one. O_0

      Thanks again for stopping in and glad you enjoyed this.

      Aurora

  2. Good for you,making a call between Powell and Bogart as Marlowe. I haven’t seen Murder My Sweet for ages so will hold off a vote! Dick certainly turned his career around, didn’t he.
    And that wasn’t easy in Hollywood. I love him in JOHNNY O’Clock.
    But I look forward to listening to the radio broadcast. Thanks for the link.
    I’m catching up on all the great Orson Welles broadcasts you recommended. He really is terrific on radio.

  3. Thanks for a great b’day tribute to one of my all-time faves, Aurora! 🙂 Very interesting quote from Everson on Powell as the detective.

    Like Vienna I’m a big fan of JOHNNY O’CLOCK! And CRY DANGER. And…

    Best wishes,
    Laura

  4. I adore Dick Powell as hardened gumshoe Philip Marlowe — just as much as I love the Bogie version. (Don’t make me choose!) In fact, it’s kinda hard now to watch Powell in those song-and-dance roles of the 1930s. I think the noir genre suits him so much better.

  5. Bogey is my favorite actor of all time and Hawks in competition for best dir. I love what he and Faulkner and Bracket did w a great book. I feel traitor is to vote against Bogey. But Powell embodies the character. And Dmyt. captures the noir feeling. And for a mid forties film does Clair Trevor light my fire. When husband Judge Grail excuses himself for the evening and Trevor grabs the whiskey bottle walking over to Marlowe and says, “shall we dispense with the polite drinking.”
    Wow.

  6. Powell was the greatest Philip Marlowe by far. I’m surprised you can’t buy framed pictures of Powell in the role.

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