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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Earthy, sexy and wry, Marie Windsor was born to play fatales

Let’s be fair. Marie Windsor as femme fatale Sherry Peatty in “The Killing” by Stanley Kubrick may seem venal, treacherous and manipulative. And yes she hatches a scheme to feather her nest that’s a bit dangerous. But is it right that she’s punished for being as smart, decisive and daring as the men?

Sherry is married, need I say unhappily, to George (Elisha Cook, Jr.), a nervous, Milquetoast cashier at a racetrack. Through George, she gets wind of a heist taking place at the track by Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) and his gang. Sherry tips off her lover Val (Vince Edwards) and comes up with this idea: let George and his friends do the heavy lifting, then she and Val can take off with the stolen cash, about $2 million.

In "The Killing," Marie Windsor as Sherry Peatty is so over her dreary husband George (Elisha Cook, Jr.).

Of course, you could argue that the deeply flawed Sherry is downright immoral. And so are the men. But Sherry only gets as far as she does because of George’s colossal ego. Or perhaps it’s his tremendous capacity for denial. Clearly, she’s been after money all along and she’s tired of George not coming through with it. C’mon, George, did you really think she was into your swagger? (Offscreen, Windsor and Cook were chums. She said of him in a 1992 interview, “Elisha Cook was a darling and full of the devil.”)

Earthy, sexy and wry, Windsor was an actress born to play femmes fatales – with her huge, restless eyes, slightly cynical smile and lean but curvy body. Regardless of how many lines or how many scenes Windsor was in, she had a quality both luminous and tawdry, an expressiveness bordering on vulgarity that meshed perfectly with noir sensibility.

Windsor won an award from Look magazine for her role in "The Killing."

Born and raised in Utah, Windsor was especially popular with directors of Westerns and of noirs (in particular, “Force of Evil,” 1948, by Abraham Polonsky; “The Narrow Margin,” 1952, by Richard Fleischer; and “The Sniper,” 1952, by Edward Dmytryk). Once Windsor had been cast, the director had one less thing to worry about, knowing that she’d nail the character.

Kubrick so wanted Windsor for “The Killing” that he delayed filming until she had wrapped up 1955’s “Swamp Women” by Roger Corman. She was worth the wait; for playing Sherry in “The Killing,” Windsor was rewarded with a 1956 Best Supporting Actress award from Look magazine, a prestigious honor at the time.

Windsor worked steadily in movies and TV through the early 1990s. She was married to Jack Hupp for 46 years, from 1954 until her death in 2000.

Despite Sherry’s, um, blemished character, I prefer her gumption to Johnny’s girlfriend, the desperately needy Fay (Coleen Gray). As Fay tells Johnny: “I’m not very pretty and I’m not smart so please don’t leave me alone any more. I’ll go along with anything you say, Johnny. I always will.”

Ever heard of a spine, lady? Well, Sherry has.

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