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Daily Dose of Darkness #6: Business is Getting Better (Scene from Murder, My Sweet)


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Describe some of the things Marlowe says or does that make him a new kind of private detective?

-- Why do you think this kind of private detective fits so well within the film noir context? 

-- In what ways can this scene from Murder, My Sweet be considered as an important contribution to the film noir style?

 

Murder My Sweet grows on you.  Well, it grew on me.  The first time I saw it I was like "What?" finding the blackout scenes funny.  Now I get it, after multiple watchings, and it bears multiple watchings to get all the nuances.  William Powell went from being a sweet tenor to Mr. Hardboiled.  He plays the part well even though he doesn't look like it, at least not naturally to me.  (Face is still sweet).  So his acting pulls it off. 

 

One thing I noticed in his hard-boiled act is that he isn't taking any stuff from this woman, this young girl who comes in with a phony act and doesn't seem to think anyone could see right through her.  He sizes her up quickly from all the details (not unlike all detectives, from Hercule Poirot to Monk) but he doesn't let her get away with it and even gets rough, letting her know he will not be lied to or messed with.  It's almost shocking that he gets rough with her, and of course, she succumbs without screaming or fainting.  Like noir females, she can take it, even when she is cornered. 

 

The detective is a character who drives the plot.  He wants to find out what is going on, it's an inner desire even more than his paultry pay.  He is obsessed with getting to the truth; it's not just a game.  Marlowe says he is a businessman who wants to follow up on a transaction.  He has become invested, maybe not emotionally yet, but he will.  He could jump off this train and get away from these nuts at some point, but he stays on the train. 

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Powell pulls off a perfect detective for the genre. He's street smart, as well as professionally competent in his own right. He plays things straight, but can also string things out when it serves his purpose (such as letting the "reporter" hang herself with her false persona facts).

 

I see the film noir stories as a hard side of life, with cynicism born of a tough time (the depression and post-depression era). Yes, those who lived in that time had reason to be suspicious of others (including the government) but also were aware that when others proved they deserved assistance, were quick to provide what they could. The character of a private detective provided a perfect foil for such a vessel, forced to work within the grittiest of what life dealt out, but still striving for a glimmer of the best that life could offer those who earned it.

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Marlowe doesn't look like a copper nor does act like one. We might call him an upgraded detective - he doesn't have the possibilities the silver badge gives, but that makes him more flexible and his actions more unconventional. Marlowe is like a lone ranger and that makes him sharp and quick. He walks a fine line between legal and illegal. You won't fool him easily. The girl tried and failed. Told Marlowe she was a reporter, but he had his suspicions since she walked in (that's why he locked the door). And while she was selling him her pack of lies, Marlowe suddendly grabbed her wrists and simply asked: "You do your own typing, Miss Allison?". And then simply checked her ID. This particular moment shows Marlowe as a strong and firm man - women love this kind of charisma and that is a classic noir motive: a tense relation between a harsh hero and a manipulative bi... sorry, femme fatale ;)


And Marlowe? He said: "I'm a small businessman in a messy business". Marlowe knows his limits and simply tries not to get fooled or killed. Maybe this business of his is messy, but he remains decent. You don't need to love him or even like him, but you gotta respect the man. 


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Describe some of the things Marlowe says or does that make him a new kind of private detective?


His actions of locking the door, grabbing the client by the wrist, not trusting her identity and his clear worry about the involvement of the police and his own being a suspect place him a huge distance from earlier screen detectives like Philo Vance. The classic detective story protagonist was quite clearly on the side of the law, could count on their support and moved through the story presenting the viewer with the clues needed to 'solve' the story themselves. The writer played fair with the audience and apart from the possibility of some quirky idiosyncrasies the personality of the detective didn't come into it.  The Marlowe stories, more famously the Big Sleep with Owen Taylor but all of them really, dont particularly hang together when you look at the mystery, there is no real possibility of you the viewer, or Marlowe, ever really piecing things together because they are too messy, the facts aren't presented to Marlowe or you, and Marlowe is just as powerless in the face of the law as you or I would be. The dramatic satisfaction has to come from the character and the journey not some idea of a neat solvable conclusion.


 


 


-- Why do you think this kind of private detective fits so well within the film noir context? 


The classic detective story tells you that everything; but especially bad things; happen for a rational reason (motives such as personal gain), and by looking rationally at the world you can figure it all out.  It also tells you not to worry, because society and the law will be on your side and will expend energy to sort out right from wrong.


The Chandler style detective and Film Noir in general says that crime; and by extension everything else; happens for messier psychological reasons and that you are kidding yourself if you think you can ever get to the bottom of it all. That the law is not interested in you and certainly wont work hard at helping you out, you're on your own, just another messed up person with their own psychological issues capable of almost anything. 


 


 


-- In what ways can this scene from Murder, My Sweet be considered as an important contribution to the film noir style?


 


I'd argue that the Bogart movies, the Big Sleep and Maltese Falcon probably were a bigger influence but that this scene still features most of what the lay viewer would identify as a noir style right down to the word marlowe projected on the office wall from the writing on the office window. While people may identify Bogart rather than Powell with the role and the style I'd guess that Hawks' take on it probably owed a lot to this earlier film.


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Marlow has already been through a lot. Of course he is weary of someone coming to his office early. He is sizing her up by the way he is talking to her and being a little rough when he finds out she is not telling him the truth. Before this detectives such as Sherlock Holmes and Poirot  were more genteel in their questioning.

 

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My apologies in advance if someone has already mentioned this, but even though I am thoroughly familiar with both movies, this clip immediately made me think of Chinatown, perhaps the finest example of neo-noir.  The interchange between Marlowe and the potential client who’s not telling the entire truth reminded me of Jake Gittes and Evelyn Mulray in Chinatown.  This proves the axiom that no matter how many times you watch a film you can always learn something new.

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This detective does not seem to mind doing anything to finish his jobs. Once he gets paid he is determined to find whatever he's looking for. He clearly does not care that much for people. He ignored the elevator man and barely looked at him. He was brusque and rude with the girl until she said something that captured his attention. Once she had it, he locked the door behind her and wouldn't let her leave until she told him what she knew. He also rifled through her purse. He doesn't seem to care that a woman is dead, he just wants to find the jade, what he was paid to do. He is clearly amoral, which fits well with the film noir style of amoral characters that do wrong things, sometimes for the right reasons. 

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Interpreted through the lens of Nino's commentary, it's interesting how Marlow characterizes himself not as a police officer or detective, but a businessman concerned about his financial viability. Not consigned to abide by the bureaucratic protocol of traditional law enforcement officers, Marlow can make his own rules, skirting the lines between detective, profiteer, scoundrel, and boy scout. All of these qualities play out in the scene with Anne: how he locks the door to his office to trap her; how he sniffs out her lies; how he manhandles her into submission; how he speaks derisively of her "friends at city hall"; how he refers to his business; and how he chooses to stand by his commitments, desiring to see his business through to the end no matter the costs.

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Describe some of the things Marlowe says or does that make him a new kind of private detective?

 

In a lot of detective movies the detective sits back and takes the side of the client. Questioning the client with a soft, caring, likeable manner. Here Marlowe takes a more aggressive approach, grasping the client and rummaging through her purse to find her true identity, the slyly stashing the bank book underneath the blotter.

 

He questions her much like you would expect a policeman would, except where is the phone book or rubber hose.

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-- Describe some of the things Marlowe says or does that make him a new kind of private detective?

 

He assumes that anyone coming to see him may not be honest and so he is cynical in his interactions, even if, at the end of the day, his objective is to do the right thing 

 

-- Why do you think this kind of private detective fits so well within the film noir context? 

 

The private detective, being another human being with flaws, can have as much an interest in the things that motivate the people he is investigating; therefore, he can have a dark side that can overtake any noble aspect of his character. In the context of film noir, this is an added source of intrigue, uncertainty and uneasiness for a viewer hoping for a fair and satisfactory ending to a story.

 

 

-- In what ways can this scene from Murder, My Sweet be considered as an important contribution to the film noir style?

 

I think we all have seen the spoofs of detective stories, where the beautiful girl visits the office, needing help with a serious problem...but this is because this type of scene is typical of the film noir style, in terms of setting, the lighting.

   
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Right away, Phillip Marlowe doesn't trust anyone. An attractive woman walks in, and immediately thinks she's up to no good. He towers over her while she sits down, gets touchy and cute while asking about her hands, and quickly gets a hold of the items in her purse to get the real story. This is a man taking action and not pulling any punches - and certainly not following normal procedures. In a story where a plot twists and turns on a dime, a quick-thinking and rule-bending detective is necessary to keep up.

 

We see this type of detective often in films noir, and watching even a few of these make this behaviour seem more standard and essential to the style itself.

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1. Describe some of the things Marlowe says or does that make him a new kind of private detective?


 


Marlowe is an actively physical detective who says what he thinks out loud, rather than holding all information close to his vest. As he speaks, he moves and "manhandles" the deceptive young woman who is seeking information about the jade. He seems to turn the tables on her, so to speak. He also knows she's not to be trusted so he locks her in his office until he culls the info from her that he needs.


 


2. Why do you think this kind of private detective fits so well within the film noir context? 


 


In noir, the main character is active, physical, and smart, usually because (s)he has to be. Marlowe hints at this, and in noir, the clues are part of the shadowy ambiguity.


 


3. In what ways can this scene from Murder, My Sweet be considered as an important contribution to the film noir style?


 


In noir, the ambiguity happens instantly and here, we aren't sure if the young woman is good or bad (usually only the main character is neither good nor bad)  until she give off signals of being antagonistic to him.

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Philip Marlowe is anything but the clichéd detective who is all business and is only about solving the case. Here, Marlowe, is both playful and rough as the situation calls for it. He could simply just lock the door and begin questioning this mysterious woman who has come to his office. But he doesn't. He invites her in and immediately locks the door, surreptitiously of course. By doing so, we get that he immediately suspects this woman is not who she appears to be. Or at least once he makes his move we realize it in retrospect. Combined with the door locking and his flirting while holding her hand I thought at first his intention was one of seduction. But instead it's to lure her into a false sense of security. During the subsequent questioning, Marlowe fluctuates between being hard and understanding, knowing the exact mood to strike in order to get the information he needs.

 

However Marlowe is not completely a closed book. His line about a being a "small businessman in a very messy business" shows his own frustration and anger shining through his cool exterior. This is not just a functionary through which we discover the plot, but a man with his own feelings and motivations. This allows the audience to more empathize with a character involved in shady dealings and with seedy characters, something most of us may not be able to relate to. We identify with Marlowe as a person, and not just a detective. We cheer at his realization of being played and revel in his success at scoring information. Film noir, for me, has always been the allure of everyday characters being drawn into dark and menacing situations. The key to that is to be able to relate to your characters, and therefore film noir has to better develop the archetypes that we are already familiar with.

 

As a side note, people may be more familiar with Philip Marlowe as played by Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep. As I was reading the introduction to this daily dose and the reason it was picked, I could not help but think a nice companion clip would have been when Marlowe decides to adopt a different persona in order to question an employee at a book store. For those who have seen it, you may be smiling right now as I am as it's one of my all-time favorite Bogart scenes. For those who don't, I would strongly recommend giving The Big Sleep a try. It's another great Bogart-Bacall pairing. For anyone who just wants to see the clip (again):

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- He is a regular guy and isn’t always all-knowing; Marlowe initially
  brushes the reporter off—until she mentions the jade.  THEN his
  demeanor changes abruptly and he is pleasantly (for a bit)  
  interested. He is sharp and self deprecating in a way.  The everyman
  can identify with him.

- He can be alternatingly (or sometimes simultaneously) a good guy and
  bad guy.  He can work both sides of the law.

- Powell as Marlowe is an easy going but determined guy.  He lets in a
  little humor, too—“I’m not always this brilliant, Miss, uh, Miss
  Grayle.  But I’m improving.”

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What did former detectives act like? Were they the upstanding police type? If so, then the new type would be the guy who worked outside the law. He got his hands dirty doing his work and played his role in the gray areas. The kind of guy who grabs a lady's wrist and locks the door and will use her to get what he needs. He is not fooled by her glasses and measured demeanor. His thinking is agile and aggressive. He fits noir because you can sense the shadow that follows him from his past. The well dressed man meshed with the street thug attitude. The guy who is supposed to solve problems is the one with the problem. Thus, making this film an important contribution to film noir.

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I think the thing that caught my attention most was the mistrust from both sides. From the get-go, nobody trusts nobody. The woman comes into the office under false pretenses, and Marlowe mistrusts her from the start.

 

I also liked how Marlowe walked a fine line between being playful and rough because of the mistrust. From the way he surreptitiously locks the door, to the way he grabs her hand and reveals her identity.

 

There's also something to the way the elevator operator gives a wink to Marlowe as he drops him on his floor. Something about him being nosy and irreverent that makes the scene work as well. 

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So I keep watching "Murder My Sweet" trying to figure out if I buy Dick Powell as Marlowe. Is he too polished and suave? Every private eye has been down on his luck at one time or another and yet he has an air about him that makes me think he always has money in his pocket even when he states how good the $20 feels. I expect Marlowe to be edgy with a bit of cynical wit. Powell shows some of the cynical wit but I don't see the edginess.  Powell comes off as if he is "acting" the part of Marlowe rather than "being" Marlowe. And yet I like the film even if I don't buy Powell. The kiss at the very end is too reminiscent of the Powell musicals and I thought it brought the film down. Claire Trevor, on the other hand is believable. The "dames" she has played have sharp edges that send up messages that you'd better beware of her because she's see and had enough.

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Robert Mitchum makes a better Marlowe in Farewell My Lovely. James Garner is fairly good.  I can't really see Elliott Gould as a private eye, much less Marlowe.  Have watched Murder My Sweet a few times and it is OK, but not great.

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Robert Mitchum makes a better Marlowe in Farewell My Lovely. James Garner is fairly good.  I can't really see Elliott Gould as a private eye, much less Marlowe.  Have watched Murder My Sweet a few times and it is OK, but not great.

Agree, too bad Mitchum never got to play Marlowe during the classic era, he's a bit long in the tooth and plays a tired older Marlowe. James Garner on the other hand nails the quit witted sarcastic Marlowe but the film was updated to 1969 gone are the classic Noir archetypes.

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I have found it rather interesting reading the comments about Dick Powell as Marlowe.  My brother and I are taking this course and we grew up on Dick Powell playing a Detective in his TV Series.  That is how we were introduced to him and his work.  It was not until more recent years, that I ever saw Dick Powell in one of his song and dance movies, and my initial reaction what "what a buffoon".  It just seemed so out of character from the role that I first saw him.

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Bogart and Mitchum are obvious choices as actors who could have done this film justice but heck they couldn't be in every single detective story. There's an actor from the 1930s who would've have been a good choice as Philip Marlowe. He looked similar to, and played the same gangster type roles as George Raft. I can't think of his name and tried various attempts to Google him. Maybe someone here knows who I mean. He was TCMs Star of the Month within the last year or two (I know that really boils it down). He'd've fit that edgy, morally ambiguous, sexy (all the things that Dick Powell is not), bill that any great noir protagonist should have.

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What does Marlowe say and do in Murder My Sweet, to make him a new kind of detective?

 

Marlowe's Words: 

1.  Very first statement to Miss Grayle: "How did you know about me?"    As if he is the one being investigated, rather than he being the investigator.   As if he has things to hide.   Sets Marlowe up as an ambiguous character, that we are not sure what to think about him at this point. 

 

2.  "No I wasn't told who owned the Jade ... Didn't think it was my business."  Again, is Marlowe not in the business of knowing or wanting to know everything?  Facts, and even more so, the details are his business.  It seems as if Marlowe is still wading in the waters of being a detective.  Moving in and out of the noir waters as he gets his feet wet. 

 

Marlowe's Actions: 

 

1.  Marlowe is without a key tool of the trade: "pen and paper" in hand.  Coming out of the elevator, Marlowe returns a pencil to the elevator operator after making notes. 

 

2.  Marlowe conducts an illegal  "search & seizure".   Marlowe locks the office door.  He interrogates Miss Grayle, not face- to-face but from behind her chair.  He restrains her hands and searches her purse. 

 

3.    Marlowe lacks discretion (breaks detective-client privilege).  He asks Miss Grayle if she knows Velma Valento, displays a picture, states she is a singer, and conveys this is another case.  

 

In short, Marlowe is an unconventional, "not by the book" detective.

 

 

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