Monday, August 09, 2004

Video: Murder, My Sweet (1944)

At long last, my copy of Warner’s film noir collection has arrived. Expect me to wax rhapsodic about it over the coming weeks.

MURDER, MY SWEET is often cited as the movie that changed the perception of Dick Powell from song and dance man to dramatic actor. I can’t speak to that transformation, because I pretty much only know the latter incarnation. Particularly his performance as the writer convinced he can resist the charms of producer Kirk Douglas in THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL. Seeing Powell burst into song, now that would throw me off. Powell later claimed to be the person who convinced Ronald Reagan to become a Republican. If that’s true, it’s his most lasting contribution to history.

He makes a splendid Philip Marlowe in this adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s FAREWELL, MY LOVELY. He handles voiceover and world-weary quips with aplomb, although he’s helped along with great dialogue courtesy of Chandler and screenwriter John Paxton. Marlowe is no iconic character here, but a man trying to earn a living. Money is his primary motivation; as Marlowe says, he’s “a small businessman in a dirty business.”

1944 was a critical year for film noir; DOUBLE INDEMNITY and LAURA were also in theaters. Director Edward Dmytryk seems to be drafting the noir playbook as he goes. Many of the trademarks are already in place with this film: the high contrast cinematography, the paranoid sense that the protagonist is and always will be several steps behind his enemies. Dmytryk uses a few arresting visual tricks to convey Marlowe’s state of mind. Cobwebs obscuring the image, black pools bubbling up to drown the world in darkness.

For those keeping score, Marlowe is hit on the head twice and passes out a third time. Another noir staple. Maybe I’ll keep a running tab on blackouts for the whole collection and post the results here.

Graphic Novel: Hench, by Adam Beechen and Manny Bello (2004)

Comic book stores always provoke an odd reticence in me. So do shops that specialize in classical music or jazz, for that matter. I’m always convinced that I’ll be found wanting by the staff and the handful of devoted customers forever milling around the counter, swapping opinions. These stores come across as the province of experts, who speak in a language all their own, clotted with references I don’t understand.

It’s a foolish notion, I know. Who cares if you’re shown up in front of a bunch of geeks? On top of that, it almost never happens. Yes, you occasionally run into a clerk who’s like Jack Black in HIGH FIDELITY. But for the most part, they’re like Todd Louiso in HIGH FIDELITY. Enthusiastic. Eager to share their knowledge. Bald.

It helps when you have something specific to look for. The idea behind HENCH is so simple and so brilliant, I’m amazed it hasn’t been done before: a superhero story told from the point of view of a supervillain’s henchman, one of those masked nobodies who gets roughed up as a prelude to the big showdown. “A regular guy in funny pants.” Like Mike Fulton, a former college football star with a bum knee who starts henching as a way to pay the bills. The book includes amazing full-page panels done in the style of various comic art legends, like Steve Ditko and Joe Shuster.

Funny how in all the recent Marvel superhero movies (SPIDER-MAN, DAREDEVIL) there haven’t been any henchmen. Union troubles, maybe. In the BATMAN movies, the heavies always had a few goons around. And Ned Beatty played the most famous of henchmen, Lex Luthor’s Otis, in the SUPERMAN films. Could be henchmen are more of a D.C. Comics thing.