From the 1930s through the 1950s, Raymond Chandler was the definitive voice of the American crime genre. His work in literature would go on to influence the the golden age of crime films, shaping film noir. The Marlowe Files is a monthly series looking at Chandler’s novels and film adaptations starring his famous detective Philip Marlowe. This month, we look a 1944’s MURDER, MY SWEET through Chandler’s own essay “The Simple Art of Murder.”

MURDER, MY SWEET is the first true Philip Marlowe adaptation. Before this film, two Marlowe novels were retrofitted as sequels in two different film series. In these films, Michael Shayne and The Falcon replaced Philip Marlowe. Director Edward Dmytryk would be the first person to give Marlowe cinematic life.

The film is an adaptation of Chandler’s “Farewell, My Lovely,” the second Marlowe novel he wrote. The novel drags Marlowe from one bizarre case to the next. The plot is a Russian nesting doll of strange characters with tangential connections. What starts out as a missing persons case leads him to a hunt for a precious jade necklace.

In 1944, the same year of MURDER, MY SWEET’s release, Chandler wrote “The Simple Art of Murder.” In the article, Chandler explored his views on contemporary detective stories. It seems appropriate then to look at MURDER, MY SWEET through Chandler’s own lens to discover Chandler’s impact on the detective genre.

Fact and Fiction

Much of Chandler’s essay focuses on the place of “realism” in fiction. He writes,

Fiction in any form has always intended to be realistic. Old-fashioned novels which now seem stilted and artificial to the point of burlesque did not appear that way to the people who first read them.”  

Chandler’s statement here feels like a prediction of how contemporary audiences sometimes react to works of classic cinema. Modern audiences will often write off films, like MURDER, MY SWEET, where the acting is sometimes melodramatic as cheesy. Even the great dramas of the ‘60s and ‘70s, which strived for artistic verisimilitude, might strike some younger viewers as being, in Chandler’s words, stilted and artificial. As audience tastes evolve, so too does our perception of realism. That may seem like a contradiction of terms, but consider the art of film. We are never truly watching “real” people acting, as in live theater, but rather a facsimile of realism. True realism in art is impossible because films, by their nature, are fake.

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Trash into Treasure

Chandler had a better understanding of this decades before our contemporary culture of internet nitpicking. In the essay, Chandler explains that every author is limited by their realm of knowledge. If they focus too much on the realism of one component, they are likely ignoring the authenticity of another. All authors make mistakes, but that doesn’t invalidate the power of a story. Art shines in its imperfections, not the other way around. He notes,

Every detective story writer makes mistakes, and none will ever know as much as he should. Conan Doyle made mistakes which completely invalidated some of his stories, but he was a pioneer, and Sherlock Holmes after all is mostly an attitude and a few dozen lines of unforgettable dialogue.”

It’s obvious from the essay that Chandler is not a romantic. He frequently, and brusquely, acknowledges that much of the detective fiction genre is trash. He even claims that there is very little separating good detective fiction from bad detective fiction. So what separates Chandler’s work from the rest? What kept his novels from ending up on the trash pile of time?

A Rude ‘Tude

As Chandler himself said, “Holmes after all is mostly an attitude and a few dozen lines of unforgettable dialogue.” Well, the same could be said for Philip Marlowe. Luckily, Marlowe hit the ground running in his first film appearance as played by Dick Powell.

Powell is not at the top of iconic Marlowe performances, but frankly, he should be. Not only was he the first movie Marlowe, but he nailed the mannerisms of Chandler’s P.I. on his first outing.

At the time, audiences knew Powell best from comedies and musicals. In fact, Dmytryk claims in the clip below that the film was initially released under the same title as the novel, “Farewell, My Lovely.” Audiences assumed, based on the title and Dick Powell, that it was a musical. He was something of a controversial choice to play the gruff detective.

The Laughing Detective

Powell’s background in comedy ends up being a strength rather than a weakness. He has a sardonic, glib streak to him that suits Marlowe well and is somewhat ahead of its time. When looking at James Garner’s (MARLOWE) and Elliot Gould’s (THE LONG GOODBYE) performances as Marlowe, you can see the DNA of Powell. In fact, Gould’s iconic look in THE LONG GOODBYE seems to be an echo of Powell during some scenes in MURDER, MY SWEET. Any of these actors could have uttered Powell’s best line of the film (“I don’t know whose side I’m on–I don’t even know who’s playing today”) and it would have sounded perfectly natural in their respective films. 

Murder, My Sweet
Left: Powell in MURDER, MY SWEET; Right: Gould in THE LONG GOODBYE

If, according to Chandler, the thing that makes or breaks a great detective character is the central protagonist, then Powell established exactly the right tone for Marlowe. Like most Chandler novels, the plot of MURDER, MY SWEET is byzantine at best. And yet, the film works because Powell keeps us moving through the plot. We want to see this shaggy dog detective succeed in the face of the seedy denizens of L.A. It’s the hero in the center who defines a great detective story.

Forget Nothing, Learn Everything

Perhaps the most striking line in Chandler’s essay is that “the classic detective story has learned nothing and forgotten nothing.” While Chandler makes the case that the detective story hasn’t evolved, his mark on it was perhaps the most significant since Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. He pushed the detective, with the help of writers like Dashiell Hammett, into the hard-boiled American noir we think of today.

Some critics saw Chandler’s work as disposable entertainment, but his work is now seen as great American literature. What was once trash is now treasure. While MURDER, MY SWEET may not hold the same place in American cinema as other Marlowe adaptations, it is certainly a work that deserves praise.

True, the detective story may still use the works of Chandler and Hammett as a starting point, but there have been leaps of evolution since then. Chandler’s influence can be found in neo-noir works like BOUND, BRICK, or the novels of authors like Megan Abbott.

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Down These Mean Streets

Chandler’s best known observation from “The Simple Art of Murder” comes from its conclusion:

“In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man… He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world…If there were enough like him, I think the world would be a very safe place to live in, and yet not too dull to be worth living in.”

It is here that we see perhaps the most important contribution Chandler made to popular fiction. There are any number of characters that fit into this honorable anti-hero mold, detective or otherwise. It is from this very description that Powell’s Marlowe emerges whole cloth. Detective fiction may forget nothing, but it has certainly learned from the past.

Next Case: Bogie. Bacall. THE BIG SLEEP.

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