Words! Words! Words! Raymond Chandler: From ‘Farewell’ to MURDER

It’s March 1939 Los Angeles.  Raymond Chandler makes a notation in his notebook about his plans for his second novel.  Chandler’s first novel “The Big Sleep” is completed and ready for release.  His note says he next plans to write a detective novel “about a corrupt alliance of police and racketeers in a small California town, outwardly as fair as the dawn.” (Creatures of Darkness, 2003, Gene D. Phillips)  Chandler began to write the novel he completed in April 1940 with a working title of “The Girl from Florian’s” referencing an establishment that plays prominently in the story, but eventually settles on “Farewell, My Lovely,” which features Philip Marlowe, the gumshoe he’d introduced in “The Big Sleep.”

It’s 1941 Los Angeles.  RKO Radio Pictures was in poor financial state.  However, they were in the midst of the Falcon movie series (1941-1949), the studio’s contribution to the current wave of B-grade detective movies that audiences enjoyed.  The Falcon series, which debuted with The Gay Falcon directed by Irving Reis and based on a short story by Michael Arlen used up all of the available story in the first movie.  RKO followed the series with Reis’ A Date With the Falcon (1942), but was in need of material for future entries when they came across Raymond Chandler’s “Farewell, My Lovely” and purchased the rights for a measly $2,000.  Understandably, Chandler was disappointed in the amount he got just as he would be with the movie that resulted, The Falcon Takes Over (1942) also directed by Reis, which took the source material and fit it to comply with the already established formula of the Falcon series.  I enjoy watching most of the Falcon movies because of the cast, which in this case includes Lynn Bari, James Gleason, Allen Jenkins and Ward Bond in addition to George Sanders.  The Falcon Takes Over, however, goes nowhere near Chandler’s Los Angeles, the seediness engrained in his story or the second film adaptation of “Farewell, My Lovely” released three years later, which introduced Philip Marlowe to the movies.

It’s 1944 Los Angeles.  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.  Meanwhile, the ailing RKO hoped to cash in on Powell’s popularity and changing the course of the studio by signing the singer to star in a series of musicals of their own.   However, Dick had other things in mind – like showing his darker side.  Taking advantage of RKO’s precarious situation, Powell put forth his own demands – 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 giving the go ahead to producer Adrian Scott to forge ahead with a property he’d stumbled upon in the discard pile in the Story Department, “Farewell, My Lovely.” (Phillips)  Despite the studio having produced The Falcon Takes Over based on the same story just three years before, the powers that be at RKO knew they had a lot to gain and nothing to lose by giving it another shot.  They banked on a few things hoping for success.  For one, RKO knew that no one would recognize it as the same property the Falcon movie was based on.  Then they factored in the finances involved, which included no expenses required to purchase the property because they owned the rights to “Farewell, My Lovely” outright.  Finally, the timing was perfect for RKO to ride the Raymond Chandler popularity coattails for free because Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), which Raymond Chandler co-scripted, was buzzing around town.  Since Wilder’s movie was likely to be a hit Chandler’s name on the RKO production could only increase interest in it.

Commissioned to direct Farewell, My Lovely was Edward Dmytryck who by all accounts aimed to stay true to Chandler’s novel.  The director, however, was not at all happy with the idea of having Dick Powell play Philip Marlowe nor was Raymond Chandler who found it difficult to picture the hoofer/singer as his popular detective.  But – both director and novelist were proven wrong.  As it turns out Dick Powell was a natural at playing tough guys – albeit with that soft underbelly or as Dmytryk noted, Powell portrayed Philip Marlowe “with a patina of toughness only skin deep.”

Meet the NEW Dick Powell!

Murder, My Sweet renewed Dick Powell’s career broadening his appeal from just a song-and-dance man to the tough detective type.  Murder and Powell’s portrayal of Philip Marlowe also gave Raymond Chandler’s career a boost.  Just as Dmytryk had done while directing the movie, Chandler changed his personal views on Powell as Marlowe.  In Chandler’s case as soon as he saw the movie, expressing his approval of the portrayal and would later say that Powell came closest to his own conception of Marlowe.  Many others have agreed with the author through the years.  In his 1972 book, The Detective in Film, author William K. Everson suggests Powell’s Marlowe is more effective than Humphrey Bogart’s in Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep (1946) 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 , 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.”  While comparisons of this type are tricky because each actor brings such different energy to the table I would have to choose not only Powell’s Marlowe, but Dmytryck’s film over Hawks’ because to be honest I find The Big Sleep confusing.  But, whether you agree or not, Everson’s is a compelling argument and makes for interesting debate.  For the record, Dick Powell would also be the only actor ever to play Philip Marlowe across three mediums.  Aside from the film version discussed here, he also played Marlowe on radio in the Lux Radio Theater adaptation of “Murder, My Sweet” and on television in a 1954 dramatization of Chandler’s 1953 novel “The Long Goodbye.”  Many other actors have played Philip Marlowe through the years both on radio and television.  The influence of Raymond Chandler’s work cannot be overstated as the character and his “type” are recognizable in all manner of media.

In preparation for this entry, which is my submission to the Words, Words, Words! Blogathon hosted by the Classic Movie Blog Association (CMBA) to pay tribute to film adaptations of books, I read Raymond Chandler’s “Farewell, My Lovely” for the first time and enjoyed it immensely.  I enjoyed reading it so much, in fact, that I later bought the audiobook to listen to the Chandler-esque dialogue and descriptions as I drove from Miami to New Jersey.  That’s a whole lotta down and dirty up I-95.  It was also a lot of fun to re-watch Murder, My Sweet after having read the book, which allowed for a new perspective.  Despite the enjoyable story Chandler’s novel is a bit convoluted, but it so entangles you in that dark world so full of deceit you want to shower after each chapter.  Convoluted in that there are so many names thrown about one has to pause to take it all in from time to time, but it is not difficult to follow overall.  As intended Murder, My Sweet stays true to the novel with the changes made to certain characters and plot points for efficiency purposes.  The movie delivers a terrific, fast-paced thriller in about ninety minutes.  With all of the key elements intact Murder, My Sweet is a quintessential film noir that would influence many films that followed.  The story, told in flashback in the first person of Philip Marlowe opens while he’s in police custody explaining how two bodies got dead.

With eyes covered due to an accident Philip Marlowe tells how he was seduced by $40 “pressing comfortably against his appendix” given to him by ex-con Moose Malloy to look for a woman named Velma Valento.  Velma was Moose’s girl, but he lost touch with her after spending eight years in prison for bank robbery.  The search begins at a joint called “Florian’s,” a seedy nightclub where Velma used to work as a dancer.  One of the changes made from novel to movie concerns Florian’s, by the way, in that in the book it is described by the race of its patrons, which doesn’t factor into the movie’s story at all.  Anyway, Moose proceeds to strong-arm the manager of the joint and subsequently kills him after which he flees.   Moose, not the manager.  Marlowe is intrigued enough by the case to continue to search for Velma on his own and visits Jessie Florian (brilliantly played by Esther Howard), “She was a charming middle-aged lady with a face like a bucket of mud. I gave her a drink. She was a gal who’d take a drink, if she had to knock you down to get the bottle.”  Mrs. Florian insists Velma is dead and so is Marlowe’s investigation when he can’t uncover any other leads.

In need of funds Marlowe takes on another case when a man named Lindsay Marriott (Douglas Walton) employs him to be his bodyguard for a night.  Marriott needs to go to Purissima Canyon, an isolated area near Los Angeles to pay ransom for a jade necklace stolen from a friend and he doesn’t want to go alone.  Marlowe’s suspicious, but agrees to go thanks to the $100 Marriott pays him.  As soon as Marlowe and Marriott arrive at Purissima Canyon Marlowe’s instincts proved right.  He’s sapped with a blackjack and knocked unconscious and Marriott is beaten to death.  Well, Marlowe had warned Marriott about the possible dangers, but that doesn’t mean the private eye doesn’t feel responsible for not having earned the $100 so he ventures forth to find Marriott’s killer.

Never a dull moment, Murder, My Sweet proves the perfect combination of melodrama and speed with (again) fantastic dialogue and gorgeous noir lighting – or lack thereof.  Of course when they made the movie no one thought in terms of ‘film noir,’ but what we would come to recognize as noir essentials are all present here.  Without recounting the rest of the story, I must mention a few other notables – as it turns out the web of deceit Marlowe gets involved with paints the picture of a bitter little world repleat with bribery, cheating, dirty cops, smokey rooms, neon lights, an assortment of suspicious characters with equal attention given to the law and to lawlessness.  Our hero is taken to task at every turn in this and ends up with more than a few bruises along the way.

“‘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

I should add that the Philip Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet is a ‘cleaner’ version than the character presented in Raymond Chandler’s novel, much less prone to hard-drinking than his counterpart and I suspect the censors may have had something to do with that, just as they had with nearly every character having a gun when the novel was adapted for the Falcon movie three years prior.  Anyway, Marlowe eventually discovers that his two investigations are connected and winds up embroiled with one Helen Grayle, a young, attractive woman married to a rich, old man.  Helen Grayle is the type that one suspects has had a loaded past from the minute you see her, if you know what I mean.  She is portrayed memorably by Claire Trevor who never lacks depth in her performances and for all her beauty turns out as dangerous a dame as we’ve seen.  Others worthy of note in the talented cast of Murder, My Sweet are Ann Shirley who’s character, Ann Grayle was changed for the movie from a character named Anne Riordan in the novel, ever-effective bad guy, Otto Kruger plays the notorious Jules Amthor and Mike Mazurki plays Moose Malloy with flair.

RKO executives were unsure whether Farewell, My Lovely would be a hit, but as mentioned they’d invested relatively little.  Edward Dmytryk, however, was sure that it would be a success and was met with disappointment when audiences stayed away at initial engagements.  RKO set out to do market research, which yielded audience responses indicating that the Farewell, My Lovely title led them to believe the movie was another Dick Powell musical.  The studio recalled the film, changed its title to Murder, My Sweet (in the U.S.) and it took off like gangbusters, a fact that fascinates me because I like both titles equally although I agree the former sounds more romantic.  So from ‘Farewell’ to ‘Murder’ it was.

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It’s August 1975 Los Angeles.  A third, and final, film adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s “Farewell, My Lovely” is released, one the author did not live to see.  This time the movie kept the novel’s title and it was director Dick Richards who set out to stay true to Chandler’s characters and settings.  Unfortunately, I’ve never seen the 1975 movie despite the fact that it’s Robert Mitchum who takes on Philip Marlowe this time.  By all accounts Richards’ attempt at Chandler whose work he idolizes is decent and worth a look.  But I think I can confidently say that Edward Dmytryk’s Murder, My Sweet remains the definitive adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s novel, which I highly recommend and which is considered by many to be the greatest of his career.

Farewell, my sweet.

I demand that all low-down, dirty, rotten mugs reading this visit the Words, Words, Words! Blogathon at the CMBA site and learn something.

WORDS!

After that check out the special eBook that contains a few of the entries.  I never make the deadline.  Maybe one day.  You can get it for free over at Smashwords or buy it at Amazon for $0.99, with all profits going toward the National Film Preservation Fund.

WORDS

16 thoughts

  1. Aurora, this is an amazing post. Thanks for sharing all this research with your readers. Now we’re all a bunch of Smarty Pants!

    I think we need to approach Criterion or some other distributor and have them hire you as a Bonus Features writer.

  2. I enjoyed your article on “Murder, My Sweet” as much as I enjoy the movie, and its the one that introduced me to noir while in my teens.

    Producers and directors really don’t have a complete grasp on the skill of actors, do they? Doubting Powell as hard-boiled. I question whether they’d ever seen the guy in a movie. Even Warner Bros. musicals had that Warner Bros. edge to them. Dick Powell was required to be as quick with the sarcastic one-liners as he was required to handle those high notes of the Harry Warren tunes.

    One of these days I may meet a real private eye and I will be sorely disappointed if he’s not like Dick Powell playing Philip Marlowe.

  3. I admit I like the new Dick Powell a lot better than the old one. He fits this role like a well worn (gum) shoe. Funny how producers can be wrong, but who know Powell would be great at being hard boiled? As always, your post is well written, entertaining and – well – just great.

  4. So interesting to hear that they had to rename the film for that reason. That’s so funny and strange. I always wondered why it didn’t share a title with the book. I admit that I haven’t ever warmed to this film, probably because the book was my first Chandler, and Powell’s Marlowe felt a bit too slick and happy for his character. Bogart seemed grimmer, which I preferred. But you’ve convinced me to get over it and give the film another try.:) Thank you for that!

  5. Dick Powell was a smart man! His career lasted his whole life because of this one decision…and what a doozie this movie is. (Just a note: I didn’t like the 1975 movie with Robert Mitchum — much as I love the man, he was just too old for the part.) I have to agree with Caftan Woman — this article is as much fun as the movie. Excellent review, as always!

  6. Okay you’ve convinced me! I was supposed to watch Murder My Sweet for an online film noir class I took last year through Ball State, in fact it was one of the first films assigned. But I never got around to it, watching Scarlett Street instead. Knowing the history of its production is fantastic though, thank you so much for outlining it.

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