Raymond Chandler on the big screen: ‘Brasher Doubloon’ and ‘Murder, My Sweet’ to play this Thursday at the Aero

I’ve never seen “The Brasher Doubloon” but I love the name! This 1947 film, directed by John Brahm and starring George Montgomery as Philip Marlowe, is based on a Raymond Chandler novel (“The High Window”). “The Brasher Doubloon,” on a double bill with “Murder, My Sweet,” starts at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, 1328 Montana Ave.

Also, three excellent neo noirs are coming up in Los Angeles. Woody Allen’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors” (1989) in a double bill with “Blood Simple” (1984) by the Coen brothers plays at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 23, at the Aero. Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” (1976) will show at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 25, at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, 6712 Hollywood Blvd.

Murder, My Sweet/1944/RKO/95 min.

Dick Powell as Marlowe tells the story, in flashback, to police.

One of these days, I’ll get around to compiling my list of the Top 10 classic film noir movies. When I do, “Murder, My Sweet” (1944, RKO) will be on the roster because it’s a superb flick and a defining work of the genre, thanks to Edward Dmytryk’s directorial flair, top-notch acting and a terrific script (based on Raymond Chandler’s novel “Farewell My Lovely”) full of choice one-liners.

“Murder, My Sweet” stars Dick Powell as private eye Philip Marlowe, perhaps Chandler’s most famous character and one of the best-known screen detectives. The movie opens with Moose Malloy (Mike Mazurki) showing up at Marlowe’s office, wanting him to find his old girlfriend, Velma. Marlowe looks for clues at Florian’s, a dive bar, and at the home of widow Jessie Florian (Esther Howard). How to describe Mrs. Florian? Well, it’s hard to beat Marlowe’s take: “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.”

Meanwhile, Marlowe agrees to act as a sort of bodyguard for another client, fussy and effete Lindsay Marriott (Douglas Walton) who must deliver a ransom for stolen jewels. The exchange doesn’t go well – Marriott is murdered and Marlowe takes a crack on the head. Once back at the office, Marlowe is visited by a reporter asking questions about a stolen jade necklace. The “reporter” turns out be Ann Grayle (Anne Shirley), a cute, feisty Girl-Scout type from a wealthy family. Pretty quickly, Marlowe meets Ann’s cootish Daddy (Miles Mander) and her femme fatale stepmother Helen (Claire Trevor).

The introduction of Helen Grayle (Claire Trevor) and Philip Marlowe (Dick Powell) is one of film noir's great meetings.

And a great meeting it is, a bit like Stanwyck and MacMurray in “Double Indemnity,” but here Trevor, dressed to the nines and sporting ankle-strap chunky heels, can’t really be bothered with coy flirtation. World-weary and blasé, she gives Marlowe the once-over without a word, just a great look of “another day, another guy.” A few minutes later she does fight the ennui enough to say pointedly, “Let’s dispense with the polite drinking, shall we?”

Besides drinking and shopping, Helen likes to dance and has no shortage of partners – guys who take her out on the town because Mr. G isn’t quite up to it. Turns out, Marriott was one of Helen’s companions and had been trying to help her buy back a stolen jade necklace. Now she thinks Marlowe might be up to the task.

But Marlowe isn’t easily seduced, even though he pretends to be if he thinks it will yield a clue or two. As he figures out who’s guilty of what, we meet Marriott’s suave, sinister chum Jules Amthor (Otto Kruger) and the nefarious Dr. Sonderborg (Ralf Harolde).

Dick Powell and Anne Shirley

With its constantly twisting plot, original music by Roy Webb and high-contrast, shadow-heavy visuals from cinematographer Harry J. Wild, “Murder, My Sweet” is awfully good fun to watch.

John Paxton’s sharp screenplay honors Chandler’s wit and many lines still seem fresh today. Ann rails against “big league blondes: beautiful, expensive babes who know what they’ve got – all bubble bath and dewy morning and moonlight. And inside: blue steel, cold – cold like that, only not that clean.” Helen’s retort is simple: “Your slip shows, dear.”

The movie fared well with critics and audiences – the popular appeal was at least in part because leading man Powell was a matinée idol and musical comedy star. Financially strapped RKO signed him to a contract hoping he could pull in much-needed cash at the box office; Powell signed with the condition that he could first play a straight dramatic role. The studio changed the movie’s name from “Farewell, My Lovely” so that viewers wouldn’t mistake it for a musical.

Mike Mazurki

Edward Dmytryk

Though Dmytryk wasn’t thrilled with this casting decision, Powell did a near-flawless job, earning approval from both the director and Chandler. Trevor and Shirley match his fine work as do Howard, Walton, Mander and Kruger. And Mazurki was perfectly cast. Trevor was quite the celluloid bad girl; most notably as the cold-blooded temptress in “Born to Kill” (1947, Robert Wise). She won the best supporting actress Oscar for her role as gangster Edward G. Robinson’s moll in the classic “Key Largo” (1948, John Huston).

Dmytryk deftly balances cynicism and anxiety with acerbic humor and lighthearted romance. Gifted at creating suspense and edgy moods, he is an undisputed master of film noir. After “Murder, My Sweet,” he helmed “Cornered” (1945), “Crossfire” (1947), “The Hidden Room” (1949), “The Sniper” (1952) and “Mirage” (1965).

His career was sidetracked, however, by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), and its unconstitutional efforts to eradicate a perceived Communist influence in Hollywood. Dmytryk was one of the Hollywood Ten who refused to cooperate with HUAC. But, after spending time in prison, Dmytryk changed his mind, testified before the committee and named names of supposed Communists.

Despite his decision to testify and the enmity it earned him, Dmytryk remains one of noir’s best directors.

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‘Murder, My Sweet’ quick hit

Murder, My Sweet/1944/RKO/95 min.

“Murder, My Sweet” is a superb flick and a defining work of the film noir genre, thanks to Edward Dmytryk’s directorial flair, top-notch acting and a terrific John Paxton script (based on Raymond Chandler’s novel “Farewell, My Lovely”). Musical star Dick Powell took a gamble by playing private eye Philip Marlowe and the risk paid off.

Tracking down a showgirl for an ex-con ignites the action in a complicated plot; Chandlerian weirdos, well dressed hustlers and eloquent thieves abound. Also starring Claire Trevor, Anne Shirley, Mike Mazurki, Esther Howard and Otto Kruger.

 

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Santa Monica shows its dark side at NoirFest

Farewell, My Lovely” screens Wednesday, Jan. 25, as part of NoirFest Santa Monica.

The newly launched festival includes art, film, photography, literature, music and spoken-word events. NoirFest runs through March 28.

Other films to be screened include: “The Brasher Doubloon,” “Murder, My Sweet,” “Double Indemnity,” “The Big Sleep,” “Strangers on a Train,” “The Lady in the Lake” and “The Long Goodbye.”

The fest is the brainchild of longtime Santa Monica resident and artist Helen K. Garber, whose solo show “Encaustic Noir” runs through Feb. 25 at Bergamot Station Arts Center, 2525 Michigan Ave. Also on display is vintage night photography by famed Parisian photographer Brassaï and several of his contemporaries.

“Farewell My Lovely” screens at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Vidiots Annex, 302 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica 90405. There is a pre-screening reception at 7:00 p.m. Seating is limited to 35; rsvp essential: [email protected]

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Robert Mitchum is just one of many terrific performers in ‘Farewell, My Lovely’ from 1975

Farewell, My Lovely/1975/Embassy Pictures/97 min.

If you get a chuckle out of Patty and Selma Bouvier of “The Simpsons,” the Laramie-puffing, big-haired sisters with terrible taste in men, you’ll enjoy the raspy-voiced alcoholic widow Jessie Florian of 1975’s “Farewell, My Lovely.” Actress Sylvia Miles earned an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of this sad and seedy lady.

Charlotte Rampling

Miles is just one of many superb performers in this movie, notably Robert Mitchum as private investigator Philip Marlowe and Charlotte Rampling, a judge’s wife, bored to tears in their May/December relationship.

Having starred in many stand-out noirs as a younger actor (“Out of the Past,” “Angel Face” are two of the finest noirs ever made), Mitchum once again lends his sexy, sleepy indolence to the part of a burned-out and baleful detective at the end of his career.

Directed by Dick Richards and written by David Zelag Goodman, “Farewell” is based on Raymond Chandler’s novel of the same name, published in 1940. Director Edward Dmytryk brought the book to the screen in 1944 as “Murder, My Sweet,” a seminal noir starring Dick Powell and Claire Trevor. (The title was changed because Powell, a song and dance man, was playing off-type and studio execs didn’t want audiences to think it was a musical.  It was also filmed in 1942 as “The Falcon Takes Over.”)

“Murder My Sweet,” with its sordid criminals and Expressionist sensibility, was a triumph for Dmytryk and his team. Even so, the film only skimmed the surface of Chandler’s darkness; by 1975, topics like prostitution and racism, in addition to garden-variety crime, could be addressed on the big screen.

The movie opens with David Shire’s luscious score and shots of 1940s Los Angeles at night, bathed in neon light. There we see Mitchum in a dumpy hotel room (you were expecting the Four Seasons?) reflecting over the past few months — rotten weather and rubbing elbows with lowlifes and deadbeats.  Weary of “ducking police” and apparently needing to confess, he calls Det. Lt. Nulty (John Ireland), who agrees to come to the hotel. While waiting for Nulty to arrive, Marlowe begins a second flashback, in which Nulty is a participant, and we get to the meat of the story.

On a boring bread-and-butter case, Marlowe bumps into Moose Malloy (Jack O’Halloran), long on brawn, short on brains and just out of jail.  Moose wants Marlowe to find his girlfriend, a one-time showgirl named Velma, whom he describes as “cute as lace pants.”

The pair head to Florian’s nightclub in search of clues. Nothing turns up, though, and the frustrated Malloy kills a guy with his bare hands. Back to the slammer for the ungentle giant? Well, since the victim is black, the cops aren’t going to do much about it. Next stop for Marlowe: A visit to Jessie Florian’s, with a big bottle of cheap booze in hand. Upon seeing Marlowe, Jessie dons her best bathrobe and turns on the charm.

Meanwhile, a very different client, the posh and effeminate Lindsay Marriott (John O’Leary) hires Marlowe to be a bodyguard during an attempt to retrieve a stolen jade necklace. You’d think the fact that Marriott shows up in a disco suit much like John Travolta’s in “Saturday Night Fever” might put Marlowe off.  Instead, the job opens the door to a circle of unsavory mover/shaker types.

There’s elderly and insipid Judge Baxter Wilson Grayle (a cameo role for Jim Thompson, a famed noir writer of the ’50s); his much younger wife Helen (Charlotte Rampling), ravishing, shrewd, brash and, like Jesse Florian, very fond of strong cocktails; the mannish madame of a high-class whorehouse Frances Amthor (Kate Murtagh); and the suave but slippery Laird Brunette (Anthony Zerbe). As Brunette puts it: “All I do is run towns, elect judges and mayors, corrupt police, peddle dope, ice old ladies with pearls.” [Read more...]

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