Jump to content
Search In
  • More options...
Find results that contain...
Find results in...

Powell as Marlowe - The Best?

Recommended Posts

Was there any other actor/actress of the Hollywood studio system days who had such a startling career rebirth as Dick Powell?




Powell became a star in 1933 as the cherubic faced, perpetually smiling boy singer in 42nd Street. He was then stereotyped by Warners as a crooner, often teamed with the club footed Ruby Keeler, in a series of similarly inane parts in a series of popular musical comedies, the early ones, Gold Digger of 1933 and Footlight Parade, also showcases for the inventive visual artistry of Busby Berkeley.


As time went on Powell fought with Warners for parts allowing him to grow as a performer but it was a losing battle, particularly when he was listed as one of Hollywood's top ten box office attractions in 1935 and 1936 in those roles. At this same time he was also cast, against his will, in the role of Lysander in the all-star A Midsummer Night's Dream, with his arch smug performance remaining one of the most difficult aspects of that production to endure.




Finally freed from Warners, Powell signed with Paramount. Though the collaboration started promisingly with Preston Sturges' Christmas in July, Powell was soon unhappy with the boyish parts he was still receiving. He did like It Happened Tomorrow, a fantasy about a reporter who reads his own obituary in a future newspaper headline, but the film did mediocre business at the box office.




When Powell heard that Billy Wilder was going to film James M. Cain's Double Indemnity he campaigned for the part of the insurance salesman mixed up with murder. He lost, the role going to another "nice guy" actor cast against type, Fred MacMurray. (MacMurray had a great hit in the most dramatic role of his career but was soon back to primarily playing in comedies).




Undeterred, Powell then managed a coup, getting hired in 1944 to be the first actor to play Philip Marlowe in an adaption of Raymond Chandler's Farewell My Lovely, directed as a stylish tour-de-force by Edward Dmytryk. Due to RKO's fear that the public might think the film was another Powell musical, however, the title was changed to Murder My Sweet.




The result was a film noir masterpiece, with Powell proving to be master in his delivery of throwaway one liners. (He was successful enough to spawn two radio series as a tough guy, again utilizing his great line delivery, in Rogue's Gallery and, later, Richard Diamond, Private Detective).




Murder My Sweet would revitalize and dramatically alter Powell's film image. He would never sing on screen again (though he would on occasion in the Richard Diamond radio series). It would lead to a handful of other tough guy roles, competing on screen with the likes of Bogart and Mitchum as a film noir tough guy. Quite a stunning screen reversal from a man who had minced on screen a decade before as a Shakespearean lover!




Murder My Sweet would be the most impressive of Powell's dark films, benefiting from Dmytryk's stylish direction, slick editing, wonderful black-and-white photography and a superior supporting cast, including Claire Trevor as a hard femme fatale and Mike Mazurki in the performance of his career, intimidating and yet curiously sympathetic, in the role of hulking Moose Malloy. And, of course, there was also the dialogue. The film oozed the feeling of Chandler.




Powell's followup tough guys films would, unfortunately, be relatively few over the next seven years: Cornered, Johnny O'Clock, To the Ends of the Earth and Cry Danger. All are worth watching, if only for Powell. There would also be another noir, the extremely difficult to find Pitfall, also a goodie. Powell was not a tough guy this time but a bored family man getting mixed up with Lizabeth Scott. The film was distinguished by a creepy performance by Raymond Burr as a hulk was becomes obsessed with Scott, as well.




In 1951 Powell even had the opportunity to poke a little fun at his image as a tough guy. In a fantasy called You Never Can Tell a german shepherd is murdered and reincarnated to come back to earth in the form of a human private eye in order to investigate his own murder. The private eye, of course, is Powell, and part of the unexpected amusement is watching Powell trying to curb his own natural canine instincts in the film. (A ball rolls under a desk, for example, and suddenly "Marlowe-like" Powell gets down on his hands and knees on the floor to play with it).




With his film career as a leading man peetering out, Powell then branched out into television, becoming a pioneer in the medium helping, along with David Niven and Charles Boyer, to form Four Star Theatre, and later The Dick Powell Show. He also became a film director. The most famous of these films would, unfortunately, be the notorious The Conqueror. This film is remembered for two things, 1) the amusing miscasting of John Wayne as Genghis Khan, and 2) the fact that the film was shot in Utah downwind from some nuclear testing, and many of the people associated with the production would eventually succumb to cancer.




This would include Powell, dying in January, 1963, the same day in which another Hollywood actor, Jack Carson, would also die of the same disease (and within two weeks of the deaths of both Charles Laughton and Thomas Mitchell, also cancer victims).




For myself, the most enjoyable aspect of Powell's career was watching him as a smart tongued tough guy, never more so than in his one attempt as Marlowe. One can argue as to who is the best of the screen Marlowes, Bogie, Mitchum, not to mention a wonderful turn by James Garner. There were also efforts by the two Montgomerys, Robert and George. Chandler himself was a fan of Powell's work. I think Powell's performance can stand next to any of them and taller than most.




So here's a tip of the hat to Dick Powell, from smiling boy crooner to cynical private eye, thanks for surprising many of us with your screen versatility, and giving tough guy dialogue a special bite.








Powell sizing up Claire Trevor








One of Murder My Sweet's most memerable images, with the introduction of Moose Malloy through his reflection in Marlowe's office window at night


Edited by: TomJH on Jul 29, 2012 12:29 AM


Edited by: TomJH on Jul 29, 2012 4:04 PM

Link to post
Share on other sites



You stated in print what I've been saying for years. Powell was excellent as Marlowe. Nobody could deliver a sarcastic comeback line like Powell. In fact I gave my youngest son "Murder, My Sweet" day before yesterday to watch. He's a big Bogart fan and loves "The Big Sleep", so I was telling him about Powell and he wanted to see it. I enjoyed Powell's work in Film, radio and on TV. I also wish he had done more..

Link to post
Share on other sites

Thank you, Tom, for a nice write-up. Dick made an impression upon me the very first time I saw MMS, and I have to re-watch it every time it's on. His line 'my mind was as damp as a plumber's handkerchief' is classic.


I even liked You Never Can Tell!

Link to post
Share on other sites

Thanks Fred and willbefree, glad you enjoy Powell's work, as well. I can't emphasize enough how much I enjoy the throwaway quality of his line delivery of pungent one liners in his tough guy roles.


And you're right, it's a shame that he was in so few of these type of films (really only five). TCM regularly shows both Cornered and Cry Danger, while it has had broadcasts (very rare ones) of Johnny O'Clock and To the Ends of the Earth. The little known To the Ends is an excellent semi-documentary style thriller with Powell as a U.S. narcotics agent on a round-the-world hunt after drug smugglers. He's terrific in the part.


But a lot of my love affair with Powell as a tough guy is still centred on Murder My Sweet. Where did he get that cyncism so central to the role? Possibly it was from the actor's distain for the parts he was playing and the need to show that he could do something more, in order to keep his career going. He also beautifully captured that "knight on the streets" quality of Chandler's hero, particularly in his softer scenes with Anne Shirley in the film, as the "nice" girl.


I know that a lot of Marlowe fans will pick Bogart as their favourite. Bogie was such a natural for the role, but the public had seen variations on that same performance before, when he had played Sam Spade and Rick in Casablanca. It was very much a part of the Bogart screen persona.


Powell was such a revelation in the part. With the exception of James Garner, I can't think of any other Marlowe actor that had quite the same impact in hard bitten dialogue delivery as Powell. For those who haven't caught up with the Powell films yet (particularly if you love film noir) do yourselves a favour and seek out his pictures. The former crooner will become one of your favourites of the genre. He certainly has with me.






Murder My Sweet 1944 - a great Marlowe performance






Cornered 1945






Johnny O'Clock 1947




Bogart visits the Johnny O'Clock set






To the Ends of the Earth 1948




Not a tough guy this time, but still excellent film noir




Pitfall 1948. Burr is creepy excellent in this one.






Cry Danger 1951




1951 - a comedy/fantasy variation in which Powell poked a little fun at his tough guy image





Link to post
Share on other sites


Hey! Lay off the musicals. They were good. Powell had a good voice for the times.



But the "re-invention" of Powell always fascinated me. Going from musicals( "club footed" Keeler? Didn't they ALL seem to dance a bit club-footed?) to noir like dramas would usually be a career killer, but he pulled it off with seeming ease. And THEN showing a natural penchant for comedy! In later years, many other actors couldn't pull that off. Robert Preston was one who could. Garner could manage drama and comedy, but no musicals. There are a few others, but Powell seemed to do it all with ease.



Incidentally, MY favorite part in *You Never Can Tell* shows Powell with his feet propped up on a desk, snacking out of a bag of kibble much like any of US would snack on a bag of chips.






Link to post
Share on other sites

I enjoy the best of the Busby Berkeley musicals at Warners, and they have some of the great zinger one liners of their time.


For example, when one catty chorus girl is referring to another one's success, she makes a snarky comment about the girl's "poisonality." In Footlight Parade when the always wonderful Joan Blondell (Mrs. Powell in real life) escorts one screen character to the door, she pushes her out with a quick boot in the butt and the departing line, "Get going, Countess. As long as they have sidewalks you have a job." There's a street quality to the Warners-Berkeley musicals that appeals to me, and I don't think any of the other studio's musicals had that.


Powell's okay in those films and he has a pleasant enough singing voice. Having said that, however, my admiration for him as a performer, though, is with his tough guy conversion in the '40s. This was Powell at his zenith as a performer, for me. Great as he is, however, I think he has become overshadowed by the likes of Mitchum and Bogart, both of whom were quite brilliant, I admit. No one was tougher than Mitchum and Bogie's a legend but Powell's jaded line delivery places him at least on a par with them, for my money, in film noir.


Edited by: TomJH on Jul 29, 2012 2:00 PM

Link to post
Share on other sites

Tom, I know exactly what you mean about Dick Powell; I've often marvelled at his seemingly effortless transition from the goofy amiable musicals star to the cynical witty tough noir guy.


I'd love to see that dog-comes-back as a- human film you referred to - that must be pretty rare, I must admit I've never even heard of that one. ( Inspiration for Disney's "Shaggy Dog" a few years later?? :P )


Of the ones I've seen ( *Murder My Sweet, Johhny O'Clock, and Cry Danger* ), I agree, *Murder My Sweet* is my favourite. Although I have a special fondness for *Cry Danger*, I get a big kick out of not only Powell's crisp performance, but the "dames" in it, especially the trashy trailer park babe who takes up with Powell's brand new friend. And that friend ! I don't know much about Richard Erdman, but whoever he is, he plays the dubious "witness", Delong, with an effete, slightly bored air that lends a similtaneouosly disturbing and comical feel to the film.



But back to *Murder My Sweet*: yes, a great noir, arguably one of the best. Love that scene where Marlowe/Powell wakes up in the sinister mysterious German's mansion with weird grey cobwebs all around him - drug-induced cobwebs ! What a fascinating and off-kilter scene ! And yeah, Dick Powell pulls off the foggy but still cynical and witty Marlowe voice-over narration beautifully.

Link to post
Share on other sites

Tom (and Andy in another thread), it's simply a short circuit right now.


I used to love musicals, but at this moment in time, I don't have the patience. I know, they shouldn't require patience, but it's just the way it is.


That said, though, I did like 42nd Street, for sure. I didn't like his very early warblings, he was made to be very sweet, right? And don't even ask me about Jeanette McDonald and Nelson Eddy, hoo boy!

Link to post
Share on other sites

Oh, you must try to see it, misswonderly. It's got an edge, while Shaggy Dog, iirc, was sappy.


Didn't you feel for Mike Mazurki, pining for Velma in MMS?


Ugh, Cry For Danger sounds grand, I hope TCM shows it one of these days.

Link to post
Share on other sites

misswonderly, a couple of those Powell films named, Pitfall and You Never Can Tell, are pretty hard to come across (particularly, it seems to me, the former released thru United Artists).


You Never Can Tell is a bit of a hoot, however, with Powell as private dick Rex Shepherd investigating his own murder as a german shepherd. Powell's deadpan performance as the human version of a dog is a comic joy.


You're correct. That drug induced cob webby nightmare of Marlowe's in Murder My Sweet is a pip, economically shot with off kilter camera angles, as Marlowe sees himself trying to escape a doctor with a big syringe. And that trailer park setting, with those rundown trailers, is not only practical for a small budget film like Cry Danger but decidedly adds to that film's seedy ambience.


Below are a couple of my favourite Powell/Marlowe throwaway moments in Murder My Sweet:




Marlowe playing hop scotch on the checkered floor of a millionaire's mansion home






Marlowe striking a match off Cupid's butt. This represents, what, the cynical detective's opinion of "true love," or is it a comment on how he regards the ostentatiousness of any millionaire that would have a statue of Cupid on his property? In any event, I love Powell's insolence.


Edited by: TomJH on Jul 29, 2012 3:58 PM


Edited by: TomJH on Jul 29, 2012 4:21 PM

Link to post
Share on other sites

I think maybe I've seen *Pitfall*, but so long ago I don't remember it well enough to comment on it. Although I'm ready to like almost anything even remotely noir, I think the "bored family man" theme kind of put me off a bit. It's my least favourite kind of noir protagonist. But I should definitely give it another shot ( no pun intended). I think it might be on one of my many cheapo noir boxed sets that I picked up at "Chapters" a number of years ago.


Yes, the striking-a match on an unlikely object comes up more than once in old movies, particularly noir. It is usually used as a sign of insolence, or at least, a sign to indicate that the noir hero is not impressed with his surroundings or their wealthy owners. There have even been one or two scenes where the hero strikes a match off of his adversary's shoe or jacket (don't ask me how the thing lights, doing that.)

But quite possibly Powell's match /Cupid's butt scene is the best.

Link to post
Share on other sites

Just a few more shots from Murder My Sweet, as another reminder of what a stylish treat this film noir classic is:



Next to opening shot in the film, with Powell's voiceover, "I'd been out peeking under old Sunday sections for a barber named Dominic, whose wife wanted him back. I forget why. Only reason I took the job was because my bank account was trying to crawl under a duck. And I never found him.

I just found out again how big this city is. My feet hurt, and my mind felt like a plumber's handkerchief. . . . There's something about the dead silence of an office building at night. Not quite real. The traffic down below was something that didn't have anything to do with me."




One of the great film noir moments, Moose Malloy's first appearance, a reflection in Marlowe's window.




Claire Trevor, one of the coldest of '40s film noir dames




Marlowe waking up in a druggy haze, with his fingers "a bunch of bananas that looked like fingers."




The detective's got the drop on a crooked doctor but the drugs administered to him are starting to take hold again. Hang on, Marlowe!




Striking druggy nightmare imagery


Edited by: TomJH on Jul 29, 2012 7:40 PM

Link to post
Share on other sites

When I first got into appreciating and watching classic movies, I actually thought the Dick Powell of the 30's movies and the Dick Powell of the "noir" classics were two different Dick Powell's.


I couldn't believe it was the same actor. He really was talented.





Link to post
Share on other sites

Tom, first I'd just like to say here that I think the threads you start are among the best and most enjoyable at TCM.com...and, this one included.


And now, re Dick Powell...


Yep, I remember years ago(maybe around the time TCM was new on the scene) and my first viewing of Murder, My Sweet, and how impressed I was not only with Dick Powell's performance but also with the entire film...the direction and especially the cinematography.


Powell also starred in Station West, a Western that was shown a few months back on TCM, and which is sort of a "Phillip Marlowe meets Tom Destry"(as in "Destry Rides Again"). Yep, for those who might have missed seeing this one, it's actually sort of a "Noir-Western". And, once again, I thought Dick Powell was darn good in it.


(...btw, and not to sidetrack this baby o' yours, there's a modern actor who I've thought for years was sort of a "modern-day Dick Powell", minus the singing ability...the actor I'm thinking of is also very good at delivering the classic glib one-liners in films which are on the more "serious side"...and the actor I'm thinking of I believe even resembles Dick Powell as bit...and so any guesses as to whom I'm thinkin' of here?)

Link to post
Share on other sites

*Was there any other actor/actress of the Hollywood studio system

days who had such a startling career rebirth as Dick Powell?*


Hollywood history is full of actors/actresses with startling career rebirths....or changes of image. This has been discussed here before, and while I understand that you are focused on one individual, you did ask (rhetorically?) . . .


Loretta Young, beautiful and sexy in early 1930s pre-code films, evolving into a very different personage, a lady.


Myrna Loy, also sexy playing exotics, turning into the pefect wife.


Norma Shearer, another actress who went fromearly 30s sexy, to a high-born lady, as befits Mrs. Thalberg.


Conversely, many girls went th other route, from good girl to mantrap;


Joan Bennett, in the 30s a bland blonde leading lady, at least compared to hr 40s raven-tressed noirish output.


Linda Darnell, spent approxmately 5 years playing sweet young things, then changed her image to that of a temptress, and played this successfuly for the remainder of her career.

Link to post
Share on other sites

Arturo, thanks for your feedback and your list of actresses whose screen persona's also evolved. You certainly make some valid points. When I made that statement I was primarily thinking of major Hollywood stars, though, admittedly, I didn't say so. I should have said star, rather than actor/actress. My apologies. Excluding Shearer I don't believe that any of those named had a star name quite as large as Powell's before the image change, and Shearer was forced to change because the code was starting to be enforced in 1934. Nevertheless, it's quite the contrast between the Shearer of The Divorcee as opposed to that in The Women or Romeo and Juliet.


Powell made a conscious decision to want to change his image (probably for career survival reasons but also, I assume, because of the actor within him). Boy singer to film noir tough guy is as dramatic a change as I can recall from any star in the studio system days. Still, thanks for you list of names, as it's definitely worthy of mentioning along these lines.

Link to post
Share on other sites

Dargo, thanks very much for your compliment. It's much appreciated.


I also appreciate you having mentioned Station West. It's one of two noirish westerns Powell made (the other being The Tall Target) that I considered including but didn't because of their 19th Century settings.


Actually, The Tall Target may be worthy of a thread all on its own, an Anthony Mann directed 1951 dramatization of a little known historical event in which there was a planned assassination of Abraham Lincoln while on board a train on his way to his inauguration. Powell played a New York police officer who gets wind of the plot and boards the train. Eerily, Powell's character's name in the film is John Kennedy!


The Tall Target comes on TCM occasionally, so hopefully you are familiar with it. If not, I encourage you to seek out this excellent little drama. I would love it if someone familiar with the film and the historical facts of the case would make a thread about this one. It would be a fascinating read, I'm sure.


One final Powell film that could also be referenced is Rogue's Regiment from 1948, in which he was an undercover agent who joins the Foreign Legion in order to track down a Nazi. It''s been too many decades since I saw this one to say much about it. I suspect, however, that this may be more of a tough suspense thriller, rather than true film noir. Therefore I omitted mentioning it. Until now, that is.

Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
© 2021 Turner Classic Movies Inc. A Time Warner Company. All Rights Reserved Terms of Use | Privacy Policy | Cookie Settings
  • Create New...