Murder, My Sweet [1944]

Dick Powell will forever be known as a 1930s crooner in archetypal musical comedies, but this career-changing role shows Powell at his best and remains perhaps the most faithful cinematic representation of Raymond Chandler's hard-boiled hero, Philip Marlowe, ever put on screen. In this adaptation of Farewell, My Lovely, Powell's cynical, smart-talking private eye is hired by a dim ex-con (pug-nosed Mike Mazurki) to find his girl Velma, and 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 some jewels, the wily Mrs. Grayle (Claire Trevor), to recover them. As Marlowe navigates the dark, dangerous world of wartime L.A., 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 director Edward 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. One of the first great films noir and an often-overlooked detective-movie classic. --Sean Axmaker

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