Monday, November 14, 2005

Day 45: Murder, My Sweet


The writing of Raymond Chandler, the silly way he throws out similes and metaphors to make his characters sound tough, always makes me smile appreciatively, and then, for a day or so, I hear everything in the rhythm of his writing.  The language is so delightful and skirts so closely to the boundaries of self-parody that it’s no surprise this Chandler-speak has been effectively demolished by pop-culture jokesters since its inception. Still, it’s compelling.  Played straight and played well Chandler’s dialogue has an enjoyably cynical, sarcastic bite to it and when he’s “on,” his writing is as lovely to the ear as Shakespeare.  A typical line from Murder, My Sweet, drawn at random and presumably taken from the book (but is so in keeping with the spirit of Chandler that it’s no matter if it’s not): “My throat felt sore, but the fingers feeling it didn't feel anything. They were just a bunch of bananas that looked like fingers.”  To quote Homer Simpson, “Priceless.”  

Dick Powell, who plays private detective Philip Marlowe in the film, is great at spouting this stuff.  He’s got the rhythm down and nails the self-effacing humor of the dialogue.  As Powell plays him, the character isn’t particularly bright, nor is he particularly tough and from the way he speaks, you can tell he knows it.  There’s no reason he shouldn’t: Marlowe gets knocked around a lot in this movie, and is often confused by the plot.  When Powell utters a glib recap of the situation in which he finds himself, he seems like the last one in the room to realize what’s going on.  The incompetence of the Marlowe character in this movie is very, very funny, never more so than when he spouts nonsense for a good while after a forced heroin injection.

The plot of the movie is standard mystery fare, though it’s nice that, as in all good detective stories, what seem like the larger, more important issues at play really result from a simple emotional conflict between two people.  The solution to the mystery involves the detective playing a relationship counselor of sorts, piecing together the story of how people shattered each others’ lives, expensive jade necklaces notwithstanding.  The movie goes through these paces compellingly enough, with nary a sag in the pace.  It’s also fun to look at; the heroin hallucinations are good, expressionistic fun (used better here than Dali’s dreamscapes in Spellbound, though they’re not nearly as pretty) and I particularly liked the way the shadows of the letters painted on Marlowe’s window landed on the characters in his office.  

The unabashedly romantic coda to this movie feels out of place, or at the very least, unimportant.  Marlowe, having led a life where he’s witnessed the trauma of broken relationships, the dirty deeds of heartache, is so compellingly cynical that when he embraces the “good girl” at the end of the film, it’s almost a betrayal of the character.  But, at the same time, the movie’s run him through the gauntlet hard enough that it’s nice to see the disillusioned private dick get the girl at the end of the movie and partake of the same spoils that James Bond has no trouble indulging in after a strenuous mission.

1 comment:

Does not play well with others said...

This is slightly off topic, but there was a stand up comedian in the ‘80s who used to parody that kind of private dick speak. He was big on audience participation. One of the things I remember most was he would ask some woman in the audience a question, she’d answer, and he’d immediately follow with, “she said, in a voice so husky it could pull a dog sled.” Anybody remember that guy?