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Claire Trevor

Blu-ray: Dick Powell noir ‘Murder My Sweet’ and ‘Pitfall’

MurderMySweet
Warner Archive

Murder My Sweet (Warner Archive, Blu-ray) is not just the most faithful screen version of Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled hero Philip Marlowe from the classic era of film noir, it’s also one of the best. Dick Powell, the 1930s crooner and boy next door romantic lead of dozens of musical comedies, changed his career trajectory overnight when he took the lead in the Edward Dmytryk-directed adaptation of “Farewell, My Lovely” (the title was changed for the movie just to let audiences know that this was a darker side of Powell).

The cynical, smart talking private eye gets hired in short order by, first, a dim ex-con (pug nosed Mike Mazurki) to find his girl Velma, and then by the prissy stooge of a blackmail victim to babysit him during a handoff. The meeting ends with the stooge’s death and Marlowe is immediately engaged by the owner of the jewels, the wily Mrs. Grayle (Claire Trevor), to recover them. As Marlowe navigates the dark, dangerous world of wartime LA, splitting his search between high society haunts and the cheap smoky bars and flophouses of the inner city, he turns up one too many stones, winds up on the wrong end of a fist, and wakes up to a drug induced nightmare that Dmytryk delivers with a mixture of surreal symbolism and sinister expressionism. Powell delivers screenwriter John Paxton’s snappy lines and droll asides with hard boiled cynicism, like someone not quite as tough as he talks, but it’s Powell’s innate vulnerability that makes this reluctant saint of the city so compelling. Dmytryk’s shadowy style creates a visual equivalent to the web of intrigue Marlowe navigates, an almost perpetual world of night.

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DVD: ‘Dante’s Inferno’

Dante’s Inferno, the 1935 spectacle of destructive greed and carnival ballyhoo, opens on flames. It’s not hellfire but the boiler-room furnaces of an ocean liner where Jim Carter (Spencer Tracy) is ostensibly a stoker, though he manages to get out of work with a litany of manufactured injuries before he’s tossed out. He’s a born con man and hustler and he lands in his element: a carnival midway. When he’s shown a little kindness by Pop (Henry B. Walthall), the operator of a sleepy concession known as “Dante’s Inferno,” a mix of haunted house and cheap museum dedicated to the lessons of “the greatest poem ever written” (in Pop’s words), he returns the favor by taking over as pitchman and barks up a crowd for the attraction. The partnership becomes family when he falls for Pop’s pretty daughter Betty (Claire Trevor) and they have a son. It’s the beginning of a classic (and not particularly original) rise-and-fall drama of a rapacious man who tramples those who stand in the way of his ambition and leaves a trail of destruction as he bribes, blackmails, cheats, and cuts corners on his way to the top of the amusement racket, with just enough time left for a last-minute act of redemption.

This was one of Tracy’s final films for Fox before he left for MGM, where his talents were given a more respectful showcase. Now I’m not actually a big fan of Tracy but I confess to having a new appreciation for the actor thanks to those scrappy, bouncy Fox films of his early career. A lot of those scripts are undercooked (like this one) and the productions are sometime rushed but Tracy overflows with personality and the attitude of a guy who got wise knocking about on the streets. “I’ve had every trick in the trade kicked into me,” Jim tells Pop. “Now it’s my turn to kick back.” He presents himself with a sense of calm and control, however, like a man who is cagy about letting the world see what’s he’s thinking or feeling, which makes quite a contrast to guys like Cagney and Lee Tracy and the rat-a-tat streetwise heroes of the Warner street movies.

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