When it’s on: Thursday, 23 August (12.40 pm)
It’s great to see BBC2 plundering their cupboard of RKO classics over the summer, in particular the crime section and some of the earlier entries from the budding film noir genre. Next week, we’re getting the sublime Build my Gallows High, but today’s offering is no one’s idea of a slouch.
Whether Farewell my Lovely can even be classed as noir at all is a matter of some contention. It’s certainly no Build my Gallows High, almost the prototype example of the genre. Sure, Philip Marlowe might find himself mixed up with a gorgeous blonde dame who’s clearly no good, but unlike many noir ‘heroes’ he never falls for her charms. Indeed, Dick Powell’s Marlowe is almost too clever for the plot he’s involved in, always an intellectual step ahead and ready with a quip that suggests he’s taking none of it seriously. Well, most of the time anyway…
Farewell my Lovely is based on the Raymond Chandler novel. It’s naturally well worth a read (I’ve got a battered old Penguin edition on my shelf), if not for a typically labyrinthine plot that at times appears to have tied even the author inn knots, then definitely for the great use of language and the cynical tone of Marlowe, its narrator. Not a book that flew off the shelves upon its initial run, Chandler sold the film rights to RKO for a pittance as the studio used it as the plot of The Falcon Takes Over. As his work grew in popularity, it was rolled out once again for an adaptation, this time following the novel much more closely and introducing Marlowe to the screen. Powell seemed like an odd choice to play the story’s protagonist, better known before the film for light-hearted musicals but yearning for roles with dramatic heft and insisting on bagging this part before signing a contract. Good for all concerned that he did. Whilst Humphrey Bogart is generally considered the definitive Marlowe, there’s nothing wrong with Powell’s playing. He’s sardonic, world weary, capable and restless, and he gets the character pretty much from the start.
By RKO’s standards, Farewell my Lovely received the star treatment, healthily budgeted, directed with panache by Edward Dmytryk and padding out any concerns over Powell’s ability to carry the film with an ensemble cast. Floozy’s floozy Claire Trevor plays the femme fatale. Anne Shirley (in her last role at the too-soon age of 26) is the good girl Marlowe really falls for whilst pretending to woo Trevor. Otto Kruger pops up as an especially smooth and sinister villain, whilst Mike Mazurki is ideally cast as the lunkish Moose Malloy.
There’s one astonishing five-minute stretch in the middle of the film where Marlowe is drugged and kept in a state of nightmarish paranoia. It’s visual imagination goes into overdrive, producing one surreal image after the next and a filter over the camera to suggest cobwebs, reflecting the web Marlowe feels he’s caught in. Beyond that, it’s a more straightforward thriller than it might at first appear; Powell and Shirley are presented as the heroes, and almost disappointingly remain so throughout. But no matter. The spirit of Chandler’s acerbic prose is to be savoured. Here’s a few of the film’s many gems:
She had more than a figure too. Not a beautiful face, but a good face. She had a face like a Sunday School picnic.
He was doubled up on his face in that bag-of-old-clothes position that always means the same thing: he had been killed by an amateur. Or, by somebody who wanted it to look like an amateur job. Nobody else would hit a man that many times with a sap.
‘Okay Marlowe,’ I said to myself. ‘You’re a tough guy. You’ve been sapped twice, choked, beaten silly with a gun, shot in the arm until you’re crazy as a couple of waltzing mice. Now let’s see you do something really tough – like putting your pants on.’
Farewell my Lovely: ****
NB. Whilst in Britain the film was released under its original title and that of the novel, in America this had to be altered to Murder my Sweet in case audiences felt they were seeing Powell in one of his frothy musicals.