5/5/23

Murder, My Sweet a Forgotten Noir Masterpiece

 

MURDER, MY SWEET (1944)

Directed by Edward Dmytryk

RKO, 95 minutes, Not rated.

★★★★★

 

 

 

Many people think of Humphrey Bogart as the quintessential Philip Marlowe, but not many know that Dick Powell was the first to portray Raymond Chandler’s famed detective. Nor do they know that many film buffs consider Powell’s take on Marlowe the best. That can be debated, but Powell was certainly closer to what Chandler had in mind; his Marlowe was less sure of himself, made numerous false steps, and was less callous. Murder, My Sweet was adapted from Chandler’s novel Farewell My Lovely and RKO didn’t have to pay Chandler a dime as they had already purchased the film rights four years earlier for a mere $2,000.

 

The prelude to the film shows a bandaged-eyed Marlowe telling police Lt. Randall what he knows about the double murder that lies at center of the narrative. In essence, it’s a setup for flashbacks. Moose Malloy (former pro wrestler Mike Mazurki) has just been paroled after eight years in prison and wants Marlowe to help him locate Velma Valento, his girlfriend before he was sent up. Marlowe and Malloy visit a joint where Velma once sang, but no one remembers her except for boozy nightclub owner Jessie Florian (Esther Howard) who insists Velma’s dead. Moose refuses to believe it and strongarms Marlowe into continuing his inquiries.

 

Moose is as dense as a concrete block and Marlowe has a potentially more lucrative client, Lindsay Marriott (Douglas Walton), who wants Marlowe to be his personal guardian as hands over ransom money to a third party for jewels he claims were stolen from him. Some bodyguard! Marlowe is knocked out and when he comes to, he has to report Marriott’s death. Strangely, the cops warn him to drop matters as the case involves Jules Amthor (Otto Kruger), a quack psychiatrist. Enter Ann Grayle (Anne Shirley), who tries to get information out of Marlowe and has a cockamamie story about $100,000 worth of jade that she says belonged to her elderly father (Miles Mander), who has recently remarried a much younger woman, Helen (Claire Trevor).  Stranger still, Amthor appears to inform the dim-witted Moose that he knows of Velma’s whereabouts.

 

As you can see, this is not your straightforward white hats/black hats tale. What do we have here? Is this a wicked step-mother tale, a take-your-pick of dueling femmes fatales, or is everyone as mad as a March hare? All Marlowe knows for certain is that he likes the cut of Ann’s jib, and that too sounds alarms. Add a kidnapping, some mind-altering medication, a double cross or two, assumed identities, gunplay, and stories that don’t even close to adding up.

 

Raymond Chandler isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but the man knew how to plot complex murder mysteries. That’s one element that makes Murder, My Sweet a certifiable film noir masterpiece, though one that has been unjustly underrated. Another standout feature is its deft mix of foreshadowing and shadows, courtesy of director Edward Dmytrk and cinematographer Harry Wild. I suspect that politics is a reason why Murder, My Sweet has fallen from the limelight. If Dmytrk’s name sounds familiar, he was one of the Hollywood Ten that appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947. Whereas most of the Ten (and numerous others) went to jail and/or were blacklisted for suspected Communist Party membership, Dmytrk avoided said fates by confessing his guilt and fingering other suspected communists. It saved his career but made him contemptible when alleged subversion in Hollywood later proved considerably more smoke than fire. Some never forgave Dmytrk and still others accused him of ripping off Orson Welles’ hypnotic use of light in Citizen Kane. Both condemnations perhaps have merit, but there is little denying that Dymtrk was a highly skilled director. (He won a Best Director Oscar for The Caine Mutiny in 1954.)

 

Nor can we deny that Murder, My Sweet was a game changer for Dick Powell. He had previously been cast in squeaky clean roles, a sort of Pat Boone type. Powell yearned to be a serious actor and this film helped him tremendously in that pursuit. Hs Marlowe was not as cynical or as tough as Bogart’s, but it was considerably more nuanced.

 

I am a film noir geek and a Bogart fan, but those confessions aside, I’d rank Murder, My Sweet among the finest of the genre. And, yes, I’d say that Powell was a superior Philip Marlowe.

 

Rob Weir

5/3/23

Gordon Lightfoot: A Tribute



 

1971: Philadelphia Academy of Music

 

I knew the name, but I was first lured by the venue, one of the best places to hear music in North America. When the show began–always late in those days–the house lights dimmed and a circle of light spilled onto center stage. Gordon Lightfoot stood in its midst and began to strum his 12-string. Then came a rolling baritone that seemed to sweep in from the Canadian prairie. Thirty seconds  into “Early Morning Rain” I knew what I had to do next.

 

When I returned to my South Central Pennsylvania home, I drove to a music store in Hagerstown, Maryland, to buy an acoustic guitar. I figured I’d better start with six strings, a good choice as I didn’t know an Am from an auxiliary verb. I picked up a cheap piece of junk a step up from a Sears Silvertone and the man at the counter refused to sell it to me. He handed me an Epiphone and said, “This is more money, but if you buy that other guitar you’ll be back in two weeks. This one will last you.” He was right. I still own that old Epiphone, though I seldom play it anymore. But you can guess what song I played after I learned three chords.

 

Imagine how I felt when I learned, on May 1, that Lightfoot had passed away at the age of 84. People often ask me to name my favorite musician. That’s a dumb question as tastes change over time and I’ve run through dozens of “favorites.” There are none, though, whose impact on me has been as profound as Gordon Lightfoot. Bob Dylan once said he never heard a bad Gordon Lightfoot song. I could probably name a few, but I know what he meant. I have a binder full of Lightfoot songs I play that keeps getting thicker, though my hands and voice are shot.

 

A lot of them aren’t hard to play because Lightfoot was always about the song, not the performance. He once told me that almost everything he did was capoed so he could re-use the same chord shapes. That’s not entirely true, but if you hear anything really complex on one of his songs, it’s probably either Rod Shea or Terry Clement you’re hearing. Lightfoot was a storyteller, not a showman.

 

He is probably best known for epic songs such as “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” and “The Canadian Railroad Trilogy,” the latter of which was once (and might still be) part of the soundtrack for a documentary film on Canada’s first transcontinental railroad shown at the Museum of Civilization on the Quebec side of the Ottawa River across from Parliament. Ironically, though, a lot of his very best were marked by concision. Listen to “I Heard You Talking In Your Sleep,” which lays out a world of pain in just two short verses. Or “River of Darkness,” which Marty Robbins covered and brought Lightfoot to public attention. “The way I Feel’ was the first song I ever finger-picked. Why? Just 16 lines–four of which are repeats–and two chords (Dm/Am7).

 

He has been called a pop star and a folk singer. True enough, but he was also an acoustic country throwback to the days in which country music wasn’t tarted up with pretense and bullshit. If “Second Cup of Coffee” and “Ten Degrees and Getting Colder” aren’t country songs, no one is yet to write one. The man sang about roadside diners, snow falling on windowsills, hitch-hiking, ice on the river, Chinook winds, the Rockies, and the bottle on the table. Yeah, country.

 

He tried the Greenwich Village scene and a stint in La-La Land, but they didn’t take. He went back to Ontario and spent most of his life no further from his home in Orillia than Toronto, 90 minutes to the south. On “Highway Songs” he sang:  …headin’ north across that line/Is the only time I’m flyin’.  Because he stuck, unlike Canadian-born stalwarts like Drake, April Lavigne, Joni Mitchell, and Neil Young, Gordon Lightfoot became a symbol of Canadian pride. I was in a B & B in Ottawa just before COVID and got into a music discussion one morning and talked about how Lightfoot almost died of an aneurysm. When I mentioned that I had interviewed him twice, the room hushed: “You interviewed Gord!?” I got so much cred I didn’t have the heart to tell them I only earned $50 a pop from those interviews.  

 

 

He was no saint. Gord married thrice and freely admitted he was a heartless Lothario in his youth. Listen to “I’m Not Sayin’” or “For Lovin’ Me.” They’re  catchy and brutally honest, but are definitely bad boy fantasies. You sometimes wonder how they came from the pen of the same guy who wrote the gorgeous “Song For a Winter’s Night” or the regret-filled “If I Could read Your Mind,” both of which vie for the status of my all-time favorite Lightfoot composition.

 

I could go on and on about Gordon Lightfoot, but I’ll just say that the news of his death hit me like a line from “one of his songs: I’ll be alright/I’ll be alright if I don’t have to smile.

 

Rob Weir

5/1/23

Dave Barry's Swamp Story Releases Tomorrow

 

 

SWAMP STORY (May 2, 2023)

By Dave Barry

Simon & Schuster, 320 pages.

★★★★

 

 

 

Dave Barry is a funny man, a talent he wields by writing id-driven broad humor. Like old-time comics such as Henny Youngman and Rodney Dangerfield, he throws one thing after another at us until we chuckle despite ourselves. Swamp Story is another tale set in one of Barry’s favorite lampoon targets: Florida.

 

As the title suggests, Swamp City is set in the Everglades. If you’re thinking alligators, snakes, and sinkholes, you’re on the right track. Add gold hunters, eccentrics, con artists, lovable losers, and lawlessness and you’re well on your way. There’s something about isolated spits of land abutting sinking mud, marshland, and deep water that make them refuges for the socially marginal. That’s where we find Phil and Stu trying everything to eke out a living, including hiring themselves out for children’s birthday parties. Only a besotted divorced guy in need of money like Phil would dare to show up for a Frozen-themed party armed only with an over-sized Dora the Explorer head. Let’s just say that it didn’t go well except on TikTok.

 

Meet Jesse Braddock, who plays the role of the beautiful golden girl who made bad decisions. She grew up in Connecticut comfort, rebelled against her parents, and ran off with a guy they warned her was a jerk. Now she has a baby, Willa, is living in the Everglades, and boyfriend Slater really is a jerk. He proves that by being more interested in shooting video of a giant python wiggling toward Jesse and Willa than in chasing away the snake. No wonder she likes to walk paths through the Everglades to get away from him and his crazy friend Kark. In one trip, she happens upon something that might be linked to a legend of buried Confederate gold. If only she had known she was being stalked by Billy and Duck Campbell, two rednecks, who plot to force her to show them where she found it, beat her up (or worse), and make off with the gold.

 

Now meet brothers Ken and Brad, the owners of Bortle Brothers Bait & Beer, a business begun by their father and uncle. To say that it’s out of the way and was an idea whose time never came understates matters. It’s one of those eclectic general stores that dot the American landscape where you stop in hope of lunch, glance at the d├ęcor and decades out-of-date dusty merchandise, and decide all you really need is gas and a soda. Phil’s Internet notoriety gives Ken an idea. After reading about Michigan Melon Heads–diminutive humanoids with gigantic heads who are rumored to be fierce–Ken convinces Phil to spray paint the Dora head, creates a film crew, and launches a hoax. He uploads deliberately blurry videos to suggest that Melon Head Monsters have migrated to Florida. Before you can say “‘Glades Man,” the handle for the shirtless and brainless Slater, 8.3 million people have seen the clips and curiosity seekers pour into the area and stop at Bortle Brothers.

 

The plot thickens and so does the cast. Patsy Hartmann was once a star TV reporter for Miami’s Channel 8 until a younger anchor forced Patsy out of the limelight. Guess who is tapped to go to the Everglades to cover the Melon Head story and stay for the annual python roundup? There is also Andrew Pletzger, an egoistic real estate developer; Eric Turpake, an attorney as crooked as a Bortle Brothers fishhook; an obese former University of Florida football player and purveyor of drugs nicknamed Pinky; U.S. Secretary of the Interior Whitt Chastain, who hates the outdoors; and python wrangler DeWayne “Skeeter” Toobs, who arrives for his interview on a runaway airboat and with his “emotional support boar” Buddy. Danger abounds in the Everglades, perhaps none as ominous as a crime gang led by Kristov Berliuz.

 

What could go wrong? Throw this many offbeat people into one small part of swamp and the sky’s the limit. In the hands of Dave Barry, though, even danger is a subject for absurdism and cheap laughs. His Florida makes Texas seem like a bastion of choir boys by comparison. Aside from occasional off-color language and comeuppance to those upon whom we’d wish it, though, Barry prefers belly laughs to distress. We laugh along with him because we know that he knows that everything is meant as a big goof, not high art.

 

Rob Weir