Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Summer of Darkness: Murder, My Sweet(1944)

I've seen Murder, My Sweet three times now, and while I really enjoy it and find it an engaging and entertaining film, I've never truly understood it's labyrinthine plot. It's a movie that loves to keep the audience, and most of it's characters, in the dark, and reveals it's secrets piece by piece so that if you aren't paying attention it's easy to miss how they fit together. Or maybe I'm just dense, and get too focused on Dick Powell's wonderfully sardonic turn as Phillip Marlowe, and the amazing noir lighting, and that fantastic drugged up daydream in the middle of the movie. I am completely willing to admit that maybe I'm just not smart enough to have pieced everything together on the first, or second, viewings. So this time I took notes. I don't know if I've caught everything, and at least one relationship was unclear to me, but it mostly makes sense now.

That confusion could be a disadvantage in the film if the rest of Murder, My Sweet weren't so expertly constructed. In fact, the movie takes it's byzantine plot machinations, it's tenuous explanation of character motives and it's vague descriptions of unseen actions and turns it into a running theme. Marlowe himself is introduced in the very first scene wearing a blindfold(the result, we'll learn, of being temporarily blinded by a muzzle flash), while surrounded by surly men barking questions at him. From the very outset he's hampered in his grasp and understanding of his own environment. At every step of the way Marlowe is able to tell when he's being lied to, but isn't able to figure out why, or what the truth is, until the very end. At one point his ignorance is used in service of the discovery of a clue, when a cop inadvertently lets slip the name of a person of interest, and Marlowe takes his own ignorance of the man's identity as proof of his importance. "There are lots of people in this town, but I've never heard of Jules Amthor," is his reply. One of the very first things Mr. Amthor says upon meeting Marlowe is 'there are some things you don't understand,' which is basically the movie's mission statement.

There's a drug induced, extended hallucination midway through the movie, which is one of the best examples of it's kind. Marlowe is utterly helpless for this segment, chased through doorways to nowhere by a phantom doctor, where his vision(and ours) is obscured by spiderwebs, and all means of support dissolve before he can grasp them. At this point his two-fisted tough guy language turns into jumbled beat poetry, as he attempts to threaten people through a narcotic fog. The thing is, it still packs a punch, and only a fool would disregard the danger presented by a man who shouts the following, even without the gun he held in his face.

I had a nightmare! A lot of crazy things! I slept. I woke up and the room was full of smoke. I was a sick man. Instead of pink snakes I got smoke! Well, here I am. All cured. What were you saying? ...Speak up, Dr. Jekyll! I'm in a wild mood tonight. I wanna go dancing in the foam. I hear the banshees calling. I haven't shot a man in nearly a week.

What can be said for certain about the plot? The movie starts with a girl. Or rather, with a man looking for a girl. Mike Mazurki plays Moose Malone, recently out of prison and looking or his girlfriend who went missing during the 8 years he was away. Mazurki plays Moose as a dangerous, temperamental, but fundamentally childlike thug. He's violent, and angry, but is somehow lovably dimwitted, his naivety and mental simplicity making him come across as an underworld variation on Lennie from Of Mice and Men. I've always found great sympathy for his character in this film, because he may be murderous and he may be someone to avoid, but he's also entirely too trusting and full of a great depth of love for his lost girlfriend. Marlowe is the PI Moose finds in the yellow pages to track down his missing girl. Helen is the socialite housewife who hires Marlowe to track down a stolen piece of jewelry, or maybe she's being blackmailed by her psychiatrist, or maybe something even worse. Trying to parse through the plot details on an initial viewing is likely to lead to a headache, and it might be best to just let the film's punchy dialogue and shadow filled scenes wash over you. It should suffice to say, however, that no one in the film is exactly who they first claim to be, and the movie ends in a series of betrayals and reversals that stack up so quickly it's liable to induce whiplash.

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