Private detective Philip Marlowe (Dick Powell) has been through quite an ordeal as he sits in a Los Angeles police station's interrogation room with his eyes bandaged. The cops are firing off questions at him, but he is reluctant to speak out lest he incriminate himself; when the head man on the case turns up, he relents and begins to tell his tale, observing that some of it they know already. He is ordered to tell it all anyway, just for the record, and so Marlowe goes back in his mind to last week when he was sitting in his office one night and a huge thug appeared behind him. Intimidated, Marlowe asked him what he wanted: find Velma, was the reply...
Philip Marlowe is the most famous private eye in American crime fiction, and although he owed something to Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade, when Raymond Chandler created the character he made him his own. When it came to putting him up on the screen, the novel Farewell My Lovely had been initially adapted as an instalment in the Falcon series of B-movies, but with the new movement of film noir making waves, it was decided to film a more faithful version. And how faithful it was, with Chandler's hardboiled dialogue taken straight from the page and lending the proceedings a biting wit that went some way to its success.
Of course, now that the form has been replicated so often, and parodied perhaps even more from Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid to The Big Lebowski, the novelty has long gone from this film, and much of that novelty lay in the casting of ageing heartthrob and nice guy crooner in thirties musicals Dick Powell. If anything, he is best recalled nowadays for this, but at the time to cast him as a tough guy appeared absolutely bizarre, and yet when you watch it you cannot imagine anyone else would have done a better job, and indeed he was Chandler's favourite incarnation of his protagonist. Marlowe may have been able to handle himself to a point, but he's also vulnerable, and Powell could adeptly convey both sides of this personality.
It helped that he was backed up with an excellent supporting cast, including Mike Mazurki as Moose Malloy, the big lunk who is trying to trace Velma, after having been released from prison with one thing on his mind. Marlowe isn't about to argue, and on investigating finds out that Velma is dead, but are we going to believe that? Nobody is about to tell Moose, at any rate. Next Marlowe is assigned to find a stolen necklace by a rich family of elderly father Grayle (Miles Mander), his daughter Ann (former child star in her final role Anne Shirley), and his younger, second wife Helen (Claire Trevor, who will be your femme fatale for the evening). The necklace is naturally not as important as we are led to understand.
Director Edward Dmytryk is at his most stylish with Farewell My Lovely, which was retitled Murder My Sweet after a short while in America because with Powell in the lead the public thought it was an insipid musical. The classic milieu of the film noir is so well realised here that you could be forgiven for thinking everything in this is a cliché, but that is simply because they got it all so right as it falls perfectly into place. What they're not so hot with is rendering Chandler's plot with the necessary clarity: there's a short speech Ann gives our hero that sums him up as "some kind of nut" because he stumbles into these dangerous situations without knowing quite what is going on, which pretty much hits the nail on the head as far as he goes. We stick with him, we trust him, because he strikes us as the one individual with integrity when all around are out for their own selfish gains, and for that at least, this film deserves its status as a semi-classic. Music by Roy Webb.