Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Two Dick Powells - From Musicals to Mystery

There are two Dick Powells; the one who, along with Ruby Keeler, sang and danced his way into the hearts of America in all the great musicals of the 1930's; with films such as "42nd Street", which is still somewhat of a staple for me on New Years Eve. His charm and vocal abilities, along with his dancing skills, made him what was then referred to as a "heart throb" for millions of his fans. But, after awhile, dancing was the last thing which he wanted to do. He longed for a serious lead, even in a "B" movie. It took awhile, but in 1944 he got his chance to reinvent himself in a serious movie, as the leading character in the film "Murder My Sweet", and it wouldn't be his last.

In this wonderful piece of film noire, directed by Edward Dmytryk, Mr. Powell hangs up his hat and cane to play gumshoe Philip Marlowe in the film version of Raymond Chandler's famed private eye. As a matter of fact, Mr. Chandler once referred to Dick Powell as having come the closest to the author's own vision of Philip Marlowe. That's high praise, considering that Marlowe has been played by everybody, from Humphrey Bogart in the early 1940's, to Robert Mitchum in the mid 1970's.

One of the more remarkable aspects of this film is the use; by the bad guys; of mind altering drugs, or truth serums, on Marlowe as he is "pumped" for information leading to the recovery of some very valuable jade; which may, or may not, be missing. What makes it so remarkable is that most of us associate these types of drugs with the early CIA experiments of the 1950's. Of course, it is well known that the Nazis had developed some very powerful hallucinogenic drugs during the war, so maybe it's not so remarkable at all. But the special effects; limited as they were to the technology of the times; are mind bending of their own accord. A great thanks is due director Edward Dmytryk for these innovative concepts, which would later be imitated by Alfred Hitchcock in several of his own films.

Thrown into the mix, in this film adaptation of the novel, are some unusual characters, all equally unforgettable. From the broken down jazz singer to the hulking presence of "Moose" Malloy; an ex-con who is looking for his girl Velma, who; just as with the jade, may, or may not be waiting for him; all the actors play an integral part in the mystery. This is one of those movies that plays out on screen as well as it reads, in spite of a few minor changes by screenwriter John Paxton.

The big surprise in this film is the unique adaptability of Dick Powell, from a song and dance man, to a serious actor. And playing opposite veterans such as Claire Trevor and Anne Shirley really gives the viewer a chance to see Mr. Powell as a leading man in a straight role, which is in itself, a treat.

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