Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Book to Film: Dick Powell's Marlowe

Hollywood was good to Raymond Chandler, but not always so good to Phillip Marlowe. Chandler, the middle-aged crime novelist, found creative success and financial security as a screenwriter, making a niche for himself in a competitive environment that valued his talent and was willing to tolerate - and often accommodate - his severe alcoholism and frequent bouts with depression. Marlowe, the tough-talking, hard-living private detective, didn't always fare so well. Of the seven completed novels that feature Phillip Marlowe, all have been adapted for film and/or television. These adaptations are of wildly varying quality; some inspired, some pointless.

The most enduring of these adaptations is, without doubt, The Big Sleep. Humphrey Bogart, one of Hollywood's greatest and most-beloved actors, gave an iconic performance as Marlowe in the 1946 Howard Hawks picture. His performance in many ways established the "tough guy" template that countless Hollywood actors (and some actresses) would follow. But, the Marlowe of the The Big Sleep has more in common with Bogart's earlier private detective role, that of Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon. He takes a beating and gets double-crossed, but without an appreciable change in his demeanor. As novelist/critic Megan Abbott writes: Bogart's Marlowe "is a man who remains consistently in control of himself and the situations in which he finds himself. This Marlowe bears minimal relation to the hero of Chandler's novels." Two years earlier, audiences had seen a very different Marlowe.

Dick Powell was a popular song-and-dance man who had distinguished himself in a number of Hollywood musicals (Gold Diggers of 1933, On The Avenue), but by the early 1940s he wanted to expand his range. He accomplished this transition with his lead role in the 1944 adaptation of Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely. (Powell was so identified with musicals that producers changed the film's title to Murder, My Sweet, so movie-goers would know not to expect a light-hearted romp.)

Powell's voice-over narration, lifted entirely from Chandler's work, is an essential component of the film's success. The ensemble cast, which includes Claire Trevor as the predatory Helen Grayle, Esther Howard as an alcoholic widow, and Mike Mazurki as the hulking Moose Malloy, add depth - and, in Esther Howard's case, pathos - to characters that could easily have been painted in broad strokes. But what makes Murder, My Sweet truly distinctive is the vulnerability of the film's protagonist, the extent to which he can be affected by the predatory characters he encounters. In an extended, and at the time unprecedented, sequence in the film, we witness Marlowe's disorientation after being poisoned and imprisoned. Marlowe struggles to get dressed, overpowers a guard, and clumsily makes his escape. When confronted by his captor, he waves a gun, struggles to remain standing, and nonsensically declares: "I want to go dance in the foam. I hear the banshees calling."

I would argue that Dick Powell's Marlowe is not only the more accurate portrayal of Chandler's private detective, but also the more interesting performance. There are moments in Murder, My Sweet where Powell and the character he's playing are beautifully symbiotic. I'm thinking of the light little dance he does on the marble floor of the Grayle house, seemingly for his own sardonic amusement. You won't find that in the novel, but the spontaneous irony of that moment is very Marlowe.

To his credit, Powell continued to challenge himself professionally. His subsequent roles were weightier, often in crime melodramas. One particularly noteworthy performance was in Pitfall (1948), a powerful What's-behind-the-American-dream? film starring Jane Wyatt and noir icon Lizabeth Scott. In the 1950s he began working behind the camera, directing several films with Robert Mitchum in the lead role, among them The Enemy Below (1957), considered a classic in the submarine/underwater combat genre.

Find it in the catalog!

For further reading on this topic, I highly recommend the essay "Nothing You Can't Fix": Screening Marlowe's Masculinity by Megan E. Abbott.